Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Permaculture Association Design Cycles

The Board of Trustees in London, photo by Hedvig Murray

Last weekend I attended my first Permaculture Association Board of Trustees meeting since being elected at the AGM in November 2013 (thanks again if you voted for me!). The Association is probably the most mature permaculture system I have engaged with (discounting the permaculture education system), having celebrated its 30th anniversary last year.

As more people become involved with and inspired by permaculture, whether as practitioners, volunteers, students, apprentices or the usual combination of all those things, there's an increase in the application of permaculture thinking, and more active designers, more projects implementing those designs. With so much new activity it's inevitable that a lot of energy is being expressed in the early stages of a design cycle  - goal articulation, surveying and getting baseline data, analysing survey results, discovering and choosing strategies to try and meet initial goals in the light of all the boundaries and resources that have been identified, ethical considerations and the natural patterns we've codified as principles. A smaller subset of our design decisions are implemented, have designs for how they will or might be implemented. Of the designs that have, many are in the early stages of maintenance, a few cycles of activity old, re-evaluation has sometimes happened during these cycles and tweaking has occurred consciously or unconsciously along the way. Which is another way of saying, that many our permaculture systems are young.

"There's no material, no design that can long survive the accumulated effects of neglect" 
- Stewart Brand

One of the interesting parts, therefore, of participating in a mature permaculture system, of becoming an element in such a system is noticing, acting and reflecting in those later stages of a design sequence. Being a trustee, might reasonably be described as being engaged in the work of maintenance with its run on tasks of evaluation and tweaking.. The Governance Hub, a partnership of organisations working to improve the levels of good governance throughout the voluntary and community sector in England, describes the role thus: "trustees are the people responsible for ensuring that a charity or community organisation has a clear strategy and that it remains true to its original vision, and that it complies with all necessary rules and legal obligations."That sounds a lot like maintenance to me - keeping things clear, remaining in service to our goals, operating within our boundary conditions. My thoughts on maintenance have been influenced by ideas I first encountered in Stewart Brand's book and television series How Buildings Learn, especially the evocatively titled chapter/episode called The Romance of Maintenance.This classic piece of work has much to offer the permaculturalist, and that particular chapter ends with a statement we might all take to heart:

"The romance of maintenance is that it has none. The joys it has are quiet joys, but it's a high calling: tending to a ship, to a garden, to a building. One is participating physically in a deep, long life."

What is true of visible structures is, I believe, true of invisible structures too. None of which is to say, of course, that maintenance is stasis. While we might seek stability as an organisation, as ecomimetic practitioners we recognise that that stability must be dynamic, that is: that it continues while existing in and as part of conditions characterized by constant change. The ecology here is a rich source of debate, offering a range of natural system analogues and as many or more theories to describe them. In the face of changing conditions are we/should we be constant (able to remain unchanged), or resilient (able to return to our previous state after a perturbation), or instead might we be, as Rhamis Kent has recently suggested 'Anti-fragile' (able to benefit from shocks, and to thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder and stressors). All of these characteristics offer benefits, but I think that a strategy that maintains, through also re-evaluating and tweaking - that maintains by cycling, or spiralling, back through earlier design stages offers us a particular permaculture approach.This is creatively using and responding to change.

Ed Sears leading us through the research poster.

The Association's Board of Trustees (BoT) presently meets physically 4 times a year, alternating locations between the Association offices in Leeds and the transport hub of London, with teleconferences in between. The physical meeting, like the weekend I just attended is one and half days of focussed activity.  CEO Andy Goldring updated us on the work of the office, present and future opportunities, and the range of permaculture activity going on around the UK from Paramaethu Cymru/Permaculture Wales, Permaculture Scotland, LAND projects, working groups, planning for #IPCUK in 2015 and more. Trustee and treasurer Philip Blandford gave us an update on finances and reviewed the accounts. Ed Harris showed as the poster on permaculture research which contributed to the Radical Emissions Reduction conference (read his report and the poster here). The bulk of our time however was directed  to the interactive task of revisiting - re-evaluating, tweaking - the organisation's strategy.

