Honoring the Duh-Design Principles
By Shaktari Belew
If the science behind Climate Change, Peak Oil and population growth
are true, and the realities of global financial insecurity keep unfolding
all at once, we are in for change in capital letters. Why not
proactively address those changes now, while we still
have resources to develop alternative systems?
Imagine leaving a meeting with these words dancing upon the participant’s lips as they exit: “Excited!” … “Energized!” … “Grateful!” … “Let’s do it!” That was the scene after first Transition Town Action Planning meeting here in Ashland, Oregon.
The event was coordinated by a team of local citizens inspired by the Transition Town movement that is sweeping the nation. Google “Transition Town” and you will find small towns, large cities, even entire peninsulas and bioregions engaged in a grassroots exploration of what it means to redesign our local systems so that our basic needs—food, water, energy, economics, transportation, health, and housing—are sourced locally and dependably at all times.
At a recent local food security weekend, I had the honor of facilitating the Open Space Technology portion in which citizens came together to discuss the issue of dependably providing healthy food to our region, regardless of global and regional circumstances. Again, citi-zens rallied to create 17 working groups focused on related issues—groups willing to step beyond talk into whole-systems based action.
Ashland has become a boiling pot of ideas regarding local resiliency, sustainability, and relocalization. With each new event, the roiling liquid is stirred, allowing new ideas to rise to the surface and release their contents, adding to the creative stew from which new ways of thinking and designing will emerge. The process reveals our interdependence—how each decision we make, individually and as a community, relates to and impacts everything else.
Each group is eager to tackle the issues and come up with creative approaches that provide a safety web of community support. And while some cities struggle with initiating local interest; our region has an abundance of people already doing excellent work on many fronts. In many ways, our challenge is to both encourage the creative genius of our citizens while also championing efficiency and cooperation between groups, so that we minimize the duplication of efforts. This is not a time for ego and competition but for cooperation and collaboration. For that reason, the Transition movement seeks to identify those already working on issues, so we can support their efforts. That intention was helped greatly by the recent completion of a Sustainability Inventory conducted by Planning Commission and TTA Initiating Team member Melanie Mindlin, for the Ashland City Planning Commission.
Instead of competing with all these wonderful programs, TTA focuses on weaving the myriad strands of creative ideas into a cohesive whole.
A Whole-Systems Approach
A whole-systems approach to community design focuses as much on the relationships between elements as the elements themselves. So instead of approaching city planning, for example, as a separate stand-alone concept; the Transition movement emphasizes the impact planning decisions have on all other aspects of community life. Instead of creating policy in reaction to events, the Transition movement suggests taking a breath, looking at the bigger picture, and then approaching policy based on creative, thoughtful relational design. Even the energy between the two is different. One focuses on putting out fires while the other focuses on creative, empowered, design processes.
In our Introduction to Transition meeting at Peace House last March, part of the discussion focused on how this movement is different from the many sincere citizen-led movements of the past. Two differences come to mind. First, the context in which the movement is taking place is the extremely complex failing of our financial systems that touches the lives of everyone these days. Second is the fact that the Transition movement uses Permaculture Principles to form a sort of container from which all else emerges—principles which make any attempt at greed and elitism obvious—flowing with, instead trying to dominate, nature. We humans often forget that we are part of nature, not separate from it. Anything that approaches problem solving through domination and control ultimately feels “off” because it subtly combats the natural flow at the heart of who we are.
Permaculture design principles have moved from the agricultural fields where they were conceived to encompass applications covering diverse aspects of human life, including finances. They are based on the ethics of caring for each other, caring for the earth, and sharing what we have (also referred to as “reinvesting in the future”) and form the backbone of the Transition movement. I like to caution those unfamiliar with these principles that they seem almost simplistic and obvious. While that may be true, their power is in their basic simplicity. They are the “Duh Factors” we all know at the core of our beings and which feel innately accurate and eminently logical. See if you agree:
Observe and Interact. Unless we are willing to carefully observe what is (a skill few have mastered), and to test our theories through thoughtful and documented experiments, we run the risk of missing key elements that can impact successful design. Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Network writes, “The post-peak world will depend on detailed observation and good design rather than energy-intensive solutions.”
Relative Placement and Producing No Waste. Living creatures form beneficial relationships, where the placement of one serves the needs of another. The placement of elements significantly enhances or diminishes their survival and value and therefore requires our attention. From a design standpoint, we can encourage beneficial relationships by placing elements so that they care for or enhance each other, thus reducing external inputs (including the work required to maintain the system) while also reducing unused outputs (waste). If manufacturing, use and recycling all take place close to each other, the system is approaching a high level of efficiency. Truly efficient designs are also elegant, as they completely eliminate the concept of waste by using all outputs as inputs somewhere else within the system. As Rob Hopkins explains, “The concept of waste is essentially a reflection of poor design.”
Resiliency—Multiple Elements for Each Function. Vital functions are supported by more than one element. Backup systems are always in place, providing resiliency in the face of failure by any one element.
Efficiency—Each Element Supports Many Functions. When each component of a system performs several functions, it creates multiple relationships. Take the Cherry Tree, for example. It provides food for animals (including humans), converts carbon dioxide to oxygen, provides habitat to diverse life forms, which in turn draws predator and prey together, aerates the soil while drawing nutrients to the surface—just to name a few.
