Guest post by John Carruthers
Living Design Process (LDP) and Holistic Decision Making (HDM) thinker Dan Palmer asked me last month to put together a short video letter on my recent experience with LDP and HDM. Dan has mentored me and our planning since my partner and I took stewardship 18 months ago of a 70-acre former grazing property in Central Victoria.
In what follows I share some reflections to support the points made in the videos.
Time: it is the energetic tide of humanity. It is much more than that. There is value in its passing; and information in waiting.
Time becomes one of the most useful scales when we look at change or the processes that endeavour to shift it. But calibrating the scale becomes especially important depending on what’s being levered.
For politics it could be as short as a week (as the old aphorism goes), in the cautious science of climate change, a decade can be irrefutably significant (as the IPCC suggests), for a botanist or forester it spans multiple decades (as David Suzuki intones), while for a geologist (as my father was), what is sensible to discern the planet’s natural systems lengthens to hundreds of thousands of years or longer.
But closer to the action, what of our own aspirations to live with the land or make a more positive impact on it? Be it a permaculture-inspired plan for a rural block or city plot, or a whole-of-farm plan for a larger regenerative agriculture enterprise? Over what timescale is it helpful to evaluate what we do?
In pondering this I arrived at three answers. Sensible and nakedly pragmatic. Firstly, we need at least a decade or two, and probably a generation. At that time-scale, significant decisions can be aligned with climate and deeper social currents (like a whole-of-property revegetation program).
The next is at least 3-5 years; over which inter-seasonal variation can flatten and deeper personal capabilities demonstrated. A livestock program, for example.
And at the narrowest, over 12-18 months; because each season has been seen at least once, some early behaviours in us are revealed, and it sustains motivation (which is not unimportant). A shelterbelt preparation, for example.
Because it is that dance between behaviour and place that in so many ways embodies the success or otherwise of permaculture and sustainable agriculture.
So, the working title for this post might have been “Habit: the behaviours we repeat”.
But after barely 18 months, humility suggests that it was enough to ask: “What has been achieved?” and “What lessons stand out so far?”
The answers are, respectively: “Not much, AND a great deal”, and “Quite a few, upon reflection”. And that is the narrative arc of the nine lessons and four locations visited on the property over the video’s 13 minutes.
Eighteen months is long enough to have listened, done some, reflected and readjusted. And that cycle is critical. The popularised rule is that it takes 21 days to form a habit; but the better science projects that achievement as long as 6-months. And make no mistake, that dance of design-and-do on the land IS about habit. That sequence of oh-so-human evaluations and actions that result in design interventions and implementations. Everywhere.
“We cross the river by feeling the stones,” revolutionary Deng Xiaoping observed in the context of nation building. But his metaphor is also axiomatic: we can’t appreciate the decision we are currently making, if we are already rushing beyond it to the next one. Hasten slowly we should.
For example, as I explain in the video part one, in terms of design decision making, learning to identify our biases. Biases can be seen as the product of those set of unconscious filters that enable us to quickly absorb and process information every day. The set of heuristics that (helpfully) allow us to learn to flow through busy traffic, and (unhelpfully) to racially stereotype.
Without those same shortcuts, to paraphrase the neuroscience, none of us would get out the front door in the morning. In my own case, as I reveal in the video, those shortcuts create a bias for action (particularly after period of analysis) – call it conditional patience. We all have our own profile and without self awareness, it can nudge us onto a path we repeat unhelpfully. Knowing that, can help us mitigate for it.
Stoicism isn’t for all of us, but it contains a useful idea when we’re prosecuting something important. “I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies,” Aristotle said. “For the hardest victory is over self.” The better we know ourselves, the better decision makers we can become. We become less likely, to extend my example, to become crunched into artificially time-critical decisions of our own framing.
Antidotes to (unwanted) decision shortcuts abound, but as I reveal in video two, when it comes to the land, at the early stages, banging stakes in the ground, and painstakingly building models of the land out of beer cartons and steel soap pads can have a remarkable way of slowing down us – and our thinking. In both cases, long enough for kinaesthetics to work their magic, and let our brain’s slower, more thoughtful pre-frontal cortex get hold of the steering wheel (usually with much better results).
And that is immensely encouraging. Because the nub of Dan’s approach to design process seems to be to give “every decision its rightful breathing room.”
Asking the right questions is really what Dan’s living design process seems to be all about. Finding that sweet spot between intentional action and thoughtful reflection.
It is on that cusp of the dance floor of think-and-do that Dan mixes his passionate encouragement, incisive questions and courage to accept the consequences. And perhaps that is the bigger hope for LDP: that we can all become more empowered to find that state of productive liberation.
Bjorneru, M., Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, Princeton University Press, NJ, USA, 2018
Farmon, J., Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World, Yale University Press, New haven, 2018
Harari, Y. N., Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harper Collins, New York, 2015
Rock, D., Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, Harper Collins, New York, 2009
Suzuki, D., and Grady,, W., Tree: A Life Story, Greystone Books, Vancouver, 2007
Note from Dan: Wow thanks so much for the work of putting these together John! It has been such a pleasure working with you, and for reader/viewer interest here are a few more videos from earlier in this same process:
Fantastic. I am well and truly following in your footsteps….being able to see you in the distance is keeping me motivated to keep chasing you 🙂
John, this is wonderful work, and thanks for your comment on my guest post. So much of what you said in the videos and wrote in the notes here speaks to me. Your thoughts on habit, time-scales, and “bias for action” echoes my work with clients very closely. Awesome collaboration guys! Looking forward to more.