Zone Zero Article

Toby Hemenway hemenway at
Wed Sep 19 19:32:35 EDT 2001

Wes: Attached is the zone zero article as an old Word 5.1 doc, and I've
pasted it below just in case.


Zone Zero and the Enlightened Permaculturist
Sustaining a Revolutionary Community

Toby Hemenway

    "This makes me so mad!" I growl, throwing the newspaper onto the kitchen
table. Another example of corporate greed, another despoliation, another "if
it bleeds, it leads" news story. My wife turns her eyes from the busy
hummingbird feeder outside the window and asks, "If it makes you this
unhappy, why do you read it?"
    A good question. I turned to permaculture because it offered positive
solutions. The constant fire-fighting of environmental activism wasn¹t for
me, though at first it seemed the only way to offer aid to a suffering
planet. But the fragile victories seemed so fleeting and ineffectual in the
face of such wholesale rapine, the constant reacting to new abominations
forced a constant catch-up game, and the daily misery of watching another
forest fall was too disheartening. Permaculture¹s constructive approach
suited my constitution, my hopes, and my desire to avoid a retreat into a
Prozac- and Xanax-induced Lotus-land.
    Yet those lists of genetically modified foods, the lobbyist-bought
Senate riders, the battering at the Endangered Species Act still grab my
heart and set my bile ducts squirting. What good is that anger doing?
    Plenty, I imagine Bill Mollison would tell me. Bill has readily declared
that it is anger that motivates him to do his award-winning and important
work. Anger is a powerful force. When Bill regales a group of students with
a tale of a once-healthy Mexican fishing town reduced to starvation after a
pet-food cannery moved in, and he finishes with, "So instead of buying pet
food, you should just murder a Mexican child and feed him to Fido, because
that¹s basically what you¹re doing," everyone is outraged, feels a little
guilty, and is ready to change the world.
    Permaculture, like many revolutionary fields, has its share of angry,
cantankerous men (and generally they are men). We all know a few of these
crucial agents of change. Their ranks are legion in new endeavors, whether
it¹s John L. Lewis raging at the miserable conditions of coal miners, Martin
Luther spiking his 95 theses to the Wittenburg church door, or T. H.
Huxley‹Darwin¹s bulldog‹eloquently reducing the opponents of natural
selection to impotent sputters. These giants inspire, motivate, and create.
    But their anger also leaves wreckage in its wake. Trailing many of these
charismatic people, along with their superb works, are fractured
communities, confused and bitter followers, broken marriages, and often, an
opposition just as motivated to thwart them. When anger is the propellant,
the line between inspiring and antagonizing is easily broached.
    Raging Bulls and Charismatic Curmudgeons
    Angry people seem essential for revolutions. But as permaculture matures
and its boundaries grow more defined, I¹d argue that there is less need for
raging bulls and curmudgeons. I respect and cherish the work‹and, yes, the
personalities‹of those angry men. We wouldn¹t be here without them, and
their place at the head of the table is always open. But sustaining
revolutions calls for different methods than does creating them. The latter
is a process of crashing down the door and raising the alarm. The former
requires knitting a community and welcoming the converted, the hesitant, and
the opposed. Someone seething with rage or with any other unresolved
manifestation of what Jung would call the shadow will continually boil over,
spraying friend and foe alike with venom and poisoning a healthy network.
    I don¹t mean to single out angry men. We each have our challenges, our
sharp edges that can wound those whom we care about and work with. Many
communities and movements, though united by a common vision, stumble when
personality‹our fears, anger, insecurities, or ego‹rears its head. Recently,
yet another set of my friends left an intentional community. "We spent all
our time in meetings," they lamented. "Just deciding to fix the washing
machine took six hours of consensus-building. Nothing ever got done. I
couldn¹t take it."
    Successful communities possess, or are forced to develop, more than just
a common vision. Their members also devise techniques for working with each
other. Often this means calling in a counselor or other specialist to give
them tools to identify the personal conflicts and motivations that underlie
their community¹s dynamics, and to separate personal issues from community
needs. Only then can they make progress‹usually independently‹on either the
interpersonal or communal front. Those six-hour washing-machine meetings are
often group-therapy sessions in disguise, a cacophonous roomful of inner
children, shadow selves, and unconscious coping-mechanisms wrangling over
deep, unspoken issues. No wonder nothing ever gets done. If I think I¹m
discussing washer repair when I¹m actually battling the ghosts of a
neglectful father and mercurial mother, we¹ll be in meetings until I¹ve had
a psychological breakthrough. Fat chance, under those circumstances.
    The Enlightened Permaculturist
    With this in mind I make a plea for more personal work, for more
conscious and mindful action in permaculture. An enlightened permaculturist,
if you will. A trend toward this is already underway, seen, for example in
the evolution of permaculture teaching. Initially the design course was a
lecture series‹often taught by one or another charismatic curmudgeon‹and
although the material was far more holistic and vital than most college
curricula, the format was straight from an airless classroom.
