Wednesday, December 30, 2009


I've been behind on reading the blogs that I follow (as is often true). One of them is The Archdruid Report, a blog that I wrote about last year. (See my post of 8/5/08.)

JMG, the Archdruid, was on part three of a series. So I would have some idea of what he was talking about, I skimmed through the first two parts. Part Two stopped me. It was focused on a critique of systems theory. If you've been reading this blog lately, you probably know I love systems theory. I just wrote a post to that effect. (See 'Systems', 12/14/09.) In his post, the Archdruid was talking about appropriate technology and having flashbacks to the 70s. "...I half expected to see a circle of scruffy longhairs sitting on pillows around the latest issue of Coevolution Quarterly, excitedly discussing the latest innovations from Zomeworks and the New Alchemy Institute." Well, that certainly describes where I was at in those days.

So what went wrong? I think that we could certainly use a dose of appropriate technology these days. JMG goes on to cite a bunch of beliefs of the time and then says: "A formidable body of thought backed those conclusions, and the core of that body of thought was systems theory. ... systems theory argued that complex systems--all complex systems-–shared certain distinctive traits and behaviors, so that insights gained in one field of study could be applied to phenomena in completely different fields that shared a common degree of complexity. It had its weaknesses, to be sure, but on the whole, systems theory did exactly what theories are supposed to do-–it provided a useful toolkit for making sense of part of the universe of human experience..." BUT "As popular theories sometimes do, though, it became associated with a position in the cultural struggles of the time, and as some particularly unfortunate theories do, it got turned into a vehicle for a group of intellectuals who craved power."

Yes, it turns out that this isn't really a critique of systems theory, it's a critique of some systems theorists. "Such leading figures in the movement as Jay Forrester of MIT and Aurelio Peccei of the Club of Rome agreed that humanity's impact on the planet had become so great that methods devised for engineering and corporate management-–in which, not coincidentally, they were expert-–had to be put to work to manage the entire world. ... the Club of Rome followed up The Limits to Growth [a very influential book with an ecological model] with a series of further studies, all basically arguing that the problems outlined in the original study could be solved by planetary management on the part of a systems-savvy elite." The result? "The Reagan revolution of 1980 saw the opposition seize the upper hand, and the systems movement was among the big losers. ... What made this implosion all the more ironic is that a systems analysis of the systems movement itself, and its relationship to the wider society, might have provided a useful warning. Very few of the newborn institutions in the systems movement were self-funding; from prestigious think tanks to neighborhood energy-conservation schemes, most of them subsisted on government grants, and thus were in the awkward position of depending on the social structures they hoped to overturn. That those structures could respond homeostatically to oppose their efforts might, one would think, be obvious to people who were used to the strange loops and unintended consequences that pervade complex systems."

What is clear to me in reading this is the problem wasn't at all with systems theory, it was with people who wanted to use the theory to get power. If you read the above, it feels like these people didn't really understand systems thinking, just the little bit that they thought would benefit them. The Archdruid is talking about those who wanted to make change from the top down and not those of us that want to create change by building from the bottom up. Not that the kickback hasn't effected lots of us as well. As JMG says, "Unfortunately that reaction slammed the door on resources that might have made the transition ahead of us less difficult."

I've condensed the Archdruid's post and left out a lot. It's worth reading in full--including, if you have time, the various comments people have made. A couple of the commentors mention sustainability and permaculture as the movements closest to systems theory now, and wonder how those movements can avoid the mistakes made by systems theorists, especially since some of what they propose may not be that well liked by the powers that be--or even much of the general population.

I would say we need to pay attention to four things: 1) Start small, slow, and simple. (See my post of 12/24/09 on 'Permaculture Principles' and notice the principles I put out as the last two.) 2) Build from the bottom up. Talk with people, find those who think this stuff is interesting and work with them, and find commonalities with others, and build on those. 3) Take the time to listen to others, and then take the time to explain yourself, slowly and gradually, to them. And 4) Don't attract attention. If someone does pay attention, let them think you are a harmless crank. You're talking about feeding people and saving the world. Don't let them think you are talking about creating problems for them or interfering with their way of life--because that isn't our goal, although it may be a biproduct of what we see coming.

