Carol Sanford on Indirect Work (E71)

In this episode it is my great pleasure to welcome Carol Sanford back to explore her brand new book Indirect Work.

To support and celebrate the book’s launch, Carol has offered a giveaway offer exclusively for listeners of Making Permaculture Stronger. If you listen to and then share this episode on your website or any of your social media channels (such as sharing from the Making Permaculture Stronger facebook page), and then let me know about it, you go into the draw to access:

  • A free copy of Indirect Work posted to your door
  • A free ticket to a 90-minute Q&A on Indirect Work with Carol 10am PT, May 2, 2022 ($200 value)
  • The link to download a pdf Self-Assessment for Regenerative Integrity. $100 value

There are also a bunch of different offers for buying different numbers of books here on Carol’s site.

Now, a little taste of what this book is all about. Carol explains that:

indirect work is building the capacity in people to consistently think at higher levels in order to create innovations for advancing specific contexts and streams of activity. This capacity allows us to become instruments for the regeneration and evolution of the living systems within which we are nested—to become effective change agents.

Carol Sanford

Here are a few of my favourite passages in the book.

For example, every time we try to solve a problem, dividing it into its components to understand it better, seeking to figure out its causes in order to address them, we fall under the spell of classical mechanics. Every time we translate something into a replicable (and therefore scalable) procedure or recipe, we’ve stepped into a machine universe. This is so pervasive in Western and now global culture that it becomes invisible to us. It can be very difficult to get our minds to shake off this continually reinforced pattern in order to question our fundamental shared beliefs about how the universe works.

Earlier I said that this book was addressed to well-intentioned people who seek to make the world a better place through the instruments that are available to them, such as business, social activism, or creation of policies and institutions. I also said that most of these efforts are likely to be compromised or fail because they still operate from an old paradigm, within which the world is assembled from discrete pieces, each playing its part in a cosmic machine. Our machine-based metaphors are so pervasive that we hardly notice them: input, output, feedback, leverage, rewiring, reprogramming, metrics, ideal state, and on and on.

A living or regenerative paradigm has a very different character and uses correspondingly different metaphors. It starts with an image of the living, dynamic, and unfolding universe, in which each entity is endowed with the spark of life and an innate capacity for growth and evolution with regard to how it expresses itself. Working from this paradigm, one doesn’t attempt to push the world and its inhabitants to an ideal state—that would be coercive and life denying. Rather, one encourages and enables living beings to discover and express their innate potential as contributors to living communities. For those of us who truly want to transform the world, it is the regenerative paradigm that will enable us to do so.

This confronts us with an important question. Are the underlying beliefs, assumptions, patterns, and language that characterize my culture derived from a machine or a living systems paradigm? And if I want to cultivate a living systems culture, what must I do I to help with the shift? (note – Carol answers this question in our conversation!)

Consciousness is the necessary antidote to our overwhelming tendency to engage in automatic habits of thought and behavior. In its absence, these habits extend to the most general reaches of our collective understanding of the universe, itself, conceived of by Western Europeans in the time of the Renaissance as a giant clockwork. This peculiarity of regional imagination has now become the dominant paradigm of reality worldwide. As such, it has created a self-reinforcing loop in which the mechanistic universe is reflected in the conceptualization of our bodies and minds as biological machines and our institutions as social machines. Thus, we invent mechanistic metaphors and processes for educating and healing ourselves. In other words, we resort to conditioning, a default approach that is precisely the opposite of living free, self-determined human lives. And, in a mechanical feedback process, this conditioning reinforces the already prevalent tendency toward automatism.

But the process of accretion of information and action, no matter how comprehensive, will never on its own generate the shift in perspective that allows us to engage with a living whole. If anything, the tendency to aggregate and integrate only serves to reinforce the problems associated with fragmentation. This is because it derives its raw materials from the underlying practice of breaking things down into parts in order to understand them before attempting to reassemble them into something that makes sense.

I could see that nearly all of the world’s conflicts grew out of a binary or polarized view of reality: good/evil, right/left, male/female, white/black, profit/loss, owner/worker, wealth/poverty, future/past, energy/matter, ones/zeros. Business, politics, psychology, and even religion were all busy trying to shift things from one column to the other within a zero-sum universe where one person’s gain was inevitably another’s loss. Or, when they weren’t seeking to win the game, they were seeking to maintain its equilibrium through careful compromises and the balancing of powers—complementarity rather than polarity.

Faced with the ubiquity of this way of thinking, I realized that the way out of its dead ends had to do with the power of three-ness in a two-force world. In my flash of insight, genuine creativity came from not accepting the rules of win and lose. Rather, one had to see the dynamic tensions between opposing forces as the sources of evolutionary energy. This required stepping outside of the polarity in order to recognize its potential within a larger context. Stepping outside introduced a new, third force, one that was not bound by the terms of the conflict but could embrace both sides (or multiple sides, for that matter) as contributors to a new possibility.

