Permaculture, Politics and Solutions Thinking
“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”
– Albert Einstein.”
How we think colours everything we do, that is indisputable. Our biases definitely affect our objectivity and clarity as well as our judgement, factors critical to effective solutions thinking. Permaculture is a discipline which embodies systems thinking, the ability to think holistically, to clearly see what is before us in its entirety, and to understand the relationships between elements of a system. Equally important to Permaculture is solutions thinking, the ability to create optimal solutions to address specific problems.
If we imagine the implications of these facts, and then consider the prevalence of politics in our societies, we soon arrive at a very fundamental question. Is a collaborative, solutions based system such as Permaculture compatible with competitive adversarial political ideologies, and can political bias affect the solutions we develop as permaculture designers, and our ability to work collaboratively?
Different paths, different goals
Permaculture as both a design system and activist movement has a very clear philosophy for addressing problems, which is very pragmatic and empowering – understand the problem, design a solution to the problem and take action to implement it in order to create the desired outcome. As a consequence, if we are unhappy with something, we don’t fuss and complain, instead we individually or collaboratively create an alternative that better suits our needs.
The Permaculture approach to problem solving is not shared by the majority of political ideologies and their respective advocates. Their general approach is to take a negative adversarial approach, define an ‘ingroup’ and ‘outgroup’ then attack the outgroup, the designated opponents, in order to defeat them and achieve a win-lose outcome favourable to them. This is destructive in essence, and not constructive or solution oriented.
When it comes to getting what they need, these political groups will expect and wait for others such as governments or authorities to deliver the solutions they seek, and they will lobby or pressure them to do so. In order to have influence, power is required, and so the game becomes one of acquiring more power than their competitors seeking attention of those in positions of authority. Obviously, this is not the game Permaculture plays.
Power seeking often becomes an unhealthy addiction, where more and more power is pursued, often desperately and recklessly. The goal of political groups is to spread their ideologies far and wide, to infiltrate groups (including the Permaculture community) to achieve their goals of winning people over to their side or making them sympathetic to their cause.
Are these differences between Permaculture and politics chalk and cheese, are they so fundamentally divergent in their operation and goals that we can readily rule out all political ideologies? No human affairs are ever that simple, it’s far more complicated than that. To better understand the problem, we need to more deeply comprehend what permaculture is actually about.
Permaculture by its very nature is and always has been open, accepting and inclusive. It needs to be because it draws its vast body of knowledge from the wide-ranging wisdom, experience and practices of a diverse range of cultures and people across the world. Out of principle, what is learned that is of value to others is shared amongst all of humanity. As an extension of its ethical principles, Permaculture promotes and values unity, harmony and diversity. We would definitely expect that from a design system that builds communities and works with holistic ecological design.
Furthermore, Permaculture is an applied science, a holistic design system that emulates systems that exist in Nature to create sustainable human settlements and food production systems which integrate harmoniously with the natural environment. ATTRA (The US National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service) describes Permaculture as “ecological engineering” or “cultivated ecology”. It has similar goals to engineering, to create solutions that solve real world problems, but in this case, in a sustainable way that is harmonious with Nature.
Permaculture values and respects Nature, and does not support the destructive ideology of western society that man must control Nature and beat it into submission so that it obeys arbitrary subjective human thinking.
Being an applied science, Permaculture has its foundations firmly built on the same foundations as all of science does, as in fact all western civilisation does. These are the foundations of logic and reason of the ancient Greek philosophers, the fathers of western thought. As such, Permaculture values logic, reason and science.
A key philosophy of Permaculture is “cooperation, not competition”. This cooperative spirit coupled with the ethical principle of “care for the people” leads to a focus on unity and harmony, to “integrate rather than segregate” people, to build communities rather than divide them.
This paints quite a clear picture of what Permaculture is all about and what it aims to do. This can serve as our touchstone or yardstick against which we will measure any political elements interacting with Permaculture.
This so far has been a reductionist analysis of Permaculture, looking at the trees in the forest, but what of the forest itself? If we step back for a moment and take a more holistic view, we become aware of a key critical point when discussing the interaction between external political ideologies and Permaculture.
What if Permaculture has its own politics? While some political ideologues may try to push their brand of politics into Permaculture (indeed some already have), what if there was no space to push their politics into because that space in Permaculture was already occupied? Would that not make the efforts of political intrusion both futile and extremely unwelcome?
Is Permaculture political?
It has been argued that Permaculture is political, inasmuch as it promotes a vision of a better world. Rather than protest and complain, Permaculture as a movement seeks to lead by example, take a constructive approach and implement positive solutions to problems rather than just dwell on the problems themselves.
