Carol Sanford on loving people, seeing their potential and showing them how to do big things…

So I recently conveyed to Carol Sanford some of the (on and offline) reactions to the podcast chat I recently enjoyed with her:

Our podcast chat created a fantastic stir and much interest. Your comment about humans not being part of nature created much confusion/consternation and a few folk have wondered about your choice to work with some of the big companies you’ve worked with

Dan Palmer in personal email to Carol Sanford – July 28, 2019

I’m grateful for Carol’s taking the time to write this characteristically feisty reply, which I hope will stimulate further productive dialogue in the comments below:

Nature: People get very confused by Nature being the preeminent real idea. They don’t understand Living Systems as preeminent and all Life is embedded, nested Life working as nested systems. There are many different living forms nested in Life. Nature is an abstraction. I DARE YOU! Show me IT, nature that is, as a whole. Where is it? Living systems is what I am working with and teaching others to see. There is no Nature you can point to. But Lifesheds (watersheds) you can. Animals (of which we are one also nested in Living Systems) you can. Indigenous people have words for life not for an abstraction called nature. They are very concrete and real. Western Europeans invented the abstraction and exported it. 

Source: Environmentalists produced a lot of passion as well confusion along with it by talking in abstractions without giving any concrete ways to work with it. ‘Don’t touch it, leave it alone to heal and restore.’ We are a working part of living systems and have work to do. We have to learn our work in the system.  Nature does not really exist. But Biota, Soil, Mammals are all real things. Abstractions let us come up with abstract ways to work on things. Like reduce carbon footprint. That is an effect on real things, but an abstraction and people can’t grasp it for that reason.

Plus, most “best practices” to work on sustainability are abstractions, not regenerative approaches based on the working of Living Systems. Start with a real concrete being. Humans are one of those nested in Life, in Living Systems. “Environment” itself is another abstract distortion. Environment is an anthropocentric concept. “Our” Environment! Listeners who said this are listening to me through a paradigm that is filled with abstraction. My work is about the concrete and about building the mind that stops using abstractions and gets real. It starts with Living systems as the preeminent whole and then nested wholes all the way down, as native peoples do. It is always specific place sourced.  Abstract ideas from the Environmentalist Era are slowing down our getting to work on Life being able to live from potential.

Working with Big Business: Get those folks to Look at the results I created in Business. Like leading to the founding of the UN Global Compact with Chad Holliday, Chair/cEO at Dupont. And stopping deep water injection well by writing and lobbying for regulation, and creating Freon replacement as an open source unpatented offering, so no other county created its own Freon when DuPont stopped making it. That is what would happen. People have to see the working of systems and find the node to move it, not protest and shout against it. 

Blind spot: Making some people bad, rather than realising it is a capability that is needed. That is a cognitive bias that slows down our ability to educate the powerful players that need to move. I don’t work with Big Business. I find one leader ready to learn and learn, (Chad Holliday, Jeffrey Hollender, Michiel Bakker at Google)  in a powerful position who wants to do HUGE things and I work with them for decades. Holliday stoped the drilling in the Arctic when he took over as Shell Chairman. He learned to do that at DuPont. He would not have had that capability and mindset without working with the Regenerative Technology for 2 decades and supporting others learning to think that way, across broad swarths of Dupont.

Loving people, seeing their potential and showing them how to do big things is the most important work. Working with the already converted is easy and usually comes from polarized thinking (you choice who is worth helping learn to think systemically and label the others as evil). That is the real stuck spot.  That is no better than those evil guys – by offering their judgmental projections – made by people who think we should shun Big Business. Uneducated leaders in all business sizes will kill us if we don’t educate them. Mission Driven businesses are undermining democracy by how they manage people. Most are gentle command and control. I wrote The Regenerative Business to wake up the well-intended businesses to their disruption of social systems.  Should I not work with them since that is bad? Laws and policy are a slow path. Shifting the mind is the fast path.  Ignoring and judging is arrogance and ineptitude. 

Post that on your site.