Above all, our goal can't be to use all this good stuff to gain wealth, or power, or fame. We need to see ourselves as just part of the process--and either everyone will benefit or perhaps we should question why we are doing it.

There are a few things I didn't agree with in the Archdruid's post. The biggest is the line: "Nowadays, the only people who pay attention to systems theory are specialists in a handful of obscure fields..." On the other hand, maybe it's just as well if people believe that.

Quote of the Day: "Set aside the hubris that convinced too many systems theorists that they ought to manage the world, and systems theory itself is an extremely effective toolkit of ideas and practices, and a good many of the things that moved in harmony with systems theory – 1970s appropriate tech being a fine example – are well worth dusting off and putting to use right now. At the same time, though, the process that excluded them needs to be understood, and not just because the same process could repeat itself just as easily with some new set of sustainability initiatives. The homeostatic behavior of complex systems also casts an unexpected light on one of the major conundrums of contemporary life, the location of political power in industrial society..." - John Michael Greer

Monday, December 28, 2009


I am currently in the middle of a reading jag. Work has been quiet, I am commuting by train rather than bike, and I am currently off from work for the holidays. It means I have a lot of time to read and so I am. I am reading books on ecology, soil science, systems thinking, social transformation, Buddhism, you name it... So expect a lot of book reviews in the upcoming weeks.

Jim is an interesting guy that I am getting to know. He has a scientific background and wide
ranging interests (though a lot of it is focused on grazing and soil), so when I saw him with a
book a while ago, I asked him what he was reading. The book that he showed me was Threshold by Thom Hartmann. I hadn't heard of Thom Hartman, though apparently he's written a lot of books and is a radio personality. When I looked the book up in the library catalog it had a review attached that claimed "What begins as skillful (and scary) prognostications about climate change's impact devolve into an unfocused mishmash..." It made it sound very new agey, but what the heck.

Hartmann begins the book by stating he sees us at three 'thresholds': an ecological crisis, an
economic crisis, and a population crisis. He then claims that what brought us here were four
mistakes: 1) The belief that we are separate from nature, 2) The belief that our economic system is 'divine' and separate from us, 3)The belief that men should run the world and women are their property, and 4) The belief that 'the best way to influence people is through fear rather than through the power of love, compassion, or support.' (So far the only thing I would challenge is belief 3 which I think should be extended to include all cases where a group of people are defined as superior to other people--whites over people of color, heterosexuals over queer folk, Christians over nonChristians, etc, etc, as well as the stratifications of economic inequality.)

The introduction to the book takes place in Darfur where Hartmann discusses Maslow's hierarchy of needs (see my post of 9/2/08) and posits what he calls Maslow's Threshold--before we can move forward we need to at least make sure that everyone's Physiological and Safety Needs are met.

Hartmann then goes into depth discussing each of the three 'thresholds' and four 'mistakes'
outlined two paragraphs above, devoting a chapter to each of these. He sees our industrial system as resembling cancer (an insight I've had) and talks about the need for a 'circular and sustainable way of life'. He states that "those cultures that most embrace the largest number of their people in an egalitarian and democratic way... are the ones that have the highest quality of life." He notes "Every culture in the past that experienced the cataclysmic consequences of its dominator... behavior and survived went on to transform itself into a cooperator... culture." And he sites studies that show "...that animals will always choose democracy over despotism..." (In other words, the group, not some individual animal, decides.) He concludes this section by stating: "Those who advocate a dog-eat-dog... approach to economics and governance are advocating, essentially, cancer in our body politic. They are ignoring the surrounding environment, which demands a balanced, homeostatic, and altruistic culture." (Sounds good to me.)

