On taking responsibility

11701051_10153420552263898_7489921991517590304_nBill Mollison said in his “Permaculture, a designer’s manual” that the main decision (and paradigm change) humans need to make is to “take responsibility for ourselves and our children”…

Have you noticed how we have the tendency to blame others for almost anything happening in the world?

In a Coursera MOOC (in partnership with the University of Edinburgh) finishing today I saw many comments on the forums putting all the guilt on local governments and institutions, big corporations, big Ag, scientists and so on…others were blaming people in their communities for not behaving “sustainable enough”.

Another common trend is thinking in linear ways: cause-consequences, problems-solutions, before-after…there few out there able to think “systems” and include complexity in their analyses and syntheses when looking at issue in the world.

One thing is true: the challenges we have (both at the individual/family and local community level as at the global level, involving political, social, economic and ecological layers) cannot be resolved using linear and irresponsible/blaming thinking. There is nobody in this world who could possible solve all these challenges and help us to navigate all these terrible predicaments such as climate change, biodiversity loss, resource depletion, social injustices and health/wellbeing issues. Furthermore: these issues cannot be solved: at this point, they can only be managed, navigated, absorbed and evolved towards something more resilient and sustainable…and this will not happen without pain, losses, challenges and discomfort.

A few days ago I presented a workshop. I mentioned how awareness and spiritual preparation are sometimes the only ways to deal with things. If you have the patience and strength to fully read this article on the “really big one” that will one (near future) day devastate the West Coast of North America (including Canada), you’ll see that there are things that you cannot prevent and for which there is not enough preparation.

How taking responsibility looks like:

No so long ago, before the current bubble of cheap fossil fuels, credit and globalization, most people lived all their lives in the same town or region they were born. Families were big and many generations lived under the same roof. Life was always busy growing, preserving or making food, clothes and tools. Most of the mental health issues known by us today didn’t exist and nature would take care of keeping population at ecologically manageable levels.

Yes, there was drudgery, exploitation and abuse, terrible illnesses and no hope for the disabled. Those with interests beyond the farm or household had few choices, if any and the world was not lacking greed and stupidity, ecosystems were changed and resources were used to the breaking point (see peak wood in Europe, as just one small example, the terrible deforestation of European forests and the push to extinction of European wolves, bears and other species)

But people were (overall) much more resilient and life was much more sustainable. They accepted death and disasters with much more wisdom and learned to respect nature (somewhat) and that life and desires all had limits one shouldn’t cross.

As things were not so centralized and many systems we know today didn’t even exist, they needed to count on themselves and those close around them: all this made them responsible. Those who were not would perish or were shunned. Communities and families couldn’t afford selfishness or laziness.

The Coursera MOOC I just finished (Learning for Sustainability: developing a personal ethic) was short and somewhat simple, but impactful: on purpose, the team from the University of Edinburgh did not present data or lots of papers to read. We watched videos and discussed topics in the forums. All the assignments were based on self-reflection and connection to local issues regarding sustainability.

Prof Claire Hagget explains in one of the videos how the context of “social norms”, “technology available” and “materials” shape our responses: she wisely says” instead of asking ourselves why  people don’t recycle more” we should better ask “why do we generate waste”.

Social conventions today dictate what we do and what “choices” we make. I would add that only visionaries, dreamers and those who cannot accept social norms easily are the ones who start paradigm changes and revolutions, because at least at the beginning, are the only ones able to see the traps of collective conventions that no longer make sense.

Another thing we learned is that information alone don’t change people’s behaviours: you can spend thousands and hours trying to convince people with graphs and tables, some may leave a bit concerned but then will continue with their lives. This is well expressed by Jeni Cross TEDx Talk: Three Myths of Behavior Change – What You Think You Know That You Don’t: where she explains how information, attitudes and the mistake of thinking that people know what motivates them are myths and don’t help us to be agents of social change.

What makes people change are tangible and personalized data presented through social interactions and appealing to their emotional sides. When you connect to people’s values you get much more behavioural change than when you threaten them. People also tend to follow what others are doing: here David Holmgren was right when he emphasised in his “Crash on demand” that if those of us already into Permaculture can demonstrate that living a more sustainable, resilient and responsible life is possible and even better, others will lose their fears of changing…most people imagine that living simply and sustainably means lots of horrible sacrifices and losses, so continue doing what they are doing seems much more comfortable and safe even when some may be deeply concerned about the future and the world.

