Design for surviving Vesuvius – Atamai, a permaculture village

Joanna Santa Barbara

Atamai Village is an attempt to respond intelligently to the risks and opportunities outlined in other chapters of this book. Atamai villagers hope that the evolving responses in their settlement, in whole or in part, will be useful for many others, including those in urban areas.

The response needs to take into account the need to mitigate climate change and adapt to low or zero fossil fuel use, the constraints of sea-level rise over the next century, the need to step outside, as much as possible, the mainstream financial system and the importance of a local steady-state economy within the biophysical limits of the region.

Influences on design

The traditional village is seen as a resilient human settlement throughout human history, on a scale that permits some division of labour, specialisation and exchange. Villages in various cultures strike some balance between the privacy of family groupings and the benefits of direct cooperative effort for the common good. Atamai is designed as a traditional village, in that it aims at a high degree of internal food, energy and water security, and of economic exchange within the village and beyond.

It is a permaculture [1] design, adapting human purposes to the observed flow of sunlight, water and wind and to the soil and geology of the land, following natural systems in creating a diverse, multilayered food system, minimising inputs of external resources, energy and labour, using materials in cycles to produce no waste and continually optimising relationships between design elements.

Other influences on design of land use have been Yeomans’ Keyline Design principles [2] applied to water conservation. Organic and particularly biodynamic gardening principles are used in food production.

Influences on design of dwellings have been New Zealand’s Building Biology and Ecology Institute [3] and Christopher Alexander’s “pattern language”.[4]

A principle of technology use in the village was developed by Jurgen Heissner (see below): basic needs such as food production, water, energy, and sewerage must be served by simple technology, with enduring hardware, parts that can be repaired by non-experts or replaced by simple manufacturing techniques, and able to be fuelled by other than fossil fuels. Less resilient technology will be used while available and as it serves less basic village needs. Heissner calls the concept “layered technology”. All materials and machines used in the village are researched by life cycle analysis, energy efficiency, materials used, cost, durability, exchangeability of parts and so on.

The village is designed to foster a balance between independence and interdependence, social and private, and to run democratically. Extensive Common Land, about which decisions are made by consensus, fosters the communal aspect of the village.

Attention to beauty is highly valued in gardens, houses and shared areas.


The concept of a traditional village as a structure with potential resilience to climate change and peak oil was developed by Jurgen Heissner, based on observations of European villages. Heissner began to work with a small group of people in 2006, purchasing land outside Motueka, on the north coast of the South Island of New Zealand. The land saddles a ridge in the foothills of the Kahurangi Range. Much of it is steep degraded pasture land, with some gentle slopes and flats. The group, after observation and discussion of land use, began terracing slopes and planting fruit trees. A sustainable development company for the purpose of building the village infrastructure was set up. The next stage was the development of ‘Te Mara’ (The Garden), a food production area, with the creation of ponds and terraced gardens.

District Council consent was obtained for the first phase of subdivision in 2009, and prospective villagers began to purchase lots. Some began living in pre-existing houses on the land or adjacent rented houses. Construction of the first new home began in 2010. In that year consent for the second stage of subdivision of land was obtained. At this point the group was large enough to begin governing the use of the Common Land and to decide how the village would function as a social entity. The next stage will be the third and final subdivision of the planned village centre. This will bring the number of lots to about 50, for an expected population of about 150.

How does it work?

People join Atamai by purchasing their private dwelling site and a share in the Commons, and agreeing to four covenants attached to each title. Two of these apply to the physical infrastructure of the village and two apply to its social functions. They are:

Treatment of the land must comply with organic gardening (Biogro) standards.

Houses must conform with minimal eco-architecture standards regarding size, non-toxic materials, local materials, passive solar design, energy and water self-sufficiency, composting toilets and greywater use.

Decisions in the village will be reached using a consensus process.

Conflicts arising in the village will be dealt with by early resort to a process of conflict resolution. Prospective villagers agree to some training in consensus and conflict resolution.

To each lot is attached a Commons share. This land, larger in total area than the combined private lots, will be developed as a common resource for villagers.

The land – the vision and where we are so far.

