Social Permaculture – Designing the Relational Landscape Part 2

In part 1, we discussed how for social animals like humans, with limited time and resources to go around, the relationships we invest in have a huge impact on the kind of reality we create for ourselves.

In balance, if your main goal for your relationships is to support some other goal, like making money, then you’re probably a being a jerk. 

Unfortunately, for those of us interested in Permaculture, our goals aren’t usually encouraged by most people in mainstream society.  In fact, they’re often mocked, marginalized, discouraged and even criminalized!  That actually makes perfect sense, since our goals are often silly hippie dippie things like not destabilizing the climate, not flushing all our topsoil out into ocean dead zones, drinking water that isn’t poisoned, eating truly good food that hasn’t been drenched in poison, living with a deeper connection to nature, investing in healthy life ways, finding a more enriching relationship with work and consumption, building a connection to community, living simply instead of being “owned” by a growing pile of stuff – and those goals are a direct challenge to our insane, destructive mainstream system.

In fact, when enough people begin to share our goals, that old ecocidal system will crumble away and collapse. 

For folks dependent on that system, our goals can seem like a threat.  So, the default is that most of our relationships and interactions are going to go against the grain of our goals and values.

Since Permaculture is all about holistically creating an environment conducive to success, how can we re-design the relationship landscape so that we’re not swimming upstream, going agaist the herd? Can we at least surround ourselves with enough of a positive supporting network to offset the negative impact of living in an insane society?


Whenever I see documentaries set in horticultural societies, or tribal cultures, such as the one I recently watched about life in rural Japanese villages, I’m always incredibly envious to see 80-year-old village elders sitting around together, sharing life-long friendships that have developed depth and resonance over the better part of a century, living among rich waves of life experience, generations of their kin. 

“Talk about true wealth,” my partner Kimberly Willis says, that’s a fundamental, beautiful human experience that even the wealthiest of us simply cannot buy in a fast-paced, transient world where we move and change jobs every 3 years. 

So it’s important to understand that our society isn’t just corrosive to the environment, jobs, health, etc. it often robs us of the normal, deep human relationships that have been a natural part of being human for as long as there have been humans. Relationships that develop and grow richer over lifetimes. Could design also help us here, too? 


“In a longitudinal study that followed pairs of best friends over 19 years, a team led by Andrew Ledbetter, an associate professor of communication studies at Texas Christian University, found that participants had moved an average of 5.8 times during that period. “I think that’s just kind of a part of life in the very mobile and high-level transportation- and communication-technology society that we have,” Ledbetter says. “We don’t think about how that’s damaging the social fabric of our lives.” – How Friendships Change in Adulthood, The Atlantic


Of course, we get something in the tradeoff between folk societies and modern high-transportation society. 

Personally, there are a few people I’d simply prefer to avoid rather than having to do the hard work of getting along. Of course, these days there are more people who are hard to get along with – since it’s a skill we don’t have to learn anymore. 

And these days we have the ability to connect with people all over the world who share our particular passions and interests, we can learn from and mentor with ground-breaking leaders and exemplars of whatever it is that we want to do. I’ve had the opportunity to exchange ideas with some of the thought leaders of Permaculture and forest gardening from around the world, like Eric Toensmeier, Martin Crawford, and Angelo Eliades. 


An ideal life design in the modern world wouldn’t romanticize the past and yearn to “go backwards” anymore than it would promote an ethnocentric idealization of our present. Instead, we should seek to have the best of both worlds, minimizing the downsides and maximizing the positives. It seems it would be wise to cultivate a balanced approach, with deep relationships as well as a broad community, with branches to the world-wide community but roots in the local biome. We can each act like the tree in this metaphor, a conduit of exchange between the sky of global world and the soil of our home.


Many in the “life coaching” industry are quick to suggest we surround ourselves with people who are high-achievers. 

“Show me a man’s friends and I’ll show you his future.” 

I’ve heard some  of these life coaches dismiss family and neighbors as meaningless accidents of birth. We should seek to maximize the value of our acquaintanceships by choosing who we surround ourselves with. Often, they go as far as to say that we should “cut out” people who aren’t a positive influence on our goals, and for them, the main goal is usually cash riches. But even if you want more than fast cash, this approach leaves us impoverished in two very important ways: serendipity and synchronicity. 

Serendipity is being enriched by different perspectives, different values and different experiences.

These life coaches would have us silo ourselves into very small worlds, with very narrow views of life. Ever wonder why too often the leaders of corporations seem blind to the plight of people that their businesses abuse? They’ve literally cut themselves off to the riches of outside perspectives and lives. They may be rich, but they’ve utterly impoverished themselves in what science tells us is one of the most important assets for human happiness: compassion. 

Synchronicity is the understanding that accidents and coincidences are themselves meaningful and significant. “Accidents” of birth and geography are no less meaningful than relationships we’ve chosen out of shared values and experiences. It seems to me that “accidents of family and geography” offer us a great gift. Sharing relationships with people who have very different views and values is absolutely vital for compassion and happiness, as well as for building a just and sustainable world – something that makes us all richer. 


The design tools of Permaculture offer us an opportunity to mindfully evaluate our relationships, helping us create a life that is better for ourselves and everyone around us, both the ones who chose us and those who are stuck with us. In part 3, we’ll think aloud about some of those tools and what we can learn from them. 

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