Use Renewable Resources and Services. When nature can do a job, let it. For example, worms aerate soil quite nicely and clover fixes nitrogen. Why use man-made substances when nature has already provided efficient means to the same end? The extreme example of this is the agribusiness use of petroleum and natural gas to create fertilizers. At a time when cheap oil and gas are quickly becoming a luxury of the past, why waste them on creating products that literally diminish soil quality when nature already provides a better solution?
Use the Multiplier Effect—Catch and Store Energy. Energy and nutrients tend to move quickly across a slope and are stored in a natural environment in diverse ways in water, plants, soils, seeds, etc. By capturing them, and creating opportunities for them to be slowed down and recycled within the system, multiple benefits can be achieved by the smallest element—even a water molecule. This is true for currencies as well. Economies are made healthier when they include local currencies that move through the system many times before exiting the system. Known as the “multiplier effect,” the more hands exchanging currency locally, the more benefit each participant (and the system as a whole) receives. If we consider “capital” as something greater than money in the bank—it is all around us in the form of nature’s bounty, people’s energy and natural energy forms.
Obtain a Yield. Any intervention we make into a system should provide a yield, not a depletion of the system itself. This seems simple and straight forward, yet how many agricultural, economic, manufacturing and retail practices today actually deplete environmental quality and debilitate or even destroy the local economy? One cannot create a healthy system when only focusing on one yield at the expense of all others.
Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback. Nature’s systems self-regulate. Healthy woodlands, for example, need no interference to maintain health. Their systems already have built-in feedback loops that check extremes—requiring no fertilizer, weeding, pest control, etc.—yet maintain a healthy balance without excessive external input in the form of maintenance and intervention. An optimum design, no matter what the subject matter, would incorporate feedback loops as much as possible.
Design from Patterns to Details. This principle invites us to see the micro and the macro, as well as steps in between. Whole-systems consist of nested systems within systems, all woven together in complex webs of relationships. This is often seen in the beautiful designs of pagan jewellery and other healing symbols. To focus on a linear progression often singles out just one way of viewing an issue and therefore narrows the perceived options. In order to create systems designed for both efficiency and efficacy, we need to take the time to deliberately see the bigger picture before we act.
Integrate Rather than Segregate. Efficient design fo-cuses on maximizing beneficial relationships, moving the relationships to a position of primary importance. Integrated whole-systems solutions tend to create healthier responses over specialization and compartmentalized thinking.
Use Small and Slow Solutions. David Holmgren, one of the co-creators of Permaculture writes, “Systems should be designed to perform functions at the smallest scale that is practical and energy-efficient for that function,” or as we all know, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
Use and Value Diversity. Diversity of businesses, skills, services, food and energy sources, manufactured goods and currencies always create a more resilient community than those relying on centralized and even globalized systems. Diversity in a system is not merely a function of the number of its components, but more importantly by the number of symbiotic relationships between them. This is the real power of diversity, because multiple associations nurture each life form, thereby increasing the stability and resiliency of the whole system.
Use Edges and Value the Marginal. In Permaculture the “edge” is defined as the place where two systems meet—and it is often the most productive area. For example, the edge between a wetland and field yields a diverse mixture of both systems, including those rare species that flourish only at the edge. It is estimated that productivity at the edge of a field can be up to 20% higher than at the center. As designers, we can use this knowledge to maximize edges and yields across a wide range of systems, from currency design to manufacturing processes. This is what is achieved in this wiccan jewellery site. Overlapping systems often maximizes potential.
Creatively Use and Respond to Change & The Solution is in the Problem. We all know change is inevitable; it is the natural state of life. Yet we humans often resist and postpone change instead of welcoming it and proactively helping it form the best possible outcome for all involved. If the science behind climate change, peak oil and population growth are true, and the realities of global financial insecurity keep unfolding all at once, we are in for change in capital letters. Why not proactively address those changes now, while we still have resources to develop alternative systems? We can begin by carefully observing the problem, and noting what elements within the complexity of issues involved currently work and don’t work. The answer to a problem can almost always be sourced from careful scrutiny and creative questioning—questions that force new ways of perceiving the issues and therefore new opportunities for mitigation.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross offers a wonderful graph showing morale and competence over time as one passes through the grieving process dictated by change. It illustrates the stages all of us will go through, not once, but many times as we allow the realities of our times and the results of our prior cultural and species-wide decisions to flow through us. If we do nothing else, let us learn to hold each other as we go through this process. Instead of making those who “don’t get it” wrong, why not offer an understanding ear and a welcome shoulder? Creative response to change can only come about after grieving has completed. And then the fun begins!
Please join us in exploring the delicious possibilities brought about by a whole-systems designed world. You can network with Transition Towns throughout the US at http://transitionus.org.
Transition Town Ashland, a fledgling addition to the movement, meets twice monthly. An introductory talk is offered the first Thursday of every month at Peace House at 7pm. TTA community planning group meetings take place the third Thursday of every month in the Gresham Room of the Ashland Public Library, also at 7pm.
More than twenty nationally certified trainers from TransitionUS will offer a two-day workshop called “Training for Transition” to communities throughout the US. If your community is interested in hosting this potent workshop, send an email to Shaktari@AshlandHome.net. To learn more about global Gaia University visit www.GaiaUniversity.org
Shaktari Belew holds an MSc degree in Organizing Learning for EcoSocial Regeneration from Gaia University, where she offers her skills as a Process Advisor and Internal Reviewer. She is the author of the book Honoring All Life – A Practical Guide to Exploring a New Reality (2005).