2020 Vision. It’s the obvious pun, and I know I won’t be the only one making it. I’m still enthralled by it as a concept: A year of imagining a different kind of human existence. Is it possible that 2020 might just be the turn around year?
I’m not much for goals. It has been my long experience that goals can be self-limiting. They can constrain us with our current thinking. What if the place we need to be is somewhere that we can’t even begin to imagine? How to we set that as a destination?
Most of the great moments in my life have not been the consequence of a clear goal. Life is not journey from one place to another, with a specific end point or high point. There may be medals to be won, degrees to be earned and to do lists to tick, but they are not the point. Perhaps it’s the quality of our relationships that make our lives worthwhile. But surely there needs to be more than just the warm fuzzies.
I keep coming back to this:
The purpose of life is not to be happy, but to matter, to be productive, to be useful, to have it make some difference that we lived at all. (Leo Rosten)
Or my Dad’s advice:
Never believe your own bullshit and leave the world a better place than you found it. (Brian McGowan)
This year I have circled back on systems thinking, and the concept of ‘wicked problems’. They remind me of the old joke about a tourist asking a local for directions. “Oh you can’t get the there from here. You have to start from over there.”
A wicked problem is one where there are no clear goals. You can’t use traditional planning models to respond to them. You’re not sure what outcome you want and you appreciate that there might be unintended consequences and unforeseen pitfalls at every turn. Wicked problems require us to be nimble, observant and responsive.
I think the future of our species and our ecology is a wicked problem. We have more and more information about what is going badly, and how badly it is going. We know that if we are going to avoid the worst case scenarios then we will need to act, quickly and collectively. From here it seems almost impossible.
One of our permaculture students asked me to define ‘genius’ the other day. I quoted Einstein
Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.
It turns out this isn’t Einstein at all, but German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer.
Talent is a consequence of genetics and rehearsal. Sometimes one or the other but more often both. It typically involves setting targets and meeting them, or missing them and revising them. Setting goals results in predictable progress. I love goals and have used them to achieve progress in all kinds of ways but they have limitations. I don’t think goals are going to cut it because what we need is the kind of thinking that lifts us to another level;
We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
That one is Einstein.
I don’t usually make resolutions because I have found over the years that it is much more productive for me to choose a single word. A word provides lots of scope for both radical change and incremental improvement. It gives me enough of a focus to achieve real progress while remaining open to the emerging possibilities that a hard goal would miss. This type of planning uses soft systems methodology and is very much like creating a garden.
A garden has no end point. We accept that all gardens will constantly change and evolve. Different conditions will require us to change longstanding practices and new opportunities will emerge as the garden grows. Sometimes the garden yields abundance and at other times an expected harvest fails. We adapt. Time invested in sound design might take years to reveal the benefits. We make mistakes. We learn from them. We keep going. Gardening is a process.
I think this is the approach we need for dealing with what can seem like overwhelming problems. Energy is everything, and everything is energy so we need to make the best possible use of our own. I’m looking for leverage. Where will any investment of my energy yield the greatest return. I had some big wins this year using this type of thinking. A whole lot of people were introduced to permaculture and a small group became skilled designers.
I’m also designing from the macro to the micro. I’m familiar with the global challenges and thinking about the best way to respond to those at a local level. I’ll continue to lobby, educate and connect with the wider human family, but it’s here in my own bioregion that I can have the greatest impact. Key to this is cooperating with nature. In particular I’m focused on repairing and restoring the natural world, and on understanding human nature and how we might all be reconnected. How foolish we have been to think that we might have dominion. If we do not learn to cooperate with nature then nature will destroy us all.
One of the greatest joys this year was moving from coaching people one-on-one to opening our home up to small groups interested in learning permaculture. We have traded their learning for help around the property. It has been more wonderful than we could have imagined, perhaps because we took a soft systems approach and allowed the model to evolve over time, responding to the needs and the input of students. What we didn’t anticipate was the extent to which we would build diverse and resilient communities or the enormous benefits this would bring to us and our students.
Here’s the kind of feedback we’re getting:
Permaculture. What is this word? What does it mean? Why does it feel so innately familiar? Another switch flicked on, another feeling of truth. For the first time in my whole life a connection with another seven women of nature. The environment that would bring me closer to myself than I ever thought possible and didn’t realise was so deeply home to me.
There have been times when I doubted permaculture. It comes with some patriarchal baggage and has the usual share of practitioners that don’t walk the talk, but more than ever before I am convinced of its merits. As a design pattern for creating systems that increase ecological health while providing for human needs it’s hard to beat. I think that’s because the foundation is values based. Care for the planet and restore the natural world, care for all people and share fairly with all living things. Place limits on growth. This is a pattern for a future that is not only sustainable, but evolving and abundant.
My vision for 2020 is to dream of a different kind of future where we find ways to return to being a part of the dynamic equilibrium of the natural world. I know that nobody has been able to imagine that future clearly. I suspect that the models, the technology and most of all, the great awakening of the human consciousness aren’t quite there yet, and yet I see early signs of all three. Like the promise of new seeds germinating in a garden there is hope. The future doesn’t have to be a dystopian nightmare.
My hope is not radical or blind. It is simply hope. It is a legacy of dealing with a potentially terminal cancer for a number of years. I could have decided that I was dying and gone on a bucket list rampage, or just stayed in bed until I died. I chose hope. Even when I was told that the cancer was back. Keep going. Put one foot in front of the other. Look for opportunities. Learn. Do everything you reasonably can. Avoid the lure of those promising ‘miracles’ and cures. It was all a very good preparation for dealing with species extinction and the climate crisis. Hope is the soil from which all things grow. Without it we are already dead.
I’m pragmatic. My country is burning. It might just be the event that pushes people to take action. It might be our heart attack, our cancer diagnosis, our stroke. It could be the point where, collectively, we decide that business as usual just isn’t good enough and that we need to push through the discomfort required to make real change. Like all patients with a critical health issue we’re going to have to take a long, hard look at our behaviour. We should consider aligning our behaviour to the core values of permaculture, because they provide us with clear and proven foundation to an effective design model.
People are going to need hope. They are going to need more than just the bad news. People are ready for answers and I believe that one of the best things we can do is to learn and apply permaculture. It gives us a design framework for everything. I have seen it restore people’s hope, not because it deludes them or distracts them, but because it provides simple, practical tools for co-creating a different kind of human culture.
So my word for the year is hope.
May you all find some.