The first images from our photography project with Year 10 students at Llanfyllin High School have come in, and they look great! The following represent just a portion of the images pupils have created, more will be uploaded in the coming weeks so keep your eyes peeled!
“I am convinced that in the somber decades to come, the end of the world ‘as we know it’ is a distinct possibility…when this time comes (it has already come in my opinion) we will have a lot to learn from people whose world has already ended a long time ago – think of the Amerindians whose world ended five centuries ago, their population having dropped to something like 5% of the pre-Columbian one in 150 years, the Amerindians who nonetheless, have managed to abide, and learned to live in a world which is no longer their world ‘as they knew it.’ We soon will all be Amerindians. Let’s see what they can teach us about matters apocalyptic.” (Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, 2014).
If we are to take heed of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s suggestion that we might be able to learn something about ecological sustainability from the life-ways of our ancestors, as well as from the cultures of indigenous peoples around the world, we are inevitably going to bump up against animist worldviews. The term animism derives from the Latin root word anima, meaning soul, and in its scholarly usage has referred to the belief that the world is populated by ‘spirits,’ or, to use a more recent (and somewhat more encompassing) term, ‘other-than-human persons’ (both empirical/physical and non-empirical/physical). For an animist the world is alive, so that rocks, trees, animals, plants, mountains and rivers could all posses personal attributes, desires, fears and needs, just like human persons. From an animist perspective, ecosystems can be understood as complex communities of persons in dialogue with one another, and we are participants too.
Animism was first popularised as a scholarly category by the anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917), who saw the belief in spiritual beings as the very earliest expression of religious thought. Indeed, for Tylor there was little distinction between traditional indigenous religions and the major world religions – he considered that all religions, from tribal religions to Catholic Christianity, could in their essence simply be defined as the ‘belief in spiritual beings.’ Tylor’s version of anthropology, however, was closely wedded to a form of social evolutionism known as Developmentalism, that was particularly popular during the latter half of the nineteenth century (Stocking Jr, 1982, p. 97-100). According to this view, European (and especially British) culture was understood to be the pinnacle of social and cultural development, while other non-western and indigenous cultures were seen as somewhat backward, irrational and misguided, but that nevertheless had somehow survived into the modern day. Sadly, such a view ultimately distorted Tylor’s perception of the animistic worldview(s) he wrote about in his books, and it wasn’t until much later that scholars began to re-engage with animism without such a developmentalist (maybe even colonialist) attitude.
In his 1960 publication ‘Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior and World View,’ the American anthropologist Alfred Iriving Hallowell (1892-1974) described how for the Ojibwa people of central Canada the world is populated by persons ‘not all of whom are human.’ Hallowell famously gives the example of his conversation with an old Ojibwa man:
‘I once asked an old man: Are all the stones we see about us here alive? He reflected a long while and then replied, ‘No!’ But some are’ (Hallowell, 1960)
The old man’s answer to Hallowell’s question had a lasting impact on the anthropologist. The old man’s response suggests that for the Ojibwa people, stones have the capacity for life – their worldview leaves open the possibility that stones, trees, mountains and so on can be persons, and as such ought to be granted the same respect as a human person, just in case. Interactions with features of the landscape, therefore, must be understood as interactions between persons, as relationships.
More recently, scholar of religions Graham Harvey has taken up the themes of Tylor and Hallowell’s work (amongst others), with the formulation of his ‘New Animism.’ New animism differs from Tylor’s ‘old’ animism firstly through not assuming a social developmentalist perspective that sees animistic beliefs as symptoms of primitive and irrational thinking, and secondly by shifting its focus away from the somewhat problematic notion of ‘spirits,’ towards the much more encompassing idea of ‘persons,’ which may include persons who are ‘other-than-human.’ Harvey writes:
“Animists are people who recognise that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others. Animism is lived out in various ways that are all about learning to act respectfully (carefully and constructively) towards and among other persons. Persons are beings, rather than objects, who are animated and social towards others (even if they are not always sociable). Animism…is more accurately understood as being concerned with learning how to be a good person in respectful relationships with other persons” (Harvey, 2005, p. xi).
