Several months ago I sat in for parts of the Professional Education for Creating Water Retention Landscapes, in Tamera, in the role of back-up translator for a francophone contingent from Togo. About fifty people had traveled to Tamera to study sustainable water management and lake-building; the participants mostly represented existent or planned projects. In one round, they each talked about their main motivations for studying the subject. The facilitating team had given some possible ideas as suggestions: Have you come because of ecological concerns? Maybe political awareness of water issues? Are you worried about desertification? Do you have a wish or need for local food and water autonomy in your projects or communities? Perhaps you have a spiritual connection to water?
There were groups from across Europe of course, but also several from Africa, the Americas, and the Near East. This latter included five Palestinian farmers, all of whom without exception had the same leading concern: autonomy. And each of them spoke this word with feeling, with a palpable tension and intensity… an almost too-real emotion in the midst of a fairly technical curriculum of hydrology and earth-moving. I took this as an insight into their situation, a shared exhaustion with living at the mercy of a hostile authority that controls a scarce resource.
Stepping out of an exploitative, centralized system—instead of fighting it—can be a purely pragmatic response, and a reasonable one. But the effects of local autonomy are greater than simple survival for marginalized people. It is a way to resist central authority, but this misses the depth of the transformation that autonomy represents: The “centrality” of a centralized system depends on the existence of the periphery; if the periphery opts out, there is no center. The authority, control, and potential for manipulation and exploitation, are simply gone. Autonomy is fundamentally revolutionary.
When this is the conscious motivation, in places like Tamera or Fayez’s farm here in Tulkarm in the West Bank, then autonomy becomes peacework. We use terms like “autonomy” and “autarchy,” because that’s the usual jargon, but the goal is not rugged individualism or a survivalist siege mentality; to goal is an open and trusting network of local production and exchange, based on choice and complementarity, and not on control or dependence. We mean regional autonomy. And on an even deeper level, autonomy just isn’t the right word. The true goal is independence and sovereignty, the power to choose; to freely enter into exchange or not, based on mutual support, without fear or need.
Until recently, the subversive nature of local resource sovereignty went largely undetected. Those in positions of power are so accustomed to active resistance and calls for reform; that the idea of someone simply stepping out of the system—creating alternative models outside of the centralized picture—was seen as nothing but a quaint hippy pastime if it was noticed at all. This is beginning to change: In many countries, in recent years sunshine has been essentially nationalized and privatized; solar energy cannot be generated off-grid without permits from—and taxes to—the relevant authorities. Likewise, in more and more countries, rainwater belongs to the state and to the public and private water utilities, and cannot be collected even on private property without a permit.
Centralized control of resources is not only a modern convenience which, in the case of a conflict like Israel-Palestine, may be used by the powerful against the weak. It is rather part of the a system of thinking and acting that inevitably leads to the illusion of scarcity, and then creates conflict. It is “scarcity thinking” that motivates hoarding, centralization, and finally divides the world into the powerful and the weak. It is, in other words, the system of exploitation and war. Our hope for Tulkarm is not only to allow a friend to flourish despite oppression, but to support Fayez in his revolutionary peacework. He has been working for decades to create a different way of living, to build another model of human life based on cooperation. The permaculture agriculture techniques, water management, and energy technology we are supporting here, are neither weapons nor defenses in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle; they are a path out of this and all conflict, a model of an alternative in which the abundance of nature can be seen, and the pointlessness and absurdity of the conflict are revealed.