Social Permaculture – Designing the Relational Landscape 3: Buildingthe Regenerative Community you Deserve

Hey human! Your life is an ecosystem, whether you want to admit it or not. 

Sure, you got the internet on your freakin’ phone, but you still look at it with biological eyeballs, set in a biological body that’s dependent upon a network of interconnected species for survival. 

In fact, there’s more NON-HUMAN DNA in your body, than human. You yourself are an ecosystem of 1. 

So, is your life a healthy ecosystem, or an unhealthy, dysfunctional one? 

Healthy ecosystems are rich with diversity and interconnections, they’re deeply mutualistic and interdependent, and they’re continuously growing in diversity and connectivity. 

According to many social ecologists and researchers such as the Dunbar group, healthy relationship ecologies, the kinds of ecologies found in happy thriving communities and folk societies, might have those same features. People are brought together in their interdependence, their mutual reliance, so they feel responsible for each other, connected to each other’s happiness and well-being.

Others, such as Dimitri Orlov have pointed out that individuals in such diverse interconnected communities are much more resilient, weathering life’s storms with greater happiness, grace and security.

The design tools of Permaculture are intended to turn poorly functioning systems into rich ecosystems, so they 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. 

As an observation exercise, let’s look at some of those Permaculture tools in the context of our relationships. This is the same process many Permaculture Designers use to evaluate a landscape or organization, but let’s use this as an opportunity to think about our relational landscapes.

Ecological network analysis – In Permaculture, we’re always trying to take fragmented, poorly connected systems with lots of wasted opportunities, and redesign them into efficient networked ecosystems. In the modern world, we often have friends and family who provide certain services, and yet we miss the opportunity to support those friends with our business. Or perhaps two good friends share a passion for martial arts, yet miss the opportunity to practice together and learn from each other, while investing in their relationship. 


Do I have needs that could be met by people in my support network? 

Which of those needs are currently being fulfilled by distant, sociopathic corporations who don’t care about me? 

Do my “peeps” have needs that I could be meeting through formal or informal interactions? 

Do I have interests/hobbies/needs that could provide a better interaction with my network? 

(A general diagram of social Permaculture zones)

Zones – In the landscape, zone analysis maximizes our time and energy by placing the elements that require the most attention and get the most use closest to the home. In the relational landscape, ordering our relationships by zones might help us mindfully ensure that we’re investing our time and energy into the relationships that mean the most to us in a busy world where we all have less time and energy to spare. It also gives us an opportunity to make sure that we’re investing in relationships that support our goals and worldview. 

In this case, I’ve ordered these hypothetical zones around the Dunbar Group’s research, which documents human relational behavior in folk societies.

Zone 1: (3 – 5 people) Close relationships, spouse, close friends and family. Dunbar’s research suggests that single people typically have 5 close relationions and married people will each have 3 other close relations a piece (with some possible overlap.) When you think about it, who else would you rather support with your time, money and energy than these people? In most human societies the interests of these close friends would be deepy aligned and interdependent, yet, in our society, we often fail to invest in our closest and dearest friends. Oftentimes, we invest more time and money in grocery store clerks and daycare providers than we do with these best friends!

Zone 2: (Inner circle, “band” 30 – 50 people.) In Dunbar’s research, people organize into “bands” of 30 – 50 people, typically to work together for mutual benefit. These are our friends and family. Again, these people would be natural alliles, yet we seldom think to ask for their support, or to support them in their endeavors. Do these folks have any under-met needs you could help fulfill? Do you have an unmet need that one of them could help you with? Can we kick Walmart to the curb and start giving our money to the people who really deserve it? 

Zone 3: (Dunbar’s Village) Primates, like many animals seem to have a natural congitive limit to how many people they can really have a relationship with. Based on brain size and complexity, Dunbar guessed this number would be about 150 people. That number turned out to be a very good predictor of human village and community size. It also seems to be a good number for a self-supporting community, in that a village of 150 people can be quite specialized and easily meet everyone’s needs within the community in an ecological network. Many Permaculturists are suggesting that we try to recreate our own villages (though not necessarily in a shared geographical place) based on this number. When we start thinking this way, we’re no longer thinking about just making money. We’re thinking about how we can use our life’s energy to meet the needs of our community, and build richer, more rewarding connections. 

Zone 4: Beyond the village. Beyond Dunbar’s number, we can no longer KNOW people, so we begin to think of them as stereotypes. This is important for us to appreciate, because this is when it gets very easy to justify exploiting people, or mistreating them for our benefit. How can we connect with broader communities in positive, mutually beneficial ways, meet their needs and bring resources into our “village?” At Lillie House, we often think of how we can offer tools for people in this “zone” to support their own villages. Most importantly, you should only do business with people you have a positive impression of. If you’re doing business with “those people,” (insert negative stereotype here) whoever they are, you’re probably going to be a jerk to them. 

Zone 5, the world. Permaculturists often describe the ideal world as a tapestry of villages. At this zone, we’re connecting to the broader network of villages around the world…. How can we support each and empower each to have its own autonomy and self-reliance? 

Perhaps the most important “take home” here, is that people in our inner zones will naturally be the most likely to want to support us and make sure our needs and desires are met, while relatioships in our outer zones will likely be more purely transactional. Your mom might buy your new Online Polyculture Design Course (ahem ) simply because she’s your mom. But Tom Timbuktu who doesn’t know you from Sam will think twice before buying your $50 watch for $20. 

So if you want to create a truly thriving community network of support for a project, farm, business or organization, this model of zones could be one of the most important things you can do. It was this model alone that allowed us to convert a poorly organized assembly of products and services nobody wanted into a tiered order of products specialized to a variety of “zones.” And that transformed us into a successful business overnight. 

Sectors: In the landscape, sector analysis balances the energies that flow in and out of a space, welcoming life-enhancing energies and turning away negative energies. In our relational landscape, we can do the same, evaluating which energies we want more of and which are negative or unsustainable to us. Our relationships aren’t always going to be “energy positive.” Sometimes, rewarding relationships require investing in people in need or crisis. But in Permaculture one of our principles is to “obtain a yield,” recognizing that you can’t get where you want to go on an empty tank, and a mindful approach might suggest that we can better support friends in need if we are well-fulfilled and our needs are met. 

Which energies in your relational landscape most feed you? 

Which are draining? Is this the most effective place to be spending your energy? Could you possibly help/accomplish more by spending your energy in a different way? 

Which people want to invest in you? How to you make it easy and mutually rewarding for them to invest in you? 

Who do you want to invest your time, energy and money in? How do you make that process easy and natural? 

What kinds of energies and support are missing? (Such as support for your Permaculture goals.) How can we invite these into our lives? 
I could write (and I have indeed written) much more on this topic than would be useful in the context of this blog. 

For those who want to get the benefits of applying this kind of design to their lives, I hope you will look into our Fall-Winter Permaculture Design Certificate Course, as we’ll be doing exercises in exactly this kind of life design.

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