In the PRI Article “David Holmgren On The Social And Political Underpinnings Of Permaculture” we see the solution-oriented focus of Permaculture clearly stated by David:
“I think that to some extent both for me and Bill Mollison, when we met we were at a point, for slightly different reasons, we’d both come to the conclusion that we didn’t want to fight against the world we didn’t want, but wanted to just actively create the world we do want.”
In the article, David mentions the influences of anarchist thinkers such as Peter Kropotkin and his work “Mutual Aid [a Factor of Evolution] and Solidarity”, as well as Murray Bookchin and his work in the area of Social Ecology.
It would appear that Permaculture is indeed political to some extent, the degree of which may be a matter of debate, but has no bearing on the point being made here. It has its political influences on which its foundations are built, which are in essence cooperative, non-authoritarian and ecologically minded. This makes Permaculture compatible with all life-affirming worldviews, and unites people through their common shared values and goals as defined by the three ethical principles – Care for the People, Care for the Planet, and the Principle of Fair Share.
Permaculture as either a design system or an activist movement is a fairly comprehensive and complete, and it stands up on its own. It doesn’t need external political bits and pieces ineptly tacked onto it to make it ‘work better’ as some political ideologues pushing their own political views may suggest. It would appear that Permaculture has its own internal political thought, the politics of the Earth, the politics of all life! So, to the would-be bearers of external political ideologies, we can surely say, “sorry, we don’t need any, we’ve already got our own, thank you, goodbye!”
Individuals can bring their various and unique worldviews along for the Permaculture journey), that’s expected, as long as they respect each other’s worldviews (‘care for the people’ ethical principle). What is anathema to Permaculture’s goals of unity and cooperation is individuals or groups using Permaculture as a vehicle or platform to push their divisive politics down other people’s throats with the ultimate goal of creating a monoculture of thought! In Permaculture, we don’t ‘do monocultures’, we favour diversity, which includes diversity of thought!
Permaculture is inclusive and respectful of diversity, both in ecosystems and in human communities. Whatever people’s political leanings are, what unites us all is that we’re all humans living on planet Earth, which we need to care for in order to ensure we all survive collectively as a species. A house divided amongst itself falls.
Ironically, the political groups that proclaim diversity the loudest are usually the ones most opposed to it and hostile to the idea in its true sense. The call for diversity is usually a thinly veiled call for more homogeneity of thinking, a monoculture of the mind, where people may look different, in terms of race, colour, gender and so forth, but think exactly the same, in agreement with the particular political ideology of those promoting this false notion of ‘diversity’. Basically, ‘different packaging, all the same content inside’ is what they falsely call diversity.
That’s the part they don’t mention. True diversity embodies a broad range of beliefs and worldviews, creating a more balanced human ecosystem if you will.
Speaking of division, the problem with divisive politic ideologies is that they erect artificial barriers and obstacles between people and set them against each other. They discriminate against people on the most absurd criteria, namely the thoughts in their heads, their mental interpretation of the world they observe and the beliefs they hold to explain it as a cohesive worldview.
If we look at the animal kingdom, some animals compete for access to resources, a smaller number may even fight for them, and a smaller number yet may kill each other for access to resources, but humans kill each other over what they believe and think! Is this rational or civilised? This ugly form of discrimination based on thought powerfully undermines one of human society’s most positive traits that has evolved as a survival strategy – cooperation.
So, what does political divisiveness versus the cooperation favoured by Permaculture have to do with Permaculture design and solutions thinking? They set the framework in which the mind operates, and this has consequences that we will look into and explain below.
Solutions thinking and the false dichotomies of left and right
“Show me a young Conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains.”
– Winston Churchill
Sure, Mr Churchill was no saint, and I’m sure the above quote will upset many whom identify with the groups he chastises from both sides of the political spectrum, but that’s not the purpose. This may not be science, but like all stories, tales or fables, it illustrates a valuable message, in this case, that inflexible, unyielding, fixed ideological positions at either extreme can be detrimental, and in our case, detrimental to objective solutions thinking.
‘Divide and conquer’, or more accurately ‘divide and rule’, has been a popular political strategy dating back as far as the reign of Philip II of Macedon (359–336 BC) who is said to have first uttered the words “diaírei kài basíleue” in Ancient Greek, which means exactly that.
When people are preoccupied with internal divisions, they can be more easily controlled. Politics is a kind of primal tribalism based on ideological belief that divides people according to their thoughts, that’s not debatable, that’s what it’s supposed to do! Even Machiavelli states this principle in his writings in respect to military strategy.
