In the summer of 2015 I spent two glorious weeks studying with the wonderful Peter Cow at an inspiring permaculture project called Corga da Pereira, deep in the hills of central Portugal. It was my wife Alice’s idea; she’s a forager and a herbalist and I’m a web designer and a counsellor so she tends to be the more outdoorsy and hands on half of our partnership.

Permaculture is something I’ve been interested in for quite a few years, but I had shied away from enrolling on a permaculture design course due to a resistance I have to gardening, a slightly awkward admission to make in the opening of a blog about permaculture.

I ended up enjoying all the practical aspects of the course a lot more than I expected (it was much more than just gardening). What really got me excited was when Peter began applying the permaculture principles to social design.

As someone with a passionate and professional interest in human growth and development, this introduction to the field of social permaculture and the importance of taking Zone 00 into account in our permaculture designs really joined the dots. It enabled me to appreciate permaculture as a truly holistic (and truly radical) enterprise.

No doubt most readers are familiar by now with the concept of social permaculture as the application of permaculture principles to human relationships, communities, social systems, networks etc. For more information read Looby Macnamara’s excellent book People and Permaculture or visit her website.

A (social) permacultural view of the world begins with Zone 00 (the Self), ends with Zone 5 (the wild and natural world), and encompasses everything in between. What excites me most about this approach is that with incredibly simple tools it makes ideas accessible. Ideas which we can find difficult to grasp, in a society that teaches us to focus on individual ‘nodes’ (people, plants, animals, things), rather than the relationships between them.

In contrast, an ecological way of seeing the world, one which permaculture explicitly embraces, focuses on relationships that exist between these nodes, rather than viewing them in isolation. To paraphrase Gregory Bateson, a favourite social scientist of mine and author of Steps to an Ecology of Mind: “The individual mind is manifest but not only in the body. It manifests in pathways and messages outside of the body; and there is a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a subsystem. This larger Mind manifests in the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology.”

However, while it seems like a fairly straightforward (and sensible) cognitive leap from one perspective to the other, there is a much deeper and more irrational aspect of our psyches for which it is a journey of a thousand miles. In a recent article in Permaculture Magazine called Nurturing the growers, Psychotherapist Morwenna Lewis quoted the late Patrick Whitefield who said, “a project will never fail because the land is poor, it will fail because the people will fail to get along.”

Even when good people get together to work in co-operation for the common good, interpersonal problems inevitably occur – problems which often seem insurmountable and cause wonderful projects to fail. It’s my supposition that this usually happens because we’re unable to integrate the “head-based” knowledge we have about permaculture and ecology into our “heart-based” (or “body-based”) emotional processes; on this level we continue to see ourselves as individuals who are separate from, and often threatened by, other individuals, rather than as fundamentally interconnected beings. Bear in mind that a ‘be-ing’ is a process, of connection, not something static.

This may all seem rather eclectic and difficult to grasp or indeed do much about. It’s important for me to remember that, as a counsellor, not everyone is as pre-occupied as I am about these ideas, which is the reason why (social) permaculture is so important. It provides a perspective on and a set of tools for dealing with these kinds of interpersonal challenges, without there necessarily being any need to understand what’s at the root of them.

From a permaculture perspective, the difficulty we have integrating our knowledge of permaculture into our emotional processes represents a “limit”, something which holds us back. In this case, it can prevent us from connecting meaningfully with others and from working really effectively together. According to Looby Macnamara, “In permaculture design whenever we reveal a limit, either one that is present or one that might become a limit in the future, we turn this around and make this a function of our design – we design ways to mitigate, overcome, bypass or flip the limit.”

I have spent the last six months in an incredibly intense and difficult process of organising a community share offer, for Sacred Earth, a permaculture project I’m closely involved with. I have experienced first hand what can happen when we forget the first permaculture principle: observe and interact, and the notion that when we settle on a site it’s a good idea to spend the first year engaged in a deep observational process and make no changes that are permanent.

In social permaculture terms, for me this translates into something which is of critical importance: that we build into our projects the space and time to develop processes and practices which facilitate connection with one another. If this aspect of our working life is rushed then we risk doing permanent damage not only to our projects but also to our relationships with our friends and colleagues. Having learned this lesson, this is something we will be doing much more of in the next year of our work together at Sacred Earth.We’re currently welcoming new members to support us in this process.