But I promised I’d come back with tales of vivid things and at such times as these of fear and change perhaps vivid things are needed most of all.
It didn’t actually take me nine months to find those things; the delay has been due to other commitments and a winter go-slow. Thank you for coming back.
In that time I have quit a job, sold a house, shed a mortgage and embarked on a permaculture design course, which I will complete at the end of March. All of this feels like it’s taking me in a more vivid direction, and right now it’s the teachings of permaculture that are deepening my understanding of what it means to be vivid most of all.
In my last post I suggested that vividness might be found in the dynamic relationships between things, and especially in the healthy exchanges and flows that reinforce those relationships, such as energy, nutrients or love.
Permaculture resonates very much with this because of its strong focus on strengthening such flows and relationships. Described as a design methodology for creating permanent human settlements in harmony with natural surroundings, permaculture emphasises the importance of cycling energies through closed (if often interconnected and multi-layered) loops. Optimising these flows guides the creation of communities whose members – human and otherwise – all build, reinforce and take part in such loops as a way of life.
When working well these loops build soil fertility, water purity, abundance and diversity through the natural cycles of life, death and renewal. When they are broken the result is wasted energy, wasted nutrients, wasted water, wasted efforts, pollution, degradation and ultimately extinction.
Tuning into circular thinking on both a practical level and a philosophical one is enabling a further shift in the way I see things. I now ask myself: what loops am I breaking, and which am I reinforcing, by my actions?
Typing at my desk, am I capturing and passing on the solar energy I need as part of a healthy earthly loop or just channelling it from somewhere unknown along a pipeline to oblivion? (The answer, not surprisingly, is the latter.)
What about the nutrients I am channelling: are these taking part in a closed loop that nourishes the land? Simple: I don’t have a composting toilet, so, no. I am funnelling nutrients right out of nature’s intended cycles and sending them unthinkingly off to the oceans, turning them into toxic pollution for the creatures there to cope with. (You too?)
As for water: I use high-quality tap water that has been chemically purified at great energetic and economic expense, largely to help lubricate the journey of these nutrients-turned-pollutants and other wastes from my household on their misguided journey into the sea. Not exactly in the loop, either.
The test can be applied to everything. Perhaps the most important type of flow to examine is the material – atoms and energy – because if we don’t have healthy cycles of atoms and energy we can whistle for the rest. But we can and should also look at how we are directing the flow of social connections, information, and money, not least as these influence how we direct our material flows.
I sometimes imagine how our misguided flows of information and money have produced the absurd, yet unremarked, one-way molecular flows that characterise modern human society.
Take (as just one example) the global ‘service’ industries. Think of all those millions of human bodies suspended on various levels in office buildings around the world, doing their daily work. Remove the walls and screens and floors in your mind and imagine us all there, suspended, almost static for hours on end apart from tiny finger and hand movements, in sitting positions.
Our brains think we are “doing something” – selling insurance policies, publishing magazines, buying stocks and shares or crafting policies on hunger alleviation – abstract ideas conjured up and made real by the shared mythology of our abstract world.
But look at our bodies. We are simply sitting, passively consuming processed air, fuelled by processed sandwiches from who knows where and filtered water from who knows who, and excreting the unknown remainder of all of this into labyrinths of pipework to somewhere else. Our brains barely register what our bodies are doing. (A certain cult film comes to mind.) Meanwhile the machinery of the office sends trees and fossil-fuelled pollution into some unknown abyss from which we avert our eyes and thoughts.
How different would be our understanding of “doing something” if we scrutinised the information and money flows and recognised how they obscure and wrongly justify the linear material flows?
How would we perceive the act of taking part if we lived in our bodies as well as our heads; so that the phrase “taking part” referred to the actual energy and substance flows that our bodies channel, minute by minute, and the path along which we are channelling them?
As for money: how do we funnel that? What profits, from what activities, give rise to our incomes? To what ends are our taxes used?
