Why Our Best Efforts Fail

You just want to do something good for your community, something that will help feed people and demonstrate what people can accomplish when they work together. So you apply for a grant and turn a dumpy old waste lot into a community garden! But if your community garden is like most, what you get is arguments, complaints of theft, untended, weedy pest-ridden plots that neighbors and city commissioners complain about, fist fights, racial tensions and 2 years later it’s back to being an empty lot. No surprise, really, as some experts believe over 90% of community gardens fail in a few years time. And stories of theft and violence are common among experienced community gardeners and organizations alike.  
Or maybe you decide to start a small farm, because our food system is fubar and you want to make a difference while feeding people healthy food in your own community! You do a bit of math and see that with nearly perfect yields and boutique CSA prices you’ll be able to make $5,000 in a summer – enough to pay your bills – what could go wrong? As it turns out? Everything: a few crops fail completely in the spring drought, insects and weeds move in, unhappy CSA customers start leaving so you’re working 60+ hours a week trying to make up sales at the market and local restaurants, neighbors start complaining about the aesthetics of your over-run garden, you’re not actually paying your bills so you have to decide between employment elsewhere and fulfilling your CSA obligations…. The end result? A failed farm and a whole harvest of burnout. 
Or you try to start a non-profit to do who-knows-what for the good of the community. Everybody LOVES who-knows-what!!! You’re an immediate celebrity, with everyone congratuating you on doing the thing, and even the local news paper runs an article featuring you and your non-profit! So, you start looking for money and a board and all of a sudden, you find everyone’s really busy and they’re already giving their money to 4 other different organizations in town. You’ve only raised 1/10th of what you’ll need to do who-knows-what and after creating a waiting-list of would-be participants nobody showed up for your first volunteer day. Without funding everyone’s pointing fingers and the board members you do find hate each other in 6 months time. It takes 4 meetings to decide whether or not to use arabic or roman numerals in your bylaws and instead you end up going with friendly-looking icons of some sort, TBD later. With everyone facing burn-out meeting attendance lags and soon stops altogether.
Or maybe it was an important protest march that nobody showed up for. Or a boutique restaurant that never found patrons. Or a class nobody wanted to attend… Of couse things don’t ALWAYS fail this way, but far too often I’ve seen friends, family, and community members get stuck with failure or burnout. And I’ve been through it myself, too.
And after all these go wrong, we have to pick up the pieces. We figure out some way to claim victory, declare “mission accomplished” and if we’re lucky we even get a nice follow-up piece in the paper. 
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It’s easy to blame all those other lazy, incompetent, no-good people. They just don’t care enough. Humans are just inherently bad. Rampant apathy in a crumbling society. I mean, that makes us feel better. We’d rather make the excuse of stereotyping a whole freakin’ species as horrible monsters that deserve disaster than accept that just maybe the failure was our fault.  

But if we always put the blame off on other people, it means WE are powerless to fix it. Or rather, the only path to “fixing” the problem is through conflict with the people we’re holding responsible. (Eg. American politics.) And it gives us a cynical, delusional view of the world corrupted by incompetent or unethical (or even sociopathic) people. If we accept feedback and apply self regulation, then we move that problem, that failure, into the sphere where we can actually do something about it: ourselves. 

Permaculture provides us with an alternative to the powerless perspective of the blame game: systems design.

As a form of applied ecology, Permaculture starts with the approach of recognizing system-level failures and the redesigning the system to naturally get the results we want. We can begin with the idea that the people involved are good, well-intentioned and competent people, but that the project was not designed to support them, or worse it was designed to ensure failure. 
Permaculture founder Bill Mollison called this a “type 1 error,” an endeavor designed to fail. 

Take for example the farm project I wrote about earlier. At least they did a little math to assess feasibility. But they designed and launched a project on high hopes and the expectation that a best-case scenario would barely allow them to pay their bills, and with unrealistic goals for fulfilling customers’ needs. They never had a chance. 

And with a well-known record of failures, struggle and conflict, anyone who starts a community garden, small business, or organization without accounting for their likely troubles has also begun with a type 1 error. 
I would guess that 80 – 90% of these endeavors were designed to fail, and if the only way they make it is with luck. 

And there’s one type 1 error in businesses, community organizations, or activism efforts that is more common than all the rest. It’s going on a road trip with no gas in the car: the project wasn’t designed to connect to the resources it needs to launch and sustain itself. 

Next time, we’ll discuss why this is so common and why we fall into this trap. For a quick teaser, check out this chart: 


We may think our effort is important, but does anybody else? Most efforts that fail were designed for that lower left-hand box. Our best efforts never had a chance to get any support…. 

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