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Juliana Birnbaum and Louis Fox on 'Sustainable Revolution'

Sustainable Revolution
North Atlantic

1. What was your prime motivation and inspiration behind creating your book, "Sustainable Revolution Permaculture in Ecovillages, Urban Farms, and Communities Worldwide"?

The inspiration came from my perspective as an aspiring anthropologist, coming out of a radical graduate program in San Francisco at California Institute of Integral Studies. I wanted to write an ethnography of an international subculture that I felt had
the potential to contribute to a broader cultural revolution toward ecological and social restoration. But the dedication came from my perspective as a mother. Louis Fox (my co-author, known for his short film The Story of Stuff) and I first came up with the idea for the book when we found out we were going to be parents, almost 8 years ago. You could see this book as the obsessive work of parents searching for evidence that their children would have the solutions they need to face our changing planet.

Permaculture is a design approach founded on the patterns and relationships of nature and the ethics of sustainable societies. Based
on principles echoed in traditional cultures throughout history, it is geared toward transitioning communities toward a new, regenerative paradigm, which includes peace building as well as localizing food and energy resources. The approach is being used to design new sites, both urban and rural. It is being applied by individuals and communities in existing towns and cities, on every scale. Permaculture design initiatives have achieved inspiring results: restoring degraded landscapes, reversing desertification, creating self-sustaining food production cycles. It includes hundreds of strategies that together begin to mitigate climate change, including practices that directly draw carbon from the atmosphere through healthy soil building cycles, no-plow farming methods, and planting trees that lock in carbon and restore nitrogen to the landscape.

2. Can you please share with us about some of the communities in your book and what they do exactly when it comes to the Sustainable Revolution?

Along with a small, dedicated army of contributors, we documented 60 sites around the world, including urban farms, ecovillages, Transition towns, and indigenous collectives. The ecological design system of permaculture is the common thread that weaves them into a powerful, potentially revolutionary- or evolutionary- movement. They each have different strengths-- Findhorn, an ecovillage in Scotland, claims to have achieved the lowest carbon footprint of any settlement in the industrial world. Auroville, a township in India, is demonstrating a number of solar technologies, has reforested the surrounding area, and is innovating in education. Badilisha, in Kenya, is a project where local people partnered with permaculture organizations to regenerate their food , energy, and water systems. In Fuzhou, China, they used Living Machine water filtration technology to restore a polluted river and the surrounding urban neighborhood.

3. What are some of the communities in the United States and can anyone go to them or are they private or what? I keep imagining places to go to if the world goes to war or a zombie apocalypse or something. I'm sure these places are more than that. What can you share about them?

In the U.S. most of the places we feature are much more integrated with the mainstream than you might imagine. In California we feature the People's Grocery and Mo' Better Foods in Oakland (bringing fresh, local organic produce to the inner city), the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (a cohousing community with a successful school ecoliteracy program across the Bay Area), and the Los Angeles EcoVillage (bringing bicycle culture and collectively-owned housing for low-income residents to L.A.). The other sites include co-housing projects in New York, Tennessee and Hawai'i, and educational centers in New Mexico and Milwaukee.

4. What will it take for more of the world to catch unto the revolution and to overcome the greed that is so prevalent in our society?

It will likely be a combination of necessity and desire. People will need to make change and become more reliant on local resources as the true cost of the globalized economy becomes more apparent and we move toward an energy-conserving, lower-impact system. I believe that many people within the industrialized world are waking up to the fact that we have designed a system based on unlimited growth on a finite planet, and we need to come up with a new plan.

5. At times I find it saddening the way the world is here where I live in the South of the USA, in Florida. Originally from Georgia and its like that there in a lot of ways to. People in their homes and not talking to each other or participating in anything together like these communities do. I would love to live in a community like some of the ones in your book. The tribe is broken and in disrepair. What is the solution to bringing people more into living in tune with the Earth?

We are starting to realize that to be disconnected from the source of all that sustains us- our water, our food, our land, each other--is to be in a broken culture. Author Thomas Berry calls it our "great work" to see ourselves in the larger pattern, as he says, a communion of subjects, rather than as a collection of objects. The Achuar elders of the Amazon have called this work "changing the dream of the North." I see the culture of regenerative design as the seed of that change, spiraling into life. The healing of our hearts and the healing of our landscapes go hand in hand.

6. What can our readers do to help and to get involved when it comes to the cause of Sustainable Revolution?

While I think there is some value to making personal changes toward simplicity and being creative about meeting our needs from more sustainable sources, we also need to be part of imagining a larger, systems-level change. I think one of the most promising networks for people to get involved in is Transition Initiatives, which has several chapters in the Bay Area:

7. This is a wild card question. What would you like to share with us from your book that our readers might find beneficial?

The edge--where two elements meet--is key to regenerative design, because of the expanded possibility for cycling of materials and information, allowing for more synergy. Dr. Joanne Tippett, a community planner and contributor to our book, writes that "The edge is seen as increasing possibilities for creativity, as it is the zone of merging, change and new ideas. Permaculture design could be seen to be acting at the edge of chaos, at the edge of a change between systems. Information is echoed throughout the system. It is implicit in each of our actions. Small changes can act as the trigger element to restructure a system.

I offer this little gem from systems theory, this idea that new energy, that change can only enter a system from the edge, especially to empower our local community here in the Bay Area. We have a history of being the change makers at the margins, the Golden Gate culture of "edge dwellers," freaks, artists, cultural pioneers, dreamers, and poets. Part of what I see going on over here at the edge, is a reconnection to place, to the ethics of the tribe, to heirloom skills, the skills of our grandparents, to ritual and story. From here at the edge of the continent, may we find ways to speak truth to power and make change happen faster.

8. What are you up to next book wise and projects wise and any links you'd like to share?

We are looking for funding to continue our work researching and documenting the global ecological design [r]evolution and further develop our website with links to information about more of the hundreds of thousands of sites that are pioneering solutions to the world's urgent social and environmental problems. Perhaps it could develop into a second volume. Our site is, and we also have an active Sustainable Revolution Facebook page these days.

Brought to you by North Atlantic books.

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