An Injury to One Is An Injury to All

A couple of presidential elections ago one of the political websites had an interesting presentation. As a visitor to the site you could take a short quiz about your own political convictions, then the website would pair you with the candidate who best matched your own views. (This was early in the primary, so there were several to choose from.)

“Go ahead,” the site said, “try it. You might be surprised.” I did. And I was. Very.

According to the answers I gave, the candidate whose views most nearly matched mine was Dennis Kucinich, a man I had never given any serious consideration to because he is presented in the media as a kook.

This made me realize what a powerful weapon ridicule is in the hands of manipulators. It also made me wonder what else I may be dismissing out-of-hand because propagandists have used ridicule to discredit it.

So I started exploring with more of an open mind. And I began to make some discoveries. Here is one (and I’ll present it to you as a set of questions).

Would you be interested in joining a group that:

  • Teaches that whoever holds economic power also holds political power;
  • Has as a motto “An injury to one is an injury to all”;
  • Welcomes all races and religions, and includes women and gays as members – and always has;
  • Fights for free speech;
  • Practices grassroots democracy (self-management);
  • Has always opposed militarism and condemns all wars;
  • Is famous for its love of music and songwriting; and
  • Counts among its more famous members Helen Keller, Gary Snyder, Dorothy Day, and Noam Chomsky?

If so (and if you are not an employer) you may be a Wobbly at heart. Yes, that is a description of several key position points of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). You can find out more about them at Wikipedia or at their own site.  And dues are only $9 a month!

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But, I’m Not Using My Physics In My House

One problem with our media-heavy life is that good things come and go unnoticed because 1) they are buried amongst an avalanche of junk, and 2) we are always going on to something new.

But in order to make something our own we have to sit with it a while, chew it over some, set it aside, and then come back to it again with new eyes.

In that spirit, I’d like to revisit an Alan AtKisson interview with Bill Mollison published in In Context magazine in 1991. (There is a lot on this site that is worthwhile, and still relevant — check it out at:  http://www.context.org/

Back then Bill was always being asked  to define permaculture, and always struggling to do so. Part of his genius was that his mind was forever shooting off in a hundred different directions at once. So it was easy for him to see endless possibilities, but hard to catch and hold down one simple formulation that would satisfy inquirers. But by 1991 he was saying quite clearly that permaculture is a design system — a “Design for Living” (which is the title of the interview).

“Why is it,” Bill asked, “that we don’t build human settlements that will feed themselves, and fuel themselves, and catch their own water, when any human settlement could do that easily? When it’s a trivial thing to do?”

We (in Western cultures) need to change the way we see things, change the way we think, change the way we separate our knowledge from the way we live our lives.

Take physics professors, for example: “they may teach sophisticated physics at the university. But they go home to a domestic environment which can only be described as demented in its use of energy. They can’t [even] see that.”

“Once you’ve said to yourself, ‘But I’m not using my physics in my house.’ or ‘I’m not using my ecology in my garden — I’ve never applied what I know to how I live!’” the changes begin to “unroll like a carpet” in front of you.

So — permaculture is a design system and “One of the great rules of design is ‘do something basic right’. Then everything [following] gets much more right by itself. But if you do something basic wrong (a Type I error) you can get nothing else right.”

He also takes time to warn us against excess ‘individualism’. Permaculture, he says, means ‘complete cooperation’ with people and all of nature. “You can’t cooperate by knocking something about or bossing it or forcing it to do things. You won’t get cooperation out of a hierarchical system. You get enforced direction from the top and nothing I know of can run [well] like that.”

Permaculture Principle #12: Creatively Use and Respond to Change

“Vision is not seeing things as they are, but as they will be.”

We need to deal with change in two ways:

  • When changes beyond our control occur we adapt, and
  • We also make use of change deliberately and cooperatively.

Watering our garden during dry times is an example of the first. Making and using compost for the garden is an example of the second.

As another example of the second, permaculture often deliberately accelerates the natural processes of ecological succession in our cultivated systems. For example, we may turn a degraded old field into an area of productive food trees in just a few years by allowing dynamic accumulators to grow, planting nitrogen fixers, then inter-planting the food trees and progressively thinning out the nitrogen fixers, while also using animals to help us trim, reduce pests, and fertilize.

Ecological succession is also a good model to use to understand the dynamics of group processes over time. Visionary members will advocate innovations. More established leaders may then influence the acceptance and adoption of useful innovations. In any group, people will come and go over time, and each new person can bring a different set of assets to the mix.

