Pacific Edge SPECIAL REPORT...The permaculture papers
THE PROBLEM OF FEEDBACK
by Russ Grayson (2003, up-dated 2007)
THE WAY THAT PERMACULTURE deals with comment has made it susceptible to positive feedback and allergic to negative feedback.
Positive feedback can be defined as the tendency to amplify small signals to an extreme degree. In Permaculture, it was most evident in the days of the big convergences. This is how it happened: someone would report an item of good news or assert something - real or otherwise. So far, so good - we all like good news.
But what happened then was that it triggered a cascade of assertions as to how Permaculture was going to change the world that was so unreal it bordered on delusion. Even a modest familiarity with Permaculture reveals that practitioners are too few, their influence too limited and their skills largely unrecognised for them to achieve such substantial impact.
Negative feedback - the key to self-regulation
The positive feedback loops evident in Permaculture's past have done no significant harm. Permaculture suffers, however, when influential practitioners deny the valid role of negative feedback.
Negative feedback is not negativism.
Let us be clear what we are talking about. In Permaculture, the term 'negative' carries connotations of undesirability. Bill Mollison gave Permaculture its 'positivist' spin and that, generally, has served it well because it produced a propensity for action and a 'can-do' attitude sufficient to accomplish modest achievements.
This was reinforced by Mollison's Permaculture principle of looking for solutions, not problems, a good attitude though the principle has occasionally discouraged the full investigation of issues by ignoring what can go wrong.
Anyone familiar with project planning will know that the assessment of what can go wrong is a part of contingency planning. It is about being prepared, not about assuming the worse will happen or becoming discouraged by potential challenges.
Mollison was most likely suggesting that practitioners make a full assessment of a situation but not bog themselves down by assuming the potential for mishap was greater than it was. He was probably warning against discussion to the extent that it led to loss of motivation - what is known as 'paralysis by analysis'.
Being positive about negative feedback
Positive feedback is a runaway phenomenon that builds upon itself in an expansive manner. Negative feedback, in contrast, is the key to learning and self-regulation. It works by comparing the actual state of a system to its desired state much as a thermostat adjusts temperature to maintain a pre-set level. Negative feedback measures deviation from a desired state and provides information about performance.
Clearly, negative feedback is a desirable property for a social movement because it feeds back information that can be acted on to make timely adjustments.
Setting the standard
Standard-setting could prove difficult because Permaculture has evolved as a 'distributed network' - a practice of people geographically isolated from each other and who are used to taking independent action in their local area. They are the independent nodes of a network and this has given rise to an independence of approach enlivened by a sometimes anarchic attitude that is defiant of centralised authority.
That is one reason the Permaculture Institute's attempt to trademark Permaculture terms and impose restrictions on Permaculture teachers met with resistance. In this milieu, any attempt to impose or even negotiate some performance standard for Permaculture design could be problematic.
Performance standards in Permaculture practice and would include minimum standards for product and service quality, educational qualifications for teaching and designing, planning processes, evaluation, the training of clients in operating their Permaculture system (a question that has run quietly over some years) and other considerations. The accredited training may take care of standards as applied to students and teachers but such standards would bot be incumbent on teachers of the unaccredited Permaculture Design Course.
Getting the Permaculture community to agree on minimum standards would be a prolonged process. Permaculture International, however, could define a set of standards for Permaculture work and introduce them as a form of quality control through its membership and graduates of the accredited training. Permaculture International is the only national body that functions with a reasonable degree of influence. There is no other organisation to suggest alternatives or to oppose its decisions. Over time, such a move could set standards for the entire Permaculture movement. In networking terms, it implies a move away from the distributed node structure to something more hierarchical that could be seen as going against the grain of Permaculture ideology.
A set of quality standards may be no bad thing.
Dealing with criticism as negative feedback
The friendly critic has been unwelcome in Permaculture. The role of the friendly critic is not to intellectually demolish, as in the academic tradition, but to think something through and point out its strong and weak aspects and to suggest how it might be improved. This is not the role of an enemy and it is not the 'negativism' within Permaculture has said it is.
Here is a case in point. When Permaculture International was setting up its accredited Permaculture training, I wrote something - I do not recall what - about it on the permaculture-oceania listserv. This was intended to be in the category of negative feedback and to stimulate discussion, yet a prominent Melbourne-based Permaculture educator responded with a very sharp email (called 'flaming' in online discussion) asking if I "could ever say anything positive about anything".
Well, I was on record as a supporter of the accredited training and over the years as a Permaculture teacher had said a great deal about the design system that was good. Yet her response did not acknowledge this, as it was hostile in tone. It was a case of selective perception that demonstrated how some in Permaculture dismiss even mild criticism.
The incident reinforced an observation: in general, the Permaculture movement does not welcome questioning and has never undergone serious questioning as have other ideas vying for social acceptance. This raises the question of why it is so - is it a case that Permaculture is taken so lightly or is seen as so peripheral that it is not worthy of questioning?
Whether aversion to criticism or intellectual challenge can continue in an era of accredited training, when Permaculture is considered to be an 'industry', is doubtful. Achieving industry status opens the design system and those offering and administering the accredited training to all the scrutiny that other industries are subject to. Being prickly about friendly critics will bring Permaculture no good; if it cannot cope with that type of critic how will it react to those with hostile intent?
Shrugging off criticism or trying to discredit the messenger will no longer do; development of the capacity to present a counter-argument would prove timely because public perceptions are at stake irrespective of the veracity of the criticism. A lesson could be taken from David Holmgren who has countered the 'weeds' accusation with well-argued evidence and analytical thinking.
Bill Mollison advised that critics be ignored and that permaculturists get on with the job. In his insider's critique of aid and development agencies (1997; Striking a Balance, Earthscan, UK), Alan Fowler warns against the tendency to take such a task-oriented attitude and ignore process and reflection (which include addressing the valid concerns of critics). That was not the way to learning and organisational effectiveness, he asserted.
Now that Permaculture offers vocationally-accredited training, Fowler's warning must apply to it too. Constructive engagement with friendly critics is now the name of the game, as is building in loops of negative feedback so Permaculture organisations become self-monitoring, self-aware bodies that can monitor their direction and behaviour.