Permaculture as Practical Peacemaking

The Conditions for Growing Peace

Naomi Joy Smith
Jun 24 · 9 min read

You are about to read Part 1 of a 10-part series exploring the relevance of Open Space Technology (OST) to Social Permaculture Design.

This piece sets the tone for Self-Organization as a key mechanism in a design practice which emphasizes the eventual redundancy of the designer.

Stay tuned for these subsequent parts as they unfold:

  • 2: Systemic Thinking, Feedback Loops and Emergence
  • 3: The Problem is the Solution
  • 4: The Map is not the Terrain: Design as a Skill of Creative Response
  • 5: Boundary Management
  • 6: Integration, Death and Transformation
  • 7: Minimal Interventions
  • 8: Appropriate Tools
  • 9: Small & Slow Solutions
  • 10: Social Permaculture as a Practice

And check out the Coda of self-reflection here.


Contrary to the intuition of modern organizational culture, Harrison Owen explains why Open Space works as well as it does, demonstrating succinctly in The Practice of Peace that this approach is comparative to multiple findings on self-organization and Complex Adaptive Systems at the biological, quantum and cosmic scales.

“The strategy, as I suggested at the start, is extraordinarily simple. Open space whenever, however, and any time you can — in order to allow the natural powers of all self organizing systems do what they do best: create wholeness, health and harmony in themselves and with their environment.”
-Page 115

“Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.”
-Bill Mollison

Why would social systems behave any differently than the forces which allowed the very universe to organize itself without a strategic planning committee? For a child to grow itself into a separate entity from the womb which had simply provided the conditions to become whole?

Self-organization is this very force; a renewable and regenerative natural mechanism which uses confusion, chaos and conflict to create systems of health, harmony and wholeness.

So, how can a permaculture practitioner take the cerebral mumbo jumbo of systems thinking and engage with it, let alone act upon it, to put food in our bellies and roofs over our heads?

While the details depend on the context of each situation, if I had to offer a ‘simple answer’ using one word, it would be: stewardship.

A plate with original art by Moonassi

For those who are less familiar with the 12 principles of Permaculture introduced by David Holmgren in 2002, the title of this 10-part series refers to the principle: “Apply self-regulation and accept feedback”.

In contrast, Harrison Owen speaks about using the principle of self-organization to focus our energy on cultivating the desired conditions for a system to organize — and heal — itself.

“Any input not being met by the system makes work.
Any output not being met by the system makes pollution.”
-Paraphrasing Bill Mollison

No doubt the modern world has plenty of both of these.
Could it be that engineering our society to avoid chaos, confusion and conflict is in fact contributing to the vast amounts of work and pollution present today? Are we failing to find peace because we attempt to avoid conflict, instead seeking permanence through the use of lifeless materials such as antibiotics, concrete and pest control sprays?
Does resisting entropy interfere with the necessary conditions for life?


When David Holmgren uses the term ‘self-regulation’ in the 12 permaculture principles, also known as homeostasis, this emphasizes a design approach of allowing living systems to seek their own equilibrium.
According to modern biology, any living system will find homeostasis through signalling a change in conditions, interpreting this signal and delegating (often having preset mechanisms for) the actions to be taken in response.

This mechanism acts as a “natural resistance to change” (Martin, Elizabeth (2008) A dictionary of biology (6th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press), which I would interpret as more of a ‘resilience to dangerous disruptions’.

In his 1991 book Healing Gaia: Practical Medicine for the Planet, James Lovelock has suggested that the biosphere functions as a “vast homeostatic superorganism that actively modifies its planetary environment to produce the environmental conditions necessary for its own survival”.

In other words, just as our body exists as the emergent sum of various organisms, so does the planet’s.

“ We ourselves are part of a guild of species that lie within and without our bodies. Aboriginal peoples and the Ayurvedic practitioners of ancient India have names for such guilds, or beings made up (as we are) of two or more species forming one organism. Most of nature is composed of groups of species working interdependently …”
-Bill Mollison, Permaculture Designer’s Manual, Chapter 4.8

Following this line of thinking, it’s not difficult to imagine aspects of climate change as being a response to the anthropocene; a great intelligence seeking to resist the changes to the homeostatic range incurred both by and beyond actions of homo sapiens, in our attempted dominance over the wilderness, in tandem with existing cosmic fluctuations.

And so, if the biosphere would innately seek to balance this change in its conditions, how can we work with it to achieve homeostasis?
Could it be that humanity is already responding in a self-regulating way, through various new patterns of thought and behaviour, like the enabling of the internet?
How can self-regulation be applied consciously at the level of our social systems?
Is it helpful to consider that the climate crises could be viewed as an opportunity, not a disaster? Could this minimize trauma?

A scope of our collective work by Dr. Daniel Christian Wahl

Harrison Owen calls to the functions of Passion and Responsibility as critical to the success of diverse self-organizing groups, and claims to have witnessed ample amounts of each of these, emerging organically within an Open Space.

In my view, response-ability is nothing more than the ability to meet feedback with willing agile action, opening an exploration of possibility from what can occasionally seem like an insignificant entry point.
It is the curiosity to muse, “I wonder what will happen if…” (passion) followed by a declaration, “I will”.

This is a key skill for designing with complex adaptive systems, and anyone can do it, by resisting the urge to find the solution right away.