The next section of the book focuses on some alternatives, looking at the Danish state as an example of a place that gets it right; contrasting the Maori culture which, Hartmann claims, used up all its resources on hunting everything to extinction and had descended into cannibalism, with the people of New Caledonia who had 'developed a democratic, egalitarian culture.' (According to Hartmann the difference is that the Maori had been on New Zealand for 700 years and had come to their crisis point, the people of New Caledonia had been there for 3,500 years and had already come through a similar crisis.) And he concludes this section by looking at an ancient Peruvian city that had a peaceful society for a thousand years.

The subtitles from Hartmann's final chapter sum up his ideas for changing things: 'Recovering a Culture of Democracy', 'Reunite Us with Nature', 'Create an Economy Modeled on Biology', 'Balance the Power of Women and Men', and 'Influence People by Helping Them Rather Than Bombing Them'. While the details of his solutions are not radical enough for me (he doesn't really challenge capitalism and nationalism), I would hardly call it New Agey or 'an unfocused mishmash'. (Maybe the reviewer didn't like the fact that Hartmann didn't offer a single solution to all the problems...) Of course, I think that my quartet of Simplicity, Equality, Community, and Sustainability are direct answers to the four 'mistakes'--but if you've been reading this blog a while, I'm sure you knew that. Still, this is a worthwhile book with some good analysis and good ideas on how to change things. I think it's worth a read.

Quote of the Day: "Our goal must be to bring all our own people--and then the rest of the world, in each culture's own way--above Maslow's threshold of safety and security so they can seriously engage in the egalitarian and liberal concepts of democracy and survivability. Whatever country, religion, organization, or culture that does that will then have the minds and hearts of the people, and can drive from the bottom up the kinds of change that will bring stability, freedom, peace, and sustainability to the world....
"Now saving the world is your work, too. Tag--you're it!" - Thom Hartmann

Friday, December 25, 2009


First of all, to all who celebrate it, I wish you a very Merry Christmas.

A former Catholic Christian, now a confirmed heathen, I am nevertheless a supporter of those who truly follow the Christian path. I do sometimes get bemused and occasionally annoyed by those who want to make everybody Christian though.

So, when I first heard the question, 'What Would Jesus Do?', a few years ago, my reaction was neutral to slightly negative. It seemed like one more way of asserting Christian superiority.

But, for some reason, I started thinking about it the other day. What would Jesus do? I thought back to all the gospel stories that I could remember--and the more I thought about it, the more I started to think that the things that Jesus would do--at least according to what was in the bible--seemed pretty good to me.

I talked about this with my friend, Robert, who has been making a recent, in depth, study of the bible. He basically agreed with my thinking.

First of all, Jesus preached and practiced nonviolence. He would not have supported any war. It's all over Matthew: "Blessed are the peacemakers", "...if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also;" "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," and when asked how many time you should forgive those who sin against you, Jesus says, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven." Luke also: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you..."

The only violent act that I know of that Jesus did was when he drove the moneychangers out of the temple--it's in all four gospels: " shall not make my Father's house a house of trade." (John) "'My house shall be called a house of prayer'; but you have made it a den of robbers." (Luke) It all makes me think Christ wouldn't have been a big supporter of corporate capitalism either.

I also mentioned my theory of SECS (see my post of 12/22/08 and the posts following; also in my latest zine) when talking about this, and Robert pointed out that Jesus did not talk about Sustainability. I don't think it was a hot topic at the time.

On the other hand, Jesus was certainly into Simplicity: "You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor..." (Mark) " not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. ... Sell your possessions, and give alms..." (Luke) "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." (Matthew)

As far as Equality goes, Jesus was there as well, not only hanging out with the rich and poor, but "...many tax collectors and sinners were sitting with Jesus and his disciples..." (Mark) Jesus talks with women, and a Samaritan woman at that, which amazes his disciples. (John) Robert pointed out to me that the shepherds that the angel appears to in Luke's nativity story were the lowest of the low in that society, what we would think of as gypsies, who slept out in the fields because they weren't allowed in town. Jesus seemed to treat everyone as an equal.