Some adjacent land has been purchased by villagers joining the project with a view to eventually incorporating the whole in the village Common Lands. The lands, in total, comprise about 120 hectares, and include formerly gorse-covered degraded pastures, pine plantation, and flat land. The areas most suitable for community orchards have been planted and are already bearing fine fruit. Some of the area suitable for vegetable gardens has been planted and is producing well. The plan for a pine plantation is to progressively replace it with native and compatible exotic forest, more useful timber crops and some areas for selective firewood harvesting.

Lot sizes vary from just over half a hectare to smaller clustered lots, allowing for purchase by people of modest means, and for rental accommodation and co-housing.

The village centre plans include a plaza, a community hall, commercial-grade kitchen, café, general store and library.

Land restoration

Land restoration is a shared ethic. Land is contoured to minimise erosion and retain water. Thousands of native trees, bushes and grasses have been planted. Attention is given to planting bee, butterfly and bird attractors. Grazing of animals is managed consistent with land restoration.


Water for households is filtered roof rainwater used frugally. Household greywater is used on orchard plantings. There will be no blackwater because of the use of composting toilets.

Water for horticulture is conserved from rainfall by Keyline and Permaculture methods. Ponds have been constructed for beauty, water storage and as a fire safety facility.


The task of restoring the soil is a high priority for villagers. Organic principles of minimal external inputs are being applied. The orchard soil is being developed by biodynamic principles. An expert in large-scale composting is teaching other villagers ways of using “unwanted” biomass such as gorse, thistle and aging trees in compost heaps to increase soil fertility. A limited number of cattle have been introduced to provide manure for this purpose. There is attention to compensating for mineral deficiencies in the soil. A complex soil amendment has been developed by Heissner and others, including the use of biochar. This appears to have increased soil fertility when introduced into plantings. It will be desirable to demonstrate this in quantifiable ways.


Initial houses will be rather widely spaced to comply with district council rural residential regulations. It is planned that the later-built houses can be clustered around the village centre on small lots or as flats above shop fronts. The village uses a brick press to make earth blocks from its own soil for some of its structures. As well as attention to the several principles of eco-architecture mentioned above, there is the intention to create houses of exemplary beauty.


Thought has been given to how to produce a varied, nutritious diet on the village land. It is relatively easy to grow a great range of vegetables and fruit in the location. Olive and walnut trees have been planted for later oil production. A full-time gardener, assisted by WWOOFers,[5] works on food production. Grain production remains a challenge, with experiments proceeding. A flock of hens produces organic, free-range eggs.

Currently the harvest is placed in a small “shop” with some refrigeration. Villagers collect their food needs, record what they take, and are charged for the goods later. This will move to a box scheme, where villagers will receive a weekly assortment of the current harvest. Organic dry goods will be bought in bulk to provide villagers with lower cost food beyond village production.

One family has a milking cow which provides for several other families.

Thought is given to bioregional food production, with possibilities of using each microclimate to its greatest advantage, rather than having each household try to produce the full range of food needs. Several Permaculture designers are applying their minds to this issue.

A Community Garden is close to implementation. This will provide food and a forum for teaching and learning gardening.


Houses are powered by solar energy, active and passive, with the future possibility of wind power. Cooking is on wood-burning stoves, supplemented by gas cylinders. The wood is sustainably harvested from the land, with replanting. There is a need to develop sources of liquid fuel and gas.


The village will be car-free. Cars will be parked on the periphery. Residents will be encouraged to walk and cycle within the village and to the nearby town. There will be small electric vehicles for those who need less active transport. Electric bicycles are used to cope with the hilly contours. The intention is to move to a car-share system, with perhaps one car per four families.

Village economy

There is strong encouragement to turn first to other villagers for the provision of needs, and to improve goods and services by discussion of what is needed before purchasing from outside the village. A mechanical and engineering shop is already operating within the village, servicing the heavy machinery used for construction and land maintenance and other farm vehicles. A builder is deriving all his income from village work, as is a gardener and a landscaper. Some of these people, including the architect for several of the early dwellings and the orchardist, devote a portion of their payment to ‘sweat equity’ towards the purchase of a lot in the village. This subserves the deliberate intention to bring together villagers with the skills needed to build and maintain the village. Some of these skilled people are not in a position to purchase lots outright; the sweat equity option enables them to become part of the village.

