Introducing Phase Two of Making Permaculture Stronger: From Solving Problems to Developing Potential (E27)

Note: This post may not make much sense unless you read (or listen to) the previous post first.

What I’ve been doing…

As reviewed in the last post, I have spent more than three-and-a-half years attempting to help strengthen permaculture’s weakest links, or, in other words, solve permaculture’s biggest problems.

In this approach, success is tacitly defined as the degree to which the weak link or problem is made to go away.1

The Problem with Solving Problems

Phase Two of Making Permaculture Stronger starts with my realisation that focusing on problems, even if the problems are getting solved, does not and cannot solve the problem that the whole approach of solving problems is itself, well, problematic.2

Joel Glanzberg has summarised the situation perfectly:

We are so accustomed to machines and the mechanical world of Newtonian Physics that we can barely think about how to address the problems of a living world. We try to fix them as we would an old truck: We identify the bad part that is to blame for the problem and repair, replace, or remove it. This is our general approach to everything from medicine to foreign policy to justice. We try to get tumors, dictators and other “bad guys” to reform or we simply replace them. Then, we are continually surprised when new tumors, symptoms, or bad guys promptly arise to take their place. Changing the manifestation of living systems without shifting the underlying causal patterns will always be an uphill battle and often takes us in the wrong direction, like super-gluing the cracks in a hatching eggshell.

As has Carol Sanford (in this article):

When you start well-intended efforts by identifying a “problem,” you are trapped into thinking that you have to fix it. This leads you on a search for the causes and results in efforts to try out many solutions. It pulls all of your energy toward an endless effort that is based on the mindset that got people into the rut in the first place. Einstein warned us about that.

Hmmm. This is exactly the sense in which I have been trying to ‘solve permaculture’s problems.’

Oh well, it’s not like nothing good has come from this approach (and yet it is time for a fundamental change of direction)…

Now I do not think all this effort has been a waste. Absolutely not! I have learned a heap that has really boosted my ability to serve as a permaculture design process facilitator.

I know this is also true for permaculture colleagues around the world. Almost weekly someone reaches out with gratitude for how this project has inspired and supported them to deepen their own design process understandings and practices.

Nonetheless, I’m clear it’s time Making Permaculture Stronger explicitly extracts itself from the business of dabbling in problems. Where I spend countless hours focusing on aspects of permaculture that I don’t even like. On weak links. On problems. Problems that worry me. Problems that demoralise me. Problems that as best I can tell are getting in the way of permaculture’s ability to evolve toward deeper and fuller expressions of its potential.

I’m glad for everything this effort has created and I want to make a clean break from the whole mentality. It is time for something different. Thankfully there is an alternative that resonates so deeply it brings shivers to my spine.

Regenerating from the Core

Having spelled out the futility of the problem-solving mentality, Carol Sanford brilliantly illuminates an alternative approach:

Okay! Okay! So what do we do? As crazy as it sounds, we skip over what exists. We act as though the problem doesn’t matter. This sounds harsh, even cruel, but consider: within regenerative processes, problems are not useful information. Nature doesn’t care that rat populations are exploding in the suburban countryside. Regeneration in this instance occurs when this niche within the ecosystem is filled by returning populations of foxes and owls. Circumventing problems is how much real change comes about and particularly the kinds of change that disrupt markets—and also history, for that matter.

Instead of lamenting a problem, ask, “What are customers (or the planet or social groups) seeking to achieve and why?” This is the route to the creation of something that doesn’t yet exist. Don’t look at why current methods aren’t working. Keep your eye squarely on the your buyer’s intention, on the intentions of living systems and social groups.

What problem?

Wow! What an idea! Instead of lamenting the problem or problems, to take this approach we’d ask “what is permaculture’s core intention” and we proceed directly toward helping to realise that as if all the problems weren’t even there.