And finally, Jesus clearly believed in love, connection, and community. "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." (John) I've mentioned before that when I was in seventh grade a nun told us that the apostles were 'the first communists'. It's in the Acts of the Apostles: "Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common."

The more I think about it, the more I respect those that really ask themselves, what would Jesus do? It seems an appropriate question for Christmas.

(Incidentally, all quotes are from my copy of the Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version.)

Quote of the Day: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another." - John 13:34

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Permaculture Principles

As I learn more and more about permaculture (or 'regenerative culture' as some practitioners are now calling it), I am more and more appreciating the perspective that it offers. I first blogged on 'Permaculture' almost a year and a half ago (7/22/08). In that post I wrote an overview of permaculture. Here I'd like to focus on ethics and basic principles.

As I wrote in my first post, permaculture comes with a lot of interesting techniques. (I'm particularly fond of sheet mulching aka 'lasagna gardening'.) However, it is as a design philosophy that permaculture really shines. Permaculture is truly a systemic way of looking at things. (See my post of 12/14/09 for more on 'Systems'.) And that's why the ethics and principles of permaculture are so important.

The ethics seem clear; three important points are laid out. There seems to be no questions on the first two: care for the earth ('Earthcare') and care for people ('Peoplecare'). There are a few versions of the third. The one that seems currently popular now is 'Fairshare'--placing limits on consumption and making sure that we equitably share Earth's resources. I have also heard it referred to as giving away the surplus, which I like even better.

However, there are many different lists of the basic principles of permaculture. The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (aka ATTRA) lists thirteen principles. The Heathcote community, in its teaching module on permaculture, lists seven principles. David Holmgren, one of the founders of permaculture, lists twelve design principles. And Wikipedia, in its article on Permaculture, lists what it calls the O'BREDIM design methodology. (O'BREDIM stands for observation, boundaries, resources, evaluation, design, implementation and maintenance.)

I am going to pick and choose from all these lists. There is nothing original here--almost all of what's below has been lifted (rather directly--creative plagiarism) from one or more of the sites referenced above. (Occasionally I have fiddled with the wording so it makes more sense to me and I have combined stuff from different sites within some of the principles I list.) Here are what I think are the more important principles of permaculture in an order that I think makes sense:

1) Thoughtful and protracted observation: (I got this wording from Starhawk, Webs of Power.) Observation allows you first to see how the site functions within itself, to gain an understanding of its initial relationships.

2) Design from patterns to details: By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.

3) Stacking functions: Make sure that each element performs multiple functions.

4) Repeating functions: Make sure that each function is supported by many elements.

5) Reciprocity: Utilize the yields of each element to meet the needs of other elements in the system.

6) Integrate rather than segregate: By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.

7) Diversity: We want to create resilience by utilizing many elements.

8) Conservation: Use only what is needed.

9) Produce no waste: By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.

10) Use the edges and value the margins: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse, and productive elements in the system. Work to increase the edges within a system.

11) Use small and slow solutions: Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.

12) Creatively use and respond to change: We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.

That's my list. By looking through the lists I referenced above, you can create your own.

Now, who wants to create a new society using these principles?

Quote of the Day: "The process of providing for people's needs within ecological limits requires a cultural revolution. Inevitably such a revolution is fraught with many confusions, false leads, risks and inefficiencies. We appear to have little time to achieve this revolution. In this historical context, the idea of a simple set of guiding principles that have wide, even universal application is attractive." - David Holmgren

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Cost of Homelessness

Today is National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day. There will be vigils through out the country commemorating those who have died while being homeless. Through Bloggers Unite, blogs across the web will post something about homelessness.

