Integrated Design & Human Communities

In a permaculture garden, a significant amount of thought is given to how the individual elements work together — all towards the goal of ‘closed loops’ (i.e. self-sustaining systems) and the best possible yields (a system where each element properly plays its part can be incredibly productive!).

Are there plants, for example, that just seem to work better with each other (‘companion plants’ or ‘guilds’)? Perhaps there are some that are better at attracting pollinators (which also helps the other plants), or some that repel unhelpful insects, or provide habitat for things like ladybirds (which will make short work of any aphid populations!), or even shade/protection for other young plants to get established (the process of ‘succession’). Perhaps there might be a mobile chicken coup (a ‘chicken tractor’) which can be moved around a lawn, so that the chickens can eat bugs and grubs and whatnot, ‘plough’ the ground a little bit as they scratch around, fertilise the area with their droppings, and then be moved on to a new area of the yard to improve the overall health of the lawn (all the while producing eggs, or meat, or feathers as well). Then there’s the system for taking ‘waste’ and turning it into something useful, like worm farms or compost heaps (reducing actual waste needing to removed from the site while simultaneously reducing the need for bringing in soil-enriching products to the site in the process). Or maybe it’s the way plants and structures work together, like growing a vine over a verandah area which will produce thick foliage in summer and reduce the heat coming into the home and then lose the leaves in winter, allowing more sunlight (and warmth) into the house when needed.

The point, of course, is that a little bit of thought given to the way things work together can have a significantly favourable impact on the site. The end result is that each element will play a number of roles (a tree might simultaneously provide, for example, fruit, shade, habitat for animals, protection from harsh winds and rain, and dropped leaves which can be composted, just to name a few) and each function will be supported by many elements (food production in a food forest, for example, is not from a monoculture — which is incredibly vulnerable to disease and pests…unless large amounts of chemicals are used). These are good outcomes for gardens.

It seems to me that this is also a pretty good way to think about human communities.

Our communities just seem to ‘work’ better when we each play our part. We are different. We bring different skills and knowledge and experience and ways of seeing things to the table – and we’re better off because of this! Each of us has a role to play, and none of us can do everything.

The trick, of course, is to see our differences as strengths, rather than weaknesses.

Unfortunately, in our current context of rising nationalism, our differences can become the fault lines on which our communities begin to crumble. Difference comes to be viewed as inherently suspicious, and such suspicion does not allow for the different ‘elements’ to play the role they’re meant to.

It takes a whole lot of time and energy for a community to come to view its differences as something to be valued and celebrated, but the results are certainly worth it.

Taking it a step further, this is exactly the kind of thing that the Apostle Paul was talking about when he noted that the church (all the different disciples of Jesus of Nazareth coming together) was kind of like a body. The different parts are not a weakness, but rather it is precisely because of these differences that the body can function as it should (remember: Paul was talking to Jews and Gentiles who didn’t usually get along at all, but Paul suggests that they have been brought together as one body, or family, or one new humanity). For Paul, each person is created in God’s image, and thus bears an inherent dignity. Each person is a gift to the rest of us, and we can’t be who we’re truly meant to be unless we work together.

It’s worth taking time to reflect on his words from his letter to the Christians in Rome (chapter 12, verses 3-8):

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.


The first two posts in this series can be found here:


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Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

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