The other day, I penned a small diatribe against utopians who — having power at their disposal — severely damaged our world. The essay echoed around the internet and found some surprising opposition among peer-to-peer systems proponents. When my riposte met with silence, I decided to piggyback onto that thread here.

Perhaps the rant came off my keyboard too hastily: I was fuming against all those people who, certain of their “vision” and having obtained access to the corridors of power, then proceed to impose it on us all, regardless of objections, regardless of feedback, regardless, indeed, of the reality they *actually* create.

I am all for literary utopias where speculation runs rampant and new vistas open up to human imagination. What I am against is taking that speculation and trying to hoist it upon the hapless humans that happen to be within the utopian’s power orbit. Often this takes the form of policies and laws forced upon people to change their behavior. It’s been called “social engineering” in some circles, and aptly so, since it essentially pushes and manipulates people in the direction the utopian wants them to go, and through top-down methods no less. That, my friends, is not autonomy. That’s not freedom, nor is it respect. That’s not the right algorithm for getting there.

How, then, do you grow a future that works? Christopher Alexander happens to have a few things to say about it in his Process of Creating Life.

The essence of successful unfolding is that form develops step by step, and that the building as a whole then emerges, coherent, organized. The success if this process depends, always, on sequence. A building design can unfold successfully only when its features “crystallize out” in a proper order.

Instead of using plans, design, and so on, I shall argue that we must instead use generative processes. Generative processes tell us what to do, what actions to take, step by step, to make buildings and building designs unfold beautifully, rather than detailed drawings which tell us what the end-result is supposed to be.

The step-by-step approach works. The all-or-nothing approach does not work. This is the secret of biological evolution. During the course of evolution, the adaptation of the thousands and millions of variables that must occur to make one successful organism happens step-by-step, essentially one gene at a time. That is what makes evolution possible. It would be impossible for nature to “design” a system as complex as any organism all at once.

What steps do you take, in what order? The most basic instruction I can give you as a guide for a living process, is that you move with certainty. That means, you take small steps, one at a time, deciding only what you know. You try never to take a step which is a guess or a “why don’t we try this?” Large scale trial-and-error, shots in the dark, simply do not work. Rather, you move by slow, small decisions, deciding one thing, getting sure about it, and then moving on.

The crux of every design process lies in finding the generative sequence for that design, and making sure that sequence is the right one for the job.

Generative sequences emerge from the doing. When I discovered them in Alexander’s writing, I thought he was referring to some template to follow, because he mentioned a song some Oceanic culture uses to pass on the sequence for building a canoe. It begins, “First, find the right tree,” and ends, “Carve the prow in the shape of a woman.”

Not so. Generative sequences emerge from the doing, when we begin where we are, and move organically from there. Sometimes, the generative sequence that emerges is of common use, when, for example, people often make canoes. Such a generative code (which might be turned into a song or a rhyme) becomes a cultural treasure, worth passing on to successive generations. Creating a sound agricultural terrace is another example. Or placing the windows in a room being built. But in unique or novel situations, the sequence itself emerges step by step.

Here’s the actual emergence of a generative sequence for household composting. When I came to the house where I lived for a number of years, I of course had an elaborate vision in my head of a large square compost heap, preferably made of nice wooden slats that were removable on one side. You’ve seen the pictures. So I chose a spot for it, and tried to figure out if I could build it. It seemed beyond me at that time. I considered using cinder blocks, but that would have made it too big and too ugly. Buying a nice wooden structure would have meant spending a lot of money ordering by mail, since local gardening shops had nothing like it. I was reluctant to turn this project into a shopping expedition. I also developed doubts about the location of the heap. I simply began to throw weeds and rotting refuse onto the spot. But it turned out too out of the way. At that point, I more or less gave up. Much later, I hit upon a generative sequence. It went like this:

  1. Need (“felt vision”): to stop throwing food bits into the garbage; to return them to the cycle of life. To walk my walk.
  2. So. If I don’t throw them away, where do I put them (as I am holding the potato peels)?
  3. Ah. Grab a plastic container, place by the sink, put peels in it.
  4. Next morning… ok, now, what do I do with these rotting peels? I have a big old plastic flower pot way back in the garden where I throw a bit of grass refuse and weeds; why don’t I throw the peels there? Done.
  5. Ick. I don’t like going way back there in bad weather. I need a place where I can empty the container if it snows, if I am barefoot or wearing only undies. I grab the flower pot and move it by the back door. Voila!
  6. Oops, we have a problem. I keep tossing the bits in the garbage anyway… keep forgetting. I need a way to change a lifelong habit. How about making a big squiggle on the side of the garbage bin with a sharpie pen? Yes, it works.
  7. Spring comes, and the pot is beginning to stink. What now? Toss some sawdust on it? Time to experiment.
  8. A bit of soil and warmer temps cure the problem.

And so it went. I did not spend a penny on the system. And since I evolved it stepwise from need to need, it is not surprising that it actually served my needs! One of these days, I will spring for a nice porcelain container with a lid to place by the sink. Now I know exactly the size and shape I need. And by the way, that spot I had originally picked for the heap? It would have been completely wrong on several counts. If I had used a plan, I would only have found out after implementation. Too late.