The Hijacking process of taking our responsibilities (and power) from us:

Last Saturday, I presented a workshop on Fermentation 101:

I explained to participants that fermentation is more an art than a science (science helps us to explain the biological and chemical processes happening to the food, but fermentation would never follow the exact results of a science experiment because in each batch there are too many factors you will never be able to control, even the chemical/biological balance of your hands that day when you “massage” the vegetables to extract the rich brine)…this lead me to explain how expiry dates in commercially produced foods don’t really reflect the actual “expiry date”. This simple factor has deprived us from our responsibility as living beings: our bodies naturally know when a food is not safe to eat! (this is even truer in home food preservation, where you have to use your senses to check whether something is edible or has gone bad).

The same hijacking processes can be found around most of our basic needs: our health is now in the hands of “experts” and centralized systems that invade our bodies and dictate what pills or treatment we should be taking; our water comes from centralized reservoirs and processing facilities where is depleted from all its natural minerals and added chlorine, fluor and other stuff in the name of our “health”; food is completely deprived of natural soil elements, processed, all microorganisms killed and given to us in packages and cans; energy also comes from far and households increasingly don’t have any options to decide what source they want for the energy they use. In Canada, townhouses have gone so far to include dishwashers, washers and driers so whoever moves in has to deal with them even if they don’t want…

I could continue with many other things such as daycares, care homes for the disabled and seniors, credit, schooling and employment…the list is almost infinite: we live in a society where we think we have choices and worse: we want other cultures to have the same “choices” we have! But these “choices” have been made for us and our most precious gift (responsibility for ourselves) has been taken away in the name of progress and “freedom”.


As I find myself exploring the areas that make me stronger and happier, I invite you (if you have read so far) to explore the ways your systems and true choices have been hijacked and starting regaining responsibility over them by re-localizing the production of food, energy, shelter, clothes, tools and water, the decision making about how you and your community want to live and deal with issues that affect you directly and the ways you and your community exchange for goods and services.

Being as we are facing an imminent cascade of small and big collapses affecting ecosystems, the economy and social systems, I encourage you to re-learn the wisdom of being responsible for yourself and your loved ones: learn survival skills, wilderness first aid, food preservation (fermentation is the best as it doesn’t require energy or specialized equipment), water harvesting and conservation, alternative energy production and uses, alternative ways of transportation, communication and entertainment, multiple sources of income and multi-types of income including bartering, skill/services exchange and local currencies.

Taking back our individual and collective responsibilities, we can face and hopefully navigate the coming storms…

The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”
~ Bill Mollison

8 Comments on “On taking responsibility

  1. An important discussion, Sylvia, and a truly alarming article about “the really big one”! I had no idea about the imminent potential for a disaster of epic proportions. It’s troubling that school principals try (albeit unsuccessfully) to develop life-saving prevention alternatives while FEMA merely plans how they will respond after-the-fact.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have been volunteering in Disaster Management for a few years now and teach emergency and disaster preparedness to vulnerable populations here in British Columbia…each time I take advanced courses along with firefighters and other first respondenrs I become more and more aware (and appalled) on how little we know about the risks, how little planning and mitigation there exist and how badly prepared we are to respond to something of this magnitude…as in the even worse case of climate change, it seems as if information is not what’s lacking…60% of the buildings here in Metro Vancouver area are not earthquake proof and the amount of people prepared is minimal in comparison to what will be needed…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I wish I could say I’m surprised, but we sit here next to a huge bitumen pipeline – on the shores of Lake Superior. Despite all of the clear and compelling dangers listed at public hearings throughout the state, Enbridge’s request to expand capacity was approved. There are no plans to deal with likely consequences. And here we sit after roads and houses washed out in landslides in 2012 with no plans for disasters that I know of other than sirens that signal storms. (And the sound they make is so incapacitating, I double over in pain if I happen to be outside with my hands over my ears. A plan for depopulating the planet “naturally?” If so, the elite here are in the same boat …)

        Liked by 1 person

      • We have no other choice than taking responsibility for what we can manage and help others to build resilience…”“The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.” ~ Arundhati Roy

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, the answer to the difficulties we face lies in ourselves and I wholeheartedly agree that if we who are already trying the permaculture way can inspire others then it will be easier for others to make changes in their lives, too.

    It is no good waiting for the powers that be to make the changes for us. They have vested interests which get in the way of any meaningful policies. And they also no doubt, as individuals, fear the changes as one of the many.

    However, life for me is certainly so much better as I move further along the permaculture path. I’m so glad that I have found what seems to be my place in the world 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m forever thankful for having found Permaculture. My only regret is not having found it earlier in my life and that of my children…it could have made lot of difference. Now, however, I am navigating alone and just can trust that they may remember this from me and may help them to build their own awareness and resilience in the future 🙂


      • Funnily enough, I was already living along permaculture lines and was so relieved to find it was a movement with other people in it who had meetings etc.

        We’re going to a farm today which practises permaculture. They have a volunteer workday once a month and we get so much from it.

        Liked by 1 person

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