Deano strategizing

Prior to the meeting, fellow new trustee Deano Martin had circulated documents offering his comments on how well the Association was keeping to a clear strategy and remaining true to its original vision - areas which we as trustees had a responsibility to ensure. Were we describing our vision accurately, had we developed the best strategy to achieve that vision? The Association has a range of documents describing its aims and objectives, its areas of focus and services - are all these in alignment? Over the weekend, Deano workshopped these areas with us, supported by Hedvig Murray as an outside facilitator.

Information Amassing
Deano prefaced the workshopping with a case-study from his previous employment- considering how strategy had brought success through orientation to the right goals and concentrating on a path towards them, through difficult decisions along the way. After that we started looking at the wording of our charitable objects – first individually, then in small groups, snowballing to everyone. We considered what certain key words and phrases meant to us, how we each interpreted them. In the whole group we then considered where we were in broad concurrence and where the edges of difference were. This helped to support our confidence that we were broadly in consensus, while opening an opportunity to explore our alternate interpretations. As representatives of a membership with various views, this was a chance to use and value the diversity reflected amongst us.

Thinking in groups diagram from Winning Decisions by J. Edward Russo & Paul J.H. Schoemaker

Many patterns have been identified in group process. The simple model illustrated above indicates the dangers of hasty agreement that moves to action/implementation without exploring the breadth of relevant information and opinion, and the perils of discussion that does not move toward a form of agreement and therefore does not act at all (thus privileging the status quo). Both are negative outcomes in this model. While we want to benefit from the emergent possibilities of a ‘group mind’ – we do not want to be trapped by groupthink: everything works both ways. At the ‘mini BoT’ meeting following the 2012 AGM, the Board introduced a new technique to counter the pull towards dangerous conformity – the joker. One trustee is allocated the role of being a dissenter, encouraging others not to take sides too soon on issues, reducing the pressure to conform and  establishing and maintaining creative disagreement as a normal tool of work.

'The Joker' by Viv

By the end of Saturday, as energy levels dropped, my thoughts were getting a little muddy. Social engagement in the evening over beer and curry provided some time to relax and reflect. I was a little late on Sunday morning, but it was great to come back into our meeting space and feel a new burst of energy taking us forward. Sleeping on it had, at least for me, moved us from end of day fog to morning clarity. With Deano and Hedvig’s facilitation we reformulated and clarified the Association’s vision and mission before moving on to our aims and how we meet them. I don’t think anything here will prove controversial and as a membership organisation, it now goes out to consultation for all to comment, agree or disagree. While the Board feels that this work provides a better articulation of the Association’s goals, consultation applies some self-regulation and encourages feedback, which we take into the finalisation of the strategy work at the next Trustees meeting. If you haven’t already – expect communication shortly from Andy and the staff on how you can respond.

Visioning and Missioning
I think it’s great to see the ethics there in the vision and design there in the mission. To formulate the mission we each wrote on bits of paper three words we thought important to be in there. Then we gathered them together, identified the common ones and began to form sentences that expressed our combined vision. For a while we had the word ‘sustainable’ in there – but with the words debasement it didn’t seem to fit (a word I’d put in the mix ‘regenerative’ pointed to a more ambitious agenda but didn’t have a common enough resonance.) From our brainstorming the word ‘flourishing’ has taken its place and I think it fits beautifully. It speaks of how we work with nature, it offers a positive direction, it's active and it resonates both with normal speech and the specific uses within the psychology of well-being and the work of ecological designer John R. Ehrenfeld.

Teresa ponders the mission brainstorming

Rebecca & Stef with food to share

I hope that gives a picture of some of what went on. Tending to the Association is proving more than a quiet joy.

