The Trilemma of the World Economy – A Permaculture Perspective

Today, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at how permaculture seeks to reconcile the three pillars of globalisation, the idea of the nation state, and democracy. This question is sometimes framed as a political ‘trilemma’. It is argued that we cannot have all three at once, but can only have two of them, held in balance. 

If we want nation states and full globalisation, it is argued, our current ideals of democracy must be abandoned. If we want democracy and full globalisation, our ideas of nationhood must be at least partially thrown aside. If we want nation states and democracy, there must be limits to our global goals. History and political realities tell us that, as the three pillars are currently defined, gaining all three at once is an impossibility. 

Permaculture seeks to reshape the debate. In the pursuit of global solutions to the world’s crises, and the transition to a more ethical, green and sustainable future, a permaculture approach can begin by redefining each of the terms inherent to the three pillars of the current world order. 

Defining ‘Globalisation’

In the current models, we tend to define ‘globalisation’ in almost exclusively capitalist economic terms. Yet the globalisation valued as a component of permaculture is not defined primarily in terms of finance in a capitalist framework. Instead, in permaculture, the emphasis is on increasing integration, on enhancing equality, on valuing diversity yet finding common ground and moving towards common goals. Through global co-operation, we can find pathways that allow us to meet humanity’s needs while caring for our planet.

Defining ‘Nation’

Moving forward, it can be helpful to re-define our idea of nationhood. As Bill Mollison, one of the founding fathers of permaculture stated, we begin by defining a nation as “a people subscribing to a common ethic and aspiring to a similar culture”. Such nations may not necessarily have a common land base, nor will they necessarily be constrained by existing political land borders. 

In permaculture, nation states are groups of people allied in common ideas of ethics and culture who come together in different bioregions and unite in common goals, rather than self-interested political entities. By redefining them as such, permaculture can reconcile the idea of nationhood with global unification ambitions.

Defining ‘Democracy’

We tend to think of ‘democracy’ as something of a holy grail – as one of the greatest goods in society. Yet our ideas of democracy are surprisingly muddled. Often, we speak of living in democracies, when many current political systems are partial democracies at best. The problem lies in reconciling the idea of representation for different geographic areas with the idea of representing an entire electorate.

When we talk about democracy in permaculture, however, it is important to think beyond current political systems and realities and to define democracy in terms of the real lives of ordinary people: how land is managed, how communities operate, and how food is produced are three key issues.

In permaculture, democracy begins with the idea of empowering local communities. When we talk about democracy in these terms, we begin to see how the ideals of truly democratic systems can be reconciled with the ideas of nation and globalisation defined above.

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