The emergence of new structures in nature is brought about, always, by a sequence of transformations which act on the whole, and in which each step emerges as a discernible and continuous result from the immediately preceding whole. New form comes into being. Morphogenesis occurs. New form that is, in almost every case, unpredictable from the initial state, appears smoothly via a sequence of tiny continuous changes. The sequences are not merely smooth. We have a sequence in which new structure grows organically, holistically, from the structure which is there already. One whole gives rise to another.


how nature generates a plant


Governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.
— Elinor Ostrom

It was Elinor Ostrom who began to speak of nestedness as one of the key components of a successful co-governance of the commons. But tribal societies had long been organized along these lines. A regional tribal alliance nested within it several tribes, which each nested several bands, and those nested several affinity clusters, composed of individual human beings. This way of organizing has an organic feel to it; our own bodies are “nested enterprises.”



It’s a curious thing. Human (tribal) organization units — affinity clusters, bands, tribes, tribal confederacies — don’t scale up. They don’t grow by proportional increase. What happens if an affinity group is pushed to grow past its natural limit? Ill will rises amongst the members. The strengths of the group — intimacy, trust, spontaneous conversations, easy problem solving — begin to fade. The group turns dysfunctional. People leave. When it reaches some 20-25 members, the size of a small band, it begins to function again, as facilitation, talking sticks, councils, committees and other formal devices are implemented to manage group process. It looks like a band, but is it? The previous formation out of which it has grown has been destroyed. The resulting “band” is just a growing collection of individuals, no longer anchored in smaller units, and vulnerable to the misuse of power. This is the violence of “biggering” that this civilization brings into everything it touches. As hamlets grow into small towns, and towns into cities, the person’s political clout vanishes, and anonymity and deracination take their toll.


Why don’t we learn from the growth of entities that are not known for ravaging the inheritance they have been given? A healthy cell does not grow unchecked. It divides. The divided cells form clusters, which form tissues, which form organs, and eventually, an organism arises, all without anyone dictating the development. That is how nestedness works. Some call it holarchy. They say it’s a type of hierarchy, but it seems to me the inverse of a hierarchy: there is no top or bottom, and there are no bosses. As this diagram shows, there are always more potential levels each way, as atoms give way to subatomic particles, and organisms rise together to form societies, ecosystems, and beyond.

Holarchy: a meta-system of irreducible wholes that are themselves part of larger wholes, ultimately comprising all life on earth from a single cell to the entire planetary ecosphere.


What if we were to grow communities via natural self-organization? Individuals spontaneously form affinity groups. Some flourish more than others, and divide. Out of several, a band emerges. Out of a few bands, a tribe emerges. (It would take only 7 layers starting with groups of a dozen to include every human on the face of the earth!) Note that this sort of growth does not do violence to the prior, more local, smaller groupings. They keep on flourishing, part and parcel of the logic of that particular social organism.


holarchic schema of a tribe

What is the advantage of this way of growth and organization, besides imitating the success of Mother Nature? Governance can take place appropriately; the smaller, earlier units largely retain their autonomy; the broader, more encompassing later units like bands and tribes deal with broader matters that pertain to bands and tribes. Easy conversations, intimacy and trust are undiminished. At the same time, the larger, later units bring with their emergence novel advantages: coordination, attention to larger parts of the commons, diversified talent pools, and clout. And the organization that remains anchored in small groups of trusted associates has a leg up on the problem of free riding. It is easy to see what other people are doing within your group; easy to apply peer pressure if needed. The genius of successful commons management summarized in Ostrom’s eight principles rests on trust which is impossible without people knowing one another well over time.

Nested systems are self-organizing, emergent, bottom-up systems. They preserve direct involvement of each member. They are polycentric, having many semi-autonomous decision nodes rather than one. This makes them robust, adaptable, and resilient. Rules too are crafted from the bottom up, and are adjustable by the members with a focus on creating a structure of incentives favorable to both trust-building and maintaining a diverse environment favorable to discovering better solutions to problems. To paraphrase Ostrom, “when large systems fail, there are smaller systems to call upon — and vice versa.” Each smaller, earlier level is influenced by, and itself influences, the broader, later levels. Each cluster, each band, each tribe is an entity unto itself, and a part of an entity larger than itself. Allowing decisions to be made as close to the scene of events and the actors involved as possible, each affinity cluster, each band is a self-regulating, open system that displays both the autonomous properties of wholes and the dependent properties of parts.

So. What’s stopping us?

[part 3 of a series]

Two friends and long time residents of the small town of Lake Wobegon looked at each other nearly a year ago, and said, ok, it’s time to quit bitching. The town hall ain’t gonna do it. If we want our town to be resilient in the face of all that’s coming our way in the near future, we have to do it ourselves.

So they began to invite their neighbors and coworkers to movie showings and presentations with discussion afterwards. The group grew slowly at first, but 9 months later, they have about 25 people who are showing a high level of commitment and eagerness to get going. They want to make the leap from study to action. And they don’t want to wait past the time when the group grows too large to gather in one place and set the foundation.

They are all familiar with sociocracy as they recently took a two-day workshop. There is a strong feeling in the group in its favor. Plus, some people are already gathering into small groups following their interests: local food, water, and What’s our next step, they ask one another?

Their sociocracy trainer who has agreed to stay in touch and help them during the first year, suggests they form another small group for governance implementation. It is this group that puts on a “Resilient Lake Wobegon in one afternoon” extravaganza. A pleasant room is secured, munchies and drinks, and one afternoon in late winter, all 25 people pile into the room and lay down the foundation of their organization in one fell swoop.

They already know the consent process. All the 25 gather into a big circle, and consent to several foundational proposals that were prepared ahead of time by the organizers. One of them of course being about accepting sociocracy as their governance method, for how long (say a year) and setting the criteria for evaluation.

