The loops of eternity vs The loops of never coming back

All thoughts now are with the people of Japan as they bow to the terrifying might of mother nature and the folly of man; and to the people of the Middle East as they face down brutal oppression.

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.

Cycling energies

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.)

Channelling nutrients

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.

Do something!

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.

The way of the future

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.


  1. Happy Birthday Vanessa,

    Your house selling/moving/job change sounds eventful. Where are you now and where are you studying Permaculture? It sounds fun.

    My life is unchanged, however my brother William (now known as Bill) is the president of a huge corporation in America, called Savvis. His company provide the computers for Google, Facebook, Amazon, and most credit card companies. He has his own corporate jet now. Probably the antithesis of most things you describe in your well written article.

    Hope to hear from you.

    Edward x

  2. Thank you Edward! And happy birthday to you too for Wednesday. I’ve abridged your comment here but will reply properly to it in an email. Great to hear from you.

  3. I am so glad you’re back, Vanessa! Please tell us more about what you’ve learned in the class. I am particularly interested in how permaculture applies to ecovillage building. Did they go into that?

  4. Hello Vera, thank you and nice to see you here! I’m not sure I could summarise the course in a comment; it was wide ranging, in-depth, practical and cerebral all at once. It covered everything you’d expect in a permaculture design course (the 72-hour version) – which can be found online – and also aspects relevant to the local geography (mid-Wales), relevant to our particular group and inspired by our particular teacher. I’m putting together another blog to keep a diary record of my permaculture journey. When it’s respectable enough I’ll flag up a link on Vivid in case anyone wants to follow it.

    But yes, there was some mention of eco-villages, if not in-depth. We touched on the relevant planning laws and legal structures that might support (or not!) the formation of cooperatively owned, ecologically built communities. It seems that there are no general rules or instructions though – it all depends on the situation where you live (or want to live). Certainly cooperative ownership is a good route to explore; in the UK Radical Routes are a good source of support. Perhaps there is something similar where you are?

  5. Have really enjoyed reading this as time out from writing an article on electronic waste for a large institution magazine (ironic?). Will need to read a few more times for it to sink in, but quick question – what is that cult film?

  6. Hi Rebecca – thank you for reading! And glad you enjoyed it. The film I hinted at is The Matrix – a favourite of mine.


  7. Hi Vanessa,

    Belatedly discovering your blog, and have been doing a bit of back-reading tonight.

    Love this:

    “It would be interesting if all campaigners did this: stopped, went home, and considered what we are really doing with our time and our ideas. Striving to be true to ourselves would seem to be a sensible first goal; halting the pretence of organising against something โ€˜otherโ€™ when we were all along organising against ourselves might offer a sign that this goal was being approached.”

    Sounds like you and I reached just that same decision in our lives, and it’s always a pleasure to discover aligned fellow wanderers (and other bloggers who post as irregularly as me! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Mainly just posting to say ‘hi’, but also thought that what my friend Mark and I are up to might interest you, and spark some thoughts:

    x S

  8. Hi Shaun,

    Delighted to have your comment, thank you. I’ve long admired your work on transition and TEQs and enjoy dipping into your blog too (which is updated more regularly than mine, for sure!). It’s great to know you’ve appreciated some of my ponderings and a pleasure for me too to meet like-minded thinkers.

    I’ll take a look at your latest initiative. From first glance it looks brave, scary and truly brilliant! I love the observation ‘all land is enslaved in the monetary economy, not the gift economy to which it truly belongs’ – this is hugely important and I suspect lies at the heart of our predicament.

    Thanks again for posting. Hope our paths cross again. (Will you be at Uncivilisation 2011?)


  9. I plan to be there, yes, hosting some informal discussion of the moneyless community plans. Paul and Dougald are very keen. The only thing that might prevent me is if those very plans require my presence elsewhere!

    “Brave, scary and truly brilliant”: that gives me something to do for the rest of my life – trying to earn that as an epitaph ๐Ÿ˜‰

  10. Great – I shall look out for you there and say hello if I see you!

    All the best for the moneyless planning. At least you won’t have piles of forms from the Inland Revenue to fill in ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. Heh, actually, you wouldn’t believe how much tedious ‘money stuff’ there is to sort out in trying to legally go moneyless… foof!

    By the way, Wendell Berry, eh? You’re certainly keeping good company these days ๐Ÿ˜‰

  12. I certainly am! Thanks Shaun, really appreciate the link. And it’s a great post; really teases out the threads and nuances of our situation. My current thinking on this is that we all have to find our resonance, but that this will change as we do; the risk lies in getting too comfortable. As long as we keep asking questions of ourselves we have a better chance of guarding against this and so managing to do what we can that’s right for us at any time. Which I suppose is all we can hope for. Really should say this (or preferably something more eloquent) in your comments; will go there next!

  13. Hi Vanessa,

    I’ve just discovered your blog from Shaun’s links, and reading ‘Divided and Resolved’ struck so many chords with thoughts that have been nagging or inspiring me of late. Especially what you write about the condition of being always, still, both inside and outside dominant society; what that makes of us all in our lives and psyches, and what are the ways to open beyond that, towards something other than try to solve ‘problems’ always in the same unquestioned mindset that created them.

    Mostly, I’m delighted to pick up from this thread that you’ll be at the Uncivilization festival this year as I will be too, and hope we might have a chance to meet and talk there and see what resonates beyond.

    Also, this is a complete wild card mind, but I wondered if this might be of interest to you to know about: Steve Wheeler is organising a meetup in London in July with a grand vision of trying to pull together social and environmental justice struggles, and actually push to create alternative multi-level social structures using locality and network technology:

    Well, that’s what I think it’s essentially about; I need to read it a few more times ๐Ÿ™‚

    All in all, good to have discovered your writing, and looking forward to catching up with back reading and your permaculture journey (way to go)

    All best wishes,

    Cat x

  14. Hi Cat,

    Thank you for your comment and for reading my blog! Delighted to have struck some chords. That article triggered the largest response of any (much by private email and not all of it favourable). It’s interesting what happens when you put your heart on the line.

    A big plus, and a relief too, is how it’s led to ‘meeting’ online a few people who identify with those feelings and questions. So it’s great to hear from you (and apologies for the delay in responding). And I would very much like to meet up at Uncivilisation. If you’d like to drop me a line (there’s an email address in the contact page) we can perhaps exchange numbers etc.

    I’ve had a look at Steve Wheeler’s initiative – wow. Amazing stuff but like you I need to read a few times to assimilate properly. I think it’s something I’d like to be part of (and I don’t say that very often) but I likely won’t be able to escape in July. I’ll keep tabs on it.

    Had a look at your blog(s) too and really enjoyed your writing. I especially identify with the place between stories. I think I’ve been in one of those for a couple of years now – got all this stuff in my head and not sure what to do with it – at least not if I’m to make some kind of living in this twisted economy at the same time, which it appears I need to do. The eternal conflict, I suppose!

    Very best wishes to you too and hope we get to meet up ๐Ÿ™‚
    Vanessa x

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