Permaculture designed is based on the notion that actions and within and upon a system should bring benefit to the system as a whole. This principle can, in turn, be applied to human communities and social groups, as well as to agricultural and garden systems. Indeed, permaculture’s ethics-based approach was from the very start formulated as a way not only to grow food and protect nature but to suggest how social systems could be organized to be more equal, less wasteful, and less damaging to the natural ecosystems they exist alongside and depend upon.
Many of the underlying ideas of permaculture design that we use to analyze and design a cultivated plot can be used to consider how we think about social communities, political systems and economies. They can also provide ways to reconceive how we shape communities for the benefit of everyone within them.
On a permaculture plot, a diversity of plants, animals, microclimates and niches is actively encouraged. We should also embrace the diversity within social communities. Everyone has unique experiences and ideas that should be a part of the discussion of how communities are organized and run. Individuals coming from different social and ethnic backgrounds, of different races, genders and beliefs – the meeting of this diverse range of inputs is a site of potential creativity. Current systems of social governance seem to attempt to nullify the differences between people, to try to create a ‘one size fits all’ system that does not take into account the needs, desires and beliefs of individuals. This leads to people feeling as though their voices are not heard, that their opinions do not matter, and that, worse, there is a ‘correct’ or ‘normal’ way of being. Celebrating and embracing diversity is a much better way to come up with creative solutions and to liberate human potential.
Respond Creatively to Change
Change is something to be embraced rather than feared. In modern economic and political systems where preserving the status quo is a priority (in order to keep consumption levels rising), change is often treated as something threatening, that will inevitably have negative consequences. In reality, change is often the dynamo of improvement. An unexpected turn of events can, rather than derail us from a defined, inflexible path, present an opportunity for looking at things different or trying another approach. If we see change as a possibility rather than a problem, we can respond to it with imagination and purpose.
In a permaculture garden, the aim is to create a self-managed system. Each part, such as a guild, functions in a self-sustaining way, without recourse to some kind of central, controlling force. Each component interacts with the others without hierarchies. In modern societies people can often feel as though they have no power over their own lives, with decisions be made for them by distant leaders who have no understanding of what the actual conditions of their lives are. By implementing local strategies of, say, commerce, agriculture and social governance, individuals feel much more a part of their communities, and feel as though they have some influence on the things that directly affect them.
Permaculture promotes the principle that elements within a system cooperate for the benefit of the system as a whole. This is the idea behind design techniques such as guild planting, intercropping and forest gardening. It is also a guiding principle for social change. By cooperating, pooling their skills and resources and learning form one another, communities harness their strengths and work together, rather than remaining in the ‘dog eat dog’ mindset that modern economic systems based on competition engenders. Everyone in a community has something to offer it. They have different skills and aptitudes, ideas and interests. These are all resources that can be utilized to benefit the community as a whole.
Take it Slow
Trying to institute rapid, radical change is more than likely to end in failure. It doesn’t allow for adaptation to new situations, and it imposes a system that has not been developed through observation, analysis and diverse inputs. To institute changes – be they to a natural ecosystem or a social community – requires small incremental changes, one step at a time. Given that both systems are complex webs of interrelated phenomena, small changes allow the whole web to adapt to the change before the next is made. Taking things slowly also allows for discussion and debate.
In modern societies it can seem as though everything is compartmentalized. Much like products packaged in their individual boxes, we tend to exist in narrowly defined locations that do not interact with others. We move from the office block where we sit in individual cubicles to the commuter train where no one makes eye contact, to our house or apartment, where we often don’t know our neighbors. Such compartmentalization limits the edge effect that is a major permaculture principle. The zone where different environments interact is a fertile one in nature, and should be in society too. The meeting and interaction of different cultures, genders, age groups and belief systems can be a fertile zone of ideas, solutions and inspiration.
In permaculture, there is no place for dogma or inflexible frameworks. Growing permaculture plots and developing social communities should both be ever-evolving processes, that allows adaption to changes and integration of new ideas. As with growing gardens, in communities we need to be observant of how thing change and embrace it, rather than try to corral events into a strict rubric or set of rules. Systems give feedback, and we need to recognize it and heed what it is telling us. On a permaculture plot, this feedback may take the form of a crop failing to fruit or a sudden increase in a particular population of animals on the site, whereas feedback in communities will typically involve discussion and exchange of opinion. In both cases, we must be open to receiving feedback and see how we can use it to improve.