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Small and slow solutions: a principle too little, too late?

Small and slow solutions: a principle too little, too late?

SMALL AND SLOW SOLUTIONS… permaculture principle or shibboleth?

A bit of both, I think. A good idea some of the time, but what about other times? Small of slow solutions might work when we’re establishing an ordhard, but in these days of the Great Acceleration it might be too little too late. Let me explain.

Since the 1950s there’s been rapid growth in a number of key economic, social and environmental factors that affect human societies. Rapid polulation growth, an increasing rate of resource extraction for energy production and manufacturing, technological development, telecommunications, ecosystem and biodiversity loss, atmospheric warming, oceanic acidification and a lot more are just some of the things that have rapidly increased since the mid-1950s and that continue to increase. This is why that period, from around the mid-1950s to now, is called the Great Acceleration. It’s part of what has become known as the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch — the ‘age of humanity’ — in which our species has as much influence on earth systems as does a force of nature.

The melting of the Arctic sea ice has happened over only a very short time and it is one of those factors what figure in the Great Acceleration. Ice cover seemed normal but then it flipped into this new state of rapid melting.

Rapid flipping into a new state is a property of the systems we live within, whether they are natural or human systems. The loss of arctic sea ice is just one example. The disturbing reality is that we might not be able to reverse the flip into a previously-favourable stable state. The term ‘the new normal’ has become popular in describing permanently changed weather conditions and it could equally be applied to any flipped system.

We’ve seen other flips in recent history. Economies flip — remember the 2008 global financial crisis?; societies flip — remember the collapse of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago… East Germany seemed so monolithic, so strong…then it suddenly collapsed, stimulated by the decline of the Eastern Bloc elsewhere; and, of course, ecosystems flip into new and often degraded states in which they may become less effective at providing those ecosystem services we rely on — provision of fresh water, habitat, rainfall stimulation, influence on regional climates and so on.

Whether the Great Acceleration further quickens the rate of systems flipping is something we will see. In this new context of rapid change I don’t see how we have the luxury of time to adapt that is proposed by the permaculture principle of small and slow solutions. The principle might be alright for growing a garden, but it might be too late for changes that move rapidily. And in the world of now, rapidity is the pace with which change happens.

A difficulty with small and slow applied at the societal level is that it allows undesired changes to occur rapidly, become established and then go unchallenged. The lag between the onset of rapid change and the response of small and slow solutions to it creates a time gap during which the changes become established. By the time small and slow solutions start to have any effect, if they were to at have any at all, the undesired, rapid change would have likely established itself with its own momentum and would be difficult to reverse or deflect.

After thinking about the world and how it works now, here’s my take on this principle: Small and slow solutions might be alright for growing a garden, but the permaculture principle might be too little too late for change that move rapidily. And in the world of now, rapidly is the pace at which we move.

Here’s my proposition: permaculture’s principles are selectable and negotiable; they are not immutable like natural laws, and to treat them as such is to degrade them to the level of dogma. Principles are guidelines to thinking and behaviour, none more so than the cherished and oft-quoted permaculture principle that we are discussing. We hear this one recited like a catechism at times, like statements of absolute truth from some elemental book.

Like all systems of ideas and practice, the permaculture design system needs occasional (more frequent could be better) updating and reiteration. Its principles and ideas, like all ideas and practices, should be questioned so as to introduce the changes that would keep them relevant to the conditions of a rapidly changing world. An out-of-date system is a system of no value at all.

If we accept this then we have to question the relevance of the principle of small and slow solutions as applied to trends at scale and in the context of the Great Acceleration. The principle will still be of use in a great many instances but it may be neither scaleable or timely.

Small and slow may sometimes have to give way to big and fast.

Comments (2)

  • Gregor
    February 11, 2016 at 5:05 pm

    Hey Russ,
    I can see your point here and do agree with the idea, that we need to bring good changes to a level where they flip the systems rappidly.
    But still I do not think that this contradicts the principle of small&slow or that the principle should be removed. If we are to create sustainable systems, we got to change quickly now the ways our systems work – but: We still can not impose new big systems fastly and expect them to work out. What we can do is to bring solutions to more people (and to a flipping point) that have been growing and evolving slowly already. That is why Permaculture revives old knowledge and social PC builds on consensus making, which in the big picture is an old virtue in human politics and in most specific matters takes time. Because people need time to cope with change.
    In contrary most big technical or technocratic solutions that are advertised to us every now and then can not be sustainable for they do not build on grown structures.
    So I think that the principle of small&slow still applies even to sudden systemic shifts, because they may have been growing for some time – and the outcomes can only be sustainable if they did.

  • Russ Grayson
    February 20, 2016 at 8:47 am

    Thanks Gregor.

    I wouldn’t advocate remoaval of the principle of small and slow solutions as it remains useful in some instances.

    I was getting at the circumstances when it is simply too small and too slow in terms of the scale and speed of those things permaculture practitionrs mights seek to change and of many world events.

    Have to agree to disagree about the value of consensus in social permaculture, though. I have found consensus to be unachievable in some situations, resulting in stalemate. There is also the potential for social prssure to be unintentionally appled when an individual, faced with others reaching consesus, feels pressured to go along with it when they do not agree.

    I find that consent, rather than consensus to be more useful as it allows a person to say they do not agree but will go along with it. The idea of consent comes from the Dynamic Governance model.

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