Thursday, 16 January 2014


The remains of two Austrian soldiers found on the Presena Glacier in 2012. Photo: Office for Archaeological Finds, Autonomous Province of Trento

Soldiers thaw on the edge of theatre
Anniversaries of war pealing the bell of the mountain
Some fallen infantryman feels his lashes defrost
And opens his eyes on a new Europe
Ice melt drip drips on his helmet
Bringing telegraphed orders from coal fired generals
But he cant get the nuance -
Is it advance or retreat?
Strange night thoughts have sustained him
Through these nights in the freezer
Oneiric conversations through ice cracks
With a buck-skinned hunter carrying all his possessions
In a bag of hide
Become absent by my leave
He whispered
Walk away with me into the valley
To the forest and the meadow

To a world made of stone

Thanks to Keith for highlighting this.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Underneath the Bunting at the Potluck Supper

David Holmgren’s ‘Crash on Demand: Welcome to the Brown Tech Future’ article has provoked some interesting discussion, with high-profile responses from Nicole Foss of the Automatic Earth and Rob Hopkins of Transition and comments beneath both. I’ve found the richest stream to be the informal conversations about Holmgren, Foss and Hopkins’s articles in the Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design Facebook group. In that forum there appears to be two main camps of opinion forming: one following the Hopkins (and to a degree the Foss) critique sees Holmgren’s idea as unhelpful at best and a poor demonstration of people care at worst, the other camp sees Holmgren’s idea as an opportunity for ‘direct-action’ and ‘that people of influence should be stating where they stand in these philosophical debates’. This resonated with a comment expressed by a fellow Permaculture Association trustee that at our next meeting we should discuss some of these ideas on the positioning of 'permaculture' in the public/online debates, because we have a responsibility to give a steer from the Permaculture Association.

I think that it might be difficult to find a common  position that contains the diverse opinions of the trustees, let alone the membership we represent, so I can’t personally see at present that our steer should be more than a reminder to use and value diversity.  I posted the original article and responses in the Facebook group but initially stayed out of the discussion afterwards, feeling that all the articles had their particular merits. Then someone posted this quote from Bill Mollison in Introduction to Permaculture:

“The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”

To which I felt compelled to reply:

“I guess we keep going back to who that 'us' is, of which 10% is enough. Mind you, I always take Mollison's statistics with a pinch of salt - he talks a good talk. I don't know when Mollison wrote or said that - most of his public comments come from the 1980s and early 1990s. Given the growth of permaculture & similar activities since, I imagine that a number of people greater than the 10% of 'us' he was referring to then probably have produced at least on a small-scale in their gardens. Is there any more 'enough for everyone' than there was then because of it? I guess this is a reason why RH looks toward outreach, engagement and scalability through Transition points and perhaps why he questions Holmgren's unsourced throwing about of numbers.”

That seemed to be taking more of a ‘Hopkins line’ than I felt, but it took another comment to bring that out. Some one else noted that:

 “I do not want a future where small % of the population plot to throw the rest into turmoil, I want a future where everyone is empowered to join in and make their difference and to help take society forwards. Planning to crash the system doesnt fit well with the kind of world and attitude I want to create. As Rob says, it’s not very 'people care'

For some reason that provoked me into some more thoughts on the issue, which follow:

Holmgren’s strategy is basically [as he acknowledges] a version of the well-worn economic-boycott, which previous social movements have used to influence systems perceived as destructive of human and/or natural capital: such as economic boycotts of South Africa, Israel, Nestle, Coca Cola etc. Withdrawal of economic relations with these nation states or corporations is designed to have negative consequences for those boycotted, through consumers providing negative feedback – placing a financial capital cost on abuse of human/natural capitals. If the boycotted actors do not respond by ending their abuse of human/natural capitals, they incur the financial capital costs, which may lead to other consequences such as employees losing their jobs and personal financial security through redundancy. This means an action to try and end human rights abuses through an economic boycott, might involve some harm to people through bring economic turmoil to their lives. Nevertheless, if the harm to people effected by the continuing business-as-usual of an actor is significantly greater than the harm to people effected by crashing that business-as-usual – e.g. boycotting South African businesses and products, leading to job losses in order to catalyse the end of apartheid – then the strategy might still be considered an ethical response reflecting people care and fair share.

The Holmgren ‘plot’ (I use quotes as the conventional definition of plot is a plan made in secret by a group of people to do something illegal or harmful – and this is a public proposal not a secret plan, not illegal and questionably harmful) is: ‘behaviour change from dependent consumers to responsible self-reliant producers’ with the intent of ‘reducing consumption and capital enough to trigger a crash of the fragile global financial system’.

