The Conquest of Bread in a Time of Collapse – Kropotkin’s Permaculture
In the Conquest of Bread Kropotkin addressed the problem of meeting the needs of the working class in an approaching time of revolutionary change.
By contrast, Permaculture design came into the post ’68 world , the world of ecological limits described by the Club of Rome. For David Holmgren, Permaculture’s co-originator, Modernism lay in ruins, the cultural diversity of the world was being lost, environmental threats were general, and technological change offered both expanded possibility and a greater risk of catastrophe.
Humanity’s impact on biodiversity, or the climatic impacts of fossil fuels were unimaginable to Kropotkin. He had no notion of human ecological embeddedness.
Less than a century after Kropotkin had argued that a new society was possible with increased production and all powered by burning more coal, Permaculture’s other originator, Bill Mollison, wrote: “The sad reality is that we are in danger of perishing from our own stupidity and lack of personal responsibility to life.”
Permaculture rests on ecological principles and a well informed understanding of ecological breakdown,but it also identifies the need for fundamental social change. “I deeply believe,” Mollison wrote, “that people are the only critical resource needed by people…. we will either survive together or none of us will survive.”
Considering Kropotkin’s Lasting Influence
Although Kropotkin knew nothing of planetary boundaries, he was a strong influence on the founders of Permaculture.
Holmgren cites Kropotkin’s ‘Mutual Aid’ as a refutation of Social Darwinism and, in 2016, he explained to Fionn Quinlan, another Permaculture practitioner, that Kropotkin’s work had been important to him since he was a young man, when his parents had had a Penguin paperback of Mutual Aid, and that the Russian geographer and Anarchist, a “proto-ecologist,” had remained a strong influence on his ideas about mutualism and cooperation.
Holmgren also cites Bookchin and Social Ecology as an important influence and a bridge from Anarchism, to the distinctive Permaculture position of not wanting to fight against the world we don’t want, but rather directly creating the world we do want. Holmgren went on to say that Permaculture “was informed by a radical political view [that] was never cast as being anarchism, but mostly [fitted] into the framework of anarchism.”
I recently discovered that Bill Mollison visited the Institute for Social Ecology and met Bookchin; a conversation which sadly doesn’t seem to have been recorded.
It’s not contentious to adduce ‘Mutual Aid’ or even ‘Fields, Factories and Workshops’, as an influence, Bob Flowerdew did as much in one of his gardening books. As a guide to revolution, The Conquest of Bread is more problematic. And whereas, as recently as April 2020, Warren Draper’s excellent Freedom article ‘Anarchist Farm: A Revolutionary Feast’ linked Kropotkin, Colin Ward and Permaculture, this was less about crisis and catastrophe than ethics and possibility.
Bookchin’s work is much closer to Permaculture thought than Kropotkin the revolutionary could have been. In the final chapter of The Ecology of Freedom, Bookchin identifies the role of “historic forces” and crises in creating the possibility for social transformation. This is an important link.
For Kropotkin the stimulus was capitalism, and he identified in it the emergence of the new society that would replace it after a revolutionary crisis.
For Permaculture, the crisis is ecological collapse, and its attendant social breakdown, but both proceed from the primacy of meeting human needs in the midst of crises.
Looking at The Stark Differences
The Conquest of Bread identifies unfolding and latent Anarchist Communist tendencies in the world. Malatesta accused Kropotkin of “Excessive optimism” in this regard. Permaculture also draws on modelling observed potentialities, but is predicated on imminent collapse. Mollison wrote of “the very brink of annihilation.”
Kropotkin foresaw a grand struggle to overthrow the world as it was; Permaculture emphasises creating the world we want whilst surviving the world as it is.
Kropotkin was oblivious to ecological crises, but there’re plenty of people today who are as ignorant and don’t have the excuse of being long dead.
Looking past Covid-19 and the economic dumpster fire; if we focus on catastrophic climate breakdown, soil depletion, the food supply system, depreciation and decay of infrastructure, and the small matter of ecological collapse, this is not the world Kropotkin imagined being taken into the hands of the working class.
It’s arguable that no aspect of this world is practicably salvageable for new communities or revolutionary movements. Fragile collapsing supply chains frame the perfect storm we face today.
The assumption since Kropotkin that “we can do it,” that a world of abundance is within reach, underlies a great deal of leftist thinking, both reformist and revolutionary. We often assume a tremendous inheritance. Permaculture design does not.
There are important ethical correspondences between Kropotkin’s Anarchism and Permaculture. That’s how I teach the Permaculture Ethics session of the Design Course. More interesting, though, is the shared focus on the hard realities of production: in a crisis , how do we meet human needs?
Growing food is popular again. But there’s a reason Kropotkin’s book is called The Conquest of Bread and not The Supply of Salad Bags. It’s the same reason that Permaculture designers like Geoff Lawton emphasise the need for growing grains on an intensive domestic scale, and why this civilisation’s capacity to grow grains “at scale” is identified so often as its Achilles Heel with respect to climate change (UK Wheat harvest down 40% this year by the way).
1KG of wholemeal wheat flour provides 3000 calories. 1KG of potatoes is about a third of that, or 1000 calories. As for your row of beetroot at the allotment: 430 calories to 1kg, or a diet made up of 4 to 5 KG of beetroot a day to stay active. Calorie counting like this is the arithmetic of life and death in a crisis.
We’ve had our warnings. Shortages were predicted due to Covid-19, they still might be one outcomes of a no-deal Brexit.