It is hoped that a sizable proportion of villagers will have livelihoods based in whole or part in the village economy, extending from there to offer goods and services to the surrounding region.


Many villagers share the critique of the mainstream economic and financial systems ably expressed in this book. Several have been active in establishing a local currency system for the township and surrounds — Tasman Area Local Exchange Network System, or TALENTS. This system has decoupled its valuing unit from the New Zealand dollar. The value unit is one free-range egg. It is intended that villagers will be encouraged to use TALENTS in their exchanges. This will further encourage the village economy.


Decisions about the use of the Commons and about the evolving social structures of the village are made by Atamai Village Council which meets every three weeks. The consensus process is likely to undergo refinement as experience is gained. Training in facilitation will occur at intervals, along with training in consensus decision-making and in conflict management. A Code of Ethics dealing with issues such as respect, kindness, diversity, conflict and confidentiality is under development.

A Strategy Group meets to consider the impact of local, national and global context issues on Atamai, such as how to prepare for the interruption of supply chains of essential equipment.

There are working groups for Permaculture Land Use, Food Distribution, Process (of meetings and relationships) and Finance.

Social life

At the time of writing, about a score of adults and a dozen children live on or near the land, with three more families poised to join soon, and participating in decision-making by email. The current pattern is to come together for a potluck meal after a Village Council meeting, along with children and guests. Seasonal feasts are also part of the evolving pattern.

Most villagers interact with other villagers on a daily basis, often in a context of exchange of goods and services, but also for social pleasure.


Children have an important place in the village. It is a safe place for them to roam, by foot or bicycle. Playmates are close by. All adults share some responsibility for their wellbeing. There are useful tasks they can do for the common good, for example, helping with stacking hay. Adults beyond parents are at hand to admire their accomplishments, and potentially to teach them things.


Learning is the priority task of children, but is important for every village member, at all ages. People joining the village so far have skills in horticulture, eco-building, woodworking, eco-architecture, business, landscaping, health (mainstream and alternative), psychology, heavy equipment use, mechanics, peace studies, education, engineering, computer hardware and software systems, project management, alternative energy systems and accountancy. Almost everyone identifies the need to advance in knowledge in some of their areas of lesser expertise.

Many of those with children are strongly oriented towards the Steiner type of education, and there is discussion about the possibility of having a Steiner school in the village. The village itself is seen as a fine context for education at all ages. Children can be included in various kinds of work as helpers, and learn as they go. Those with more knowledge in certain areas, for example, horticulture, can advise others as they observe their gardens.

In this early stage of village development, learning needs have been identified in the areas of meeting facilitation, consensus process and conflict resolution.

A problem of traditional villages in times before easy access to travel and communication has been their limited, constricted knowledge stock, and the absence of outside stimulus. For some villagers, the intellectual environment has been boring and stultifying. They have needed to go to centres of greater population concentration for more advanced education and many have been glad to get away. This has been one of the causes for the global decline of villages. Initially, this is not a problem for Atamai Village. Internet connection enables rich access to unlimited knowledge stocks, and interaction with others. Some village members work on international projects and engage in knowledge production with collaborators on the other side of the world. It is also the case that, while uneasily aware of the contribution to carbon emissions, members visit large cities in New Zealand and overseas.

Air travel is becoming more expensive and is a heavily carbon-emitting activity; our future is likely to involve much less movement across large distances. The permanency of Internet connection to knowledge stocks is not certain. In the future, Atamai and all other human settlements may need to put effort into providing cross-global knowledge and stimulation for learning, sending people out and bringing people in for cross-fertilisation. Maintaining a fertile learning environment may need attention and resources. We will need “vertical” transmission of knowledge to the young, and “horizontal” knowledge exchange with the rest of the world.


Much about village life exerts positive influences on health. A vegetable-based diet of fresh, uncontaminated food is a good start. The demand for more active ways of moving around — walking and cycling — will add to population health in the village group. Perhaps more important than either of these are two social factors. Firstly, the friendly social relationships possible in a village and the trust that there are people around who care about each person are strongly conducive to good health. Secondly, empowerment to contribute to decisions that affect one’s life is important to mental and physical health.

Currently, villagers get almost all their health care outside the village. As constraints take hold, it may prove very helpful that among the villagers, there is a significant stock of health knowledge of various kinds, including how to grow and use medicinal herbs.