In permaculture we want to build stable, long-lived systems and, paradoxically enough, in order to do so we must allow for constant change within a larger structure. Rigidity at the individual level cripples a group, and will eventually kill it as too many valuable members feel oppressed and leave to find more congenial surroundings. Thus change at the smaller level actually contributes to higher order sustainability.

And so we have spiraled around and come back to the beginning with Principle #1: Observe and Interact — but now at a more complex level. Now as we observe we hold the conscious intention of accounting for the elements of a system, the relationships between and among the elements, and the nature of change processes over time as well.

The butterfly is the symbol for this principle. It reminds us that change is not only inevitable, it may also be transformative and beautiful.

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This concludes our short introduction to Holmgren’s permaculture principles. On the web, look for a presentation of these principles (and more) at www.holmgren.com.au and for those interested in learning more, see David Holmgren’s book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.

Permaculture Principle #11: Use Edges and Value the Marginal

In natural systems the most active and productive spaces may be found along the edges — in the margins — where one habitat meets another. An edge forms its own special habitat, taking elements from each neighbor and adding its own. Edges contain a lively complexity of life found nowhere else.

Think, for example, of the soil that forms an edge (thin or thick depending on circumstances) between Earth and air. It is this edge that makes all terrestrial life possible — including ours. Without the soil and its specialized life forms all the plants and animals of earth would die.

Tidal estuaries are a marvelous edge between land and sea and between fresh and salt water. Where not badly polluted by us, they teem with life of their own and serve species from both sides as well. And, as Hurricane Katrina has dramatically shown, without them our coasts are extremely vulnerable.

Principle #11 extends Principle #10 (Use and Value Diversity). Edges produce more diversity, which in turn increases system productivity and stability. Therefore we need to recognize, preserve, and encourage edges.

Picture, for example, the difference between a meandering river and a drainage ditch. Not only is the river more natural and more beautiful, it also has much more edge, and can support much more life — both in the water and along the banks.

Pattern after pattern after pattern in nature shows this same characteristic — the wildly profligate and voluptuous mingling of edges. It is only we humans who try to reduce things to hard-edged simplicity.

Which has never really worked well. Consider, for example, the problems scientists have in deciding whether some things are plants or animals, waves or particles.

It is time to discard the negative connotations of ‘the marginal’ and notice that edges are where we find much that is lively, innovative, and significant. Small business, for example, produces far more innovation and new jobs than large corporations. And great artists have to work in the margins — otherwise they produce only derivative work.

The proverb Holmgren chose for this principle is one that we in our conformist society need to pay much more attention to: “Don’t think you’re on the right track just because it’s a well-beaten path.” Or as the Bible puts it “wide is the gate and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction”.

Permaculture Principle 10: Use and Value Diversity

This principle would seem to be self-evident until you look around to see what is actually happening in the world.

Large monoculture fields vastly increase crop vulnerability to pests or diseases, and vastly increase the amounts of fuel and toxic chemicals used to counteract them, as well as leading to serious loss of topsoil — yet our agriculture has been moving in this direction for at least 50 years.

Architecture adapted to its own unique region saves energy, both in building and maintenance — as well as being beautiful — yet cookie-cutter subdivisions and endless mind-numbing strip malls invade more and more places.

It’s the rare example of regional cuisine that manages to survive the onslaught of miles of fast-food chains.

We can now travel hundreds (maybe thousands) of miles to sleep in the same motel, eat the same burger or chicken or taco, shop in the same big-box store, and watch the same TV shows that we had at home.

One of the main problems with a lack of diversity (besides the fact that it’s incredibly boring) is that any deleterious effect can pretty much sweep unimpeded through the whole mass in a fairly short time. This is as true of fads, rumors, or disinformation as it is of products or pests or diseases.

Diversity is absolutely necessary as the chief way to provide the redundancy needed to maintain any healthy natural system. Only a short period of observation will show you that this is how systems evolve and maintain themselves in nature. If we humans want to remain a part of a healthy functioning ecosystem, we need to understand this necessity and work within it.

The proverb “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” reminds us of the consequences of ignoring the need for diversity — as much diversity as we can encourage.

Come on people, learn to enjoy your differences while you still have them.