A few weeks ago, I was at a rally in Boston. There were speakers and people singing but, although it was only around 30 degrees, the wind chill was fierce. My hands and feet began feeling cold to the point of being painful as I was standing there listening. A woman got up and spoke about how climate change was affecting people in the inner city. She mentioned that people weren't worrying about the environment when they had to decide between paying for food or heat. I thought about that for a moment and suddenly I was aware that, frozen as I was, I could go home when the rally was done and warm up. I thought about all the homeless people who have nowhere to go in this awful weather, and how many of them were actually freezing to death as I was just suffering temporarily.

My housemate just returned from Boston as I started writing this. She had passed a heating grate near Boston Common with metal spikes on it, apparently to prevent homeless people from sleeping there. She was outraged and came home and made a wooden cross that she wrote 'RIP Homeless People' on and went back there and put the cross over the grate to make it obvious what the city was doing.

Too many people have died because we don't care enough to make sure that everyone has a home. What will it take to change that?

How can we create a world where everyone has shelter, where everyone can be warm, where everyone has enough to eat? How can we create a world where, instead of McMansions, SUVs and plasma screen TVs, everyone's real needs are met? Everyone. The world over. Starting right here.

Quote of the Day: "There's no such thing as a natural death when you're living on the streets. It is just plain dangerous to be homeless." - Michaelann Bewsee

Sunday, December 20, 2009


For me this is a peaceful, holy time. I have memories of Christmas mixed in with my pagan reclaiming of the snows and candles and stars and evergreens. For me, Yule (as some pagans call the winter solstice) is the end of the year and the beginning of a time of reflection while I wait for the world to catch up on New Year's Day.

Right now I am waiting for the snow to fall. We are expecting six inches to a foot of snow and I just got word that a permaculture workshop that was scheduled for tomorrow is being cancelled because of the storm. This will give me more time for reflection, as well as more time to get things done.

I work this week until Wednesday and then the place I work shuts down until after the New Year. With my mother gone, others in my family are focusing on their in-law families and so we won't be getting together on Christmas for the first time that I can remember--instead we will have a New Year's day celebration which we will come together, exchange gifts, and enjoy each other's company.

And I will enjoy having some quiet time to myself, to read and rest and think and plan. What have I learned from the past year? What will this new year bring?

Feel free to add your comments on your year past and future.

And I am blogging on this today, right before the official solstice because the 21st is the National Homeless Persons Memorial Day, and bloggers, organized by Michaelann Bewsee, have been encouraged to write on the subject of Homelessness. So that's what I'll be writing on tomorrow.

And to all, may peace and stillness be with you no matter what you celebrate: Happy Yule, Solstice, Bodhi Day, Al-Hijra, Channukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year... Love and blessings to all!

Quote of the Day: "Yule (Jul) means 'wheel' in Norwegian. The wheel of the year stops and starts again.... The Solstice energy is one of pause, a chance to stop and express our hopes and intentions.... This is the time to pause, to perceive the seeds of our future growth, to gather intent, and make our resolutions for the coming months.... Be still. Experience the stillness... See where you want to be going when the time for movement comes." - Glennie Kindred

Friday, December 18, 2009

Mutual Causality

Causality is about how things happen; it's about causes. Much of philosophy, religion, and science view cause and effect in a linear pattern. A causes B which in turn causes C.

As I began a recent, deeper study of Buddhist thinking, I ran into something called 'dependent origination'. The Dalai Lama, for example, claims that it is very important to be aware of dependent origination in order to develop compassion. I read people who claim this is one of the key concepts in Buddhist teachings. I couldn't figure out what it meant. I need to thank my friend Robert, both for loaning me the book that I am reviewing here--Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory by Joanna Macy--as well as giving me some of his own writings on a variety of Buddhist topics, including dependent origination, which he refers to as 'Interdependent Co-arising'. Robert's choice of words was influenced by Joanna Macy's book. She, herself, uses the term 'dependent co-arising'. All these terms--dependent origination, interdependent co-arising, and dependent co-arising--relate to Buddha's view of the 'self' and of the world.

