Implementing permaculture practices can be overwhelming, but not because of a lack of information, tools, techniques, skills, or prescriptions. Instead, lack of a clearly defined process to design, develop, and manage a permaculture property is what hinders many people. Thankfully, you can significantly reduce the number of options to consider when building a permaculture property if you take time to make a Venn diagram that outlines what you have, what you want, and what is right.
The good news is that permaculture already includes most of the tools and ideas that can help us with this process of elimination. These tools and ideas just need to be organized and applied in a different way than they have before. In particular, the quintessential needs and yields analysis of permaculture design — which involves selecting an element in the design and listing what it requires and what it produces — is something we rarely complete for the central element of our systems: ourselves. As you’ll see, when applying this method of design to yourself, it will help you solve for the first two sets in your Venn diagram: what you have and what you want. Guidance with the final set (what is right) can be found in none other than the three permaculture ethics: earth care, people care, and future care. By expanding upon these existing concepts within permaculture, you’ll complete your own Venn diagram and overcome the struggle of not knowing what to do.
What Do You Have?
Before deciding what to do for even small projects, let alone designing and developing land, it’s helpful to have a comprehensive inventory of the resources available to you.
The two types of resources that come to mind first are usually financial and material. But there are actually many more resources beyond the money in your bank account or the tools and supplies in your garage. Before knowing how to proceed, you’ll need to create a holistic inventory of all the resources you own or have access to that can help or hinder you.
The Eight Forms of Capital, developed by permaculturalists Ethan Roland and Gregory Landua, is a holistic framework for expanding our definition of resources. The framework includes living, social, spiritual, experiential, intellectual, and cultural resources, in addition to the more common financial and material resources. The link above describes them and, for each one, shows common currencies, usefulness in the ultimate goal of increasing well-being, and common existing inventories.
A personal resource inventory involves listing all the things within these eight categories that could be used or leveraged to accomplish your goals, and also any negative resources or debts within those resources. For example, you could owe a bank money (a debt to your financial resources), or owe a friend a favor (a debt to your social resources).
I remember having three major insights when I first took the time to complete this exercise. My first insight was how “rich” I truly was. Before, if someone used only my income tax returns as a metric of my wealth, it would appear that I lived just above the poverty line. Now, with a framework to holistically communicate the other valuable resources I own or can access, that same person would see abundance. Best of all, this wealth is tax-free, and immune from the volatilities of a fiat money system.
My second epiphany was that I now had a clearer sense of my desired destination, in addition to my newfound resources that were a means to get there. Dying with a stuffed garage and a full bank account had never appealed to me, but investing in my living, social, spiritual, experiential, intellectual, and cultural resources became a strong motivator.
My third insight was that my struggle to figure out what to do started to seem less complex. In the same way that water dependably flows toward the lowest point in a landscape, my decisions seemed drawn intuitively toward a new focal point that was an expanded definition of well-being.
Photo by Adobe Stock/Igor Yegorov
Building a personal resource inventory helped me to draw the “What do you have?” and “What do you want?” circles in my Venn diagram and constrain all the infinite options in my life. In doing so, my struggle to figure out what to do began to drain away.
When you create your own personal resource inventory, you may want to choose a format that’s easy to navigate and update. A digital spreadsheet or three-ring binder with tabs for the eight types of personal resources both work well. And, rather than building it from a blank sheet of paper, you can simply look at the column “common existing inventories” and file a copy of the existing list or statements under the appropriate tab. For instance, store your most up-to-date financial statements or bank summaries under the tab “Financial Resources”; a list of important people and social connections under the tab “Social Resources”; and so on. You’ll likely find that the existing lists are incomplete, so you’ll also need to do some brainstorming and capture a more complete picture relative to your permaculture project.
What Do You Want, and What Is Right?