Take Risks—Discern Systems Working


Carol Sanford in personal email to Dan Palmer – June 29, 2019

Would love to hear your thoughts about all this. I am finding myself rather partial to Carol’s disruptive style and I am learning things from her and her colleagues that are both disrupting and enriching my work in permaculture design. Yes, I will try and get a post together sharing these things some time soon.

Meantime don’t miss Fraser’s recent review of Carol’s book No More Feedback, I’d recommend checking out Carol’s seven principles of regeneration either here or here, and if anyone else wants to submit a review of any of her books, videos, or podcasts, then please, be my guest!

Go ahead, make a comment, let me know how all this is landing for you. Let me know what is helpful and what isn’t. Let me know what or who you’d like to see more of moving forward. Let me know how you think I could do a better job of making permaculture stronger. I will listen, I promise!


  1. Note from Dan: Excuse the picture of my face – just passing on this comment Belinda made on fb:

    I loved your podcast with Carol and have since been looking at quite a bit of her work. I think she has basically explained to me why I am having so much difficulty with change and innovation in my current workplace especially compared to my previous workplace where we managed to transform for the better in an exceptionally short period of time. At the end of the day business as a whole is a big, wasteful conglomerate of things. We all still need some stuff and services no matter who we are or how hard we try to provide for ourselves. Let’s do it in the best way possible.

  2. Great thoughts and views by all. Carols approach to design in complexity allows for attitude change, emergence, novelty and innovation of solutions rather than starting from the assumption we can address everything from a point of expert led best practice.
    Abstraction is a very human trait. We are part of nested systems.
    I agree we want to avoid allowing ourselves to get lost in abstractions to the point of not being effective in our collective action or seeing ourselves as other than animal. That state may lead to despair in individuals as the problems feel too big to affect by my small actions; or delinquency from beliefs such as “I (as human) am better/higher in importance than any other living thing” or “technology will save us”.
    I see that currently a lot of design disciplines and movements appear to be struggling with their language which I think is an indicator of transitions in expertise in a connected world of information. We want diversity not adversity. It’s important to take the time to be careful with language to convey meaning (sharing our stories helps here and avoiding blindly adopting “buzz words” or dogma) and listen deeply.
    When a situation is complex ie, we can’t easily identify all the connections in the system or predict an outcome, There is validity in designing interventions by not tying ourselves to one goal or setting targets but finding out what can we change now, and how can we monitor the impact of that so we know what to do next (in effect consciously applying principles such as observe and interact) ?
    I hope these ideas contribute to the conversation constructively. Just back from three days focussed on complex adaptive systems and designing strategy so timely topic.

  3. I feel like this is the meatiest conversation yet for MPS. Great stuff. The latest round of podcasts from the Regenesis folk has really introduced some great ideas. I love Carol’s style but I’m not yet ready to accept all her ideas. All of the points raised by Meg had me nodding in agreement. And I’m in lock step with everything Jason says. It’s just all great stuff.

    So my thoughts on what I’d like to see moving forward. Maybe it’s time for some weakest link analysis. Is it time to move away from the design process and focus elsewhere? I’d like to see a line of effort exploring how we influence people and thinking: ourselves, our families, our communities, our corporate and government leaders. How do we apply the design process beyond the built and biological, and get deep into the behavioural field. And finally I’d love to hear more voices from outside of Australia and North America. I know you have a guest from Europe coming up in the podcast Dan, but it would be great to bring in some Asian, African, and South American podcast/blog guests if you have any on your radar.

    But the current round of activity has been brilliant, so just keep doing what you’re doing.

    1. Many thanks for these thoughts about where to from here Peter (and thanks to everyone for your insightful, honest and even fiery comments on this post). It was already on my radar but your comment prompted me to book in a chat with my friend Charles from Uganda which I’ll record tomorrow. And yes re the other stuff too. We’re coming up to a significant juncture, I can say that much for sure!