Any game can be played with intelligence or with abject stupidity. To play by someone else’s rules falls squarely in the latter. To play the ‘left vs. right’ game is to fall into the trap of the mindset of opposition. That’s not how life necessarily has to play out, it doesn’t have to be a competitive zero-sum game where one’s gain is another’s loss! There is always a middle ground, collaboration, compromise and agreement. Everyday life does not need to follow a fixed adversarial combative win-lose approach.
The reality is that there have always been people with conservative ideas that value stability and other more liberal-minded folk who like to experiment with ideas that value change, and they may have always disagreed, but cohesive communities have still functioned and flourished for centuries, millennia in fact.
There is no law in Nature that says people with different perspectives can’t cooperate! There are times when things must be changed because they’re not working. Conversely, there are times when things that are working are best left alone because they do work, and change for the sake of change can be detrimental to the welfare and cohesion of a community and create unnecessary risk. Both perspectives have something valuable to offer, and their solutions will either be appropriate or inappropriate depending on the nature of the problem and the timing.
As permaculturists we seek optimum solutions to the problems we encounter, and to foster innovative thought we exercise imagination, creativity and ‘think outside the square’. To lock one’s mind into a specific ideology and only search for solutions in a narrowly defined field of thinking impairs objectivity and the development of optimum solutions.
Yes, I’m saying that political bias impairs clear thinking and objectivity! Don’t believe me? Here’s some very obvious evidence from some recent research that illustrates this point beautifully:
Blinded by politics
“Five percent of the people think;
ten percent of the people think they think;
and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.”
– Thomas A. Edison
An interesting study was conducted In April and May of 2013, by Yale Law professor Dan Kahan and his colleagues Ellen Peters, Erica Cantrell Dawson, and Paul Slovic. They set out to address the question that has puzzled scientists – why isn’t good evidence more effective in resolving political debates? We’re seeing the phenomenon with increasing climate change evidence worldwide and the responses of climate change sceptics who have political affiliations and alliances.
In this study Kahan and his team surveyed 1,000 Americans to determine their political views. Then gave them all a standardised test which determines math skills. It was presented in a non-political context, participants were presented with questions that required them to work out mathematical ratios to determine whether people who used the skin cream were more likely to get better or worse than those who didn’t.
To quote the Vox article on the study “This kind of problem is used in social science experiments to test people’s abilities to slow down and consider the evidence arrayed before them. It forces subjects to suppress their impulse to go with what looks right and instead do the difficult mental work of figuring out what is right.” 
The results of the test?
Most people failed, irrespective of whether they were liberals or conservatives.
Those who were unusually good at math usually able to solve the problem and answered correctly. These results support the researcher’s idea that subjects with greeter math skills were more likely to stop, work through the evidence presented to them, and arrive at the correct answer.
The second stage of the test was intentionally politicized to determine if the results would change due to the inclusion of a political element.
This politicized version of the test used exactly the same numbers, and therefore identical math problems as the skin-cream question, but this time the researchers framed the questions around a proposal to ban people from carrying concealed handguns in public, a very polarizing subject in the US. The test now compared crime data in cities that banned handguns against crime data in the cities that didn’t. The figures were presented so the correctly calculated result either showed that banning handguns in public worked to cut crime, or it had failed.
The results of this second stage were very interesting. No longer did math skill predict how well people did to solve the math problem. What they did find is that political ideology drove what participant’s answers!
Liberals performed very well at solving the problem when it was written to prove that gun-control did reduce crime, but when the alternate version of the problem was used where the right mathematical answer suggested that gun control had failed, their math skills made no difference – they tended to get the problem wrong no matter how good they were at math. It was the same case for conservatives, they had the very same test outcomes, only in reverse, in line with their political views on the question.
What the results showed was something much worse than this though, better math skills didn’t bring the two sides closer to solving the problem presented in the test, it actually drove them further apart.
The participants with weak math skills were 25 percentage points more likely to get the answer right when it fit their ideology.
The participants with strong math skills were 45 percentage points more likely to get the answer right when it fit their ideology.
So, the better someone was at maths, the less likely they were to solve the maths problem when arriving at the right answer conflicted with their political views. This would suggest that the more intelligent people are blinded to a greater extent by their politics!
The obvious question is why? Dan Kahan calls this theory Identity-Protective Cognition and explains it as follows: “As a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.”
He further explains that what we believe about the facts tells us who we are, and a primary psychological motivation most people have is to protect their idea of who they are, and their relationships with the people they trust and love. It is essentially a phenomenon of group belonging, and the threat of being cast out for being in disagreement with the group that an individual chooses to identify with. It appears that people, being social animals, are content to let the truth slip a bit or overlook it where necessary to retain their sense of group belonging.