I understand the ‘global financial system’ to represent business-as-usual: growth focused economics, based on ever increasing over-exploitation of the Earth’s resources, with evident consequences including dangerous carbon emissions, nose-diving biodiversity, acidification of the oceans, massive wealth disparities, declining amounts of freshwater, topsoil, forests, wetlands, coral reefs etc. Natural capital is already failing suddenly (crashing) – business-as-usual has triggered a crash. Everyday it gets worse. If we agree that this is the case, then we should be explicit that we do not want business to carry on as usual leaving us with three main options: trying to adapt the status quo situation to a sustainable alternative over  time, trying to end the status quo situation as quickly as possible, doing nothing.

‘Doing nothing’ is implicit support for business-as-usual and therefore untenable. Trying to adapt the status quo situation to a sustainable alternative over  time is the strategy of ‘transition’ – it is based on the incremental approach, it is designed to be inclusive, to take as long as it takes and to lead towards designing and implementing a plan for energy descent. Many Transition groups are in their early stages, others are more progressed and no doubt have had some success in their locality. Meanwhile everyday carbon emissions, biodiversity figures, ocean acidity, wealth disparity, and the amounts of freshwater, topsoil, forests, wetlands, coral reefs etc. have got worse. As Rob Hopkins notes in ‘the economies where emissions are actually growing’ like China and India ‘the kind of 'post-materialists' who in Western economies might pioneer … [a] "crash on demand" hardly exist’, it might be fair to conclude therefore  that the kind of ‘post-materialists’ who might pioneer Transition do not exist in those ‘economies where emissions are actually growing’ either. In fact, this tends to highlight that in terms of tactics there is not a lot of difference between Transition and ‘Crash on Demand’ – both focus on the household and local community levels as loci of action, both hope for a ripple effect from action on these levels by dispersed concerned individuals across the world, both think we should start right now if we haven’t already started, both promote actions which are worth doing anyway, both know that the success of their approach is not guaranteed.

The point of contention commonly found with Holmgren’s proposal appears to largely be a matter of marketing. Rob Hopkins has long held that the ‘key to our success will be our ability to generate positive visions of future, to harness the power of engaged optimism’, similarly in Nicole Foss’s response to Holmgren she writes ‘Permaculture has a very positive image as a solution to the need for perpetual growth, and this might be put at risk if it became associated with any deliberate attempt to cause system failure.’
If the success of Transition and/or permaculture is predicated on how well it “plays with the masses” or ‘speak[s] beyond the People Like Us’ – does it have to hide genuine desires and need for deep systemic change? If we believe that business-as-usual is killing the planet and  that swift action is necessary to stop it, is it either ethical or effective to hide that away underneath the bunting at the potluck supper?

I'll give the last word to Jamie Saunders:

'Design/Plan for the best, prepare for the worst... with spread-betting for robustness, resilience, durability and 'stability'/viability'... not either/or, and/both as 'the future is unwritten'... '

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Work Patterns

When I signed up for the Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design, I wasn’t in a hurry to finish it. I had no external deadline and no personal one either. I thought that this was good, I could take my time over it, really learn, and an artificial end date would be restrictive.

I was wrong, it was a bad thing. One of the reasons was the, funny but true-ish, pattern identified by C. Northcote Parkinson and formulated by him as ‘Parkinson’s Law’ in The Economist of November 19, 1955 (read online here):

‘It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.’

I recognise this pattern in myself and it seems a little too close for comfort to what Bill Mollison describes as ‘protracted and thoughtless action’. A permaculture approach should be design intensive rather than labour or energy intensive, if my approach to the Diploma is creating more work for myself than necessary, I am clearly not using permaculture design to complete it. Mollison has suggested that in a permaculture system ‘one's major energy… is devoted to the initial designing of the system, not to the maintenance of it’ (interview in Mother Earth News, November/December 1980, read online here).

