"Maximum Contemplation, Minimum Action"

September 17, 2009 6 Comments

I am always interested to see parallel worldviews evolving across different fields.  Lately I’ve been thinking about the connections between the burgeoning enthusiasm about networks in social science and social change efforts and the growing interest I’ve been noticing in Permaculture, partly owing to the Transition Town movement and conversations about mitigating and adapting to impending climate change.

Permaculture was developed by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren during the 1970s as an answer to unsustainable industrial agricultural practices.  It entails creating robust, flexible, living systems that integrate ecology, landscape, organic gardening, architecture and agroforestry.  The focus of Permaculture is not on the individual elements in a garden, but rather on the relationships between them (just as networks are all about the links).  For example, with the Permaculture lens, one is always thinking about how one plant relates to others (could it cast shade or serve as a natural pesticide for others) and how different “zones” might serve one another (a pond stocked with fish can cut down on mosquitoes, eaves on a house can catch rain water that is siphoned into a garden, etc.).

At its base, Permaculture is a system of very thoughtful design based on the adage – “Maximum contemplation; minimum action.” The key is looking at what occurs in ecosystems and setting up elements in a garden to allow them to do what they do naturally.  I like this as a guide for working collaboratively with groups.  Few people like to herd others (think cows or cats) and no one I know likes to be herded.  What if we spent more time as leaders tending the soil for groups to take root and blossom on their own (i.e. self-organize)?  This would require more observation of and thinking about how individuals interact with one another and what conditions lead to optimal performance.  This does not mean there will never be a need to do some weeding or provide a little extra fertilizer (organic, of course).  But I can imagine it would lead to much less angst on the part of leaders/facilitators, happier and more engaged people, and more vibrant ideas.

Check out David Holmgren’s Permaculture Principles.  There appear to be some valuable guidelines here as we think about how to design sustainable communities, organizations, and initiatives (such as “Use edges and value the marginal”).  What do you think?


  • Gibran says:

    Curtis! You are a man after my own heart! I have been privileged to banter with you about the parallels between living systems and our work and I am psyched to see your thoughts synthesized.

    This is precisely how I want to think about my work, and even about my life! So much is about aligning ourselves with what is wanting to emerge, and about nurturing our capacity to do that! Thank you!

  • Curtis says:

    Gibran – the feeling is mutual brother! Incidentally I just met with my buddy John here in Chicago who is an ardent pro-Latin America activist and avid gardener. We talked about the intersections of social justice and environmental sustainability and he suggested reading the book Seed People – vignettes about how a neighborhood garden builds a community network. Also met with the head of the Crossroad Fund who has offices down the hall from his. Great person to connect with around grassroots work.

  • Oscar Perez says:

    Hey Curtis,
    This is a great article! Recently, I find myself talking about group dynamics/interactions using more and more metaphors from the natural world and realizing how similar social functioning is to processes that exist in nature. In my own organization I seek to use these metaphors to allow roles and interactions to manifest naturally, and I find that this is much more productive than attempting to force people into rigidly defined and monitored hierarchical positions. I really appreciated reading this and thinking of the potential benefit of having an actual community garden to create the type of awareness of interpersonal interaction that your article suggest. Thanks!

  • Curtis says:

    Oscar, thanks for you response. I would be very interested to know more about how you are using those metaphors with your staff. It’s great to think about using actual gardens as a way of bringing people together. At the Center for Whole Communities in Fayston, VT they use the land to bring opposing parties together to talk across difference. Talk about common ground.

  • Oscar Perez says:

    Hi Curtis,
    It’s been a while since I left the last comment, but things have suddenly become much busier. Whenever I am trying to explain a teamwork concept to my students I use various different natural metaphors to convey the ideas of inter-relatedness and constant and equal information exchange. A big one that I use is the rhizome, or root network of fungi, and how in order to see something come to fruition on the surface, a strong network of interactive connections must exist beneath the surface to support something above ground. I like this image because it is more of a horizontal structure than one that can be seen as hierarchical. Also, there seems to be no specific beginning point to the rhizome, it can go on for miles with each square foot being structurally identical to one on the other end of the organism. In other words, each part is individually important and functional, while at the same time contributing as an integral part of the whole. In terms of organizations, I think this metaphor can go a long way to create a communal sense of ownership and agency within the organizational structure, as well as provide a way to envision the organizations’ place within its community.

  • Curtis says:


    I love that metaphor of the rhizome! “Interactive connections must exist beneath the surface . . . to support something above ground.” Yes!!! This jibes nicely with network theory. Just had a retreat with some activists where we were talking about the shift from the campaign fight strategy to nurturing a more sustainable foundation. Really hoping that some of these ecological metaphors can dislodge the myths of individualism and domination that have pervaded the literature on leadership and social change. Thanks!

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