Peruse all time-limited bonuses for Pre-Buying InDirect Work
To be notified of releases of new books, free events and new content and articles, Scroll to bottom of this linked page, to sign up for newsletter.
All of Carol’s books and how they fit together


  1. Great show.. I listened twice so that I could take notes:

    Gold stars: I catch myself giving those to my kids and had always felt that it was about celebrating and going along with their successes rather than as an act of coercion.. how to better understand the difference? (Perhaps I’ll have to read Carol’s next book too).

    Newtonian Physics: Carol seems to mean this literally, but also as analogy or metaphor and sometimes back and forth between all of those in a close span of conversation. This can be jarring in ways that are mentally generative but also has the potential to diminish the veracity her statements (could be taken as like ‘cherry picking’ to make your point stronger or creating a misleading logic or predicate).(I don’t want to be accusational here as to be fair, it would require some closer attention to examine what is going on there.) However, a metaphysical analogy to Newtonian physics is a slippery but fertile ground depending how you think about it (or what you get from it).

    On the broaching of the topic of the correlation between Indigenous ways/culture (ie: a generic reference to an unspecified human culture and experience that abstracts people/s, places and time/s) and Quantum Science: I noticed that Carol made a disengaging chuckle sound when this was brought up that seemed to say ‘not gonna go there right now’.. and you didn’t.

    When I try to imagine how it may feel if someone would reduce to generic comparisons my own unique life experience, culture, ancestry and present potential, something just feels like a betrayment of the very ontology of which the regenerative paradigm is supposed to root from. I am interested in this subject but have concerns about how it may be handled in discussion.

    Racism: I think I can grasp what Carol is getting at by saying that she would not be working on racism directly with Colgate in South Africa at that time period (as it could merely perpetuate and amplify it by feeding into it), however I am left to wonder if there was not room made for folks at Colgate and in the local Colgate community place to engage with the realness and complexities of racism there.. if the very topic was made taboo at Colgate it seems potentially highly repressive (and denying) to closet such a frustrating physical and emotional lived experience. Cultural dysphoria comes to mind. How did this play out beyond the world of Colgate as it was nested within the greater politics, people, local community and economy? (I am reminded of Joel Glanzberg’s story about how he had an epiphany in the middle of the night that his ‘greening the desert’ work he was staking his success and achievement on had remained as just a green spec in the desert).

    On social and mental ‘constructs’: “our constructs form the world we see” (about pixels on a TV vs. the images in motion we ‘go along with’ to see). Carol seems to critique the idea of ‘constructs’ as an illusion; while naming them and even repeating their categorization in order to get traction to make her differentiations (eg: gender, race, tribes, she mentions our language as being within a construct, etc.). It can feel like such contradiction of the regenerative paradigm, however there is also great generativity in the contrasts.. how such different paradigm ideas be discussed otherwise from the predominant paradigm and worldview. Nora Bateson describes this as transcontextualization.. how one context may describe and understand another (I believe Nora gives credit for this idea to her father Gregory Bateson).

    On Categorization: Very often I feel insecure and confused about when Carol speaks of wholes and ‘categories’ to the point where I move further away from my own internal understanding of such.. thus I tend to want to outsource what she meant rather than have confidence in the idea from within.. this confidence in understanding is a capability I’d like to grow and perhaps it is a capability that could be worked on some more epistemologically from those who are doing this ‘work’ (thinking of the ‘regenesis group’)

    Process Phases (compared to steps): I think about the moon phases and wonder: does the moon itself have phases, or is it we and the earth that have phases in our experience of the moon. The fact of the moon’s different appearance each night has only to do with its coincidence of being out of sight for a time.. the moon’s waxing and waning would be absolutely gradual but is only phased by the earth’s daily axis rotation and thus our experience of it (do I have that right?). Love to hear more about phases as it may relate to ‘the work’ in the regenerative paradigm.

  2. Many lovely thoughts in this podcast. I always love capacity being a central question and a great clarifying question. Am I doing this to build capacity or for another motive? For example am I discipling a child to build their capacity to become a socialize person or because they are defying my will (and therefore my ego)?

    One huge caution however is in using the quantum level of scale to give a veneer of science to a concept at the human and biological scale. In numerous places I have been taught that the organizing principles of nature (laws of nature if you prefer the more problematic turn of phrase) only extend to three phases of scale. So quantum > atomic > molecular is a relevant scale but quantum > atomic > molecular > chemical > biological is well beyond where quantum weirdness extends. So care and rigour need to be taken on this point.