The work of groups like Co-operation Jackson, and the Co-operation Town network in the UK, demonstrate an effective praxis for Anarchists in times of crisis. It looks a lot more like Anarchists doing Permaculture than The Conquest of Bread, but it’s still about bread.
The Failings of Permaculture
Given that it’s a response to harsh contemporary ecological and social challenges, Permaculture has failed.
It’s suffered a dramatic lack of penetration into wider society. More than forty years on suburbia is still full of lawns; changes in food systems for the better have been miniscule, and dwarfed by changes for the worse. Those changes which do look promising have largely been co-opted by green capitalism or remain the preserve of well-heeled middle class greens.
There’s been a distinct drift in Permaculture towards individualism and retreat – into quietism.
People who attend Permaculture Design Courses in Britain are often interested in their own project, their backyard and their quinoa. There are exceptions, there remains the vague notion of changing the world, but often one garden, one farmers market, one bottle of kombucha at a time.
This is a long way from Chapter 14 of the Design Manual. There’s a radicalism at the heart of Permaculture, even the Permaculture Design Course was designed to strengthen existing communities in which it’s taught, or to build new communities around groups of graduates. It wasn’t intended to bring fee-paying students from far afield as customers on another green study holiday.
The Permaculture ethics: Earth care, People care and Fair Shares can be read as a well meaning credo, or they can be a radical community building imperative. Permaculture’s has been the usual route to co-optation within capitalism.
It is worth mentioning that the Australian Permaculturist Geoff Lawton argues that Permaculture groups should organise to reflect local government boundaries. In this way, a small group might concentrate on pushing authorities to respond to ecological and social crises. (Parallels to later social ecology here)
In the Nineteenth Century, the Gaian overview didn’t exist, neither did scientific ecology, even for Kropotkin.
Kropotkin was also immersed in the idea of Progress; The Conquest of Bread is built on increasing production, an idea which made sense in a world of brutally apparent shortage; less so now in a world of conspicuous waste.
Kropotkin did address producing differently, getting rid of “idlers and middlemen” (Graeber’s ‘Bullshit jobs’), disarmament, reducing or removing officialdom, and all of “the labour that goes to sheer waste.” But this was really secondary to employing technology and coal, to increase production and improve the lives of the working class and peasants. This aspect of Kropotkin’s work hasn’t aged well.
He envisaged turning the farming hinterlands to feeding the hungry working class, using better machines, chemical manures, glasshouses and what he called intensive agriculture. The small mixed farms of the peasantry would be linked to the revolution in partnership, joined by “happy crowds of occasional labourers” to bring in the huge harvests. (Revolutionary wwoofing!)
The problem is that these mixed farms don’t exist now; the hinterlands are global. Kropotkin recognised that relying on far off lands for food was a problem, but in his day this had hardly even begun.
Kropotkin also considered housing and clothing. People who know little of Permaculture tend to think of it as clever gardening, but it concerns itself too with textiles and building. What has changed is not the need for clothes and shelter, but once again how little capacity there is in most regions to meet demand, to use local materials, to develop a local skill base and to produce for need rather than for the demands of the world economy. In housing we face an even greater problem, not just putting roofs over our heads, but meeting the challenges of a broken and increasingly dangerous Earth system.
Oil has also transformed the global economy. Ecologically, economically and industrially we are in a very different world.
For Bookchin, post-scarcity would be reached through a combination of ecologically embedded technology and cultural transformation. Permaculture too has a take on abundance as the outcome of carefully designed ecological systems as they mature and become self-sustaining. The imperative, both for Bookchin and for the originators of Permaculture, was design.
For the Club of Rome, the so-called “problematic” is that the crises seemingly inherent to industrial capitalism cannot be solved in a piecemeal fashion. On that at least revolutionaries can agree with them. The corollary of this however, is unfortunate for revolutionaries. The identified inherent problems project a point at which both society and the Earth system collapse, an ultimate crisis.
We face a future that threatens to leave us not with more because we have taken it from ruling class, but with very much less.
We have to consider terrifying and possibly rapid collapse, not just socially, but ecologically. Social change, whether for better or for worse, in this kind of world, will be fragmented and shifting.
Instead of The Revolution we find ourselves in a world in which universalising or generalising revolutionary aims or movements becomes impossible, and even counter productive. We are drawn into consideration of Disaster Communism and the argument that we might well start with nothing but, as Mollison said, all we will need is people.
Questions of the ultimate crisis raise contentious debates around needs and limits, what they are and how to decide.
Permaculture defines culture by the acceptance of limits, those limits are ecological. Bookchin does the same in The Ecology of Freedom, to the extent that freedom, where it meets ecological embeddedness, can seem like giving up such freedom of action as we recognise as freedom at all.
Anarchism offers a toolkit for community survival and rebuilding. And Permaculture is also a toolkit, a powerful set of ethically driven design tools to face an imminent crisis, and in the attempt, to recover and retain our humanity.
The shared DNA is evident. Permaculture carries the humanising, ecological and liberatory reason that the economistic current of socialism lacks.
Kropotkin’s reflections on the end of the division of labour, on decentralisation of industry, on intensive horticulture and cities feeding themselves, all find echoes in Permaculture today, but the end that Kropotkin envisaged was the deliberate end of capitalism; the end that we face is more challenging, both to how we should proceed now, and how we might employ our ideas and skills to survive what is coming. The basis of any good design is an up to date base map.