Designing a greener future with permaculture and sociocracy

How do we design a future that values interconnectedness over competition, facilitates collaboration over hierarchy, prefers diversity over monocultures and heralds self-organisation over exploitation? By mimicking nature of course! Permaculture Scotland’s annual gathering earlier this month provided insights on how we go about designing such a future…

This year’s Permaculture Scotland gathering in Dumfries & Galloway was an inspiring collection of talks, demonstrations and a variety of workshops focusing on positive and hands-on solutions ranging from traditional crafts, self-sufficiency methods, green building to nature connection and foraging. The gathering, held at The Hidden Mill, a tucked away small-holding of woodland pasture and hidden waterways, provided the perfect backdrop for attendants to connect with a growing number of permaculture practitioners, educators and enthusiasts across the UK.

More than 200 people attended this event and, according to Lusi Alderslowe of Permaculture Scotland, “came from as far south as London, as far north as the Black Isle, as far west as Kintyre, and as far east as Aberdeenshire. People living in Dumfries and Galloway were the most prolific (thanks to the local connections of the organisers), and there was a big contingent from Fife.”

Permaculture is a system of ecological design bound by three core ethics: care for the earth, care for people and a fair share for the future. As a communication designer for GROW Observatory, a European-wide project focusing on saving our soils and adapting to climate change, the idea of design as a tool for active positive visioning is a key component I discovered when completing a Permaculture Design Course last year. What drew me to permaculture was not that it was merely as a set of useful and low impact gardening techniques, but more of a design process that, according to Permaculture Magazine editor Maddy Harland, is “based on observing what makes natural systems endure, establishing simple yet effective principles, and using them to mirror nature in whatever we choose to design”.

In essence, I view permaculture as a process of applied ecology, where we copy nature’s effective and iterative design process that has been refined over millennia and adopt that process as a holistic design philosophy not only useful for our own backyard, but relevant for our social and economic systems as well.

This integrated approach to designing healthy and productive places and people seems relevant now more than ever, and a distinct trend that emerged across various workshops during the gathering was the increased focus needed on permaculture’s ethic of care for people that ensures the wellbeing of both individuals and communities within a broader ecosystem. As a movement, permaculture has at times tended to first focus on the first ethic, namely earth care, all the while forgetting that humans are a part of that ecosystem as well.

There was a clear understanding throughout the gathering that we need to look after ourselves and each other so that as a community we can develop more robust and much needed environmentally-friendly and resilient lifestyles for the immediate future. Permaculture Assocation CEO Andy Goldring’s presentation on Sociocracy, permaculture and changing the world together showed a way forward in combining human and environmental systems by highlighting the synergy between the essential principles of sociocracy and permaculture as goal-seeking design and implementation processes inspired by nature.

Both involve whole system design approaches and work as methodologies that are based on living systems. Together, permaculture and sociocracy can facilitate a common unity across various teams, whether they are communities, plant species, co-ops or business organisations. Creating a system that values interconnectedness over competition, facilitates collaboration over hierarchy, prefers diverse systems and stakeholders over monocultures, and heralds a system of self-organisation that is non-hierarchical and not exploitative, was a welcome and positive vision that I took away from the gathering, along with an understanding how the process of design could help facilitate this transition.

Andy also unveiled an exciting new development, the Permaculture CoLab, that will serve as an international permaculture collaborative laboratory to be launched in the coming months, and will provide “a large-scale online framework to enable small-scale actions” across the growing network.

Within the context of the GROW Observatory and a systems-thinking design approach, soil is a great example of a system where interdependent parts or lifeforms form a greater whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

Healthy soil is a rich and complex matrix composed of minerals, organic matter, air, water, microbial communities, mycelium, earth worms and nematodes, all working together for the benefit of a greater whole. The concept of building rich soil by imitating nature is a key premise for many organic permaculture practitioners who often state that they do not grow food, they grow soil to produce food. A startling statistic from the Scottish Government shows the area of organic land in Scotland fell 4% in 2016, down to 122,000 hectares. This area of organic land is consecutively falling across Scotland now only amounting to 2.2% compared to 2.9% in the UK as a whole. But the weekend away was a chance to focus instead on more positive moves slowly taking place in the quiet green folds of the Hidden Mill and other ScotLAND sites where the quiet revolution disguised as gardening is emerging.

We need a whole systems approach to reconcile humanity with nature, and in my mind, permaculture offers a design vision for this natural and social evolution to take place and create a culture of connection and community, along with the tools, ethics and principles to tend the inner as well as outer landscape all together.