    This is not to invalidate the thinking but rather that we need to be aware that we’re doing philosophy and not science when we talk about Heisenberg. Perhaps we’d be better off grounding our ideas in William James from whom the concept of superposition was lifted? Or perhaps if we want to confront the billard ball model we could draw on Ilya Priogine or Alan Turing or Stewart Kaufmann all of who offer compelling models of far from equilibrium systems that show that the billard ball model of Boltzmann is not a complete description of a living world (Steward Kaufmann’s ‘Reinventing the sacred’ is a good read on autocatalytic sets and Priogine and Strangers ‘Order out of Chaos’ is a book too wild not to be read. Turing’s paper on reaction diffusion reaction or the theory of why animals have stripes is also a beautiful thing).

    But I digress (as usual I suppose). The final thought is that like complex systems permaculture, I think, needs to develop a comfort at moving between scales. I think of David Holmgren reading the landscape and how he can move between the chemical, geological, biological, cultural influences on a piece of ground. We develop this by knowing which constants apply so we can rapidly ground and orient ourselves. However part of that is learning how the emperical science of these constants apply (even if we may have issues with the ontologies that underline them).

    Thank you for another lovely episode

    1. Many thanks Aaron and that point about extending too many scales resonates with me. It would interesting to know what Einstein and Bohm would have made of Carol’s work! As for Strangers ‘Order out of Chaos’ etc darn it I already have a backlog of books to read but you make this one sound like it belongs in there also :-).

      Also thanks for that wildly free-ranging zoom cal today – I look forward to the next iteration!

  3. First, well done, Dan! I felt like this conversation with Carol was incredibly useful as a listening and learning experience. There’s a lot in this episode and I made notes as I went along, some of which I’d like to share.

    Two things about design process that I feel are worth communicating: 1. I’m not sure it’s an either or thing on master planning versus developing capacity of people on a project. For the time being at least I think both are needed. It’s goes to what Carol says about job descriptions in one of her books, that you have to be careful when working with an organization to not rip out from underneath people what they need to be doing while they develop their capacity. 2. I would venture to say most design processes in permaculture aren’t taught in a way that one step is left behind as another step is embraced. That’s not been my experience. It doesn’t mean people are using it well, but it also doesn’t mean it’s practiced so linearly either.

    I’m so glad to hear Carol talk about movements and the danger of them. This is why I think it’s imperative to not describe permaculture as a movement. It’s just not what it is.

    I think the core of what Carol is saying is that the work before us is in developing ourselves and teaching self-development. I couldn’t agree more. I’m glad to hear her extrapolate on that by saying that people need to have an aim, something I put a lot of emphasis on. I think this is the source of my deepest frustration though. I too often find that people don’t have an aim or that their aims aren’t rooted in anything other than the shifting fads and trends of the times, often inspired by colonizing media sources themselves. I think not having an aim in life is the epitome of the colonized mind, and incredibly pervasive. My question is (and I’ve posed this to Carol before, with no direct answer of course lol), how do you get people to develop an aim? How do you work consciously with aimless trend and habit followers?

    Last, I’d like to share my aim in life because I think this is essencial: I want to be fully alive, to revere life, and to preserve the possibility of life. That’s why I’m here.

    Thank you Carol and Dan for a wonderful experience!

    1. So appreciate your comments Jason. Yes to ripping the rug out in manageable chunks and to your point 2. I have an upcoming post and episode exploring this further I look forward to enjoying your reflections on. Would like to hear more about what you mean by this. For instance do you mean that as the next step kicks in the existing one keeps going also? Or that you jump back as needed?

      In her free morning meetings, Carol goes through the process of articulating then upgrading an aim:

      Thanks also for sharing your aim!

      1. Hi Dan, I appreciate the Carol share. I always like those. She reflects a lot of my buddhist teachers at this point.

        In regard to design process, as I teach in more and more PDC’s that other teachers are leading, I see the design process taught like there’s a central axis that the designer can rotate around to whatever point in the design process is needed at any particular time. I agree “steps” aren’t helpful as a way of articulating it because it indicates one step starts and then stops. It probably has more to do with paradigm though (same with master planning). Does the designer see that it’s all one staircase or are they only looking at individual steps unable to see the whole? Design never really begins and ends. It all just context in motion. What I see Carol working toward is training ourselves to join in the flow of life. Lots of ancient traditions have been pointing to that place. We need more and more people saying it from their own position and place, which is what I appreciate most about Carol’s work.

        1. Right on Jason. That flow of life is always there, waiting for us to relax and drop back in. I only know from the times I got my toe in there, and I delight in encountering those fully immersed. Part of my quest is this question of what would it mean for our design and creation processes to drop their baggage, undress, and re-merge with that waiting river :-).

          Also I look forward to developing and sharing some in-progress stuff about repurposing the step metaphor (which is so valuable in its rightful place) and what might take its place in terms of describing the different generic aspects or activity centres within a process and how they dance and flow together…

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *