Social Permaculture: Applying the Principles

Posted on December 11, 2016 by
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Permaculture’s 12 principles apply to human groups just as much as to any other ecological system. Here are some ways we can implement them in the social sphere:

  1. Observe and interact. No matter how much you’re “starting” something, there’s an existing network of patterns. See what’s already happening. Participate in similar groups or processes, or ones from which you’ll be drawing participants. Write down observations day after day, and take the time to trace out patterns. You want to “nudge” the existing systems, not create new ones from whole cloth!
  1. Catch and store energy. Sometimes, energy is high: celebrations, successes, summertime! Energy in social systems is stored when healthy, positive relations are fed with joy, supportiveness, and pleasure. It can be more deeply rooted with rituals and formalized events that memorialize the experience. Later, when times are harder, these positive resonances can be drawn on to heal and sustain the social weave.
  1. Obtain a yield. People need to feel compensated for their participation. This can be money—$$ or local currency—but it can also be many other things. Food, services, or simple affirmation and appreciation. Observe what people currently consider a “yield” in their lives (a necessity that they do work to obtain), and find ways for your system to obtain it for them—and you.
  1. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback. Figure out how each part of your system can have tight, well-functioning feedback cycles: each individual looking at their own actions; each group evaluating its progress; groups interacting with each other. Giving and receiving feedback well is an art: cultivate it, recognizing that each person has their own preferred ways. Mantra: “Trust <=> Accountability.”
  1. Use and value renewable resources and services. Build recharge and renewal into your social fabric. Watch out for patterns of stress and burnout, and make everyone as accountable for them as for work product. Rely on long-lasting relationships (usually local) rather than fly-by-night cheapest deals. Fair trade! Living wage! Joyful gifts!
  1. Produce no waste. People can be wasted, too: when they’re treated as unworthy of respect, when they’re discarded because no longer useful or interesting or cool. Choose your relationships wisely, and then invest in them heartily. Have a clear process for determining when it’s time to separate, and do so cleanly and gently. Support people with direct feedback about what worked and what didn’t, and help them (within reason) find a new place to plug-in. The whole system is interdependent: there is no “away”! It’s best for everyone to find the best fit.
  1. Design from patterns to details. Every group and close formation of groups should take regular time to explore the “bigger picture.” Rather than simply extrapolating the past into the future, really step back, observe your patterns again, look at what’s really going on in the world around you and how best your network can support the sustainable momenta and relations. Then, having clearly identified the patterns to work with, design back towards the specific.
  1. Integrate rather than segregate. Make space for different kinds of work, groups, and functions to interact (formally and informally). Bring diverse work processes into physical proximity. Create pathways and spaces for communication to flow about what different people/groups are doing. (Skits? Videos?) Have liaisons between all different groups that go to each other’s meetings. Etc.
  1. Use small and slow solutions. Don’t try to create big, tech-heavy, shock-inducing changes to the social system! It will revolt! Look for small tools and practices that will accomplish what’s needed with a minimum of bureaucracy and hassle. Build on these once the system has adjusted.
  1. Use and value diversity. There are many different ways people influence and learn, think, and feel. We need all of them in our world systems! Valuing diversity can mean including a variety of cultures, perspectives, and attitudes in a group in order to improve its internal robustness and resilience. At the same time, true diversity requires that particular skills and perspectives be honed for their unique values: this often means a group that is very specific in at least some of its attributes. Diversity is ensured when both kinds of groups thrive, and all of them are strongly interconnected in “a world where many worlds fit”!
  1. Use edges and value the marginal. Bring different groups together, and explore the boundaries between them. This is where exciting conflict and synergy can happen! Support isolated, unpopular perspectives in your group: they’re often bringing key wisdom to the center
  1. Creatively use and respond to change. Change creates openings for new growth. Whether this is the departure of key participants, success or defeat at some major goal, or dislocations in the social environment: notice when change is imminent, prepare the ground, and use the space proactively to build energy from new and unexpected places.

Brush is a longtime radical organizer, writer, parent, orchardist, facilitator, mediator, and legal worker; a person who walks the land in prayer and a heartfelt participant in Cedar Moon, an intentional community sharing the land with Tryon Life Community Farm in Portland, Oregon (cedarmoon.us, tryonfarm.org).


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