Deciding Factors: Permaculture, Society and the Wisdom of Crowds
One inspirational thing which learning about permaculture can help us to realise is that there are abundant resources in the world for everyone to live together in harmony. But when it actually comes down to putting techniques for doing this into practice, often what can stand in the way is what Alan Watts called the “element of irreducible rascality”(1); that thing which makes us all human, but which can sometimes make it difficult for us to co-operate with other humans. So how can we overcome these difficulties? This article will explore some research into the ‘wisdom of crowds’ and how this relates to permaculture of humans and society.
Standing in our own way
Looby Macnamara, author of ‘People and Permaculture’ (2), says,
“There is a growing realisation that, while enough skills, resources and techniques for widespread planet care and repair currently exist, there … is the ability of people themselves to stand in the way of positive action, right through from a personal to a global level. “(2)
When we are alone it may be easy to draw up a design or imagine how a system could work. When it comes to putting it into practice, there is also the social element that can potentially get in the way. Recently, there have been a lot of theories into how people behave in large groups, the understanding of which might help us within our own group dynamics, wherever we encounter them.
Crowds are clever?
In 2005 James Surowiecki published a book called The Wisdom of Crowds (3) in which he discusses how the decisions made by large groups of people are always more intelligent than those made by just a few. The idea was picked up in 2011 by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) who aired a documentary by Marcus du Sautoy (4), currently a professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and author of a number of books and articles about the magic of numbers (5). In the documentary de Sautoy uses a mathematical experiment to illustrate Sorowiecki’s point, apparently first done in 1906 with a dead cow by Francis Galton (otherwise famous for inventing ‘eugenics’, among other things). De Sautoy uses instead of a cow, a jar of jellybeans (he doesn’t mention whether or not they are made with cow gelatine) which he takes around to 160 different people, asking them to guess the number of jellybeans inside the jar. Nobody guessed the correct number and “only 4 people got anywhere near the correct answer of 4,510”, but when du Sautoy added up all of the guesses and divided by the number of people, he found that the average response was 4,515 – only 5 beans (or “0.1%”) away from the real number (4).
From this du Sautoy concludes, “provided you ask enough people, the errors should cancel each other out…the accuracy of the group is far greater than the individual” . (4)
On a practical level, this knowledge can potentially help us in group situations when we are attempting to come to decisions. Many people who wish to practice permaculture decide, for a myriad of reasons and in a myriad of ways, to engage with some form of social structure which is different from the ‘mainstream’ one, and which often involves communal living or project-creation.
Many readers have probably tried communal work of some kind, whether it is being a part of a neighbourhood initiative or living in an intentional community, or even setting up your own project. Whatever experience you have had, the common factor of this kind of work is that you have to work with other people to do it. If it is a new type of project or initiative then you have to create new ways of operating, and if you decide to use a non-hierarchical structure then you also have to develop ways of making decisions. Macnamara and others (2, 6) have explored how even if in theory you may agree with other people in your group, in practice the decision-making or organisational process can often go awry. Sometimes this is due to our unconscious use of language which may be interpreted (albeit also unconsciously) in a violent way (2, 6).
Because of the way that the societies which most of us grew up in are structured, we may also have an unconscious bias towards the idea that decisions are best made when the choosing power is given to only an elite few (3). This is one reason why the “wisdom of crowds” idea may help us to work together more harmoniously when in large groups of people. It opens up the possibility that the more people you add to solving a problem or coming up with an idea, the better the solution or idea can be. Tuning into this can perhaps assist us with communicating with other people, as even if we do not agree about some specific point or other, we can recognise that this disagreement is precisely what helps us to come to a more well-informed and effective decision.
One example of potentially putting this into practice is by the use of consensus decision-making, a technique which Macnamara recommends as a non-hierarchical and fair way to help groups to decide things (2). If we understand from the outset of a meeting which is using consensus decision-making that as a group we can come to an effective decision, then perhaps we are more likely to listen compassionately and think and speak with clarity.
Possible criticisms of crowd wisdom and its uses
The experiment recreated by du Sautoy involved the 160 participants making random guesses and as far as the documentary seemed to explain it, none of them consulted each other about the possible number of jellybeans in the jar. From this perspective the experiment may not be entirely applicable to daily life, as our opinions are almost always affected by those of others around us, even if we try to be as neutral as possible. Many critics of the BBC have pointed out that even though the media outlet claims to be an “objective” source of news, they represent a heavy bias towards a certain type of world-view (7). To look at the BBC documentary in a critical light, then, we could wonder at the motives the corporation may have had for airing it, and whether they wish to propagate the view that crowd decisions are always right, in order to continue to promote democratic decision-making as it exists in place in the UK, and potentially deterring people from wanting to take any other kind of political action.
While such critical thinking may not always be helpful, it can guide us towards seeing the “wisdom of crowds” idea on a more holistic way, as part of a wider societal picture. The decision-making power of much of our societies seems to be set up in a way in which whoever orates in the most convincing way is the one whose opinion will win. This can be seen, for example with the widespread popularity and effectiveness of advertising, or that in political campaigns it seems often that those who have spent the most money on convincing the public of their ideas who end up winning (8).
Even when we are supposedly engaging in ‘alternative’ methods of decision-making, such as consensus decision-making, we have to be aware of this bias. From my own experience, consensus decision-making can be a wonderful tool for helping a group to come to a decision which everyone is happy with. But if everyone is not happy with it how does it get decided how it will change? In my experience, by talking and suggesting ways to change it. This means that the entire method is, perhaps unfairly, weighted towards those who have a skill in orating and in concise presentation of ideas, while those whose ideas are in theory recognised as equally valid, in practice do not affect the decision-making process because they are not as good at talking about them.
The wisdom of living together
The above criticisms are merely a look at some possible disadvantages of relying on “crowd wisdom” when applied in a practical way. However, consensus and other forms of group decision making can often be very effective, and crowd wisdom can help us to remember that while “none of us are correct, all of us are right”.
1. Watts, A, 19-? The Game Theory of Ethics. As quoted by Gabor Henyel, 6/11/11. Available on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=78pGlDgEipw – retrieved 30/6/17
2. Macnamara, L, 2012. People and Permaculture: Caring and Designing for Ourselves, Each Other and the Planet. Permanent Publications: East Meon, UK
3. Surowiecki, J, 2005. The Wisdom of Crowds. Anchor Books: New York
4. Du Sautoy, M, 2011. ‘The Code – The Wisdom of the Crowd’. BBC, 2011. available as a Youtube clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iOucwX7Z1HU&playnext=1&list=PL11E70446D4EC2C65&feature=results_video – retrieved 30/6/17
5. New College University of Oxford, 2017. ‘Marcu du Sautoy, OBE’. https://www.new.ox.ac.uk/marcus-du-sautoy-obe – retrieved 30/6/17
6. Rosenberg, M, 2003. Non-violent Communication: A Language of Life. Puddledancer Press: Encinitas, USA
7. Edwards, D; Cromwell, D, 2009. Media Lens: Newspeak in the 21st Century. Pluto Press: London, UK
8. Younge, G, 2012. ‘US Elections – No Matter Who You Vote For, Money Always Wins’. The Guardian, 29/1/12. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2012/jan/29/us-politics-vote-money-wins – retrieved 30/6/17