The underlying relational philosophy of the new animism (which is only ‘new’ to academia), represents the antithesis of the materialistic-industrial-consumer philosophy that has dominated Euro-American attitudes to the environment for the last 200 years, and would seem to offer a route towards the kind of ‘Deep Ecology’ advocated by Arne Naess.
Many in our post-industrial society are likely to feel uncomfortable with the notion of attributing personhood to the various components of our ecosystems, but we can take a hint from the Ojibwa and treat ecology as if it possesses personhood, without necessarily believing that it does. If we were to adopt a relational attitude, and interact with rivers, streams, trees, animals, soils and so on as if they are persons, our behaviours and actions would also necessarily be altered as a consequence. We wouldn’t want to pump sewage into another person, for example, or destroy the home of person, or abuse, misuse or exploit another person. When we think in relationships, we realise that we need to develop good relationships with the other persons in our ecosystem – prosperous, mutually beneficial relationships. Much as in systems thinking, a relational worldview makes us aware of our own interconnected and interdependent relationship with the world around us. So, even if we don’t believe that the tree in our garden is a person, or the river in our village, or the sky above our heads, we can still behave as if they are – our actions can be informed by a relational ecocentric perspective, rather than a purely anthropocentric one.
Granting Personhood Status to Ecosystems
An interesting recent development is the gradual granting of personhood status to key ecosystems by some of the world’s governments. For example, the Whanganui River in New Zealand, known as Te Awa Tupa amongst the indigenous Maori people, was the first river to be granted the legal status of personhood. The Maori people, whose lives are dependent on the river system, and who have always thought of the river as an ancestor, have been fighting for the last 140 years for the river to be treated with the respect that it deserves as an ancestor and living entity, a request that was finally granted on Wednesday 15th March 2017. Gerard Albert, the lead negotiator on behalf of the Whanganui tribe explains:
“We can trace our genalogy to the origins of the universe, and therefore rather than us being masters of the natural world, we are part of it. We want to live like that as our starting point. And that is not an anti-development, or anti-economic use of the river but to begin with the view that it is a living being, and then consider its future from that central belief.”
What this means for the Whanganui River is that, as a legal person, any damage inflicted on it is equivalent to damaging a human being. What if we could do this for our own rivers, forests and mountains? What impact would it have on our relationship with our local ecosystem? Might it help us to achieve the goals laid out by the Paris Climate Agreement? Would it encourage us to behave more responsibly? To change our use of chemical fertilisers, for example, which may leach into the river from farmlands? I think it would.
Within days of the New Zealand government’s decision to grant personhood status to the Whanganui River, a court in Northern India ordered that the sacred River Ganges, and its primary tributary the Yamuna, also be granted the legal status of personhood, as well as glaciers and other ecosystems, precisely so that they can be protected and preserved for the benefit of future generations, and for our global system as whole.
Briefly turning to the theme of our local folklore, we might be surprised to find that many of our most familiar landscape features have already had their personhood recognised by our ancestors. Bala Lake, just over the Berwyn mountains, for example, is inhabited by the great monster Tegid, and the River Severn was known by the Romans as the goddess Sabrina. What about Afon Rhaeadr, Afon Tanat and Afon Cain? Are these persons too? If so, have we been treating them with the respect they deserve? Could animist principles be a catalyst for the change in thinking required by the Paris Climate Agreement? Perhaps we should consider lobbying to have our rivers recognised as persons, and our ecosystems as complex communities of these ‘other-than-human persons,’ just as the Whanganui tribe have been doing for the last 140 years.
Hallowell, A.I. (1960). ‘Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior and World View.’ In G. Harvey (ed) (2002) Readings in Indigenous Religions. London: Continuum. pp. 17-50.
Harvey, G. (2005). Animism: Respecting the Living World. London: Hurst & Company.
Stocking, G.W. (1982). Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Tylor, E. B. (1930). Anthropology: An Introduction to the Study of Man and Civilization. London: C.A. Watts and Co. Ltd.
Viveiros de Castro, E. (2014). ‘Who is Afraid of the Ontological Wolf?’