The consequences of this phenomenon as it relates to solutions thinking in general should be quite clear.
Viewing reality through a political keyhole
Restricting one’s thinking to a particular political ideology and trying to develop solutions to problems that aren’t similarly confined is simply a naïve mental act of trying to fit the vast everchanging nature of the world and of life into a rigid, fixed human ideological perspective, a single solution. It’s like using only one tool, a hammer and treating every problem as a nail.
Ideological subjectivity is an unnecessary constraint on the objectivity required to develop optimal real-world solutions. It’s futile, so why don a mental straightjacket? I’ll tell you why. People stick to ideologies, pre-packaged worldviews, because they create a simpler and more comforting perspective of a complex world.
Some of these individual only wants to see the world in simplistic terms, where everything is black and white. A more intelligent approach to problem solving would be to take a holistic view that acknowledges the range of possible ideas and utilise whichever provides the most appropriate solution – this is pragmatic thinking that does not lock one into a mentally crippling rigid line of thought.
Another thing to consider is that sometimes the solution to anything, or what we seek as ‘truth’ for that matter, might never found in one extreme or another, but usually somewhere in the centre of the two. That’s a central idea in the philosophy of Buddhism’s “Middle Way’. Searching for solutions at the ‘edges’ or extremes only will inhibit finding the solution where it naturally exists across the wide spectrum of thought.
Let’s get real here, no political ideology has a monopoly on truth, it’s childish to even pretend that any one does. So why lock ourselves into the extremes of other people ideas? Why not try thinking for ourselves, and acting for the greater good rather than furthering someone else’s divisive political ambitions?
Distractions from the real issues
Where does buying into the whole political game lead us? Let’s consider the whole US ‘Democrat versus Republican game’ or its equivalent in any other western country. The reality is that the US is a corporate oligarchy and both sides primarily pander to corporate interests. The positions of power have been bought and paid for by powerful corporate interests that fund the parties which do not represent the will of the people at all.  While this sideshow of confected modern tribalism is going on and the masses are distracted, both sides are busy passing laws to favour corporate profits over public health, as they’ve done for a long time.
The question we need to ask ourselves is “What really matters, and what will make a real difference?” We can reclaim our power to choose the kind of society we want and what issues we want addressed. Better we choose rather than follow GW Bush’s “Axis of Evil” shenanigans or Obama’s politically correct social engineering sideshow nonsense about the government legislating who can use the male and female toilets.
Responsibility? No problem, just blame each other for any real-world issues that aren’t being addressed that the people are complaining about. Meanwhile, under both sides the war machine rolls on, spilling innocent blood while the corporate profits pour in from the activities of the military industrial complex to pump-prime the deeply indebted US economy.
The true “opiate of the masses” is divisive politics, and we know that’s the truth because that’s what governments use it for! Once we focus on the real game rather than the distraction, we can get on with the work of implementing constructive Permaculture solutions to address the world’s problems in the ways that we can.
We often hear many individuals state that they feel disempowered by one or other political election outcome. Permaculture doesn’t seek (or wait for) big government solutions. In fact, due to Permaculture’s eco-anarchic roots, its drive for community self-determination and its bottom-up grassroots movement modus operandi, increased government control and regulation does not sit well at all.
Permaculture promotes the power of cooperative communities. Our real power lies in creating our own future rather than waiting for politicians to save us. By acting locally, withdrawing our financial support from unethical and environmentally damaging corporation by not buying junk food, not supporting retail monopolies, growing our own food or sourcing it from organics growers where they get a fair price for their work, we can make a difference. We can lead by example and reclaim or power to shape our own future.
Life is not a spectator sport, if we’re unhappy about the state of the world, or what politicians are doing, then it’s time to get out there and do what we feel compelled to do to implement real change. If moaning and whining about the results of democratic elections is not going to lead to positive outcomes, then its best to direct that energy to an activity that will. Remember, we’re activists and positive, peaceful change is what we do best!
We as a Permaculture community can consciously step away from distractions, the ‘game’ of divisive politics, but that won’t stop those political types trying to infiltrate. That’s where the responsibility falls on the Permaculture community, being true to their movement’s goals, to keep out those who see their political goals as more important, and seek to exploit Permaculture to promote them.
1. How politics makes us stupid, by Ezra Klein on April 6, 2014
2. Dr Mercola, Don’t Panic About Politics — Realize Where Your True Power Lies Instead, November 08, 2016