Social responsibility

Villagers bring with them varying proportions of commitment to personal good, family good, national and global good. From the beginning, there has been the idea of an attempt to show others how it is possible to live in harmony with Nature, as a contribution to broader social good.

Some members see this as one level of action, and experience an imperative to act at a regional, national and global level. A third of the villagers has been involved in the Transition Town movement in nearby Motueka. The village sponsors a fortnightly radio show on Transition relevant issues, and provides significant players for the local currency organisation. Members are involved in projects of national or global reach in peace education, climate change activism, other ecological issues and financial system issues.

It has been felt important to foster a relationship with local Maori iwi; this has begun.

For many villagers, it seems that one of the best contributions they can make to the Common Good is to show how to live well and sustainably together.

Curves ahead

There is concern that it will not be possible to establish the village as a viable economic entity before tumultuous changes affect much that is taken for granted. The concern about severed supply chains of essential goods motivates Atamai to try to acquire these things as soon as possible. However, the costs of land development are enormous, leaving few funds for such purchases.

To be fuel self-sufficient as well as food self-sufficient, the village would need to double its land assets, and is beginning to examine this issue.

There is abundant research informing us of the importance of social equity for a multiplicity of social benefits, particularly health. While people enter the village with a considerable range of differences in wealth, it will be very important to be watchful about experience of inequity in the village.

A true steady-state economy within bioregional limits will mean a steady-state population as well. This means deliberation in limiting population growth, with adoption of a norm of two children per family, or fewer for regions that are already overpopulated. For the village, it is likely that continuing access to reproductive health services will lead to this level without need for further effort. But can we rely on the sustained availability of the means for fertility control?

In the direst projected scenarios of the future, where food production has been affected and people are deprived, hungry and on the move, it is possible to imagine a village like Atamai being invaded by aggressors. There are so many pressing developmental issues that this has not been seriously discussed. The tentative thinking at this point is that the best defence is abundance, enabling villagers to say, “There is room for you at our table, if you will work alongside us.”[6]


Atamai offers a promising (and exciting) experiment in living for those who are fleeing Vesuvius.


  1. Permaculture is a contraction of “permanent agriculture”, but has come to mean a good deal more. It is an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that are modelled on the relationships found in natural ecologies. See Wikipedia.
  2. Yeomans P.A. (1954) The Keyline Plan. Free online version:
  3. Building Biology and Ecology Institute.
  4. Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein. (1977) A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. Oxford University Press, USA.; The Nature of Order: Books 1-4 (2002-2004) Center for Environmental Structure, USA.
  5. Willing Workers On Organic Farms – an international organisation whereby half-time labour is exchanged for bed and board.
  6. Inspired by Starhawk in The Fifth Sacred Thing NY: Bantam, 1993.

On being in time for Transition

Sharon Te Apiti Stevens

We are called to prepare urgently for Transition. We are reminded by Rob Hopkins [1] and other movement leaders to motivate one another by sharing our visions of a positive future, a future made from well-connected communities taking time to laugh together in a garden paradise. Or something like that. We know we should go plant a garden, take up bee-keeping, organise a walking school-bus, and volunteer for conservation planting on the weekend. We really, really should. “We have little time, and much to accomplish”. [2]
It’s urgent.

The limits of urgency

Urgency. It’s worth a momentary pause to consider the consequences of our experienced urgency. Even the most positive possible future hangs under the pressure of crisis. We face the perturbation of ecological systems on a large scale. We confront the increasing scarcity of oil, phosphates and other key business-as-usual resources. From hemisphere to hemisphere, and in our own communities, we witness an increasingly active spectre of radical financial instability, a demon of aggravatingly unsustainable social inequality. In our personal lives, in our family and friendship networks, in our workplaces and communities, we feel and struggle against the strain of alienation from oversized and insufficiently responsive organisations and governments.

These well-rehearsed — and partially warranted — indicators of potential crisis hover like an apocalyptic cloud framing this article and most any other environmental communication. These disaster scenarios have penetrated collective consciousness and everyday discourse to the point that they are present regardless of whether they are invoked explicitly. We can determine to be positive in our outlook as well as our actions, but when we make this choice, we agree to struggle for our future at the level of cultural consciousness, not just at the level of manifest reality.