A related pattern that might appear to be useful in moving forward is the ‘Pareto principle’ named after polymath Vilfredo Pareto by the management consultant Joseph M. Juran, which supposedly expanded on a mathematical pattern first recognised by Pareto: the 80/20 distribution. In Volume 2 of his Cours d’├ęconomie politique (1897) Pareto allegedly noticed the pattern first in the unequal distribution of wealth in the British population, where 20% of the population owned 80% of the wealth, and then subsequently in horticulture when, as an amateur gardener, he found that 20% of his peapods produced 80% of the peas he harvested. Juran later recalled the distribution pattern when he recognised that for many events roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes – a huge discrepancy between inputs and outputs.

This straight off sounds like it’s got some great permaculture design applications right? It’s a pattern found in nature, expressed as a principle, observed by a gardener but also applicable in economics and beyond. There’s stuff about inputs and outputs. It’s got numbers, a ratio even – giving it a quantifiable sheen and a kind of sciencey veneer.

The only problem is: Vilfredo Pareto, while he indeed noticed wealth disparity in many European countries and believed that the disparity was predictability unbalanced, doesn’t appear to have ever expressed that using an 80:20 ratio or indeed any other ratio (although the evidence he gathered from income tax records indicated that about 30% of the British population earned about 70% of the income[read about it here) . Nor does there appear to be any record of him noticing a ratio in peas and peapods, nor of him even growing peas. Joseph Juran introduced the Pareto Principle in his 1951 book Quality Control Handbook, where he writes that:

‘This principle states that in any population that contributes to a common effect, a relative few of the contributors—the vital few—account for the bulk of the effect. The principle applies widely in human affairs. Relatively small percentages of the individuals write most of the books, commit most of the crimes, own most of the wealth, and so on.’

Juran does not however use the 80:20 ratio, the popularisation of this formulation appears to begin with Richard Koch’s  1997  work The 80/20 Principle: The Secret of Achieving More with Less - one of those primary coloured covered popular business books with big title text that I used to see sold in airports back when I still flew.  A look inside this book reveals that Koch is more equivocal than his title, he writes that:

‘The 80/20 Principle asserts that when two sets of data, relating to causes and results, can be examined and analysed, the most likely result is that there will be a pattern of imbalance. The imbalance may be 65/35, 70/30, 75/25, 80/20, 95/5, or 99.9/0.1, or any set of numbers in between. However, the two numbers in the comparison don’t have to add up to 100.’

Koch suggest that rather than assuming ‘that 50 per cent of causes or inputs will account for 50 per cent of results or outputs’ we actually examine and analyse collected data, so as to be able to draw out the particular pattern of imbalance . I have to say that, for me, this moves the ‘Pareto Principle’ or 80:20 rule out of the realm of observed natural pattern usable in design and in to the realm of “no-shit Sherlock”.

I guess from a permaculture perspective we could see this as an affirmation of the value of the Analysis phase in a design process. It also suggests something that we might analyse in that phase, and evaluate in a later one, and that could point us towards areas for tweaking.

In my own case, relating to the Diploma I can see that very little of the time since I signed up for the Diploma has been spent on producing my portfolio. The work I have done on my portfolio has been most productive when these conditions have been true:

  • I have concentrated on writing up one design rather than working on loads simultaneously.
  • I have gathered all my notes and relevant materials together before beginning writing.
  • I have applied a framework to my writing up and filled in what I can, identifying where more work is required.
  • I have had the Diploma Guidebook at hand for reference
  • I haven’t felt scared about getting it ‘wrong’,
  • I have realised that perfection is the enemy of the good.

I could usefully recognise these as my own effective working patterns, and repeat them to optimise my effectiveness. I'm not sure the 'Pareto Principle' is particularly useful to me however, I dislike its pseudo-science 80:20 faux precision. It's part of a larger concern I have in permaculture about the use/misuse of concepts originating in management theory that may have little basis in actual research, and the use of quotations (inevitably mis-attributed to Albert Einstein, Gandhi or some other super-luminary). There may be useful stuff in these quotations and these theories, but that utility must be verified not assumed - and we should be alert to and inquisitive about the actual provenance of these words and ideas before we share and repeat them with others.