As I’ll be unpacking in more detail in another part of this series, responsibility is not necessarily about arriving at a solution, but rather about taking ownership of being the one who continues to observe the dynamic situation; the keeper of the question.
We can call this action through inaction, or wu wei.

“Don’t just do something, sit there.”
- Sylvia Boorstein

As well as in Agile, this definition of responsibility is also addressed in the permaculture principles, “small and slow solutions” and “observe and interact”: taking small actions to provoke further feedback, like a doctor prodding different parts of the body and asking you whether it hurts.

In a changing climate, practicing this skill of finding, and continuing to ask the right questions in order to reveal changes in the answer over time will be a vital approach for working with earth’s homeostatic mechanisms.

So whose job is it to find, let alone ask, the right questions?
This is where the application of self-organization takes the stage.

The value of running Open Space in traditionally over-engineered social institutions is that responsibilities become decentralized and brought into the domain of those with the most passion for improving the area of question (which is, of course, a metric determined by the participants themselves). Decisions can be made and implemented by those most involved with, and affected by, the concern.

As global institutions inevitably collapse under the weight of entropy, a welcome shift from a mindset of meritocracy to that of an open-access stewardship dialogue enables a kind of social self-regulation to take place where decisions around use of common resources are made and implemented by those with the most passion for the discussion.

Practicing our capacity for local self-organization before the next event of massive institutional collapse will support our courage to dive into chaos when the environment shifts beyond our communities’ prior conception of what is regular.
In times of significant, unprecedented and anomalous fluctuations, self-organization brings us back toward a state of self-regulation.

It could happen sooner than you expect.

“Societal homeostasis” is currently concentrated at the largest and most centralized organizational level fathomable: United Nations practicing a governance system of responding to various signals of disruption coming from “the people” (data sets), and then attempting to reward market players (provide grants to those demonstrating adequate bureaucratic conceptualization) for addressing the perceived needs of the signalling system (trends in studies).

It’s not inherently damaging to have such broad-scale cooperation.
However, to adequately address the significant emerging needs resulting from our rapidly changing climate, decision making cannot be left to this global scale alone.

We haven’t yet tapped into the everyday brilliance of people to solve our biggest challenges. This disempowerment in our economy is one of the underreported dynamics. Too often we think it’s only the billionaires with plans to go to the moon who can lead us forward, but the reality is that people can participate in solving the biggest challenge of our time while making a living — ocean farming is just one avenue for doing so. And things get really exciting when you look at bundles of solutions — hundreds and thousands that are part of a movement of mass experimentation. That’s what we should be funding and celebrating.
-Bren Smith, climate farmer, founder of GreenWave and author of Eat Like A Fish

Imagine what could happen if our social systems didn’t solve these complex problems for us, but rather held space for each individual to engage with, and practice, their own capacity for stewardship?

Governance at the level of the small community, including interwoven interest groups cross-pollinating information between local communities, ensures a deeper understanding of the unfolding challenges, informed by an intuitive local wisdom which supports the selection of appropriate resources and actions, and leads to rapid adoption and mobilization of self-empowered groups who can respond to changes in their environmental context, without waiting for decrees to be issued by slow-moving global governance bodies.

Self-organization is an appropriate technology to respond to a paradigm shift.

In the case of designing social permaculture systems, or even in the case of designing a bio-centric landscape, self-organization might initially be a better fitting mechanism to apply than what permies aim for with self-regulation.

Then again, it could be a case of both/and, depending on what’s appropriate to the situation. Self-regulation, if actively implemented at smaller scales than the nation state or global free market, can encourage local involvement and resilience — if the space for this is open.

How can those with concentrated power/assets/capital support the self-organizing of this complex social system?

Rather than holding an open call for business-as-usual initiatives to project their solutions into a canvas of bureaucratic grant allocation, impact investors and other granting bodies might consider hosting and/or joining an Open Space on the issue, and sitting in a circle with a Coalition of Concern, a diverse group of individuals who care enough about an issue to show up, but perhaps don’t have the resources or time to spend 10 years studying old bureaucratic procedures for grant applications or business modelling.

As social permaculturists, we can connect such passionate local groups with resource allocators, and open space for such self-organized, interconnected regenerative action to take place, through dialogue and diversity of intelligence.

How do we wisely listen to, and interpret the signals within our social fabric?

What is the most local level of governance required to adequately respond to the symptoms we see in our communities?

What resources can we provide to a Coalition of Concern which allows the most passionate actors to take action and responsibility?

What indicators are we listening for, and what is the design protocol for gathering and acting upon feedback?

Breathe. This is only just starting to get interesting.


Naomi Joy Smith (she/they) is a New Zealand-born semi-nomad on a journey of experiencing complex living systems through the lens of social permaculture.

I write, speak, design, engage, host, weave, dance and facilitate.
I sensemake through improv singing and channeling poems.
My collaborators appreciate me for my playfulness and integrity.

Reach out to collaborate in the name of regenerative cultural design!
Twitter/Instagram: phoresced
Email: hmu@nextstepnaomi.com
Donate: https://liberapay.com/naomijoy/

Naomi Joy Smith

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Casually researching wisdom & generosity. Aunty. Geek. I’m into weaving, tea, poetry, music, patterns & social evolution. What questions are living within you?

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