by Marie Doyon
In the last century alone, the dizzying evolution of technology has profoundly impacted agriculture and humans’ relationship with the earth. More treatments, more machines, more production. Less quiet, less harmony.
Throughout the 20th century, several thoughtful, conscientious approaches to farming emerged in response to the powerful undertow of this technology. By and large, these schools of thought shared the goal of striking a balance between connection and efficiency, long-term stability and short-term yields.
It doesn’t take a genius to observe that the evolution of technology has also affected human interpersonal relationships. Even before the onslaught of social media, there was the phenomenon of national television, the modern opiate of the masses, which began pulling people away from family and community interaction. For the first time there was a single model, broadcasted across all the unique micro-cultures and community ecosystems in all corners of the country, proselytizing what the “average” American life should look like.
These days, the Internet rules supreme—we carry it in our pockets, never more than a few touches from our “social network.” But what about the effect that all this technology has had on good ol’ person-to-person contact? Doesn’t it stand to reason that, just as the very approach to growing food changed, our understanding and ability to build sturdy, long-term relationships has also changed?
Permaculture is a holistic approach to creating an environment, that seeks to work in alignment with nature rather than against it. The principles of this school have been applied to everything from green building to organizational development. Locally, the company Terra Genesis has created an approach they call Regenerative Enterprise Ecology. The idea is based on the belief that “enterprises can be created that produce wealth while increasing the health and vitality of living human communities and the ecosystems in which they live. These enterprises will produce multi-capital abundance by mimicking natural ecosystems and collaboratively forming multi-entity alliances: Regenerative enterprise ecologies.” If you can model a business on permaculture, it seems to follow that this philosophy may also hold some truths that can help guide us, at the individual level, back to more interconnected and fruitful relationships and communities.
Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren put forth the concept of permaculture in 1978. It is governed by three central tenets: care for the Earth, care for people, and fair share. From these tenets flow 12 design principles, several of which I’ll explore here as I understand they apply to human relationships (platonic, familial, romantic, or any other).
Observe and Interact
In every social situation, the dynamics are slightly different. Depending on the setting, the person or people present, your mood and the mood of your company, you probably tailor your behavior somewhat for what is appropriate. This subtle adaptation is much easier if you have the space and presence of mind to tune into where you and the others are at—physically, mentally, and emotionally. If we work to cultivate this sensitivity, we can interact in a way that is easeful and rewarding for everyone, rather than having a single (undynamic) setting for all situations.
Obtain a Yield
Permaculture is not just a froufrou idea, disconnected from practical needs. This principle emphasizes the importance of receiving a useful return from your work. Planting a garden that doesn’t yield anything is emotionally disheartening and also doesn’t provide you with the physical sustenance to try again. Similarly, you probably feel drained after spending time and affection on people who consistently bring you down. Instead, this principle recommends that we spend our energy on people that support us and make us feel good.
Design From Patterns to Details
Sometimes we need to step back from the trees to see the forest. There are inevitably certain rhythms or patterns that sculpt our relationships, which we can’t see from within. By taking some distance, we can notice these trends, and use them to inform our framework for interacting. Maybe you have a friend that really loves doing physical activities and this is how you have spent your most enjoyable hours together. If you are aware of this, you can plan accordingly so that you are getting to interact in the most pleasant and beneficial way.
Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback
Like the last principle, this one suggests that it is good to occasionally step back and observe the patterns at work in a relationship. Sometimes it takes a while for these to come into focus, and what we find are not always productive dynamics. We all know how harmful habits (small and inoffensive at first) can, over time, eat away at the long-term health of a relationship. Anything from snide backhanded comments to outright exclusion can become potent well-poisoners. So to help a relationship continue to thrive, this principle suggests we actively engage in open discussion and feedback with others with the goal of implementing real, constructive changes.
Use and Value Diversity
A relative or family friend has probably said to you at one point, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Auntie Mabel was right: diversity equals resilience. Just as in monoculture farming, there is a risk of the entire crop being wiped out by one threat (weather, pest, etc.); when we only rely on a single person to meet all of our emotional needs we place ourselves in a precarious position. People move, or change, or fall out, or they just aren’t always available when we need them. Having a diverse support network of individuals ensures that we will always have someone to go to. Plus, each relationship is different and can offer something unique.
Use Small and Slow Solutions
Small and slow-growing support networks are easier to maintain than big ones. I (like others, I’m sure) have a tendency to scatter my energy about, managing to have surface-level relationships with many people, but not going very deep with anyone. This principle promotes focusing our attention and energy on slowly and organically developing connections with a small few, whom we resonate with. It may take a while, but the result would probably be longer-term, more resilient relationships.
I am by no means a permaculture expert, nor am I social scientist. But I am a social being, as we all are, and I am committed to enjoying my relationships and creating a community that is strong, resilient, and supportive. The framework of permaculture seems to me a useful one for guiding this process, but it is by no means the only one. I encourage you to consider the quality and nature of your relationships. Whether you use permaculture or something else, there is much value in being deliberate about creating and maintaining our communities.