All of us living today were born into an era of a fraught collective relationship to nature. The apocalyptic trope has been seeded in our consciousness at least since Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, since early modernism, when the Romantic split pitted a cultivated poetic sensibility shaped by mystic reverence against scientific disciplines forming for knowledge, agency and control. From the early twentieth century, a Prophet Jeremiah pattern of language use began to appear regularly in nature writing,[3] an initially American genre that has shaped the worldwide conservation movement’s growth, priorities and general development pattern. “Millennial ecology” [4] crystallised as a major aspect of international environmental discourse from the 1960s forward, through Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1960), the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth (1972) and the debut of acid rain discourse in international politics.[5] This discourse, with its deep patterns echoing the religious rhetoric of end times, gave birth to a popular, international environmental movement, one that joins intrinsic to extrinsic motivation for change by underscoring that personal and social reform are both morally urgent and necessary for survival.

We have now lived for five full decades with our consciousness shaped by the shadow of imminent doom from ecological collapse. Our consciousness of urgency — and our failure to clear away its causes — presents human behaviour as a strange puzzle. Social and communication researchers indicate that, to a degree that is underrepresented in the mainstream media, people have long accepted the basic reality of the problems predicted by climate change scientists; they care about these problems; and they believe urgent action is required. In spite of this, and ironically, one of the major reasons people respond inadequately to global climate change is because people believe their agency is inadequate to address a problem of such scope; the nature of how we conceptualise environmental problems contributes to people’s unwillingness to act.[6]

There is a time when the apocalypse’s pressure overwhelms the human spirit. The only fitting solution seems to be escape. To rapture. Or to survivalism.

At a time when entire peoples — and species — have lost their homes to flooding, deforestation, war, agribusiness and other forms of hatred and greed, when health has been lost to the increasing toxicity and the decreasing nutritional quality of food, it may be that we no longer have time to indulge in the moral miasma of an urgent need to create a more positive future.

Our only time is now, a now that holds the whole complexities of hope and suffering, joy and negativity.

Adding sustainability to the should-really-do list

Two years ago I spoke to a number of persons who were highly motivated to develop more sustainable lifestyles. I was interested not only in how these people successfully changed their lives, but also in where they perceived barriers to change, where they experienced friction in their lives. These interviews pointed repeatedly to the challenges people face in finding the time for their dreams of a more eco-friendly life. Often, making sustainable choices simply required more time than people believed they had available. In their time-constrained choices people experienced a painful friction, that feeling caused by two world-views rubbing against each other, or by the failure of one aspect of a lifestyle to fit harmoniously with another. Friction can wear down even the most highly motivated.

Or it can raise their consciousness.

Anthropologist Kim Fortun, studying and abetting ongoing grassroots responses to the Bhopal disaster in India, argues that double binds are the stuff of social movements.[7] When facing up to a seemingly impossible situation, embracing the irony of a double bind can serve as a spur to inventiveness. The way we relate to time is full of such ironies, full of potential energy for a major social movement.

Consider these scenarios.

  • A key volunteer in efforts to establish community gardens and build skills for Transition buys packaged, processed food on her way home because her day is busy, she is tired, her kids have sports practice just about already, and she doesn’t have time to cook.
  • A city professional has decided that the future of her young children depends on her taking Transition more seriously, and she wishes to set up a large lifestyle block and start managing it for high density, sustainable food production. The purchase will lock the family into a long-term commitment to the bank and a longer daily commute. By the time the mortgage is paid off, the children will have left home.
  • Staff in an overburdened medical system see so many patients that the stress impacts their own health, but no matter how many people they see, they only have time for the most urgent cases. Some leave their careers prematurely because they cannot sustain the workload, adding to the strain on those who remain behind.

We are embedded in complex, unsustainable systems. These systems work well enough in some respects, and therefore they may be experienced at the day-to-day level as sustainable, but they do so by externalising as many social and ecological problems as possible. Sociologist Anthony Giddens calls this process the “sequestration of experience” to highlight how the day-to-day security of our social life is maintained by alienating ourselves, through routine, from both social problems and from nature. He argues that reflexivity, and the desire to take reflexive control over our life, challenges the “ontological security” we have created through this alienation, and is likely to provoke existential crises that we have too few social and spiritual resources to deal with.[8] We need to reclaim our being from this alienation, to build our security in new ways, but we intuitively recognize the cost of doing so.