In addition to the resource inventory you create to clarify what you have, create a page that clarifies what you want and what is right. I call this a “values and visions one-pager.” The “Values and Visions” list belowprovides a template that uses just nine sentences. The first sentence should state your fundamental values (which you can choose to base on the permaculture ethics of earth care, people care, and future care), and the eight other sentences are vision statements. I recommend you write one sentence for each of the eight resource categories (living, social, spiritual, experiential, intellectual, cultural, financial, and material). Each vision statement will define the optimal expression of that resource with respect to your greater well-being. Once completed, this document will not only get you and your fellow decision-makers on the same page; it’ll also act as a personal coach to motivate you when you’re on the right track, or as an arbitrator that can help guide your actions if you get lost.
You may be thinking, “Why should I clarify what I want? I know what I want!” I’ve had a fair number of clients initially balk at my insistence on completing this step. However, what we think we want is often clouded by our paradigms and limited by a narrow vision of personal resources. Taking the time to complete a resource inventory and build a values and visions one-pager will get your ideas outside of your own head and into the light of day, where you can inspect and shape them with the clarity of distance. This will help you figure out what to do in a way that will lead to greater well-being for all. And it’ll lead to better and easier decision-making, with more alignment, less conflict, and increased peace of mind. It’s an absolute prerequisite for successfully building a permaculture property.
Rank Your Vision Statements
One of my favorite exercises to do with clients after they’ve completed their values and visions one-pager is to have them consider how close their current reality is to the vision statements they’ve just written. One by one, I encourage them to review the individual statements for each resource, and then ask themselves how close they are to achieving their vision. Often, people feel they’re doing really well in one or two of the personal resource categories, but are falling short, sometimes substantially, in other areas. It can also be interesting when partners see a gap (or lack of a gap) differently, which then spawns subsequent conversation and insight. Remember, it’s the reflection, not the writing, that has real value here.
The last step of this exercise is to agree on the vision statements, and then rearrange the order in which they appear on your one-pager. Those statements where the gap is largest should go at or near the top of the page.
After seeing dozens of completely different versions of the values and visions one-pager that my students, clients, and colleagues have built, I have yet to read one that I wouldn’t want to put my own name on, with, at most, a few small tweaks. It’s amazing that when we take the time to stop and reflect, we all want the same things, and we all know what’s right. It often leads me to wonder what might happen if everyone on our planet took the time to do these simple exercises. Author Jared Diamond summarized his study of collapsed societies by saying, “Two types of choices seem to me to have been crucial in tipping the outcomes toward success or failure: long-term planning and willingness to reconsider core values.”
To live in a way that’s good for myself and all my relations, and that allows others the same opportunities or better in the future.
Financial. I have a diverse surplus of financial resources and ongoing reliable income generation that’s aligned with my visions and values.
Social. I have beautiful, supportive, loving, honest, and meaningful relationships within a thriving and stable community of self-motivated, mature beings who value their self-worth and are mindful of the feelings, rights, and human dignity of others.
Material. I own or have access to the minimal amount of ethical possessions that support me in being resilient, secure, and safe, and that bring me joy.
Living. I’m in excellent health, stewarding a serene environment that’s ever increasing in abundance.
Intellectual. I contribute my ideas toward the collaborative, ever-growing pool of accessible and meaningful information that’s making the world a better place.
Experiential. I continue to share and learn a mastery of the skills that support my visions and values.
Spiritual. I’m confident, peaceful, and in a balanced mental state; I have the freedom to self-direct my time, and to pursue my passions to their fullest potential while practicing service, gratitude, and forgiveness.
Cultural. My family and community rituals, traditions, art forms, and social patterns inspire all to create beauty and celebrate the shared values of earth care, people care, and future care.
Rob Avis and Michelle Avis are co-owners of Adaptive Habitat, a leading-edge property design firm, and Verge Permaculture, a globally recognized, award-winning education business. Takota Coen is a permaculture educator, Red Seal Carpenter, second-generation organic farmer and co-owner and operator of Coen Farm, an award-winning 250-acre permaculture farm in Alberta, Canada. This is excerpted from their book Building Your Permaculture Property (New Society Publishers), available below.