For Carol, this entails, “going back to base material and regenerating from what is at the core.”3 Where we move from strengthening weak links or solving problems to unfolding potential:

Seeing true potential requires us to go back to the DNA of our intentions, conscious and unconscious, back to first base, where the uniqueness of the opportunity exists. What is screaming to be realized directly? …

The same is true for engaging with people. For example, when we pay attention, we see loads of potential in the children around us. We see their shortfalls as well; there is no end of shortfalls to fix. But if you start with who a child really is, deep inside, what makes them unique, and you help them realize more and more of that, to become closer and closer to their own singularity, then they thrive. Who wants to make a child “less bad”? Don’t we instead want to support them in their quest to realize their unique potential? And don’t we feel the same about each new business and each watershed? No two living systems are the same; each is pursuing a unique potential. Find that and you become a great business leader or a great biologist.

As a colleague of Carol’s, it is no surprise that Joel Glanzberg is once again on the same page:

Life is by nature creative. She never goes back but only forward. Repair or restoration may work for antique chairs but not ecosystems, eggs or countries. They will never be what they once were, any more than you will ever be a teenager or Humpty Dumpty will be put together again.

Living systems, whether organisms or organizations, ecosystems or economic systems, resolve their problems not by “fixing” them but by outgrowing them. The maturing chick running out of food and space in her egg does not add on or send for take-out. She does not fix her cracking shell but uses this breakdown to break through and emerge into another world, one of air and light where her parents feed her. Then, when the chick and her siblings outgrow the nest and their parents’ ability to feed them, they fledge and fly into the wider world where they can feed themselves and migrate to more favorable climes as the seasons change.

Time to shift things up…

I also just love the way Robert Fritz talks about this stuff:

There is a profound difference between problem solving and creating. Problem solving is taking action to have something go away – the problem. Creating is taking action to have something come into being – the creation. Most of us have been raised in a tradition of problem solving and have had little real exposure to the creative process.

For this reason many people confuse the two. It doesn’t help when some ‘experts’ talk about ‘creative’ problem solving. They think that the creative process and problem solving are the same. They are completely different.

The problem-solvers propose elaborate schemes to define the problem, generate alternative solutions, and put the best solution into practice. If this process is successful, you might eliminate the problem. Then what you have is the absence of the problem you are solving. But what you do not have is the presence of a result you want to create (The Path of Least Resistance, p. 31)

How beautiful are all these statements? How exciting are they! What is screaming to be directly realised in permaculture? What would it mean for permaculture to crack open, fledge, and fly? What is the result that we in permaculture want together to create? Now we are talking. And this brings us right up to where this little project called Making Permaculture Stronger is going to be heading next


Fritz, Robert. The Path of Least Resistance: Learning to Become the Creative Force in Your Own Life. Fawcett, 1984.

Learn about Carol Sanford’s books (with free sample chapters) here and her podcast here.

Visit Joel Glanzberg’s website here.


  1. Not to mention that you kick one issue out of the doorway only to have it come sneaking back in the window holding a pitchfork.
  2. Especially the more life-oriented and the less machine oriented is the field being worked in!
  3. I discovered and added these additional quotes from Carol’s book The Regenerative Business (2017) on 7/10/2019:

    “Regeneration is a process by which people, institutions, and materials evolve the capacity to fulfil their inherent potential in a world that is constantly changing around them. This can only be accomplished by going back to their roots, their origins, or their foundings to discover what is truly singular or essential about them. Bringing this essential core forward in order to express it as new capacity and relevance is another way to describe the activity of regeneration. In other words, regeneration is the means by which enlightened, disruptive innovation happens” (p. 2)

    “Going back to first principles allows people to make a new start. Perhaps the simplest way to describe a regenerative process is to say that it breaks a familiar pattern by going back to the original source in order to start down a different path. From this new path, people are able to make connections that they haven’t made before because they’re seeing the world in a new way. By disrupting the old view and its attendant certainties, by questioning everything, they can take an imaginative leap into what doesn’t exist yet but will come to be when they find a way to provide the necessary conditions” (p. 14)


  1. I keep saying it, but I so appreciate how transparent you’re being in your own process. You’re not pushing a pre-formed message as an expert or evangelist, but instead allowing us to tag along on your walk through your developmental growth as it occurs, often along with your clients. The blog is like a little camera inside the unbroken eggshell of Dan Palmer. This post feels like a big peck at the interior, and the shell is cracking. All is in anticipation.

