Faculty & Research -Food for Managerial Thought – When Agriculture Does Business Differently

Food for Managerial Thought – When Agriculture Does Business Differently

At a time when many corporations approach climate change as a springboard for bolstering their external legitimacy, rather than as an issue for which not just nature but also society is responsible, attention has started to shift towards the emerging practice and social movement of “Permaculture”. Whilst not presenting a blueprint for global responsible business practice, this ecosystemic approach to agriculture could just pave a way for improved organisational and resource management, regardless of industry and end product.

Attempts to imagine new ways of organising and doing business face the inherent problem of acting on the basis of a reality that, by definition, does not yet exist. Known in research circles as “imaginaries”, they provide a technical, holistic and social response to the current order of things, including a constructive approach to tackling climate change. “Permaculture”, an alternative way of managing agriculture and land use has emerged as part of a practical, socio-political and philosophical movement which has seen local, anarchist-libertarian initiatives set in place that could provide considerable imaginaries and food for thought for managers working in more traditionally capitalist corporations. So, what exactly does it entail and how could more traditional business people draw inspiration from the model it proposes?

A collective effort

Permaculture – originally defined by its creators as a system of agricultural and social design principles aiming at being sustainable –  hinges upon the notion of working collectively and locally on alternative ways to manage land use, thereby veering away from more classic industrial production techniques. Many examples of communities or groups organized around these new-found agro-ecological systems abound, including the Earthaven ecovillage, the Lama Foundation, or and the Kilombo Permangola. These, at least tentatively, self-sustaining entities and initiatives are based on the principle of a “back-to-the-land” approach to agribusiness with a view to achieving complete sustainability. Emphasis is placed firmly upon social solidarity, inclusion, and the promotion of alternative critical management perspectives.
Rather than incorporating climate change and sustainability into a market-friendly discourse designed to portray themselves in a positive light, each community or network focuses on the environmental and agricultural job in hand, in a conscious move away from more traditional corporate set-ups. As a transformative organisational model, emphasising the holistic and the transcendental speaks to immediate concerns that critical scholars may have regarding permaculture initiatives – their focus on small-scale organising and the ensuing possible withdrawal from macro-level socio-political transformation.

People and resource management

Because permaculture is grounded in a firm belief that Society needs to provide constructive responses to issues of climate change and sustainability, it therefore needs to be built on a firm organisational model. The way in which such communities operate is heavily based on the integration of people and resources, rather than segregation. A good example of this is the Tennessee-based The Farm collective, a radical experiment on holistic health and education that went so far as to set up its own primary health care system with laboratories, dispensary, infirmaries, outpatient care, ambulance service, neonatal ICU, holistic midwifery centre, and training clinics for “barefoot doctors.
Other cases such as the UK-based Low Impact Developments and the Kilombo Permangola initiative in Brazil point the way to alternative resource management centred on a bottom-up response to economic and ecological crisis and a clear intention to mould alternative social orders. The success of these and other projects is typified by locally efficient resource allocation, communal decision-making, and fair distribution of land. In short, very useful leaves that more traditional corporations could take out of the permaculture book.

Room for improvement

Whilst showing the way forward in terms of resource management, permaculture does not necessarily provide all the answers to the business world. The various ecosystems and ecovillages in place are idiosyncratic by nature, most of the time anti-capitalist in their view of social organisation, and have a pronounced local focus. However, what they do address probably better than most corporations is the fact that Society is not only partly responsible for issues of climate change and sustainability but should be actively seeking and proposing solutions, starting with a more resourceful approach to resource and people management. The political and philosophical overtones of such initiatives may not be every businessman’s cup of tea but they should start sitting up and taking notice of this alternative approach to resource allocation and management.

This article draws inspiration from the paper Alternative Visions: Permaculture as Imaginaries of the Anthropocene, written by Anahid Roux-Rosier, Ricardo Azambuja and Gazi Islam, and due to be published in the academic journal Organization.

Anahid Roux-Rosier is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy and Environmental Studies at Université Jean Moulin Lyon III, France. Her research interests include Social Practices of Domestication, Farming Organisation, Eco-centrism, and Environmental Narratives.

Ricardo Azambuja is an assistant professor of Management and Organisation at Rennes School of Business, France.  He obtained his PhD at ESSEC-Paris and his research interests include power, work, discourse and individuals’ experience in and of organizations.


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