  4. Kill the language! “Best practices” is a fine start, but it doesn’t stop there. Everyone learns the “pattern language” of “change making” and it’s like using the words themselves makes someone KNOW the topic. A lot of rookie permaculture teachers out there are part of that. And some long time permaculture teachers never graduated past the minors too. “Regenerative” is on it’s way to becoming one of those terms as well! It’s shallow levels of intellectual and spiritual engagement that are weakening Life. THAT is the first point of intervention. To me, what Carol is saying, and if I get her wrong, what I’M saying is that you need to pick some living system and engage with it over and over and over again, which will take a decade at least, and learn about it before criticizing, congratulating, adopting, and/or trying to change it. We’ve lost our ability to dive deep. And we need guides other than social media memes, which, let’s be real, are the things that are patterning the minds of so called “change makers”.

    I don’t diss Carol for working with big business. They are made up of people after all, which are living systems themselves. I don’t work with CEO’s and whatnot, not because I think they’re evil, but because that’s not authentic to my experience in life. So I choose to work with those systems that I know. And much of the time that system is myself, even while in the moment of working with others. The crux of the matter is that we don’t even know ourselves. So what are we gonna do to get there? If we don’t understand the living-interconnected-system of ourselves, how in the hell will we work with “nature”? It’s abstract so long as the projection has been majority outward. Which is where permaculture has spent too much time in my opinion.

    Last, THIS is the issue with people learning permaculture for a perceived profession. Kill the profession! It’s not a vocation. It’s not a vacation either, the other side of that. So what is it? Don’t rest until you discover it.

    This blog is a great place to unrest your rest and especially to disrupt your unrest. Remember, ultimately the words aren’t gonna get you there.

  5. YES YES YES!!!!
    Time to end “us and them” thinking and work cooperatively. If we are not prepared to engage with those that disagree with us in a loving and respectful way then why would they change their minds? If we are to honestly “use edges and value the marginal” then surely that means working with those that are at the edges of permaculture – the cautious business owner, the interested employee, the grounded CEO. I am sure there are those that would criticise me for using permaculture to redesign a police force, and those that would not approve of all the effort I’m putting into sharing permaculture knowledge in my own community, mostly with extremely privileged, right wing voting people, but both of these are examples of getting the greatest return on the energy I invest. It’s easier, and a lot more fun, to train people that are already environmentally aware and seeking to do good in the world, but I’m probably only slightly adjusting their current behaviour. The work I’m doing in the local community has seen mountains of materials that would have gone to landfill being shared for free, people cutting their water use, ending their synthetic chemical use, sharing tools and resources, improving local safety and campaigning for lowering the speed limit to protect wildlife. It’s also taught me that I have as much in common with my neighbours as I do with permies. Nobody wants to kill the planet.

    Carol’s thoughts on nature are interesting and challenging. I’m not sure I understand what she means. This debate seems to be about semantics. Even if I accept Carol’s contention that nature is an abstract concept and that abstract concepts are problematic because they limit our thinking I would still need to find a word to talk about the thing I mean when I talk about nature.

    I’m not convinced by her argument that talking in abstracts undermines our ability to take real action. I know where I can point to nature. For me it’s everywhere. It’s me, and the air I’m breathing and the food I ate yesterday and all things I see in the natural world. My challenge has been determining which parts of the human-made world can be considered “nature” and which parts cannot. So far, my best measure is the extent to which these activities or things increase ecological health when assessed using cradle-to-grave analysis. It has been more useful for me to contemplate the divisions between human nature, natural human and unnatural-and-human. I certainly struggle with the “we are nature” credo when so much of what we create and do is so destructive. Natural systems achieve dynamic equilibrium. I don’t think we can claim to be part of nature unless we can demonstrate that (and we can’t). My concern with the “part of nature” claim is that it can be used to justify a lot of very destructive behaviour on the basis that we are entitled to “garden” our world (where “garden” is taken to mean changing it in any way we like).

    I will keep rereading Carol’s comments and exploring more of her work. Perhaps I am missing her point. I suspect it will become clearer when I understand the kind of work she is doing and the results she is achieving. Certainly I am greatly enjoying getting to know more about what she is doing.

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