Then people break up into the four groups already informally established. Each group selects its log keeper, facilitator, and two linkers. Then each circle decides on its aim. Vision, mission, and main responsibilities are just sketched out, to be fine-tuned later.

The two linkers from each group come together in the center of the room, and the general circle is born. They too select their log keeper, and facilitator, and decide which of the eight people will be the ops-linkers which will represent the general circle in each specific circle. The remaining four linkers will be the rep-linkers, representing their specific circle within the general circle. With the rest of the group watching and contributing, they come up with a vision, mission, aim and domain of responsibility for their circle. But only the eight general circle members engage in the formal consent sequence.

To finalize the afternoon, the general circle walks one proposal through all the steps from start to finish, seeking to consent on how to welcome new members and prepare them to participate in the sociocratic process. Then the organizers draw a quick chart of the organization with double links.

lake wobegon

Done! Time for champagne and fireworks!

Sociocracy makes creative new solutions possible. There are many ways that this group of people could alter this particular pattern to customize it to their needs as those needs emerge.

Well then. Hm. It was a nice exercise for the anal part of me (here is a step by step list, yish!), but does a group of friends wanting to increase local resilience need a governance structure? When does a group need one, and when would it be better for the energy of the group just go and do stuff? And how about letting governance evolve rather than imposing it in one fell swoop?

It is dawning on me that sociocracy really is a culture. And a culture cannot be imposed; it can only be nurtured and evolved. And it can only be nurtured and evolved if it is internalized and embodied. I will be thinking about how sociocracy can be gently seeded among people seeking to share power within collaborative endeavors.

And my advice to our friends at Lake Wobegon? Gather into a small circle to do something that excites you. That’s your aim. Learn the consent process for making decisions. Then go implement them. Toggle back and forth between thinking and doing. Have fun. When you run into a possible sister group, double-link with them. Let it all grow from the grassroots.

moving to sociocracy

[part 2 of a series]

Sociocracy is governance by the socios: our colleagues and peers. It is also known as “collaborative governance”, and “dynamic governance.” The term ‘sociocracy’ is not ideal, but for the time being it seems the most practical for its clarity and brevity.

Interestingly, some people are thinking of sociocracy as part of permaculture because permaculture-like principles are embedded in the concepts and practices of sociocracy, and are beginning to include basic sociocracy training in permaculture courses. For those wishing to pursue this line of thought further, here are a couple of links:
Sociocracy: a permaculture approach to community evolution, by Rios
Mapping sociocracy to permaculture, by DecisionLab

I will attempt to flesh out the gist of sociocracy in one short post; a perilous undertaking. Please comment with corrections or requests for clarifications as needed. I hope to shed some light on the four key aspects of governance identified in the previous post.

Defining expectations means, first of all, achieving consent regarding whether the group will commit to sociocratic governance for the time being, and fleshing out the vision (what does the world need), mission (how will our group provide it), aim (what specifically will we do to provide it), and domain of responsibility for each circle.

Laying out the structures and patterns of interaction and power flows
: double-linked circles are the foundation of the organization. Power and information flow both ways between the circles. Everyone has a voice; all members consent to working and governing together. A message that cannot be ignored can be sent from any level of the organization. Each circle is a semi-autonomous entity that carries out both the ‘thinking’ aspect of working together (usually referred to as policy making) and the ‘doing’ aspect (referred to as “operations” in business). Here is a simple diagram of a sociocratic organization, in this case one implemented some time ago by the Lost Valley community in Oregon.

lost valley

Though Lost Valley had a board of directors at the time, this is not a requirement. The overall template of the sociocratic organization consists of several specific circles double-linked to a general circle which may choose — and double-link to — an advisory circle of outside experts. Specific circles may choose sub-specific circles to carry out even more specific tasks. Double-linking is achieved by selecting two linkers; one represents the more specific circle in the more general circle, and the other represents the general circle within the more specific circle. Each linker is a full member of both circles.

In business contexts, people speak of higher and lower circles. As sociocracy’s concepts get translated to egalitarian, communitarian, and other alternative communities’ ways of speaking, the descriptors will shift. We can think of power moving sideways, from more specific circles to more general, from short-term thinking to long-term thinking, or from more concrete to more abstract, and back. Circles typically designate top-down leaders for “doing” circles or work groups, to take advantage of the chain of command when it suits.

Decision-making is by consent of all members of a circle. No stand asides, no blocks, no stuckness. Magic? Almost. Consent-based decision-making is the heart of sociocracy. It is used to select people into roles, and to respond to issues.

A proposal is formed and its completeness is consented to. It is then presented to the circle for consideration. The facilitator asks for more information from each person in turn. Finally, during a consent round, objections are solicited. If there are none, the proposal is passed. If there are reasoned and paramount objections, the proposal is reconsidered and improved.

This is the barest outline of a sophisticated and subtle process that makes group decision-making a joy. Objections are actually sought out! They are gifts to the circle, and make better decisions possible. People don’t have to heartily approve of a decision. All they need to be is willing to try it out. As Diana puts it: “Good enough for now, safe enough to try.” Most decisions made now are easy to change later.

This link explains sociocratic decision-making in a cohousing community. And this one shows the details of selecting people for roles.

Performance monitoring is essential to the ongoing fine-tuning of “how we are doing”: of people’s actions, of solutions, of directions, and so on. Criteria for measuring performance are built into proposals and roles. Evaluation dates are set. And a pattern for giving useful feedback is outlined.


