On Edges, Margins and True Resilience…

Example of a natural ecotone, edge or margin...
Example of a natural ecotone, edge or margin…

No one can define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak about them and point toward their presence or absence, they will cease to exist.”  ~ Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer

You think that because you understand “one” that you must therefore understand “two” because one and one make two. But you forget that you must also understand “and.”
~ Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer

If you ask me to choose, I will always choose the edges, the margins, the ecotones: there is where you can see more diversity, the merging where the whole is much more than the sum of the individual elements, but also where systems are more impacted, are constantly struggling and in transition between one “system” and the next…

It is easy to love a healthy forest with all its vibrancy, it is easy to like beautiful people, the young, the able, the well mannered, the healthy, those who are always smiling and proactively doing great stuff…but I choose to like (and love and empower and be with) the margins, the edges, the ecotones, those whose mental or physical health represent a sometimes insurmountable mountain to be climbed, those who struggle with debts, discrimination and stigma, those who feel weak not because they are (weak) but because the many sectors (as in Permaculture sectors) have always smashed, discriminated and stigmatized them, leaving them behind.

The last few weeks since late August have been a roller-coaster for me. The bright side has been making me think even deeper about the meaning of “Mainstream Permaculture”, “Resilience” and how to bring Permaculture not only to urbanites , but to all those who have been historically excluded from anything “elitist” such as what Permaculture and Transition can sometimes look like.

While Permaculture (and its urban child, Transition) are all about diversity and inclusion, the reality shows this is not what you see: the majority of those taking PDCs and embracing what Permaculture has to offer are Western middle class white people. Many of them are also young or at least able and healthy enough and have the good luck of making “choices” such as leaving the suburbs/cities, afford land or some type of agreement to live off grid; or leave full time jobs and cars and mortgages behind.

I have been thinking a lot about all this because I had been transferred to another office where I have to commute (by a combination of buses and trains) between 1.5 to 2 hours EACH WAY everyday…last week I was trying to make fermented tomatoes into balls, kefir, yogurt and sourdough while preparing for a First Aid training this coming weekend, starring two awesome courses on Systems Thinking and Plant ID and taking care of my two sons, dealing with some mental health issues and all by myself as my partner was on a work-related trip abroad…

And then one morning I accidentally dropped the fermented tomatoes all over the kitchen counter, spilled kefir on the floor, left the sourdough for too long so it didn’t work and ended up with a crying crisis!

Example of a natural ecotone, edge or margin...
Example of a natural ecotone, edge or margin…

And then I remember: a friend of mine built her own tiny house and compost toilet, another friend (also a mom of a troubled child) was all over the place looking for Comfrey and big buckets and another has been stubborn enough to keep doing things “transition” even when sometimes nobody shows up…

In every system, there will always be those whose voice cannot be heard, those who may be too broken to stand up and try anything…where are the sick, the old, the disabled (physically or mentally) and those who can’t leave their jobs, the city or their “lifestyle” because that’s the only thing they have, not a matter of “choice” but a matter of survival?

While I’m reading Donella Meadows’s book  “Thinking in Systems” and Toby Hemengway’s “The Permaculture City”  I keep trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole: how do we bring Permaculture to ALL?

The clue may be in Toby book’s words: if your “mission” is “to thrive during and after the transition to a post-fossil-fuel world”, and under that “big mission” one of the goals is to “have dependable, long-term food and water sources”, you can’t jump to the cause-effect/reductionist conclusion that “growing your own food” will the “solution”…the solution, as in any complex design/systems-based, is to actually have reliable, long-term sources and that cannot be all on you: because you may not be able to grow all your food, you may not have access to enough land, or tools or seeds or time or knowledge, you’ll eventually get sick, or tired or disabled or too old and then you and those who rely on you will starve!