    I wanted to share something I’ve been feeling a lot. On this big project I’m designing and building out I’m getting to witness the potential creating process inside myself in real-time, seeing how much patience, non-attachment, and mental and emotional flexibility are required in this work. For some reason this project allows me to see the site and community development process differently. Perhaps it’s the scales of space and time that we’ve committed to, though it could also be that I’m just on the project full-time. Regardless, it doesn’t feel like a simple pivot from problem solving to potential creating. I think it’s the paradigm shifting, in motion. It’s not shifting from one idea to another better idea. It’s the abandonment of ideas as an organizing force in ones life. What’s left, for me anyway, is a freer experience of being. It’s light, and yet focused. It feels so, well, full of potential.

    1. Thanks Jason and you are so right. The shell is cracking! Fuck! Thankfully the fear of entering an unknown new world is outweighed by the joy of what just might be possible out there. The next post is gong to be about the biggest peck so far. The shell’s beautiful work is almost done.

      I love how you put that, the abandoning of ideas as a driving force, and I’d like to hear more (there’s another episode topic, right there!). I have to share a passage I reread recently in Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building where he says the same in explaining what he means by a pattern language:

      Get rid of the ideas which come into your mind. Get rid of pictures you have seen in magazines, friends’ houses …. Insist on the pattern, and nothing else.

      The pattern, and the real situation, together, will create the proper form, within your mind, without your trying to do it, if you will allow it to happen.

      This is the power of the language, and the reason why the language is creative.

      Your mind is a medium within which the creative spark that jumps between the pattern and the world can happen. You yourself are only the medium for
      this creative spark , not its originator. (p. 397)

  2. Ah wonderful! Does this mean that holistic design turns out to be the next step on the journey?

    I put a comment on the PA facebook page regarding your last post: “I’m excited to know where you are going. Away from strengthening weak links and towards a holistic redesign? Love that the core is the core, and Brenna’s beautiful illustrations make it easy to understand.” I hadn’t seen this latest post at the time.

    This particular post resonates with me. I have never been interesting in solving problems. Our focus has been “How do we get more permaculture happening on the ground?” and by starting with what we hope to achieve we have found innovative ways to design, teach and mentor others. One of the great strengths of permaculture has always been the ethical foundation. How do I find more opportunities to care for the earth, care for people and share fairly?

    Systems thinker Peter Senge used to ask people to compare their organisation to a ship. He would then ask, “Who is the leader in relation to the ship?” Many leaders described themselves as the captain and some as the chief engineer in the boiler room keeping it all running. Staff described some leaders as cruise directors; calling in from time to time to keep morale up but not actually contributing much else. Senge suggested that leaders were actually the people that designed the ship. “People work within systems. Leaders work on systems.”

    Soft systems present us with mushy, complex relationships and my preferred approach is not to seek out weaknesses (although an awareness of them can be a significant clue) but to find points of leverage. Least effort for maximum return. Sounds familiar!

    I’m excited by your new direction and looking forward to what comes next. Thank you once again for the deep thinking and tireless effort. Inspirational.

    1. Thanks Meg! As I’ve shared I’m preferring Carol’s language of nodal intervention over the more mechanical idea of leverage and not so sure about the ship metaphor and the implication that people and leaders are different. I love the idea from adaptive leadership that leadership is itself an intervention, not a role and certainly not something that happens from outside the system. But I may be missing Senge’s point and I do appreciate his work in general.

  3. Yes Dan, you have done good stuff, but now you are _really_ on to something! There is something profound and important at the core of permaculture that has yet to be clearly articulated, and separated from the particular interests of those who have so far connected with it.

    1. Thanks Greg and I’m glad you’re feeling it too. I feel like I’ve been tracking a certain luminous being for a while now, as often as not losing the tracks and wandering randomly in the desert, wondering if the whole thing is a delusion until I find another clue. Another hair, or broken branch, or toe mark. Currently, however, I feel so much closer, maybe only a few hours behind it. Some of the prints are so fresh there is still water on the dry rocks where it exited the last creek. I’m starting to get little hints, little premonitions of what shape it is, what it smells like :-). Exciting times!

Leave a Comment

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