Wales based educational enterprise Sector39 are teaching permaculture design in Uganda, building on the success of their 2106 course an with support from the Wales Government via their Hub Cymru Africa programme
The course will also coincide with a visit from a group of teachers from Llanfyllin High School who wil be visiting the area with Dolen Ffermio, a Llanfyllin based farming support charity. We are excited to be meeting teachers from our own community while we are out in Uganda running our permaculture design course
as it presents an excellent opportunity to develop links between this project adn the work of the school.
We hope to raise funds to support participants on extremenly low incomes attend this ground breaking course. Any support is welcome! Steve Jones
We are working in partnership with the Permaculture Reseasrch Institute of Uganda, PermoAfrica and Dolen Ffermio to create new opportunities for farmers, teachers, project leaders and social innovators.
We have just received some more photographs and a little write up from Louise Bass, Photography Teacher at Llanfyllin High School:
My year ten Photography class have been working with the Llanfyllin Transition Project to produce banners and a booklet cover. Very kindly Jack Hunter came in to introduce the project to help fuel ideas to do with Permaculture. Students spent time discussing environmental issues and ways of encouraging cultural changes to work with nature to help support green practice and ways of working.
Students also benefitted from a visit from a past textile student who is now studying at university. Marianne Terrill spoke about her project using digital images of green foliage inspired by environmental issues. Her sketchbook showed the digital manipulation of images to produce beautiful printed fabric designs. Bringing the outside inside on soft furnishings.
On a damp Thursday morning Mr Hunter and Steve Jones kindly agreed to show the students around the Wetlands and Community Orchard. Here students had the opportunity to photograph the environment in detail. Steve spoke very inspirationally about using nature to heal the damage we have done. The space is a beautiful location providing fun for all the community and a real environmental mini ecosystem. My favourite comment was that there is no such thing as waste in nature only another resource!
In lessons students plan to use their new found knowledge to combine with images captured to produce real banners, posters and a booklet cover. I look forward to seeing what they produce.
We had a lovely morning taking Llanfyllin High School photography students down to the community orchard and the wetlands as part of the Llanfyllin Transition Project. It was really good to see them getting up close to nature. We are really looking forward to seeing the fruits of their efforts!
The following is a little snippet of something I am working on for the Llanfyllin Transition Project Handbook:
When we think about our position in the world, especially in Western societies, we tend to think of ourselves as somehow separate and distinct from nature. We live our lives in a human-made bubble. This idea is most clearly expressed in our culture’s binary distinction between nature and culture, between the wild and the domesticated. This perceived divide between ‘us’ and the rest of the natural world has had an enormously destructive impact on our planet. Our assumed dominance over nature has led us to plunder the Earth’s natural resources, to destroy vast swathes of wilderness, and to decimate whole populations of plant and animal species – all because of our own self-imposed distance from the natural world, and our self-elected dominance over it.
All of this can be understood as resulting from a form of reductionism – the notion that we can better understand and control the world by breaking it down into individual component parts. For example, forests become ‘trees,’ which then become ‘wood,’ which we can use for our own purposes. When we enter into a reductionist mode of approaching nature we ignore fundamental connections between these component parts. By breaking nature up into commodities, we destroy a complex whole. In our desire for oil (as a component-commodity of the natural world), for example, we have tended to ignore the negative impacts of extraction processes on other components of the natural world. Think, for instance, of the destruction of precious habitats for the extraction of oil from tar sands in Canada, where focussing on just one part of the whole (oil) has led to the collapse of other interrelated parts (woodland habitats, animal species, plant species, and so on).
We can express this situation in a simple formula:
Nature/Culture Divide + Reductionism = Ecocide.
Systems thinking is one method by which we might be able to overcome our culture’s dominant destructive attitude to the natural world. Although there were precursors to systems thinking throughout human intellectual history, we can trace its current popular formulation to the writings of the physicist Fritjof Capra, perhaps most famous for his synthesis of quantum mechanics and mysticism in the book The Tao of Physics (1975). Drawing on his background in quantum mechanics and theoretical physics, Capra came to the conclusion that reductionism fails as a mode of interpreting the natural world, which, contrary to the old Newtonian view of physics, does not consist of mutually distinct ‘objects’ (e.g. atoms as simple balls of matter), but actually is much more accurately described in terms of systems of relationships, processes and networks of interrelated, and interdependent, parts.
“The new vision of reality we have been talking about is based on an awareness of the essential interrelatedness and interdependence of all phenomena – physical, biological, psychological, social and cultural. It transcends current disciplinary boundaries and will be pursued within new institutions” (Capra, 1985, p 285).
Key to this new vision of reality is the system, very simply defined as set of things working together as parts of a complex whole. The idea of systems derives from observation of the natural world, and indeed from ourselves – human beings are complex systems too!
“Living systems are organised in such a way that they form multi-leveled structures, each level consisting of subsystems which are wholes in regard to their parts, and parts with respect to the larger wholes. Thus molecules combine to form cells. The cells form tissues and organs, which themselves form larger systems” (Capra, 1985, p 27).
Perhaps the clearest example of the kind of system Capra is talking about is the ecosystem. Broadly defined, an ecosystem is a community of interacting organisms (plants, animals, etc.), in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment (air, water, soil, minerals, etc.), interacting as a system.
If one element of the system is damaged, removed or destroyed, all of the other component parts will fail too. This is precisely what has led to the current crisis facing our global ecosystem today. The underlying philosophy of the industrial revolution was one of mechanism, reductionism and human dominance over nature. Natural resources were seen as independent commodities, the extraction of which had no consequences for the rest of the environment, so we had no qualms with mining coal, chopping down ancient woodlands and replacing them with factories and refineries.
Similarly, human beings were viewed as separate from the environment, above it almost, so that the pollutive byproducts of our industrial activities were somehow thought to have no direct impact on surrounding plants, animals, or even other human beings. This we now know to be entirely false, and yet incredibly we continue to perpetuate an outmoded worldview – as though we are separate from our ecosystems and our actions have no consequences. The adoption of a systems view and a re-awakening of our intimate inter-connection with the natural world, might assist us in realising the error of our ways and point us in new directions for change.
We have a limited number of preview copies of our Llanfyllin Transition Project Handbook available for just £3 each. Come along to our climate change event at Llanfyllin High School, this Thursday at 7pm to get one! The aim of the handbook is to inspire positive community change, no matter how small or how large, to help tackle the challenge of Climate Change using ideas from permaculture, the transition movement and deep ecology.
“It is exciting to discover a Welsh community that has already done so much to pioneer these practical solutions using permaculture design and the power of the Transition Movement: influencing school curriculum, creating local community orchards and gardens, establishing a housing co-op and associated enterprises, storytelling, offering cutting edge training to spread this knowledge far and wide, and grounding all of this with an understanding of our deep interconnection with all species as humans alive at this critical time in our history. Reaching out, Llanfyllin Transition Project have gathered stories about their approach and shared it in this book. Prepare to be inspired.”
– Maddy Harland, editor of PermacultureMagazine and a co-founder of Permanent Publications.
“The Llanfyllin Transition Project (which embodies both pragmatic daily wisdom, and myth inspired storytelling), is a vitally important means to invite our participation toward eliminating the variety of eco-crises threatening all life on planet Earth. I encourage all of us to support this project and read this book.”
– Mark A. Schroll, PhD,author of Transpersonal Ecosophy, Vol. 1: Theory, Methods, and Clinical Assessments.
Many people have been attracted to living in Wales by the promise of a greener, less fraught and less material lifestyle. Even if they haven’t thought through the whole sustainability challenge, instinct draws people away from the intensity of urban life towards something a little gentler and potentially more rewarding.
I have to confess I was one of those people. I was born just over the Welsh border in Shropshire but as I like to say, I came here the long way round. Via Montreal, Reading, Chandigarh, Nairobi and Chimanimani in Zimbabwe before I ended up back in Reading in 1993. Somewhere along the line I had decided that I wanted to live a different kind of life. Closer to nature and less complicated but also by then I had discovered permaculture design, something that had really taken off in Zimbabwe since Bill Mollison had delivered the first African permaculture design course in Botswana back in the ’80’s.
Permaculture is about designing from nature, understanding that the natural world is the template for sustainable systems and also in understanding how deeply unsustainable most modern practices are.
Coming to Wales for me was more by accident than design. A happy co-incidence shall we say. When I was living in Zimbabwe in the late 80’s and early 90’s I had met a series of people who led me firstly to the opportunity of care-taking a permaculture designed farm and then the chance of applying what we had learned on the first farm to the neighbouring property which had sat derelict fo 10 years or more. It’s a long story and I will spare the details but we opened it up as a traveller’s lodge, in a place that received few visitors but somehow it worked and it still thrives today 25 years later. Heaven Lodge, Chimanimani it is called.
In my time there I kept two cows and grazed them on the land and made cheese from the milk. Local villagers keen to be involved set up their own self-help job schemes and before long the house was stocked with fresh bread, vegetables and we were offering full meals that contained many self grown ingredients to our visitors. The formula worked and the lodge became successful, one of our early visitors was a young outward bound instructor from Shrewsbury and whose first job after school had been at the Challenge Outdoor centre, based at Llanfyllin Workhouse in mid Wales.
This was my first link to the Mid-Wales dispersed community of creative, independent people who worked in emerging areas like alternative technology, permaculture, renewable energy, co-operatives and all sorts of new and interesting areas I had never before seen as realistic options. I remember saying to myself that would give Wales 6 months, what did I have to lose? I moved to near MachynlIeth in 1994 and have never looked back since. Wales instantly became my home and I recognised the possibilities and potentials of living here and set about realising my own dreams. I consider it an honour and a privilege to live in this amazing country but that does not mean I don’t have my criticisms.
Much of Wales, although it looks so beautiful and natural is actually nothing of the sort. It is a landscape laid bare by industrial farming. Heavy sheep stocking levels and the use of nitrate fertilizers to improve pastures has led to much of the natural diversity disappearing. Wetlands and bogs have been drained, forests cleared, soils exposed to give way to a green baize of pasture ideal for fattening stock but at the expense of just about every other living thing.
Don’t believe me? Well look no further than Mid Wales’ own famous naturalist Iolo Williams. When he spoke at the Senedd in Cardiff in 2013 on the launch of the State of Nature report his anger was palpable, pointing the finger at the beaurocrats and legislators who had allowed the decimation of the natural world in Wales to happen almost unabated.
What I have to come to recognise is that we all need to question almost every aspect of our lifestyles and habits and find new and different ways of behaving that benefit both ourselves, our communities and the natural world. The third part is the big one as much of what the western economies have done is to sacrifice the natural world to extract minerals, fossil fuels and to clear the forest for intensive farming. This short-term wealth has come at a great cost and it is now clear that if we carry on this path then only war, eco collapse and worse await around the corner. This is our chance to learn and make this transition to another way of behaving.
Chickenshack co-operative was created in 1995 as a permaculture community to explore how we might live together differently and to have a different relationship to the land and resources. Bigger, older properties can be shared, greatly reducing costs, allowing tenants to invest these savings into insulation, renewable energy, planting productive trees, taking care of the land and restoring damaged ecosystems. When you look at this view over the property, even back in 2005 when this picture was taken it is apparent by the sea of green in the centre of the picture that the landscape has already changed significantly.
What was once primarily bare, sheep nibbled grass has given way to a diverse, richer and more mixed landscape. The land holds more water, is more productive and varied in its outputs, it is teaming with birds and wildlife in a way it demonstrably wasn’t 10 years previously and is far more attractive a place to live in. Just imagine the impact if millions of people started to apply these same ideas to their own homes and lives.
Permaculture design has the potential to steer human ideas of development in different and new directions, the possibilities of this reality is what motivates me to get out of bed every day!
In 2009, when I first moved to the Llanfyllin area I became involved in a project to renovate and save the old workhouse in Llanfyllin, the very same one my travellers lodge visitor friend had told me about back in Zimbabwe in 1991. One of the many projects I did there involved making a 6 part TV series for BBC Wales called ‘Changing Lives, Going Green.‘
I saw it as a chance to share some of the insight and inspiration I had gained from my own personal experiences and I started conversations with the production company to try to steer their ideas of what being green was all about towards a more permaculture informed viewpoint. In the end they offered me a part in the show as the host and guide for the chosen family’s green journey.
