I started this blog in 2011 as a vehicle to promote a simple, time-tested idea: By sharing basic skills we can build more resilient communities. A deeper look at the concept reveals that it’s not just the skills being shared that strengthen the community, it’s the relationships being built. At an even deeper level, we see that the values that skill sharing promotes outlast individual relationships and inform new relationships as they come into being: Skill sharing encourages the recognition that our own security and happiness is enhanced by the security and happiness of our neighbors, and our neighbors’ neighbors.
Taken sentence by sentence, that’s plenty to think about. I’m fond of observing that when one plants a seed in the garden with a child, one plants two seeds at once: There’s the seed that goes into the ground, and there are the seeds of connection, relationship, possibility, and wonder that grow in the child. Oops, that’s more than two!
Yet it’s the same with sharing skills and learning experiences with people of any age. By sharing such learning experiences, we build knowledge, relationships, trust, and enduring pro-social values.
However, such natural connections are for the most part broken or breaking in American life, especially in relationship to skills connected to food, clothing, shelter, and health care. Taking the place of these basic social functions, we find monetized relationships and high-energy tools. This is why it’s possible to live in a typical American neighborhood and have no idea who our neighbors are. We drive energy-intensive cars to our highly productive jobs, and then some of our surplus productivity (our “earnings”) is electronically tube-fed back into our households to pay for the privilege. As a byproduct of this arrangement, we also see a shift in values that decouples oursense of well-being from that of our neighbors. The attitude that starts to take hold is: To heck with them. I have my own car, my own TV. I worked hard for these things. Get your own.
All of this would be bad enough, but on a practical level, if at some point the money system breaks down or the tools and devices can’t be powered up, what do we really have left? We don’t know how to provide for our basic needs, most of us don’t have local relationships in place to help us solve that problem, and judging by how things are going, many people do not even possess the kinds of values that would help navigate toward real solutions.
Thus we can identify several levels for social intervention: materials, skills, relationships, and the values that support the transfer of skills and the development of relationships. Granted, it seems a tall order. We do not have the resources to address these problems one at a time. Fortunately, it isn’t necessary, because (and this is an amazing thought!) it is not possible to do one thing at a time. The world simply doesn’t work like that. Instead, as we saw in the example of planting a seed with a child, everything we do propagates consequences in multiple directions.
Permaculture has a design concept called “stacking functions” that makes use of this. In a land use design project, the concept of stacking functions means that any element of the design, be it a tree, chicken coop or a compost heap, can perform multiple services simultaneously. So, when I kept chickens, I planted a mulberry tree to the south of the coop, and placed a compost heap nearby under another tree. The chicken manure fed the trees, and the trees fed, cooled, and protected the chickens from airborne predators. Together the trees kept the compost shaded and moist while the chickens turned the compost, feeding it with their droppings while the compost fed them with bugs and worms. And that’s just the beginning. Ultimately, the system produced eggs, for example, as well as nutrient-rich compost for my garden.
Permaculture imitates natural systems in its design processes. In the case of stacking functions, the underlying reality is that no action generates a single, linear outcome. Since everything does many things at once, it should be possible, assuming we're willing to more comprehensively account for them, to starting aligning these consequences in desirable ways.
The relevant point here is that functions are always “stacked,” though perhaps not necessarily in ways that lead to positive outcomes. When I get in my car, for example, I’m not just moving myself from place to place, I’m also creating a zone of lethal hazard around myself, putting social distance between myself and pedestrians, arrogating enormous physical space and material resources for myself and my vehicle, promoting the proliferation of ugly, auto-related infrastructure like parking lots and traffic courts, supporting the demand for petroleum and the despotic regimes funded by it, and of course befouling the air and ultimately helping to kill off the oceans and wreck the climate. And that’s just for starters.
But hey, I’m just driving to pick my kids up from school.
Yet in this example, perhaps the worst effect of all is the mass hypnosis that makes this seem both normal and desirable, stunting the imaginations of all who buy into it. And this is true everywhere we look: chemical agriculture, US foreign policy, law, medicine, education, you name it. All of these are proliferating negative consequences in multiple directions while our attention is focused only on the narrow outcomes connected to their ostensible purposes. The conditioning is: Look at the grain pouring into the grain elevator, don’t look at the algae bloom from agricultural runoff that renders Lake Erie’s water unfit for human consumption. See the burger in a bag, but ignore the person handing it to us who is barely scraping by, ignore the vanishing South American rainforest felled for commodity crop soybean production, and ignore the species extinctions and loss of cultures and language among the indigenous people of the region.
I’ve been saying for years [for example, see here] that the positive side of the fragmented thinking evident in our current systems is that it results in a proliferation of points of effective action. The food system is a great example, given that we see breaks in critical relationships all the way from soil to table. Every apparent break is a place where participation can forge a new connection, whether it’s growing our own food, building relationships with our growers, or preparing food from scratch instead of buying into the cult of commercially prepared foods.
That still holds true, but now I see how much more we’re really doing when we do these things. Since as we have seen, “stacking functions” isn’t just a great design idea, it’s the rule, then replacing a broken connection with a healthy one will have manifold impact. So for example, replacing fast food with home cooked meals has profound ramifications: We’ve filled our homes with delicious smells, we’ve taught our children what real food tastes like, how to value it, and maybe how to cook it; we’ve nourished ourselves deep into our cells, we’ve made our love tangible through our connection with the earth’s bounty, we’ve changed how we spend, we’ve demonstrated that our families are worth caring for—and that’s just for starters.
If a part of that home cooked meal comes from a home garden, we have added to our outdoor time with healthy exercise, improved the soil and its capacity to hold carbon and retain moisture, improved our diets with low-cost vegetables, eliminated (if we’re smart) the use of cosmetic lawn chemicals on the soil that feeds us, cut some of the carbon footprint in our energy-intensive food system, kept yard waste onsite as a soil amendment, and taught our children where food comes from. Even something as simple as recycling has huge knock-on effects: when newspaper and cardboard is recycled, it’s not just the oxygen-breathing trees we save, but also the carbon that is normally emitted in paper manufacture from virgin materials, plus the recycling jobs created locally, watersheds protected wherever forests remain standing … and much else.
Is it enough? Have we tilted the scales toward sustainability? No—not by a long shot. Does this concern me? Yes.
However, I’m still feeling hopeful. True, our culture’s fragmented thinking has created quite a mess as it has been projected onto a world built on the laws of interconnection and wholeness. But what gives me hope is not just that we can make a little difference here and there by changing how we think and what we do. What’s really hopeful is that we’re doing a lot more than we think we are – we’re always planting many seeds at once, and of course every seed has the potential of many seeds within it. These can include changes on all levels, extending even to the values and cultural norms that drive us. Thus, my hope is not based on the complacent attitude that we’re already “doing all we can,” so everything is bound to be okay. Rather, I’m excited by the fact that knowing how powerful our actions are can embolden us to kick it up a notch. Let’s do it!