The Soft Edge of Permaculture- Article

Article published in Permaculture Activist, in Autumn of 2005. 

Village life is taking shape at La’akea Community on the big island of Hawai’i. In March of 2005, a group of six people purchased La’akea Gardens which has served as a permaculture teaching center for over a decade. In buying La’akea, we took on a challenge to transform a site that already had substantial infrastructure and a partially-developed landscape into a functioning intentional community. In doing so, we also took on a debt of almost $300,000.

The importance of non-material needs

Yet, as challenging as living off-grid and water catchment can be, the most difficult challenges are in the non-material realm. How often do communities fail because of material needs going unaddressed? Yes, communities can and do go bankrupt, but it seems that people are pretty good at ensuring food and shelter. However, people raised in modern, industrial societies, as I was, have less experience in knowing what their non-material needs are, communicating them to others and getting them met. This appears to be a significant reason why communities fail. For me, healthy and joyful communities seem to be the “next frontier” of permaculture: Not just creating villages that function ecologically, have good design characteristics, and where people’s material needs are satisfied, but communities that are truly thriving.

Our community has strong ties to the Network for New Culture ( which has sustainability as a core value and focuses on how we can create and enhance community through emotional, communication and relationship growth. NFNC, in turn, was inspired by the ZEGG and Tamera Communities in Europe. ZEGG was initially formed in the 1970’s by people who were concerned with economic inequalities and environmental destruction. Yet, they found the most persistent problems to creating a healthy community lay in the realm of human relations. This was very appealing to me after over a decade of working for environmental non-profit organizations. I found that while many in the movement shared a desire for better communications and emotionally healthy working environments, many times we did not do any better than the companies, agencies and institutions we were fighting against. The desire to prevail over perceived “enemies” often overtook our need to communicate our feelings and to truly bond as a community. Just having the intention of being progressive, ecological and non-hierarchical didn’t mean we had the skills to create a different model of relating to each other.

The ties that bind

To deal with the stresses of community life, ZEGG developed a process called “forum.” In our version of the forum, which we do weekly, community members are encouraged to share whatever emotional issues are up for them in the moment. Such transparency is a big part of our community glue. What binds us together is not that we all believe exactly the same things or that we react the same way to similar issues, it is that we have a shared commitment to a general set of values and that we trust each other to share our deepest selves with the whole community. We do assume that we all have the same basis needs, and while we may meet those needs in different ways, we can most easily accomplish that by sharing our deepest selves with each other. In a very real sense our vulnerability becomes our strength. Men particularly seem to have a hard time with this, as we have been taught for so long to be strong and silent. Even within permaculture circles, men often are mainly focused on meeting survival needs, an alternative “bringing home the bacon” mentality, at the expense of connecting on a deep, intimate level. I believe that just as good design can reduce our material and energy needs, a greater awareness of our emotions and the skills to communicate and understand them, can greatly reduce our material and energy demands.

The process of creating an intentional community can often be a stressful experience. Our buttons related to power, control, money, sex, food and other issues have and will be pushed; the question is how we deal with them when they are pushed. Do we retreat into ourselves, blaming ourselves or our family of origin? Do we blame those around us, focusing on how others are different from us? Do we just focus on creating systems and rules that will solve these problems? Or do we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, share what’s going on inside ourselves and work cooperatively with the community to find understanding, empathy and support?

In keeping with the practice of Non-violent Communication as articulated by Marshall Rosenberg, we focus on Observations, Feelings, Needs and Requests. In a process similar to good permaculture design, a good deal of attention is focused on the lay of land. Rather than trying to impose a one-size fits all solution, and tell ourselves and others what to do, at La’akea we try to hear what is going on for fellow community members without judgment. Our words do make a difference. If we tell someone that they are “making” us angry or sad or that they are disempowering someone, we tend to believe it. If we express how we are feeling in regard to someone else’s actions or words, we take responsibility for our feelings and allow others to perceive what we are feeling, rather than reacting defensively or aggressively.