Permaculture Principle #9: Use Small and Slow Solutions

The simple yet profound idea of this principle is that human endeavors work best at human scale, both in size and in speed. Let me say it again — we get the best results when we keep our projects at human scale — not too big, and not too fast. Naturally.

Our systems should be designed, like good clothes or shoes, to do the job with style and elegance, while fitting us perfectly. The embodied values are appropriateness, sustainability, beauty, and substance — not power, greed, or display.

The anomalous availability of cheap energy in the last hundred years or so provides a subsidy to large-scale and fast systems. We should keep in mind that cheap energy represents a sharp exception to the lives of most people, most places, most times. But to those of us who grew up in the ‘first world’ in the 20th century this abnormal situation seems normal.

We were born, grew up, and learned to live in a profoundly unusual set of world circumstances. Worse, we have been taught to become boosters for this consumerist way of life.

And yet, somewhere deep within most of us remains the feeling of being a “stranger in a strange land”. We immediately recognize the picture of Hell in Bruce Eric Kaplan’s graphic novel — Edmund and Rosemary surrounded by rude and indifferent strangers talking on cell phones, awful movies and tv, bad art and music, robot voices on the telephone, giant stores that never have what you need — just more and more of what you don’t need, more wars, more religious nuts, more genocide, more diseases, more natural disasters, food contaminated with pesticides and hormones and other toxins, and incessant, overwhelming traffic. (Edmund and Rosemary Go To Hell) More. Awful. Hell.

But nothing lasts forever. The end of cheap energy will once again shift the natural economies of scale back toward smaller and slower systems. This is already beginning.

Those who can prepare themselves to welcome and adapt to these changes will be more comfortable with the transition. The recent upsurge in the sustainability movement, voluntary simplicity, the ‘Buy Local’ and ‘Slow Food’ movements, cohousing and other cooperatives, and so on shows that (at least) a sizable minority of us are already working on ways to transition gracefully.

Holmgren gives example after example of the kinds of problems caused by systems too big or too fast. He reminds us, for example, that slow-growing trees tend to live longer and be more valuable than fast-growing ‘weed trees’. A small, carefully-tended garden produces more and better food per acre than a large ‘factory-farmed’ field. Organic free-range meat animals are healthier and more nutritious than ‘feed-lot’ animals. Too many cars produce gridlock and pollution, and so on.

He uses two proverbs with this principle. “The bigger they are the harder they fall.” reminds us of one of the disadvantages of excess. And “Slow and steady wins the race.” encourages patience and reminds us that grand results are produced by humble steps.

PC Principle #8: Integrate Rather than Separate

We have learned to look at reality as a collection of elements. Using the scientific method we break things down into smaller and smaller bits in order to study them. This intense reductionist focus draws our attention away from the connections between elements, their varying nature, and the way they work.

Permaculture design aims to redress this imbalance by asserting the importance of these connectors, and by exploring their nature. A great deal of observation and experimentation is devoted to exactly this process — with the intent to develop  integrated and self-regulating systems that can sustain themselves over time with only limited amounts of human input.

Permaculturalists want to design  and set up communities of plants, animals, and people capable of gaining benefits from these relationships to one another. To succeed we must become aware of the kind of synergistic ecological relationships that develop over time from the evolution of such self-organizing systems.

Two permaculture ‘rules of thumb’ have greatly helped us to develop this kind of vision:

  • Each element performs many functions; and
  • Each important function is supported by many elements.

Redundancy in both of these directions is key to sustainability.

The nature of interrelationships between elements varies from little effect, to competitive or predatory, to cooperative or symbiotic. Our cultural tendency has long been to concentrate on competitive and/or predatory relationships and to ignore the others.

We learn about ‘nature red in tooth and claw’, the ‘survival of the fittest’, and in fact most of our educational, recreational, and working conditions — as well as our entire financial system — have been developed on a competitive model. Here again, we have become unbalanced and need to widen our view and become more inclusive.

In the Age of Oil, a.k.a. the Industrial Revolution, the Age of Technology, or the Capitalist Age our cultural mantra has been “Growth!” — bigger, better, more, more, more — the violent impetus of the cancer cell. It is time to counteract this trend lest we overwhelm and kill our host — the particular ecosystem of the earth capable of sustaining human life — and thus kill off ourselves.

The proverb “Many hands make light work.” reminds us that we can’t do it alone. All of us in this particular ecosystem need each other. As they say in Bioneers, “It’s all relatives.”