All policies and decisions are based on present knowledge; there is no need to craft perfect solutions that can bear up in all future contingencies. Sociocracy produces good-enough decisions for now, followed by continuous adaptations based on feedback.

When using sociocracy, people already know they might modify any future implemented proposal to adjust how it operates in day-to-day reality. Like creative engineers with a project on a drawing board, they know they have to try it under real-life conditions to see how it actually functions before they know it will work. — Diana Leafe Christian

Some people desirous of horizontal political structures where power cannot be hijacked speak of leaderless organizations. A sociocratic organization is not leaderless, but rather taps into the leadership abilities of each and every member, and leaders chosen for specific roles are fully supported. It can, however, be acephalous if its members so consent.

So… here it is; sociocracy in a nutshell.


One of my first ventures here at Earthaven has been to take Diana Leafe Christian’s two day workshop on sociocracy. I aim to turn my learning into several blog posts. What I say here is not a recap of Diana’s views, but rather my own effort at working through the material on my own terms, so I may successfully internalize it. Diana’s workshop was well attended, and was absolutely fabulous. I had read up on sociocracy, but only after taking this workshop did it become vivid in my mind: Diana’s many creative and experiential teaching methods made it all come together. Highly recommended for anyone wanting to learn this method of governance!

Why sociocracy?
I am not a long meeting lover; I like to come together with others to get things going; I remember endless processing as a bane of my Green days. Sociocracy avoids these pitfalls. It also appeals to my desire for a self-organizing, bottom-up governance system that gives voice to all.

The four elements
According to Diana, there are four key elements of healthy communities. Community glue is generated by enjoyable shared activities that engender gratitude, trust, and feelings of good will. Potlucks, singalongs, games, personal sharings, and many other activities are the glue that keeps community functioning well. Good process and communication results from community members acquiring the skills to speak, listen, and deal with conflicts in ways that build interhuman harmony. Non-violent communication and restorative circles are a few examples. Effective project management covers all those ongoing things — like keeping a community tidy, its paths free of poison ivy, visitors welcomed and showed around, and cash flow flowing both ways– that need doing to keep the community humming along. And good governance is at the heart of a well-functioning community, tying together the strands into a unified whole.

The word governance comes from the Greek for steering. It is the manner in which power is exercised among those involved in a collective endeavor. A quick foray into wiki and other sources identifies four main aspects of governance:

  • defining expectations (what are we hoping for? what are we responsible for?)
  • laying out the structures and patterns of interaction and power flows (what is the organization’s diagram? how does it work? who governs?)
  • decision-making (who will serve in this role? how do we deal with this issue?)
  • performance monitoring (how are we doing?)

Sociocracy, as a whole-system governance method, covers all these key aspects of governance. It was invented by a Dutch engineer in the 70s, wanting to run his small company in a way that would foster harmony in the workplace, while making sure everyone has a voice (equivalence), information flows freely (transparency), and the company succeeds in the marketplace (effectiveness). His thinking was influenced by Quaker-based consensus, cybernetics (feedback loops), and self-organizing systems.

More to come!


Reading nature’s book is what permaculture is all about.
— Toby Hemenway

If humans are ever going to live sustainably on this planet, we simply cannot continue thinking that sustainability is something we must engineer.
— Paula Hay

Permaculture has progressed from offering another way to farm and garden to providing a toolkit for those who dream of designing entire human ecologies — habitats and food production — that have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. But the wonderful world of permaculture embodies one glaring omission. Imitation of nature, universally urged, is not extended far enough.

“Observe what happens in nature and then imitate it; adapt strategies that have already evolved,” writes Bill Mollison. Instead of fighting mama nature or trying to control her, we follow her lead. After all, she has a very long track record of nurturing life — 3.8 billion years, to be exact. We are surrounded by evolutionary success; the sustainable world we long for already exists all around us. Tapping into nature’s wisdom must surely underlie any efforts at embodying wisdom in human undertakings.

Let us then apply this excellent advice while reflecting on our toolkit itself. What makes natural ecosystems work in terms of design? We humans have barely scratched the surface in our effort to understand. But we know there is no designer or planner overseeing a pond, moving the tadpoles and reeds to and fro, no micromanager of the thicket, directing the blackberries here and the dog rose there. Yet permaculturists behave as though they are imitating that interventionist God insisted upon by evangelical Christians.

Does nature design ecosystems via blueprints and future-to-present impositions? Does it envision a billion years ahead, then implement? Does nature take a burnt-over meadow and shape it according to a plan? Perish the thought. Lifelong nature observation leads me to be confident in asserting that nature emerges and evolves ecosystems by paying attention to present needs and opportunities, that it works piecemeal rather than in grand designs, and that it relies on co-adaptations of all living creatures to one another in a dance whose result cannot be predicted.

“Permaculture looks for the patterns embedded in our natural world as inspirations for designing solutions to the many challenges we are presented today,” says Jan Martin Bang in his deeply informed-by-experience Eco-villages book. Is the time ripe for permaculture to shift its attention to the meta-level, and pattern its design process itself on the natural world? I would love to see us extend our admiration for and mimicry of nature’s ingenious design to her way of designing as well.

I proffer here a few thoughts regarding what some useful permadesign guiding lights might be. My own understanding of permaculture is small, local and unfinished; barely begun. So I hereby point to an inviting edge where creative forces play and wait for more of us humans to join them.

How then does nature design?