    Early permaculture students recognized that the community-building
aspect of the design course was as powerful and motivating as the content.
When these students emerged as a second generation of teachers, they doled
out some of the curriculum in an experiential and team-building format,
adapted to diverse learning styles. Some of these new teachers went to
non-traditional schools themselves, and many have pursued spiritual paths or
deep personal work. They have brought a different consciousness to the
design course. 
    A second example of permaculture¹s evolution is in the growth of the
concept of Zone Zero. Originally defined in the zones and sectors
design-scheme as the house itself, Zone Zero rapidly enlarged to include the
home¹s occupants. More recently the definition has shifted in some circles
to mean the mental and emotional state of the residents, the designer, and
of permaculturists in general. "Working on Zone Zero" means getting your act
together. It¹s an eminently useful concept that can serve as a call to more
conscious design and living.
    Last summer¹s "Build Here Now" convergence among permaculture, natural
building, and spirituality at Taos-based Lama Foundation highlights the
trend. Lama¹s small spiritual community was nearly overrun with a hundred
mud-daubed builders and pontificating permies. But Lama¹s constant reminders
of life¹s higher purposes‹fluttering prayer flags, the wail of early morning
devotional song‹and the nurturing, enfolding atmosphere created by the
community fostered a level of meaning and connection I¹ve never experienced
at conferences, even in permaculture. I had a glimpse of a world in which
our inner selves, spiritual hearts, and activist hands were united.
    Evangelists or Listeners?
    Permaculture has always argued that acknowledging the cultural milieu of
the design client is critical for success. I¹d apply this principle to our
field in general: Unless permaculturists explore the matrix of psychological
forces that unconsciously motivate and rule us, and we resolve the hidden
sources of our anger, need for recognition, or other manifestations of inner
conflict, we¹ll continue to sow the seeds of our movement¹s destruction and
be ignored or disdained by the mainstream world. To create sustainable
communities requires the highest form of self-reliance: emotionally healthy
    What would the "enlightened permaculturist" look like? Perhaps this: Say
a large corporation wants your help in designing a new office site. If you
go to them, fired up with the dogma of sustainability, and say "You guys are
fundamentally evil, you¹re doing everything wrong, and I¹m going to tell you
how to do it right," they¹ll dismiss you out of hand. Many of us regard the
mainstream with just this contempt. However, if you begin by listening to
them, asking them, "What are your goals?" you¹ll find that their aims aren¹t
"to destroy ecosystems and enslave the world," but more likely, "to have
more productive employees and avoid waste."
    Let¹s think about the phrase, "more productive employees" and see how
helping a company achieve that goal can serve a larger purpose. Back in the
days of manufacturing-based business, higher productivity simply meant
giving a worker a better machine and ordering her to make more widgets per
day. But many businesses now run on ideas. Managers can¹t say, "I need 20%
more creativity from you next year." They must foster an atmosphere that
nurtures creativity. This is where you, the designer, comes in. Your
marvelous office design includes more windows, less fluorescent light, a
cafeteria that serves organic food grown in the once turf-bound lot
surrounding the building, a Living Machine in the lobby, and fifty other
elements that enlarge the lives of those who work there.
    Now those employees are not just working in a healthy climate that
inspires creativity; they¹re entwined by an ecological, holistic way of
living. They begin to see the possibilities for their own lives. Who knows,
maybe some of them will be inspired to chuck the corporate rat race and live
a meaningful life. All this simply because you helped a corporation achieve
its goals, gently implanting a larger agenda as you did so. Turning our
backs or shouting in rage won¹t do this.
    Permaculturists are bursting with a new message. We want to tell the
world. But nobody likes being told they¹re wrong; proselytizers are
notoriously unpopular. The hallmark of much of what I¹m describing
here‹teaching permaculture differently, helping communities survive, working
with the mainstream‹requires that, though we¹re bursting to talk, we get
quiet and listen. This theme echoes throughout this magazine: when Vishu
asks us to listen to our archetypes, when Joel points out that returning to
our earliest desires yields good design, when Christopher and Tom describe
circles in which we hear the concerns of others, when we learn to work
together deeply. 
    Permaculture is based on observation. I ask that we observe
ourselves‹our hidden, internal ecosystem‹more carefully, so that our actions
with one another may be more conscious and less the product of old habits.
By the simple act of careful, mindful listening to what speaks within us,
listening to what others need to have us hear, we can dispel anger, open
doorways, and forge lasting alliances.
Toby Hemenway is the author of Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale
Permaculture" is associate editor of The Permaculture Activist. This article
originally appeared in Permaculture Activist #42. Subscriptions to The
Permaculture Activist are $19 (3 issues plus newsletters) from P.O. Box
1209, Black Mountain, NC, 28711. 

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