The solution can be found on some Permaculture principles:

  • Have each important function supported by different methods/sources (i.e. have your food and water coming from friends, neighbours, a CSA, a local-sustainable grocery store or farmers’ market, a community garden ploy and your own balcony or window pane)…this changes your strategies: instead of trying to do all yourself and going crazy or feeling guilty and inappropriate (sounds familiar?), focus on building relationships, sharing skills and ideas and teaching each other…it may also mean that those who are able and healthy and have enough time, etc may support those who don’t….
  • Optimize the edges: how can we work better with diverse people who may have very different challenges, struggles but also gifts to bring to the table? Do we have to expect (and reward) only those who can show up to all permablitzes, all transition meetings, projects, etc? if weare serious and acknowledge that we are in TRANSITION and that upcoming times will be rough, why some leave others behind? Would the strategy here be including each one and everyone in whatever task, project or contribution no matter how small it may seem? Would the strategy be to make schedules flexible, projects mobile and truly include everybody?

There are many other principles that come to my mind: from relative location, start small, succession, turn problems into solutions (i.e. my almost four hour commute allows me to read and relax more), integrate rather than segregate, apply self-regulation and accept feedback, Creatively use and respond to change , etc.

But probably the most overseen principles of them all apply here:

  • Observe and interact: observe what is really happening, why if People Care and Fair Share are part of our Ethics are we acting (not necessarily thinking or voicing it) as if some people don’t belong? Why are we assuming everyone is able and ready and don’t respect transition and acknowledge real struggles? Why aren’t we havening a more inclusive approach? (i.e. why do we see pictures of “a typical small yard” (not my words) and what we see is something that is not affordable to 80 if not 90% of the world population who live in small apartments, basements, townhouses, slums and even caves?)…Observing goes beyond the rosy lens some of us have (i.e. our mental models of how the world works). Observing and interacting with real systems and real people will tell us about the real struggles of those for whom leaving their jobs, reducing debt or doing anything considered sustainable and ethical may be completely detached from real choices…then we will know how we can truly empower them!

There are two things Toby mentions in his book and I am happy to have seen that voiced:

  • The importance of Sector Analysis: sectors are those things outside the “system” that we cannot control (and may even control us or other elements of the system). As Toby says, if we get the sectors wrong, all the design will fail! While in a garden or farm sectors are “easy” to find (sun, wind, water, etc) some, when we go urban or suburban or try to apply Permaculture to people and social systems, become more blurry and complex: poverty is a sector, and so is a mental illness, a physical disability, a huge debt, even all the members of your family!: if a person doesn’t have a supportive family or is dealing with debt or mental illness (hers or a family member’s), those are super important sectors to consider that are rarely addressed when permaculturist do their designs…and that leads to discrimination, stigma and self-withdrawal instead of empowering!
  • The formulation of a mission, then goals, then strategies and lastly, methods/techniques is the only way to have a full “design” well done and truly responding to systems thinking: most permaculturists jump to methods (i.e. filling a naked plot with hugelkulture projects or a food forest that will not work for that location/community/climate or building a cob bench in a place were is always raining…). We forget that 80% of the “design” is in the thinking process and only 20% in the actual implementation…how can this make good use of edges and those who currently cannot be “sustainable” and “Permaculture-like” enough because of their circumstances?

Loss of resilience can come as a surprise, because the system usually is paying much more attention to its play than to its playing space.”
~ Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer

The systems-thinking lens allows us to reclaim our intuition about whole systems and • hone our abilities to understand parts, • see interconnections, • ask “what-if ” questions about possible future behaviors, and • be creative and courageous about system redesign.”
~ Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer

Beyond the edge of the world there’s a space where emptiness and substance neatly overlap, where past and future form a continuous, endless loop. And, hovering about, there are signs no one has ever read, chords no one has ever heard.”
~ Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

Let’s face it, the universe is messy. It is nonlinear, turbulent, and chaotic. It is dynamic. It spends its time in transient behavior on its way to somewhere else, not in mathematically neat equilibria. It self-organizes and evolves. It creates diversity, not uniformity. That’s what makes the world interesting, that’s what makes it beautiful, and that’s what makes it work.”
~ Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer

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