Permaculture & Sociocracy: Agri(Cultural) Design Systems

By Henny Freitas, 30-04-2018,

While the oil crisis led the United States, Brazil, Sweden and the United Kingdom to recession in the 1970s, the economy of countries such as Japan and Germany (West Germany at the time) began to grow. It was the time of the end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the defense of the environment. There was also a rise of a significant number of women as heads of state, and a growth of the behavioral revolutions of the previous decade, such as the sexual liberation movement.

Many consider it to be the “age of individualism”, but what the seventies don’t tell is that during this period Bill Mollison and Gerard Endenburg began to experiment different participatory approaches in agri(cultural) and social design environments. The first, an Australian researcher, author, scientist, teacher and biologist coined the concept of Permaculture along with David Holmgren. The second, a Dutch electrical engineer and entrepreneur designed a methodology to put into practice the concept of Sociocracy, influenced by Kees Boeke.

Both of them worked with the notions of complex systems. Inspired by the idea that originated Permaculture of a forest being the example for an agriculture in a smaller scale, Mollison and Holmgren considered that, in order to produce yield, a system should be designed from patterns to details, taking into account climate change as an unpredictable factor influencing the system directly. Whereas in Sociocracy, Endenburg developed the Sociocratic Circle-Organization Method, where patterns are applied to different layers of abstraction in a system of dynamic governance that can be constantly adapted and combined to grow organizational structure, in which the influential factor are the people.

In either case, the relationships established by observing these patterns tend to emerge through the self-organization and co-evolution of systems. The common aspects noted in both nature and society allows not only the understanding of what is being observed, but also to analyze and design new patterns across diverse contexts and scales. The recognition of these patterns is a result of the application of the first principle of Permaculture: “Observe and Interact”, considered being the precursor of the design process.

If in Permaculture the problem is seen as the solution of the system itself, this so-called "disturbing factor" serves to indicate that something is in imbalance and needs to be improved. In Sociocracy, people bring the problem through tension (a place between the present reality and the place where it is intended to be) in order to seek resolution through consent. Consent occurs when there are no more objections to a proposal. In other words, when at the moment of discussion no more improvements are foreseen.

While ecological indicators point to issues related to one or more elements that demonstrate, as for an example, that there is too much or too little energy in the system, showing that it is either too watery or that fertilizer is missing; social indicators reveal problems in the communication flow or others related to distribution of power, including little or much autonomy.

Every Voice Matters!

By imitating existing patterns in nature, Ernst Gotsch, a Swiss farmer and researcher working in Latin America on models of agroforestry, says that there is no competition in syntropic agriculture. According to him, all beings, including humans, plants and animals, work from cooperation and unconditional love, and each species performs complementary functions. Therefore, there are no pests in the system. Instead, there is the possibility of improvement for the good of the macro systems that replicate patterns in the micro systems, and vice and versa. The function of humankind is therefore to act as a dynamizer to complexify the energy of life into the system in the most efficient way possible.

Following another Permaculture´s principle: “Integrate rather than segregate”, the equivalent in Sociocracy would be: “Every voice matters”. And in order for all voices to be heard every member of the organization performs complementary functions in order to achieve common goals. Be them “pioneer or emerging plants”, “secondary or climax trees”, belonging to “high, medium or low stratification”, the distribution of roles will be determined by the needs of the organization in which a governance system seeks to achieve solutions that create harmonious environments as well as productive businesses. As for the macro and micro systems in Permaculture, in Sociocracy they could be seen as organizational circles which interact to one another from very specific (such as the departments of a company) to general ones, including a group of specific circles (micro systems), and the circle that embraces the whole organization (macro system).

As well as defining the function that each person will assume within a certain circle, it is important to identify who will be the persons carrying and bringing the information from one circle to the other. That role is called “the double link” in Sociocracy. The double link facilitates the two-way flow of information and influences between the circles. That is, circles that make decisions that can impact or be affected by the voice of others can benefit from each other if they ensure that there are clear channels of communication between them. So it happens in Permaculture, when considering the impacts of the edge effect. When using the borders and the marginal elements, the interface between things is where the most important events happen. A classical example is the encounter of two ecosystems, like the mangroove, where it’s brackish water is the result of sea and river waters and new elements are generated from these elements combined. These are usually the most valid, diverse and productive elements of the system.

Bill Mollison used to say that humankind has already achieved such level of knowledge that perhaps that was no more need for further discoveries, but rather to implement all the solutions for one entire century. But, according to him: “The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them”.

While in the 1970s over half the world's population lived under a repressive dictatorship, Sociocracy was designed to distribute power amongst its associates through a circular model for governing. As a model of participatory governance it requires continuous feedback sessions among the people involved in the process. The search for a constant improvement of agreements is necessary to develop actions with the purpose of taking healthy steps towards shared visions. If Bill Mollison was still alive perhaps he would adopt Sociocracy as the circular governance with such distributed power structure he once envisioned! In his own words: “We should cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems, or governments to help us, and devise ways to help ourselves”.

By Henny Freitas, 30-04-2018,

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