Those who choose to add sustainability to their to-do list risk not only the additional time burden of one more thing, but also the experiential friction of one more thing. They risk facing the painful ironies that our social systems have been set up to help us sequester. Where will we get the social and the spiritual resources necessary to challenge our culture’s time consciousness?

Enough problem statement already

If time — not just the amount of time, but the way we experience time — is a deep part of the problem, then time is part of the solution. Not the urgent sort of time, except to the extent that urgency contributes to our critical experience of a double bind; but time, existential time, that is open and expansive. When we can relate to time as a friend, not as a taskmaster, we can move more freely within it. We need to become more conscious of our being in time.

Step 1: Make friends with time

I no longer remember the name or the allegiance of the theologian who, two decades ago, persuaded me that we have a moral imperative to love the era we have been born into. It goes against the grain of environmentalist discourse, but to love our Earth means to love the inheritance our parents have given us. It also means to love the inheritance we will leave for our children, casting off the moral discourse of right and wrong that saturates environmentalism. To overcome the sequestration of experience and to free ourselves from the deadly routines of our lives; to stop using our energy to feed regret and fear, anger and shame; we need to open ourselves to what is. The Earth that is. The society that is.

What is, not what we wish that we and those before us had chosen. We are called to love our era, and love this moment, now; to stop regularly, as Eckhart Tolle urges in A New Earth, and remember to be present in the day. [9] To Breathe. To take our shoes off and tune our feet to tell us whether we are standing on soil or on dirt. To take time to see others as persons, not as systemic functions, even when we have been brought together with them by an organisation for organisational purposes.

We cannot make more or less time, but we can change our experience of it. This requires solitude, reflexivity, nurture.

The simple act of loving ourselves at this moment will generate friction with business-as-usual. Love can turn heads, and embodied action will follow after. If we first love ourselves while remaining conscious, without denying the complex socioecologies,[10] the human and natural systems we are embedded within, in time we will come around to act in love with the Earth. Believe it.

Can we believe this even when the seeds of action are still buried in the dark soil of our hearts and consciousness? Can we believe in those seeds when our hearts have been as burnt by late modernity’s time consciousness as our fields are burnt by chemical inputs? Believe it. If we change our experience of time, we will heal, we will see the shoots from action rooted in love rather than fear, and we will heal the Earth.

Step 2: Reclaim time

On an individual level, experiment with, then put into place strategies for creating boundaries around the time spent doing business-as-usual. We may not be able to unplug from unsustainable systems altogether, but we can transition away from them. Perhaps only a slow step is possible at first, but a small amount of time reclaimed for sustainability will prepare the way for reclaiming further time later. There is value in reclaiming time from unsustainable systems even without knowing what will be put in their place. Better activities will suggest themselves in time, but expansive time for reflection may be required first. Time alone might be needed, time walking amongst paths and along rivers without deliberately planning the steps necessary to conserve them.

What activities might reclaim our time?

  • Spend at least a day a week without touching the computer.
  • Spend at least a day a week without reading.
  • Cut television time in half.
  • Be conscious of routes to connectivity, and set boundaries. How much, and with what rapidity, does each one of us communicate through social networking software, mobile phones, email, eating meals with our families, playing with children, spending time hanging out in local spaces where we might create new local connections, where we might build a shared understanding with neighbours who are likely to be more different from us than those we work with?

Interestingly enough, already decades ago, before the Internet explosion, conservation farmer Wendell Berry wrote that more conscious choices about the technologies we adopted would have led first to more leisure, and subsequently, out of the wealth of leisure time, to better land management and increased care for our communities.[11] His argument (in his case, applied to farm technologies) was not anti-technology, but rather pro-thoughtfulness, in favour of using a good technology to shift our use of time, not to make us more productive according to the same old unreformed economic measures. Leisure is the seed-bed for creativity, and hence for the energy to change direction.

What else might we do to reclaim time?

  • Cut the regularity of errand running trips in half, for example by consolidating errands. (This will likely cut consumption as well, as if naturally.)
  • Don’t bring work home. Those working from a home office can still contain their work hours.