  • Nature focuses on the never-ending journey, rather than on the destination. She does not set goals, but rather goes forth in iterative steps. Experiencing the journey itself is part of what guides the process.
  • Nature works in “trial & error” spirals, loops, zero-waste cycles. The quintessential spiral herb garden serves as a reminder of the spiral cycles underlying creation. When we humans create in the presence of uncertainty, it is these flowing and ongoingly-unfolding spirals that lead us from within.
  • Nature unfolds the future from the present, from what is-here-now. It is from this very moment that future arises, not from projections and plans. The present moment holds within it the seed of emergence.
  • Nature self-organizes from initial conditions. Self-organization is a term bandied about a great deal nowadays, but few people seem to know what it means. Software designers build in snippets of evolving adaptations into “God’s view” designs and call it self-organization. Leaving it to the “artificial life” crowd seems fraught with risk; only when we grow the understanding and practice of self-organization within real life, our life, we make it our own.
  • Nature moves from wholeness to wholeness. To cherish the land means cherishing it now, as it is, despite its woundedness. After all, even land that has been abused pulses with its own life, its own living logic, its tenacious wholeness, its integrity. To go in with blueprints, chainsaws and bulldozers, ripping up wholesale ‘what is’, to be replaced by our willful design… — isn’t that yet another wound, this one in the name of healing? Nature teaches that “wholeness is always formed by a special process in which new structure emerges directly out of existing structures, in a way which preserves the old structure, and therefore makes the new harmonious.
  • Nature uses the small and slow — gradual, tiny increments, not comprehensive designs. As Christopher Alexander has observed, “living structures always arise slowly, by successive transformations of what exists, gradually, gradually….” From many small steps, surprising new structures emerge. Might growing a very local and slowly maturing relationship with the land serve life better than installing a comprehensive design, no matter how seemingly benign?
  • Nature exhibits entropy-defying directionality. Mysterious, it is, this directionality that does not project the ideal future first, but somehow arises in tandem with the very first steps taken.
  • Nature plants seeds, then lets them grow to see what happens.
  • Nature oscillates between periods of stability where organisms get a chance to evolve and come into their own, and periods of high stress when less resilient organisms get weeded out or diminished.
  • In nature, everybody’s a designer — the hedgehog or the possum, the apple and the oak tree, the mallow and the slime mold, along with the human who lives nearby. Animals, plants, and microbes have found what works, what is appropriate, and most important, what lasts here on Earth. An ecosystem is a community of co-designers, colleagues. There is no master designer telling the others what to do.
  • Nature’s designers all evolve in response to each other; co-adaptation is one of the aspects of self-organization and proceeds via cycles of mutual responsiveness. “Design is adaptive only when it is done in steps, and each step accepts feedback from the existing structure.
  • Nature’s designers mimic each other’s evolved patterns. As moths mimic the eyes of a bird for protection from predators, so humans mimic the sophistication of a leaf when inventing a better solar cell. And life’s principles show the way: build from the bottom up, self-assemble, optimize rather than maximize, use free energy, cross-pollinate, embrace diversity, adapt and evolve, use life-friendly materials and processes, engage in symbiotic relationships, and enhance the biosphere. What surrounds us is the secret to survival.

I am resisting at this point the urge to speculate further or to sally forth with pithy, half-baked advice. That would surely go against the spirit of what I have written so far. The next steps will emerge from a community of collaborators, people who are animated by the need to extend permadesign in a more processual direction, using bottom-up, biological metaphors. So I will restrain myself! and tell a story instead. Let it illuminate the words I have summoned to express what is a-borning inside me.

There was once a woman who invited permies to her urban yard for a class. They presented the family with several attractive designs, and she chose one to implement at considerable effort and expense. When all was said and done, she discovered that the reality in her garden was completely out of touch with the reality of her small children who tripped over vegetable beds and crushed the hapless cabbages. Eventually, most of the garden was ripped out to bring back the lawn. Will the family give permaculture designers another chance? Will the land?

Once again, I end with the words of Christopher Alexander. [To see the larger passage containing this quote, go to this German forum and scroll down.]

The 20th-century mainstream view of building was goal-oriented and mechanistic, aimed mainly at end-results, not on the inner good of processes. Building was viewed as a necessary way to achieve a certain end-result. The design drawn by the architect – the master plan drawn by the planner – was the purpose, these were the goals of the art. The process of getting to the goal was thought to be of little importance in itself, except insofar as it attained (or failed to attain) the desired goal.

The mechanistic view of architecture we have learned to accept in our era is crippled by this overly-simple, goal-oriented approach. In the mechanistic view of architecture we think mainly of design as the desired end-state of a building, and far too little of the way or process of making a building as something inherently beautiful in itself. But, most important of all, the background underpinning of this goal-oriented view – a static world almost without process – just is not a truthful picture. As a conception of the world, it roundly fails to describe things as they are. It exerts a crippling effect on our view of architecture and planning because it fails to be true to ordinary, everyday fact. For in fact, everything is constantly changing, growing, evolving. The human body is changing. Trees bear leaves, and the leaves fall. The road cracks. People’s lives change from week to week. The building moves with wind and rain and movement of the earth. Buildings and streets and gardens are modified constantly while they are inhabited, sometimes improved, sometimes destroyed. Towns are created as a cooperative flow caused by hundreds, even millions, of people over time.

Why is this process-view essential? Because the ideals of “design,” the … drawing of the imaginary future, the … watercolor perspective of the future end-state, control our conception of what must be done – yet they bear no relation to the actual nature, or problems, or possibilities, of a living environment. And they are socially backward, since they necessarily diminish people’s involvement in the continuous creation of their world.