One of the traditional Indian views is that none of these really exist; they are all illusion, Maya. This is different from Western views that either claim only the self exists, or that the material world exists and is solid and studiable. Buddha, in early teachings, claims that none of these are true. Things, and the self, exist, but only in relationship. There is nothing solid, there is only process. Dependent origination/interdependent co-arising is the belief that everything is made of other stuff and nothing exists on its own. Two sheaves of reeds leaning against each other and a tripod of three sticks are a couple of the metaphors used to explain this. Remove any one of the sheaves or sticks and the rest fall down. They are dependent on each other. Similarly, the 'Self' does not exist on its own. There would be no self without a mind and there would be no self without a body. (And there would be no mind without a brain, but the mind is not the brain; just as there would be no body without cells, but the body is more than just a collection of cells.) The claim is that if you examine anything to see what it is, the thing disappears into a web of relationships. And the same is true of cause and effect. Nothing is caused by one thing, it is caused by a combination of factors, which it then influences. This is mutual causality.

This sounds a lot like what I learned as 'co-evolution' and it is. Joanna Macy goes on to point out that General System Theory (aka cybernetics, complexity theory, etc--see my last post) sees everything as connected to everything else and everything influencing everything else. In a systemic viewpoint, no one thing causes another thing, rather everything 'emerges' from relationships. (If you take everything down to the smallest level that we have been able to understand--subatomic 'particles'--everything is composed of quarks and leptons, which seem to be more like energy relationships than 'particles'.) Everything is a system in which 'the whole is more than the sum of its parts'. Joanna Macy uses Arthur Koesler's term holon (both a whole and a part) to explain this--seeing systems as 'nested boxes' or an "inverted tree... where systems branch downward into subsystems". Macy also mentions the metaphors of Heraclitus's 'ever-changing river' and of fire and flame (Buddha was supposed to have said "Everything... is burning...") to illustrate the continually-in-process (as opposed to solid and stable) nature of reality.

The language of this book is dry and academic. Joanna Macy's other writings are anything but dry; however here she is writing for an academic audience. (The book was originally published by the State University of New York.) But the ideas in this book make it worth reading. Macy ties the critiques of Buddhism and General Systems Theory together to totally undercut linear views of causality. In successive chapters, she looks at the Co-Arising of 'Knower and Known', 'Body and Mind', and 'Doer and Deed'. But it is in the last three chapters of Mutual Causality that she focuses on social change. The first of these chapters is entitled "The Co-Arising of Self and Society". She points out that we only exist in relation to others and society only exists in relation to each of us. This leads to her chapter on "Mutual Morality"--as I pointed out in one of my earliest posts ('Two Basic Principles', 6/30/08) if we really believe that everything is connected, then our self interest lies in helping others and making sure that the social and natural worlds function well. She ends the book with a chapter on "The Dialectics of Personal and Social Transformation": in changing ourselves we change our world, and in changing our world we change ourselves. There is what I see as a large feminist core here--one I can relate to Cris Williamson's "'re flowing like a river, the changer and the changed..." and Shekinah Mountainwater's "We are the weavers, we are the web..."

Of course each of us is small and Society is big--so individually it changes us more than we change it. But I am reminded also of Holly Near's lyrics to "The Rock will Wear Away": "Can we be like drops of water, Falling on the stone, Splashing, breaking, dispersing in air, Weaker than the stone by far but be aware, That, As time goes by, The rock will wear away..."

Quote of the Day: "From the cybernetic perspective, then, ends are open-ended. Their value for us is not as states we much [sic] achieve, come what may, or blueprints by virtue of which we manipulate persons and objects, but as ever-unfolding visions of what is valuable. The means we employ to realize the vision are steps taken in consequence of it. And each step expands or alters this vision, for what is realized, made real, are the acts themselves. ... For in mutual causality, whether viewed religiously or scientifically, the views we hold are ... present realities, unfolding out of the core of our existence and capable of transforming it in the present moment." - Joanna Macy

Monday, December 14, 2009


In college, I studied psychology and, just after graduating, I studied a little bit about family therapy. Later I got interested in computers and something called 'cybernetic modeling'. I was also intrigued by the branch of philosophy of science called General Systems Theory. And I was influenced in the eighties by feminist theory and things like ecofeminism and feminist process.