Don’t bring work home. Don’t bring home the laptop, email or reading. Build routines that leave behind the burdens of even the most socially and ecologically valuable roles, freeing minds and creative energy for anything else. Those who are unaccustomed to setting boundaries around working hours will likely fail in any attempts to do so because of workplace pressures. They may need to think about how some of their responsibilities could be restructured. In other words, those who make a conscious choice to give themselves the luxury of a little time may likely find themselves experiencing the generative friction of a double bind.

In North America, a Take Back Your Time movement is developing as a coalition that cuts across standard interest groups. Its message is that, if you’re not staying late at the office, you could be resting, helping a child with homework, developing a hobby, volunteering. From this message, a working group has created a public policy agenda appropriate to the U.S. context.[12] What would an appropriate policy agenda be for Aotearoa?

  • Make six weeks’ paid vacation the standard, even in an economic downturn. Pay people less and employ more people. Aotearoa really can’t compete in terms of salaries, so stop trying. Keep skilled workers by giving them a high-quality life. Give a good quality of life (and a good wage) to the less skilled, too, and see if it pays off (literally) in terms of less strain on the social safety net and fewer social problems over the long term.
  • Create career leave opportunities. Encourage workers to apply for two weeks’ leave each year for a personal or professional development purpose, regardless of whether that purpose is explicitly a part of a workplace’s mission. Make this paid where possible. Do the same on the longer-term scale by encouraging applications for three months of career leave every three years.[13]
  • Shorten the full-time work week to 32 hours.
  • Alternatively or additionally, encourage businesses to create an increasing number of part-time jobs, even for professionals. Mandate income and benefit parity for all part-time workers. Set policy to make the equivalent of single-income households more attractive again through providing meaningful opportunities to combine part-time incomes, which would lower consumption, increase civic participation and give people more time to spend with one another, all of which are necessary for transition to greater ecological sustainability. Allow both men and women the satisfaction of fulfilling their career potential, being involved in the management of their households, and having time for other activities. In other words, seek gender equity and equal freedom to participate in all sectors of society not only by valuing how women contribute to what was traditionally men’s work but also by valuing work that was traditionally done by women (work that both men and women in part-time jobs could usefully contribute to): child care, kitchen gardens, volunteering and the crucial work of local community connectivity. Ensure that the minimum wage is sufficient for supporting a family on a single full-time income.
  • Strengthen unions especially with an eye to addressing work-life balance and quality of life in the workplace. There is some evidence that work overload has a more negative impact on people’s experience of time and balance than do actual hours spent at work.[14] As workplaces increasingly demand more productivity per person — cutting back on staff without cutting back on goals — the strain will be felt by workers before the work stops getting done. In addition to undermining the long-term sustainability of workplaces, that strain will have negative impact on the experienced free time and motivation people bring to anything else in their lives, including the spare capacity they have to engage in the personal work of lifestyle change and community resilience-building.

Step 3: Bring cooperation and creativity into open time to design sustainable, human-scale systems that will open up yet more time

Most of what is suggested in this section requires a bit of time to begin with, and will not be successful — will not be sustainable — except where people and communities have reclaimed a bit of time. Wherever that time has been brought back into self-nurture and community, however, it can be used to build new systems that are more sustainable, responsive and human-scale. Where those systems are built with an eye to using cooperation effectively and sustaining “human resources” as well as other resources, they can help local areas begin to hold even more time within community, nurturing face-to-face networks and local projects.

What sort of cooperative structures can help move time back into local community?

  • Form outward-directed intentional communities to share resources. If these are designed right, they will need less income per person to maintain, freeing up time for food growing, participating in the local region beyond the intentional community, and otherwise supporting the work of transition to more sustainable and resilient regions.
  • Form purchasing cooperatives that can cut down on errand trips to save both time and petrol.
  • Form babysitting circles that are robust enough to give children a sense of extended family and parents opportunities not only to spend time alone with one another but to attend evening meetings and participate in community activities.
  • Create a time bank.

Cooperative projects such as these will build community in myriad ways. Where those involved are explicitly committed to sustainability, and to nurturing themselves in ways that will make burnout-induced consumption less necessary, these projects can grow enough spare capacity to sustain resilience-building even beyond the group.

