What is social permaculture? It’s a difficult question to answer without mentioning that people often think of permaculture as just another gardening or land management system, but it is so much more. Permaculture is an ecological design system that looks to nature as our model. It originated in the 1970s with Australian environmentalists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, who sought to create “permanent agriculture”
Today permaculture has become a worldwide movement, and has expanded to encompass “permanent culture”. Patrick Whitefield, author of The Earthcare Manual, called permaculture “the art of designing beneficial relationships.” We look at the plants in the garden not in isolation, but in terms of how they affect each other, how they interact, how in caring for them we can determine the flow of our energy, how they can provide fertility or protection to each other, how we can get multiple returns from each item.
The relationships between plants, insects, soil, water, and microorganisms, however complex, are relatively easy to deal with. People are much more challenging. Each of us has our own needs and goals, complicated life histories and communication styles. Our understanding of soil biology or water harvesting techniques is often much more advanced than our decision-making skills together. Our needs and goals often collide, and we don’t always have the tools we need to resolve conflicts.
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Why are human relationships so difficult?
Each of us bears the imprints of our earliest experiences, and we often respond to current situations with the negative patterns of the past. We hold on to painful memories and anticipate future hurts. When we come together in community, our own needs, goals, and communication patterns often collide.
Also considering that we are integrated into larger systems that do not foster beneficial relationships. Our overall economic system sacrifices the good of people and the earth for the sake of short-term profit. It keeps promoting systems of prejudice and exploitation —racism, sexism, classicism, heterosexism, aging, dismay— all those constructions that separate us and elevate the good of some peoples over others. Those systems affect us deeply, often unconsciously.
Patterns and Social Permaculture
Once the practicalities have been studied sufficiently, it may be relatively easy to intuit and follow the patterns of the non-human world, and thus, for example, calculate the volume of rainfall available for catchment in a particular area, or to add materials to the soil in order to optimize fertility. Rain and soil follow particular patterns that are relatively easy to recognize. However, since humans are in some ways much more complex creatures, it is important to find ways to holistically design productive social systems with good mapping.
Pattern understanding can remind us, is that there is no such thing as a wrong pattern. As Bill Mollison points out in Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual, all patterns have some sort of function, and to create meaningful designs it’s important to remember that we are never fully aware of all patterns and how they get in the way, though if we try.
We can “go beyond considering ourselves to be interactive with each other with the environment, and see things as ‘projections of a single phenomenon’.”
With this in mind, we can look at patterns of human behavior and recognize that each behavioral tendency has its function.
One of the biggest inspirations in the field of social permaculture is Looby Macnamara, who includes in her book ‘People and Permaculture’, a table of common patterns of human behavior. These can be mapped into hierarchical structures involving a leader and successive sub-functions like those common in formal education which follow a branching pattern.
As Macnamara points out, “each has features and benefits that we can use in our design work” as long as we can design according to the needs of those within the system. For example, if the majority of the people present in an organization work better when they are co-creating together or in nodes which improve the results. You can also read our entry related to what are the characteristics of permaculture and how does it work?