Adam Brock, Director of Social Enterprise at Joining Vision and Action

Permaculture design is a flexible framework that uses natural systems to inform our efforts to improve society. This post is the second in a twelve-part series explaining how the principles of permaculture design can inform the work of nonprofits, social entrepreneurs and others working for social change. The content is adapted from “Change Here Now: Permaculture Solutions for Personal and Community Transformation”, the new book by JVA’s Director of Social Enterprise Adam Brock.

Part one – “Observe and Interact”

Catch and Store Energy

The canyons and mesas of the American Southwest have long been admired for their austere beauty. Water may be scarce in this desert landscape, but it’s also powerful agent of change, sculpting the stark landforms that it’s become known for. Without much vegetation to slow down precipitation, rivulets of water quickly gather into rills, streams, arroyos, and canyons, gathering speed and force as they go. In these ecosystems, even a mild thunderstorm can quickly cause a flash flood, scouring away even more soil and further deepening the feedback loop.

The River of Power

As it turns out, power flows through societies just like water in the desert. The largest institutions in our world today – multinational corporations and state governments – have their own internal momentum, using their vast resources consolidate their strength. These rivers of power can be directed towards important and meaningful ends, such as providing a social safety net, or investing in new technologies. But all too often, these vast hierarchies serve to erode the lifeblood of the rest of society, depriving individuals and smaller institutions of their own efforts at self-determination.

Today, it’s not hard to see how the powerful canyons of power are cutting deeper and deeper into the fragile landscape of community. For decades, thriving local economies have been systematically uprooted by cutthroat corporations. Our elected officials are expected to represent larger and larger numbers of people, while being glad-handed by special interests into policies that favor short-term profit over long-term prosperity.

Change is Possible

Erosive forces like these are powerful and self-reinforcing – but they can be reversed. In the desert Southwest, indigenous peoples, thoughtful ranchers, and permaculture designers have all learned how to bring life back to the desert, by slowing, spreading and sinking the flow of water, starting at the top of each watershed. By building simple but durable earthworks at the source of every trickle, water’s fury can be held at bay, giving it time to sink into the soil and nourish new plants. At these plants mature, they in turn stabilize the soil, slow down the raindrops, and attract insects, birds and rodents. The spiral of erosion has been turned into a spiral of abundance.

A similar approach applies to arresting the erosive consolidation of power. Placing authority “high in the watershed” – in the hands of many small, local communities – prevents power from becoming too large and fast to manage. Instead, our collective efforts can be put to use where it really matters: working together to ensure the health of people and species around us.

Keep Power Local

In fact, this reassertion of the local might just be one of the few things that reformers on both ends of the political spectrum can agree on. If there’s anything that the Occupy movement, the Tea Party, the peer-to-peer revolution, and the Arab Spring have in common, it’s a fierce desire to reassert local control in the midst of repressive, top-heavy institutions. Even our shifts in food and fashion are pointing towards a desire for a life that’s more local, small-scale, and hand-crafted.

What would a globally-connected world that keeps power local look like? For starters, more government programs might be shifted towards states and municipalities, with a corresponding shift in tax allocation. Local communities could operate under an ethos of citizen governance, with local citizens helping to determine budgets, land-use planning, and infrastructure investments. From an economic perspective, the relative strength of global markets would be curtailed in favor of local business networks. And complementary currencies would keep wealth circulating within a community, allowing us to properly value the domestic and caregiving activities that our current economy ignores.

The specifics, of course, would vary wildly from place to place – indeed, that’s the point of local control. Across all communities, though, localization would be implemented with the understanding that the solutions that our society needs must be crafted with love. And it’s hard to love something distant.