The FIRE Path to Freedom?
(The Most Important thing We’ve Learned about Permaculture)
Well now that’s quite a loaded headline! Clearly, we’re going to talk about money and the current popular “FIRE” (Financial Independence Retire Early) movement – but first! – what is the most important thing we’ve ever learned about Permaculture, homesteading and living with the land? What single concept has had the biggest positive impact on transforming our lives since we first heard the “P word” on WEFT Community Radio back in 2001?
The whole point of the Lillie House project as we originally envisioned it, was to create viral change by helping other people transform their lives, landscapes and society, through better connection with nature, our higher selves and our communities. We wanted to find the actions that would have the biggest effect on changing our own lives and we knew that if we could model beautiful, rich, free ways of living that had a transformational effect on the world around us, then we wouldn’t have to twist people’s arms to create change, they’d line up for it like it’s the new iPhone.
But to do that, we knew we’d have to find a path that was accessible and replicable to as many people as possible. And we knew that path would have to help people be better off, happier and healthier at each step of the way. In Permaculture, which is a system for ecological design, we’d say people have to be able to obtain a yield (Holmgren, Permaculture Principles) from every bit of time, energy and money they invest in their transformational adventure. It’s a goal that’s more often discussed than actually pursued.
And Permaculture also taught us that we’d need to identify the key leverage points where we can get the most positive personal and societal transformation for the least effort. Such leverage points need to be high return on investment (ROI.) We’re looking for actions where we can quickly get 80% of the value from just a 20% improvement (the 80/20 principle.) That way we can make an adventure out of working on improving just one area of our lives for a while, obtain a big lasting yield from it, then move on to invest in other transformational experiences with a high ROI.
And the very best leverage points stack functions and allow us to “Care for the Earth and Care for People” (Mollison, Holmgren, The Permaculture Designer’s Manual) while simultaneously creating lives for ourselves that are more beautiful, abundant, rich, and free.
And they have to be fun. It has to be an adventure.
After 10 years of observation, study and practice, and another 7 dedicated actively trying to figure out the best leverage points, we think we’ve got a good idea about what a dozen of them are and how people can best pursue them.
Any one of these leverage points will help us build a better life, but when we stack them together, these transformational adventures create a program of study and action that can improve our lives and can make us truly powerful agents of positive change.
I won’t take the time to go into all 12 in this article, but to understand the principle, here are our top 3 examples with a high personal and social ROI:
- Basic foraging, because it’s an adventure that transforms “weeds” and “wilds” into beloved friends, and helps us begin to “see nature” and beneficially tend the wilds in our communities.
- Extensive forms of gardening like natural gardening and forest gardening, because they teach us the most, have the highest ROI, and – unlike some other forms of gardening – they actually benefit biodiversity, clean water, and sequester carbon. And finally,
- Transforming our relationship with work and money.
Phew! There’s the money. In journalistic terms that’s called “burying the lead,” but my experience in my community circles of activists, artists, artisans, homesteaders, gardeners and farmers, people just want to learn about pretty new plants and beautiful sustainable gardens while making the world a better place – AND the last thing people ever want to hear about is money. In fact, for many of us, money is a taboo topic, either just too frustrating, or even seen as the “root of all evil” (and not the tasty kind of root, either!)
But quite honestly, transforming our relationship with money is the leverage point that will likely have the most positive impact on us as individuals, on the Earth, and society at large.
(You know we are a beautiful and deeply, ahem, idealistic community when we need to convince ourselves that discussing money might be as important as eating weeds.)
Perhaps this discomfort with money explains why some of the most deeply beautiful people I know are also in deeply precarious financial positions.
Perhaps it explains why new farm businesses file bankruptcy at a higher rate than any other business, and even high-profile homesteads and permaculture projects fail at an alarming rate.
And perhaps it explains why a guy who claims to have eventually worked up to making minimum wage is frequently called “the most successful farmer on the planet.”
And maybe it’s also why people are lining up to pay $1000-3,000 for online classes and “business models” openly claiming to teach how we can make around $3/hour for a whopping $10-15k/ year. Yes, look past the “earn $1,000,000 a year!” headlines and read the fine print that the big bucks are GROSS and the take home is often minimum wage.
What the prospective homesteaders and farmers buying this content really want is a ladder to freedom, a way they can escape the rat race and find a simpler way of life.
In my opinion, these would-be agents of transformative simple living are LITERALLY paying people to teach them how to fail at their goal. The reality is, it doesn’t matter how frugal you are and how much voluntary simplicity and community reliance you cultivate, if you’re planning to make $6/hour working 70 hour weeks, you probably aren’t going to stick with it for long.
In Permaculture, this approach to “profitable farming” is called a Type 1 error: a system designed to fail.
But at least those people are taking a stab at their dreams. Many of us are so paralyzed by our frustration with money, that we never figure out how to finance our dreams, or truly commit to taking our first steps.
And, finally, not to put too fine a point on it, perhaps this resistance to talk about money is why so many of my incredible activist friends remain dependent upon the very same systems that they’re fighting to tear down.
This is why transforming our relationship with work and money is so important.
Kim and I think it’s so important that we’ve done workshops and even put together a whole free starter class to get you going.
But in my classes and workshops, my top recommendation has always been to pick up a copy of Your Money or Your Life. (YMOYL) a guide to achieving financial independence (FI) by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. These days, there’s a whole growing online community devoted to the idea of achieving “FIRE,” Financial Independence, Retire Early. This includes different strategies like Fat FIRE, where you retire with a big play fund, and Lean FIRE, where you retire into relative simple living on a smaller nest egg, and even Barista FIRE, where you continue part-time at Starbucks for insurance and supplemental income. But still YMOYL sets the standard and focusses on changing our relationship with money. Now, Vicki Robin has a fantastic new edition of YMOYL that is even more compatible with Permaculture. This isn’t just standard retirement advice, it’s a blueprint for changing our lives and our society. In my opinion, it’s a book that should be at the very top of every activist, organizer, homesteader, aspiring farmer, and permaculturists’ reading list.
In Part 2, I’d like to dig in a little further, introduce a few of the concepts you’ll find in YMOYL, and apply our Permaculture Design. Could Permaculture FIRE be your path to freedom?
And if are one of the many Permaculturists who took up the cause after achieving Financial Independence, I would like to hear from you in the comments!
Coming soon, Part 2 Permaculture FIRE or Permaculture FREEdom?