Back in the zone

By David Parkinson

The elements of a resilient region, laid out into zones and sectors

Wow! what a summer. It seems as though there has been such a huge amount going on around here; which probably has to do with the fact that there really is a huge amount going on. Over the course of the next few weekly posts, I’ll try to sum up what has been happening and make some sense of it all. The overall sense I am getting lately is that this region is really starting to get fired up to prepare for peak oil and the world of reduced carbon consumption while struggling to figure out how the coming economy is going to work in regular people’s lives. The challenges are enormous, but more and more I am seeing the early shoots of innovation and imagination that augur good things down the road.

One of the recent events which epitomizes this new spirit afoot in the region is this past weekend’s workshop organized by Rin Innes and Transition Town Powell River. The aim of this one-and-a-half-day workshop was to introduce participants to some of the basic concepts of the permaculture design methodology and then apply some of these concepts to a few practical problems in developing community resilience.

The workshop took place on Friday evening and Saturday. To begin with, Rin led us through some of the basic concepts of permaculture, including the three ethics and the twelve principles. Permaculture, according to Rin, is a methodology for designing human systems that function like natural systems, and that deceptively simple formulation conceals an enormous amount of potential power.

Underneath every broken system in our world are a number of design decisions, whether conscious or not, which have somehow gone wrong. We cannot expect that solving all of the problems of the world is a simple matter of better design, but it’s certainly the case that most of our broken systems have evolved without any real oversight at all; so no wonder they produce vast amounts of waste (physical or spiritual), or consume excessive amounts of fuel or other inputs, or in some other way lead to unsustainable outcomes. Natural systems have evolved so that they tend towards equilibrium over time; any system which goes completely haywire cannot continue in that form and will need to change in some way to adapt to its environment: it will necessarily have to take in fewer inputs from its surroundings, or produce less waste, or reproduce itself less copiously, or in some other way find a new equilibrium.

Human-designed systems, in contrast, because they are often designed with short-term goals in mind and omit the long-term benefits or costs, do not have the built-in checks and feedback loops that any natural system possesses. And so, we end up building endless numbers of personal vehicles and vast highway systems to drive on, heedless of the eventual end of cheap fossil fuels. We mono-crop and douse our fields with chemicals which deplete the soil, calling for more chemicals next time around. We base our economic system on the creation of debt in a permanent downward spiral of ever-increasing indebtedness. And so on.

Given human nature, it would be difficult enough to devise systems that minimize the opportunities for greed and carelessness to make a mess of things. But generally we let these systems mutate as they will, without careful oversight and with little regard for the consequences.  It should come as no surprise, then, when our financial, agricultural, educational, governmental, and other large systems turn pathological and start displaying behaviour that does more harm than good. (Typically the good they do accrues to the people in a position to perpetuate the system.)

We’re so unused to thinking about intervening in our social and physical systems that the vocabulary for doing so is underdeveloped (to understate the situation). So the tools that permaculture provides are really worth looking at, and honestly not that hard to grasp. All that’s required is the ability to take a long hard look at the system we’re trying to construct or maintain, to understand the elements of that system and the relations among them, and to find ways to adjust those relations, using the least effort for the greatest results. At all times, we try to think like a natural system, to let the output of one process become the input to another (closing the loop), to make sure that the effects of a process in one place are registered quickly and faithfully (tight feedback), and to work towards an efficient and productive system which is resilient enough to absorb shocks and interruptions.

All of this sounds terribly abstract, and — like all systems with general applicability — it is. So we spent the second half of Saturday starting to apply these principles to three domains of community resilience: education, health care, and communication. In all three of these areas, there are reasons to think that the coming years will see some drastic shocks to the way these systems work; specifically, the ways we pass on knowledge and skills, keep ourselves healthy, and inform ourselves and others will change in the face of declining resources (especially fossil fuels), volatile climate patterns, and ongoing economic instability.

A sane society would take a cold hard look at these challenges, lay out the best facts we can muster, and start building alternative systems which stand a better chance of resisting these coming shocks. Ours instead prefers to do anything to keep fantasies alive, suppresses hard facts and speculation, and doubles down on the status quo.

And so, out on the margins, quietly and slowly, the alternatives will come together. People with an interest in a more sustainable, stable, and socially just world will look at the situation and ask themselves what they can do to make our systems hang together and produce more benefit for less cost. We will talk about all the important areas of human life: food, shelter, health, work, play, art, culture, and so on; and we will use the best tools we have to understand how things work the way they do, how they could work better, and what we can do to get from here to there. The tools that permaculture gives us are very promising, because they give us a vocabulary for seeing and talking about systems in a holistic way.

It’s about so much more than growing food.


1 Response to “Back in the zone”

  1. 1 Colette O'Neill September 15, 2010 at 00:51

    I’ve just discovered this site, so will be reading the archives with interest…Colette, at Bealtaine Cottage, Ireland

    I must add that this is one of the most fascinating aspects of permaculture…all the links to every single part of living!

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