Money fails the loop test
If it were cycling healthily, money’s travels would mirror and drive the productive loops of energy, water, nutrients and life. Its systems of exchange would not depend on the assumption of endless growth, for that would contradict the finite nature of our planetary materials. It would not require or lead to power-driven, dominator-based relationships between those who exchange it, for those relationships do not involve true reciprocity. It would not accumulate behind risky endeavours that endanger the life and well being of millions.
Money fails the loop test on every count. In fact I’d go so far as to suggest that money, in terms of how it functions within the modern industrial economy, works to break every loop it comes into contact with, whether material, energetic, social or spiritual.
No surprise that it is such an effective tool for sucking natural substances and energy right out of their positive loops and transforming them as rapidly as possible into landfill and toxicity.
To be conducive to life, the flow of information should also aid and reinforce the productive loops of energy, water and nutrients (as well as of understanding and compassion). Examine what you hear and spread: does it further these aims or does it propagate excuses not to take part in them? Does it enable authentic connections or does it divide, mislead or confuse?
Permaculture provides a plan
So it is that, in a rather roundabout way, permaculture thinking provides me not just with a plan for connecting my mind and body into the loops of land and sky but also explains why escaping from a mortgage (and the indentured slavery that goes with that) can be so liberating; why giving proper thought to how and what I communicate can be so important; and why quitting the job I was doing was so crucial to my sanity (I had to write and edit material designed to convey impressions of sustainability while masking dangerously linear thinking).
I don’t mean to be self-congratulatory here. I still have rent to pay and children to feed, and must take part in the global economy to achieve those things. I doubt that full transformation, to 100% material or financial closed-loopness, is possible for anyone in our society in this age. But I’m enjoying the opportunity to look at things differently, to accept what I see without blame or self-condemnation and to identify a metric for health and wholeness that might steer me down a more fulfilling road.
Many others are of course much more travelled down such roads. If you are minded to look for them you can find endless, vivid examples of people and initiatives working hard to build the loops that enhance life, beauty and wisdom.
It lifts the soul to know that authentic transitions in this direction are possible and happening. Here are the examples of the vivid that I promised.
- A UK charity has taken permaculture to Palestine, where, by means of the Bustan Qaraaqa community project, it is empowering residents of the West Bank town of Beit Sahour with a sense of autonomy and food security thanks to its model permaculture farm, which demonstrates techniques for sustainable living and food production. Bustan Qaraaqa shares ideas, information and seeds with Marda Permaculture Farm, another West Bank initiative, and was started by students from Bangor University.
- Wales is quite the melting pot for loop-closing ideas; financial investment is going right back into the land’s natural cycles on the edge of the Cambrian Mountains, where around 7000 acres of pastureland are to be reforested with native woodland, thanks to an inspired community conservation project called Cambrian Wildwood, working out from Blaeneinion near Machynlleth.
- Moving to somewhat higher peaks, the Himalayan Permaculture Centre is enabling Nepali subsistence farmers to regrow the knowledge and automony that once enabled them to farm in harmony with the forest’s natural cycles, and provide for their basic needs. Nationalisation of the forests and inappropriate aid programmes had undermined these skills, but permaculture (which embraces, learns from and promotes indigenous knowledge specific to region) is helping to rebuild them.
- And back to reforesting: check out the inspirational Willie Smits, who talks movingly about how he is literally regrowing clear-cut rain forest in Borneo at a TED conference here.
- Many more inspiring initiatives drawing on permaculture, biomimicry or natural restoration can be found on the web. The Culture of Permaculture is a good place to start.
- There are projects to redirect the flow of money too: Slow Money, as one example, is trying to get a million people to siphon 1% of their assets into land and fertility-restoring farming. It’s a small start, but it does at least recognise that money should follow life, not the other way around.
I believe this work is the way of the future, because it is the only way that life can prevail into the future. I also suggest that the painful, even traumatic transition from linear, disjointed processing and thinking to circular, interconnected processing and thinking will be the story of our time.