If you've followed this blog for a while, you're probably aware that these days my interests are more in the nature of ecology, complexity theory, intentional communities, permaculture, and transition towns. I've been also studying a bit about Buddhism. One book in particular really wrapped all this stuff together for me. It's a quite academic book, written by Joanna Macy, with the dry title of Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory. I'll talk more about the book in my next post.

What do family therapy, cybernetics, General Systems Theory, feminist process, ecology, complexity theory, intentional communities, permaculture, and the Transition Initiative have in common? Not hard to guess with the title of this blog--they are all about systems. Family systems, cybernetic systems, ecosystems, and complex adaptive systems. Feminist process has often been about creating group (ie, systemic) leadership rather than individual leadership. Permaculture is all about systems design. An intentional community is as much a system as an ecosystem. The Transition movement is all about systemic change. And Joanna Macy makes it clear in her book that Buddhist thinking has a lot in common with systems theory.

I think that most of my life I have felt drawn to systemic ways of looking at things. One of my mantras is "It's all connected." This is why I can go from talking about love and compassion to peak oil to poverty and social justice to barnraisings and gardenraisings to relocalization. I see the connections; I can even dimly see the whole system behind it all. What I can see clearer, what's generally always on my mental peripheral vision, is a vision of a different way of living. I know that another world is possible and it is a world that recognizes systems and interconnections. Systems theory, as I am relearning, has talked about self-organizing and emerging systems for quite a while--complexity theory is just the latest incarnation. That's why I spend so much time pointing out that there isn't a single most important problem to deal with and there won't be one simple solution to it all. It is a systems problem and it requires systemic thinking and systemic change.

Quote of the Day: "The way to build a complex system that works is to build it from very simple systems that work." - Kevin Kelly

Friday, December 11, 2009


What I'm writing this time harks back to one of my earliest posts (6/28/08), which I entitled 'Looking for The Answer?' I pointed out there that I didn't think there was one solution to all of our problems and was skeptical of those who did.

A few months back I was at a meeting of our local Transition group. (See my post of 10/16/08 for more on the Transition Initiative.) We had just seen a disturbing film on the effects of peak oil. In response, a bunch of people began propounding solutions to the problem--very different solutions offered, one after another, with no reference to anything that anyone else had said. There was a real feeling that no one was listening to anyone else. (Actually, not totally true--one of the facilitators was trying to pull together some of the threads--but she was cut off by yet another person needing to propose his theory of why we were in this mess.) I realized that if the purpose of this group was really to build a movement, we were certainly going about it the wrong way.

And I had this vision, a kind of metaphorical insight. I have been part of related groups where we had been doing 'weatherization barnraisings' and 'garden raisings' (basically, helping each other weatherize our houses and building raised bed gardens together.) My vision was of some type of actual barnraising--or at least trying to build something together: a shack, a shed, a house, a barn, or even a few raised bed gardens.

Imagine that a crowd gathers as a truck pulls up and unloads a stack of wooden boards. Each person grabs a board--and examines it and proclaims it the best board ever. Everyone begins walking around yelling that they have the greatest board of all times and everyone else's board is lousy.

My question is: How fast do you think anything will get built?

As far as I'm concerned, the only way to build anything--I will repeat this because I think it's important--the only way to build anything, is to connect the boards.