Filming whilst trading off the needs of the TV people, our guests and our own ideas and convictions was a lot of hard work and ridiculously long hours but we were proud with the resulting series. We had to fight hard not to allow the TV people to trivialize what for us were really serious and important issues and to a large part we just about managed to keep it on the right side of serious whilst being genuinely funny and fun at the same time. All credit to the family we worked with, they were such great sports.
All of this leads me back to Llanfyllin Transition Project and my continuing mission to open up debate and challenge people to see new possibilities where they might otherwise see problems and limitations.
I now live in Llanrhaeadr Ym Mochnant, at Dragons Co-operative, the 4th co-op I have helped found and I am still working hard for permaculture, community and sustainability.
The Transition Network is a movement of communities coming together to reimagine and rebuild our world. Transition is a movement that has been growing since 2005. It is about communities stepping up to address the big challenges they face by starting local. By coming together, they are able to crowd-source solutions. They seek to nurture a caring culture, one focused on supporting each other, both as groups or as wider communities.
Transition accepts the huge changes we must make to our economic, food and energy systems to avoid catastrphic climate change and tries to take a positive spin on them. Transition anticipates the many community and biological benefits that might come from these essential actions and advises us to prepare for this seismic shift, as it is inevitable.
Transition podcast, Rob Hopkins talks with Richard Heinberg
A discussion between the Transition network founder, Rob Hopkins and author and commentator on energy and the post carbon economy Richard Heinberg
Rob Hopkins is a permaculture teacher who challenged a course group in Kinsale Ireland some years ago to design a community response to the challenges of peak oil and cliamte change, and there began the Transition movement.
Richard Heinberg is a teacher and author of a series of books on transition including The Party’s Over and The End of Growth. He is a fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, a response tothe joint challenges of climate change and peak oil.
We know the world is warming, there is extensive data measuring it, but we dont know how bad or how quickly the crisis will unfold. To many around the world it is already a disaster with rising sea levels, erratic weather patterns and increasing uncertainty.
What kind of future are we planning for?
None of us has a crystal ball, but we can make informed guesses. David Holmgren came up with 4 scenario options in his book Future Scenarios and a
dvised us to plan for all of them. Rapid global warming, the top 2, point at desperate situations, either total collapse leading to lifeboats.. that is only pockets of stablity remaining and backs to the wall survival strategies, or Brown Tech, whereby the oil keeps flowing in an ever polluted and divided world, driving climate change and leading to ever more repressive regimes.
The lower two scenarios assume slower climate disruption and a greater ability for society to adjust to the coming changes. If the energy supplies hold out long enough then we might have time to engineer a green tech sustainable future, and indeed early adopters who were never too heavily invested in the carbon economy might well make this shift in time. Costa Rica, maybe Nicaragua, Cuba, Uganda might get there as they have natural sustainable energy resources like solar, geo-thermal and hydro and a strong local food economy. The over-indistrialised countries are going to find this much harder as we are so heavily invested in economic growth, petroleum driven trasportation and industrial agriculture.
James H Kunstler says: We are not going to be able to continue driving to Walmart for our groceries in our post carbon future.
If energy supplies run out faster then Green Tech becomes much harder to achieve and we are headed to a future based on Earth Stewardship, or permaculture. This involves making the best of the what relics we have from the industrial age and working hard to repair the damage we have done to the bioshpere to offset the worst impacts of climate and ecological damage. We will need to construct a localised economy based on organic agriculture, social inclusion by the local economy and an abandonment of globalisation all together.
This might all seem pretty bleak but the reality is that by failing to prepare in any way for the realities of our time will almost certainly lead us to the life boats scenario. Indeed persuit of the Brown Tech options will most likely also lead us to Lifeboats and a future we are unprepared for. We have to prepare for the Green tech future while we have the economic activity to achieve this. Our insurance policy is to invest in permaculture and to plan for an earth stewardship future as the basic default position to underwrite our food and resource security issues.
Find out more about Permaculture here:
Permaculture Design Principles Thinking tools, that when used together, allow us to creatively re-design our environment and our behavior in a world of less energy and resources
Permaculture Association We support our members and others in the permaculture network to design thriving communities across Britain by applying permaculture ethics and principles, and to contribute to permaculture worldwide