Everything is deeply intertwingled.
— Ted Nelson

Remember when we discovered systems thinking? All those amazing feedback loops and flows; finally, a way to grok that the system really is more than the sum of its parts. Well, complexity thinking takes the fun a few steps out into the wild blue yonder. It builds on those systems insights. But instead of painting images of thermostats and other mechanical gizmos, it dwells on slime molds, weather patterns, ants, immune systems and whirlpools. The feel of it – oh joy – is organic, organismic. It leads us away from machine-based thought patterns that have dominated civilized intellectual landscape for centuries. No more clockwork universes for you and me, thank you very much!

Complexity thinking emerged from non-linear mathematics. In practice, it means stepping out of the framework of linear continuity and smoothness, and entering the world of discontinuities and sudden transformations. A particularly endearing concept is the phase shift. Picture a brook babbling along while the temperature drops. Nothing to see here, just water, right? Then all of a sudden, what was swirling fluid turns into hard, crunchy ‘glass.’ A phase shift just occurred – an unexpected reconfiguration, sometimes a fundamental leap or an evolutionary breakthrough. Phase shifts are not intuitively apparent. Would a tribesman raised deep in the Amazon ever anticipate ice? And this is one of the reasons doom no longer makes sense to me. The daunting, dreadful, suicidal sameness we see all around us holds the potential for an astonishing transformation, a radical reordering of what was there before.

Often, it is a tiny nudge that leads the system to such a shift. This phenomenon is called the ‘butterfly effect.’ As the saying goes, a butterfly flapping its wings in China may precipitate a windstorm in Kansas. Discovered by a mathematician who was studying weather patterns, butterfly effect simulations were instrumental in convincing the scientific community that accurate long term weather forecasts were not possible. Translation: what each one of us does to coax out a better world can have a huge and surprising impact down the line; moreover, it’s not something opponents of such changes can foresee or prepare for.

Complexity thinking explores new metaphors and intimations that are remarkably friendly to the new political and social consciousness just now being born. Take self-organization, for example. Self-organization — the ability to emerge structures without anyone actually in charge — is the default behavior of complex adaptive systems. In other words, life knows how to organize from within and will do so if left to its own devices. Hey, the anarchists have been right all along! And even better: complex systems show that entirely local behaviors generate global patterns and structures (global in this case meaning systemic, overall). As researchers say about social animals, “they think locally and act locally, but their collective action produces global behavior.” If slime molds can do it, surely humans might?

When individuals in a group are able to respond collectively to changes in circumstances, the group becomes a complex adaptive system. Life, as a complex adaptive system, happens ‘at the edge of chaos.’ This is the fertile space lying between rigid order and randomness. Organisms move back and forth within that space, avoiding the trap of going too far in either direction. There appears to be a force that attracts the living forms to that in-between space where they can flourish. Such a force, such a “lure” – a point or region to which a system is drawn – is appropriately enough called an attractor.

Systems thinking has one major weakness: a fixation on goals. After all, machines are always designed with a definitive purpose in mind. Life, not so much. So complexity thinkers talk of strange attractors instead. These are potential end-states that themselves emerge from the present, and cannot be either predicted or pre-set, much less arrived at by stepwise design. I will return to this welcome insight in a series on unplanning.

There are other intriguing areas to explore that impinge on complexity thinking. Here’s a sampler: fuzzy logic, game theory, self-similarity (fractals), chaos theory, tipping points, coherence, stigmergy, criticality, small worlds, circular causation. In addition, complexity theory has been making inroads into the bleak landscapes of “management” and corporate restructuring, scaring the crap out of ladder-climbing sycophants hungry for their slice of the power pie. The cat is out of the bag: complex systems, sorry, cannot be controlled. Be still, my beating heart — is the myth of heroic managerial prowess nearing the dustbin of history? As the tide of complexity thinking rolls in, the beach is washed clean of the sandcastles of the control freaks. Complexity science is painting the mustache on the boss. Who woulda thunk?

But enough candy for today. Have some broccoli fractals. Tasty!

First you act, then you know. – Coert Visser

We make the path by walking. Not so much by talking about it. And herein lies one of the major pitfalls of human decision making: we gather into groups of talking heads and hash out ideas. Then we vote or use some other abstraction-based process to narrow the choices, and hope that this will lead us in the right direction. But it is often a real struggle to get anywhere, and the results? Lackluster.

Social insects do it differently. They use a process called quorum sensing. What happens when ants need to move their home after a crack in the ground, or bees need to choose their new hive after swarming? Scouts go out looking for likely sites, laying down pheromone trails in areas that seem promising. Then they go back and communicate their excitement to their nest sibs. But not just any old way: excited ants are quicker to communicate and excited bees dance longer directional dances. Then other scouts go out, lay down more pheromones (thus highlighting the more popular trails), return and communicate. More and more scouts come to the most the promising sites and report back. At some point, the community senses a quorum, and the ants or bees move en masse. Much of the time (90% or so!), they pick out the best possible site through following this simple pattern that does not require either leaders or top-down oversight; freely undertaken, non-managed choices of unsophisticated agents add up to a very intelligent decision. But it’s not just insects… fish do it, wildebeest do it, and so do dolphins.

This day in French Polynesia, a group of about 25 spinner dolphins is sleeping behind the barrier reef protecting Moorea’s lagoon from the open sea. Like all dolphins, they remain conscious during sleep, resting only the hearing parts of their brains while relying on their sight to identify predators. In this state, they move as stealthily as ghosts, surfacing quietly, breathing low. But by the late afternoon the school begins to awaken and the dolphins pick up speed, with individuals bursting through the surface to perform the dramatic aerial leaps and spins for which the species is named.