For those who find themselves unemployed through recession or other reasons, building local networks and creative cooperatives is a particularly valuable social activity. A sustainable future will require significant employment change throughout society. Those who are among the first to be “set free” from unsustainable systems still benefit from those systems to a degree — from still-functioning (partially-functioning) social welfare, from family and friends who are still in gainful employment, from still-functioning medical systems, and so on. Over time, it will become more and more apparent that these systems cannot bear their load, but to the extent that alternative social systems have been constructed from the grassroots, we can transfer that load from the large-scale unsustainable systems to more sustainable and local systems. Imagine, for example, a leaner but simultaneously more responsive national medical system, with its burden relieved by a healthier food supply and a proactive alternative health centre readily accessed within neighbourhoods defined by walking distance.

Step 4: Finally, let us be patient with ourselves and one another.

Perhaps this is simply a return to the first step, to making friends with time. There is no need to deny the real state of current socioecological systems to admit our humanity, including our limits, and to accept that the generative aspects of a fallow field also apply to the human soul. When our stories of urgency and the material conditions that accompany them keep us from “thinking like a mountain”,[15] let us at least respect a pace of change that allows us to think like a tree, rooted and aware of the slight changes in the wind and the seasons. If we do so, we are more likely, not less, to plant an orchard.


Rob Hopkins, The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience (Totnes, UK: Green Books, 2008), 94-103. See also Nikki Harré, this volume.
Richard Heinberg, from the cover and foreword to The Transition Handbook: 10.
Scott Slovic, “Epistemic and Politics in American Nature Writing: Embedded Rhetoric and Discrete Rhetoric,” in Green Culture, ed. Carl G. Herndl and Stuart C. Brown (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1996), 82-110.
M. Jimmie Killingsworth and Jacqueline S. Palmer, “Millennial Ecology: The Apocalyptic Narrative from Silent Spring to Global Warming”, in Green Culture, ed. Carl G. Herndl and Stuart C. Brown (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1996), 21-45.
Maarten Haajer, The Politics of Environmental Discourse: Ecological Modernization and the Policy Process (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
K. M. Norgaard, “‘People Want to Protect Themselves a Little Bit’: Emotions, Denial, and Social Movement Nonparticipation,” Sociological Inquiry 76 (2006): 372-396. Also, S. C. Moser, S. C. and L. Dilling, “Toward the Social Tipping Point: Creating a Climate for Change,” in Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change, ed. S. C. Moser and L. Dilling, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 491-516.
Kim Fortun, Advocacy after Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991).
Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: Create a Better Life, (London: Penguin Books, 2005).
The word “ecologies” should be enough, but I use “socioecologies” to be explicit about how ecologies include humans, our inputs and outputs, our technologies, our populations, our economies, our means of governance, our knowledge and so on. In doing so, I nod to anarchist Murray Bookchin’s social ecological way of seeing connections. I am not, however, specifically advocating his social programme, as my emphasis is on what is real, not on what is ideal. See my discussion in 65-66 in A Place for Dialogue: Language, Land Use, and Politics in Southern Arizona, (Iowa City: The University of Iowan Press, 2007): 65-66.
Wendell Berry. “Horse-Drawn Tools and the Doctrine of Labor Saving” (1978), rptd. in The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural, (San Francisco, North Point Press, 1981): 104-112.
“Time to Care Agenda,” Take Back your Time, < \a href=""> (accessed June 9, 2011). See also John de Graaf, “Reducing Work Time as a Path Toward Sustainability”, in State of the World: Transforming Cultures, from Consumerism to Sustainability, (The World Watch Institute): 173-228, online at (accessed 9 June 2011).
Jessie Vandeweyer and Ignace Glorieux argue from study findings that male career leave may be one of the best routes to gender equity in the home. See “Men Taking up Career Leave: An Opportunity for a Better Work and Family Life Balance?” Journal of Social Policy 37 (2008): 271-294. It may well be that the reform of social policies and social systems that condition our experience of time may be an issue that connects feminist, labour, and ecological issues and points the way to a healthier socioecology across the board.
Natalie Skinner and Barbara Pocock. “Work-Life Conflict: Is Work Time or Work Overload More Important?”, Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources 46 (2008): 303-315.
Aldo Leopold, “Thinking Like a Mountain” in A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949).