Quote of the Day: "Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don't have to do anything else. We don't have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen." - Margaret Wheatley

Friday, December 4, 2009


Wandering through the 'blogosphere', amidst all the family scrapbooks and merchandising sites, there are some really good blogs--blogs which speak truth about the world. Among them, I think, are the blogs that I follow. One of them, Provocations, had a post (two months ago) that continues to resonate with me. It was called 'Cultivate'. The writer, Robyn Coffman, who also goes by ViolentLove, wrote something so profound, I feel the need to quote much of it here. She said:

"Let us cultivate unoffendable hearts.

"Everyday we have so many opportunities to be offended. The occasions for taking offense are practically endless. Indeed, we are daily given the opportunity to either be offended by something or to possess an unoffendable heart.

"Online, offline. In relationships. At work and play... so often we are misunderstood, misrepresented and/or dealing with people who operate out of their places of pain... we have the choice to either continue the cycles of offense or to stop them.

"We can choose to pour out grace, mercy, love and truth."

I think about this frequently. How can I be unoffendable? How can I respond with "grace, mercy, love and truth" rather than my usual defensiveness? It's a prod to me to change how I am in the world.

Robyn is an evangelical Christian who ministers to abused young people. I am often amazed and humbled by her descriptions of her work. But oddly enough, another post that moved me was by someone with a very different religious perspective. My friend Susan Rose is an Ethical Culture leader--basically humanist clergy. Her faith is quite different from Robyn's but what they both have in common is caring hearts. Susan does her ministry these days over at the Ethical Society Without Walls website, also known as ESWoW.

A couple of months ago she wrote a post that I was taken with called 'Act So As To Elicit The Best'. The title comes from a concept developed by Felix Adler, the founder of Ethical Culture: "Act so as to elicit the best in others and thereby in oneself." In her post Susan says that to do this requires that we believe "that others do indeed have a 'best.'" I think that believing others really do have a best is an important part of creating a better world. It's so easy to write off people, so to assume that people have a 'best' is to believe that everyone is important, that everyone has worth. Susan talks about this as her message to others: "I value your ideas, I value your being." She points out that she doesn't say this in so many words, but this is what she believes and she tries to make her actions actions consistent with it. She said that when her daughter questioned her about "...what makes Ethical Culture a religion...", Susan gave her treatment of others as an example of spiritual value from Ethical Culture.

These two posts got me thinking. Imagine if we all could be unoffendable, instead pouring out "grace, mercy, love and truth." Imagine if we saw the best in every person, valuing their ideas and their very being. I think this would be radical social change. I think that this could begin the healing of the world.

Quote of the Day: "The first and most essential principle
is the cultivation of the heart.
"There is only one way
to cultivate this quality
to become more and more selfless
with each step we take." -Robyn Coffman

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It's Not a Race

Commuting to work by bicycle is interesting. I'm far from the only cyclist on the road--there is usually a line of bikes next to the line of cars. The thing is that I am a fairly slow cyclist compared to the twenty-somethings passing me on racing bikes, while my fifty-eight year old legs pump my fat-tired mountain bike.

Unfortunately some of the folks seem to mistake the morning commute for the 'Tour de France'--jockeying for position and cutting one another off. (Not to mention bombing through red lights--I may be one of the few cyclists that actual stops for red lights.)

As I'm biking to work I started thinking about the saying 'Nice Guys Finish Last'. For a moment forget about the sexist language and questions about what 'nice' means. Just think about the implications of this for a minute. Finish what? What are we in a rush for?

I hope it's not about life, because I'm in no hurry to finish that. That would be a nice thing to finish last.

But there seems to be a tendency in this society to view life as some sort of race. We are impelled by urgency. In a capitalist economic system, everything is about competition and getting ahead of everyone else. A few months ago Harvard Square Station (in Cambridge) was decked with signs claiming "You're Either Fast or You're Food" and decorated with wolves, big cats, and guys in racing shoes.

Is this the way we want to live? Instead of 'Nice Guys Finish Last', how about 'We Travel Together and Help Each Other'? That's the difference between rampant individualism and building community.

Quote of the Day: "It is more important to know where you are going than to get there quickly." - Mabel Newcomer