Because we are operating out of consensus on important issues in the community, it is vital that we hear, and are heard from, our deepest selves. Our system is not a majoritarian winner take all approach, but one that requires all of us to hold the value of the community above our personal preferences. We often talk about issues and say what our personal preferences are, recognizing that we would like our preference to be met, but that each issue is not a make or break issue and that we value moving forward with positive consensus more than getting our way on particular issues. This flexibility can be difficult, especially for me at times, as I worked for years fighting environmental campaigns in the political realm, where flexibility was seen as code for selling out or lack of commitment. When we trust each other and the process, we can be much more flexible on specific issues.

Morality, moralizing, and eco-purity

Another issue that I have considered in permaculture communities and ecovillages is the desire for some to make many issues a test of eco-purity. Do we ever use pesticides? Do we ever use treated lumber? Do we purchase soymilk in aseptic containers? What percentage of our food should be grown on our land? Do we only run vehicles on veggie oil? People who come from a culture that in general does not share our ecological values are often conditioned to believe others don’t share their ecological commitment. It seems important to me that we recognize in our community that we all share a commitment to more ecological living. When I reflect on this, it makes it easier to accept that others in the community may have a different viewpoint on a specific issue. That way, I don’t have to be the eco-warrior within our community, but an equal participant in moving the community and our world further along in the right direction.

Brad Blanton in Radical Honesty writes about the prison of moralism and how people make themselves miserable trying to live up to some exterior standard. If we simply exchange one type of moralism for another in permaculture, what kind of progress have we made? I believe that ecological moralism can be as destructive to human relations, and ultimately self-defeating as communities fail, as other types of moralism. At La’akea I am focused on the fact that I am acting from choice and from joy, not from “shoulds”.

Resilient support systems

Rosenberg identifies dozens and dozens of different emotions. Becoming skilled at non-violent communication is like learning to play an instrument. Just as becoming sensitive to tone, rhythm and tempo can result in beautiful music, becoming sensitive to emotional frequencies and learning how to communicate them can help to create a more harmonious community.

One way we meet our need for physical touch and closeness is massage. While in the process of purchasing La’akea, community founders took a Lomi-Lomi massage class together. Not only does massage help to de-stress and de-toxify the body and mind, it helps to bring us closer together. A person who does regular yoga and massage may need to eat less (and may get more nutritional value from his food) as he will be satisfying non-material needs in other ways than food. How often do people in our consumer culture look to food to satisfy emotional needs? How is this psychosis played out in our permaculture landscapes?

We have two community meetings each week. One is a business meeting and the other is devoted to emotional processing, usually forum. Even our business meetings starts with a “check in”. As we sit in circle, people relate what is going on for them in the moment and use the opportunity to clear any issues with another person that might get in the way of being present for the meeting. While we often spend 30-40 minutes at the beginning on check-ins and clearings, when we do get business agenda items underway we are often amazed at how quickly and smoothly issues get decided. It’s as if our emotional bodies are satisfied, and our egos can mercifully take a rest. We also do a “check in” most mornings, to find out what people are doing that day and also to connect and share emotionally.

When our emotional needs are recognized and addressed, we can better create conditions that help to satisfy everyone’s non-material needs. When I first started talking to clients about plants in their landscape I would often hear that they wanted this kind of tree or that. When I inquired why they wanted that particular species, it was often because of a strong emotional connection to some other time in their life or some person or place they loved. The clients were trying to meet a non-material need through a physical substance. Often when we recognize this is going on, we can meet such needs in many ways. Needs are not person- or place-specific. We may think we have to have a love relationship with one particular person to have our need satisfied, but we have found our needs can be met in many ways if we are clear about what our needs are. A diverse support system is much more resilient than one that overly relyies on only one person to provide that function or need.

How do we deal with the effects of changing relationships within a community? Many communities fail because of jealousy, unrequited love, couples breaking up, and so on. Rather than impose a “should” such as: couples should stay couples, or individuals should not be jealous, or attractions are dangerous and should be kept secret, we simply acknowledge what is going on for each of us, trusting that the community will be stronger as we are vulnerable with each other. We still have all the intense emotions, but by observing them and communicating them to our community, we are released from the need to blindly react to our emotions by repressing them or indulging them.

And while we still have arguments and difficulties with different personalities and egos, the fate of our community does not seem to hang in the balance whenever an issue comes up. Rather each issue is an opportunity to bring us closer, to find out about ourselves and each other.

Robert Silber is a former member of La’akea Community, (formerly La’akea Permaculture Gardens), on the island of Hawaii.

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