Volunteerism: The Cheap Oil of Permaculture?

volunteering organic farms photo

Image credit: Crop Mob

I'm a big fan of permaculture—from hugelkultur to community nut tree plantings—permaculturists are often pushing the envelope in terms of trying new things, and working toward a lower impact, more sustainable form of food growing. But as I was watching yesterday's video on permaculture farming at 9000ft, one thing occurred to me. An awful lot of permaculture projects rely on interns and volunteers to keep running. So is volunteerism the cheap oil of permaculture? Now this isn't confined to permaculture—many organic farms rely on traveling WWOOFers (the Willing Workers on Organic Farms program), and many other green projects stay afloat only because they have a steady supply of folks, young and old, willing to donate their time and effort to make it happen. I have heard it argued that if projects can't exist without free labor from volunteers, then they are not really providing a viable model for the future. But I'm not sure that's true.

First off, it seems to me that most farms—including conventional growers
—rely on absurdly cheap labor in the form of undocumented migrants. So we are not alone. Second of all, these projects are trying to exist in a world where everybody else is making use of cheap fossil fuels. If the price of oil were to reflect its cost to society—in the form of greenhouse gases and other pollutants—or if world oil stats were proved to be as inaccurate as some anonymous IEA insiders claim, then we'd start to see a more level playing field.

That's not to say we shouldn't keep an eye on how reliant our pet projects are on volunteerism, interns and donations. After all, the more we can provide viable livelihoods and aspirational models, the less we'll be accused of being crazy socialists out to ruin the world...

Doing things more sustainably in a world where everyone else is taking shortcuts is always going to be more expensive. So volunteerism and internships are a great way to compete with 'business as usual'. But at some point we have to be business as usual.

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