Then almost as quickly as they awoke, the dolphins slow down again. The spinners have entered the phase of their day Norris and colleagues dubbed “zigzag swimming,” with the group oscillating between sleep and wakefulness, as some individuals wish to awaken and others wish to lounge abed in the lagoon a while longer. [Impending is the group’s choice to go feed in the open sea.] It’s no easy decision. At stake are their lives. By leaving the lagoon the spinners face real danger. To catch fish they must venture offshore and dive alone or in mother-calf pairs to depths of 1,000 feet or more in the nighttime sea. They will be hunting alongside many larger predators, including sharks hunting them.

Underwater, the split in intentions is … obvious. When the group is persuaded to sleep, the dolphins fall silent. When the group is urged to awaken, the sea explodes with the whistles, clicks, quacks, moos, baahs, barks, and squawks of their varied calls. In short order, these sounds are accompanied by an artillery barrage of dull booms and hissing bubble trains: the percussion of belly flops and back flops at the surface. Like howling wolves and cawing crows the spinners are consolidating their intentions, using zigzag swimming to cast and recast their votes until consensus is reached [or, more likely, until a quorum is sensed].

Quorum sensing has fascinating applications in computing and in medicine. For example, it is pointing a way out of the impasse created by antibiotics. The “massacre them all” approach only breeds nastier, more resistant superbacteria. Disruption of bacterial quorum sensing simply slows down the foe and gives the body’s immune system more time to use normal defense mechanisms to deal with the invader.

What exactly are the key components of ant and bee quorum sensing? I have gathered as many as I could find.

  • individual initiative in going out and evaluating (freedom, randomness)
  • a considerable variety of possible solutions is examined
  • each individual is aware of a variety of criteria for evaluating the sites (which may differ from individual to individual somewhat)
  • individual actions lay down pheromone markers upon which the next-comers build; pheromone trails grow stronger as more ants come to investigate
  • each individual signals to others (direction, qualities of the site, enthusiasm)
  • each scouts communicates their information and enthusiasm in full, then “shuts up” and new scouts coming in continue the process; individual ants build onto what others had done before them
  • a threshold or quorum is recognized by all (some means for assessing the numbers involved is needed)
  • when quorum is reached, a commonly-understood response follows
  • there is no leader in this process (it’s self-organized and decentralized)
  • the critters do not aim for clarity in what they communicate; if they are confused or unenthusiastic, they convey that… the clarity will emerge in time from their combined efforts

Rules of thumb: take action, explore; do what you understand as best; leave a marker or sign; communicate your enthusiasm; know a quorum when you see one. Diversity of options and free competition among them lead to a superior solution.

Quorum sensing is one pattern of swarm intelligence. There are others yet simpler; for example, sometimes communicating with others is not even necessary. Interacting with the environment and leaving signals for others to act upon is enough (think Wikipedia). I am but nicking the surface, hoping to leave some scratch marks for others to follow.

Useful search terms:
Swarm intelligence
Swarm theory
Smart mob
Collective intelligence
Stigmergy [sign + work]
Group genius
Emergent swarm
Signaling [or signalling]
Wisdom of the crowd

Readings (the most glowing reviews on Amazon are for Seeley’s book):
Thomas Seeley: Honeybee Democracy
James Surowiecki: Wisdom of Crowds
Peter Miller: The Smart Swarm
Alex Pentland: Honest Signals

Well then. How may all this apply to human groups? I don’t know yet, but I have a bee in my bonnet. A swarm of insights has descended upon me that I am abuzz to share. So please bear with me as I dole out the honey. (Help… where is that anti-venom?)

Truth to tell, I was struck speechless by the realization that these ants are freer than us humans. (Ants?! 😮 Ouch.) They are free to go out and act as they see fit, free to explore any option they find interesting, and to tell about it to the group. And they are free to wait until a deep sense of rightness emerges that propels the entire nest to action. Unlike humans, they are never faced with a contrived decision to obey.

I do not like being forced to go along with group decisions that go counter to my own deep sense anymore than I like green eggs and ham. Sitting in meetings imposing decisions on each other, with people expected to fall into line once the decision is hammered out… is that really what we want, or is it something we have put up with for way too long? Instead of an OODA loop, we have the hum-drum reality of OODO: observe-orient-decide-obey. Given the underlying expectation of having to toe the line, no wonder humans find group decision making unpleasant, anxiety-producing, manipulative, and full of miserable compromises.

I want what the ants have! (Did I actually say that?) I want to be able to listen with care what others have to say and to observe their actions. Then I want to be able to act within freedom, in my own turn. Isn’t that where true dignity lies? I have a new personal manifesto: the loyalty that I owe to the group does not consist of obeying its rules. It consists of opening up to the information flowing my way, allowing it to change me, then acting in freedom as I best see fit.

Then, get this: the ants actually do stuff! Wha? They do not sit around debating things in the abstract?! Their eventual smart choices emerge out of iterative cycles of doings. They throw themselves into an exuberant exploration of possibilities. Just think about it. Don’t we only find out about real decisions by doing in the human world as well? People talk and think and imagine – but making final decisions out of this material makes little sense. Only when the decision is embodied and acted out, it becomes the sort of decision you can hang your hat on. The rest are just dreams, wishes and other ephemera. True-blue resolve must be embodied rather than just thunk.

When I stayed at Earthaven, there was in place a sturdy consensus, hammered out in meetings and supported by the eco-village culture, regarding care for the land. But when several young people clear-cut a whole section of the forest, leaving not a tree or bush standing, and what’s worse, leaving the banks of the adjacent creek bare and vulnerable to run-off, that consensus proved false in the face of the contingencies of debt and the need to get the most yield out of the area (intended for a pasture flanked by fruit trees). And this in the face of a state law specifying creek bank protection! The community looked the other way while the young men mowed down those woods. Theoretical agreements carry very little weight when the chips are flying.

It is not enough to discuss ideas and then choose one of them. If the doings of each individual are the material from which an intelligent decision of the group emerges, then people must be free to do. Theoretical agreement does NOT tell us what people will want to do once the chips are down, and actions are required. It does NOT tell us what people will do when they have to apply their ideas in the real world, and real world feedback kicks in. It does NOT tell us what people will do once they get out of that armchair, and their cherished ideas turn difficult in practice, or have unforeseen consequences, or just plain feel disagreeable when realized. It does NOT tell us what we will pick when all our faculties are engaged, not only the rational. There is a great variety of things that are agreeable to think… but not agreeable to do.

Emergent decision making has a number of advantages listed in the literature as robustness, flexibility, low-energy, decentralization and self-organization. But it occurs to me that there are others: emergent decision making is honest; a group or company can create phony “paper decisions” that sound good but merely mask the actual reality within, but people aware of emergent decisions will look beyond such facades. Second, emergent choice does not lend itself to be sabotaged by top-down leadership because it “happens on its own” and any tinkering turns it into something else. And the freedom of each agent to act as they see fit subverts tendencies to groupthink. “Crowds tend to be wise only if individual members act responsibly and make their own decisions. A group won’t be smart if its members imitate one another, slavishly follow fads, or wait for someone to tell them what to do.

Emergent decision making leads to novel, creative, unpredictable results. There is no trauma so often attendant contrived decisions, which makes it possible to revisit the issues as often as necessary. And finally, emergent, embodied choices are highly persuasive where mere ideas are not: research has shown that people are more apt to imitate behaviors they have seen several other people do already. There is quorum sensing somewhere in there…

Have you heard of the Estonian country-wide clean up party? The elements are all there: autonomous signaling, visible mapping of the signals, and finally the emergent quorum that brought 50,000 people out to clean up all the illegal garbage dumps and piles that had accumulated throughout the countryside. In one day. Nearly 4% of the entire population showed up. Bloody amazing.

A transition shift. Not a mass “movement” to be hoped for or a set of projects managed by an organization; it is something gathering up around us. It takes in Transition Towns and the Dark Mountain Project. It includes the new agrarians, in town and country. There are ‘friends of Ishmael’ and Rainbow gatherings, intentional communities, old skill rendezvous, and organic churches. There is permaculture, alternative money, mutualism and steady-state economics. There are rewilders, new tribalists, doomers of all stripes, luddites, simple frugalists and “plain” folk like the Amish. And the Crash Course enthusiasts, and locavores. There are survivalists, the scavenging freegan, new monastics, and collapsitarians. Millions of people around the globe have come out of denial. Millions more are on their way. The transition shift includes all the people, yet alone and in groups, anywhere and everywhere, who have made it their business to awaken into a new awareness, and to begin actively transitioning to a sane human world.

This transition shift is not dependent on some magical “right leadership” – it depends on each human being saying no to the current dysfunctional order of things, and embarking on the adventure of a lifetime: a decaying civilization provides the compost for new growth… a new way of living is born. Some have been motivated by concern over climate, or peak oil. Others by collapsing economies and financial terrorism. Or by the horror of vast ecosystems devastated, mountains leveled into rubble, seas turned into grimy dumps and lands turned into desert. Yet others are guided by disgust over the decaying public sphere and civility, or by their devotion to God’s kingdom on earth. Some are spurred on by their rage toward this civilization. There is no one right beginning. All transitioners are pilgrims on the path.

Some of us still yearn for a movement, but an understanding is growing that a movement is not what we need; some anarchists have called for “building movement, not a movement.” Movements dream of, and aim for, a large membership that will sweep them into power. On the other hand, a cultural shift is evolutionary, brought about by people who embody what they believe and care about. The desired change evolves through the multifarious doings of many people, many groups, with many views.

We need 10,000 conspiracies, and more. Rather than pushing for membership growth, we focus on the replication of small successful endeavors that will bring about an aggregate transruptive shift. Nobody has the One Right Answer. Diversity is key to our survival and success. A movement can be coopted or destroyed. But bazillion home-grown, low-flying groups each undertaking their own custom “unofficial” path toward self-reliance, resilience, reskilling, retooling, and relocalized cohesive communities, transcending most political divisions, are virtually unassailable. An evolutionary shift cannot be coopted or destroyed because it has no center, no leader, no core ideology, no organizational edifice. It is everywhere. It is within.

But isn’t the term “transition shift” a redundancy? Perhaps not. ‘Transition’ means a passage, a journey. Such journeys have been known to meander, and to end in getting lost. ‘Shift’ implies a definitive discontinuity and a new configuration, as in the rocks shifting under my feet. It provides a balance for the concept of transition. This particular journey is no mere tweaking of the status quo. It brings me to places I have not been to before, realms not made by me but gradually yet unmistakably rediscovered and co-created with others, coming to be inhabited by you and me as we walk the path. The once and future path of resilience.