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What do the environment, sustainability, and social movements have in common?

In studies of permaculture, a design system developed by a brilliant and cantankerous Tasmanian named Bill Mollison whose curriculum and philosophy provided paradigm-shifting lessons for those of us lucky enough to study it. Permaculture design teaches students to understand and practice whole systems thinking and apply it to the built environment at any scale. Students learn to develop sustainable designs for home sites, businesses, farms, or communities that mimic the same resilience, integration, self-reliance, recirculation and reuse of resources, interdependence, and effective interaction of all design components that one would see in a healthy, thriving ecosystem in nature.

Many people have epiphanies when they begin to clearly understand the world around them, and their role in it, in a new way. Early feminists talked about consciousness-raising which for some would happen like a blinding flash of understanding.  For people who are disenfranchised, these moments of understanding of larger societal forces and one’s role in it can be brilliant, sudden and overwhelming. Once one’s paradigm has shifted, there’s no going back to the old point of view. Often the early adopters, the brave, first, outspoken pioneers in any movement, bear the brunt of negative reaction from the status quo when they first speak out with new understanding. They need a thick skin to withstand society’s pressure to return to the norm. Yet they are just one set of players on the progression of change, each expressing the different stages of a movement and requiring different powers to face resistance to change.

Natural systems may teach us to understand how movements grow like gardens and the nature of the key players in each stage of a movement.

Imagine for a moment a barren strip of earth along the side of a road under the midday sun. The pavement is so hot you can see heat waves’ shadows shimmering on the ground. The soil is gravelly, compacted, and covered in broken glass. In fact it would be hard to make a mark in the earth with a sharp stick. Any rainfall runs off the surface quickly and flows downhill to a cooler, shady spot under a tree.  It’s not a place you would want to sit and rest. But if you look closely, you can see that a plant has somehow taken hold, the soft green stem has broken the surface of the soil and sent up leaves, creating a small pocket of shade and trapping some windblown debris. This tough little weed is a pioneer. It has landed where other plants could never survive, managed to create a foothold, and is creating the smallest microclimate of shade and cover. This is a pioneer species.

Pioneer species often aren’t that pretty. They are usually tough, scrappy, and small, but they are powerful and resilient. They can find the tiniest crack, crevice or opportunity and send down a strong root in the toughest of circumstances. Pioneers species are the ones growing up through an impossibly small crack in the sidewalk on a hot summer day in the city no matter how often people try to pull them out and discard them.  Pioneers species may even push up the asphalt at the edge of your driveway. You can’t keep them down.  People often think of pioneer species as “weeds,” but weeds are really just plants that are growing where you don’t want them to grow.

Pioneers species make the microclimate around them more comfortable and amenable to other plants, which starts a process of succession, or progress. That extra shade from trapped debris covering the ground makes the area around the plant cooler, and may even trap a bit more moisture. Soon another plant seed is blown in and lands in this slightly more favorable microclimate. It sprouts, and, in a way, is nursed by the first tougher plant. As this second plant leafs out, it contributes its own shade, biomass of fallen leaves, and wind protection to the area. It’s contribution to the tiny garden may enable a third plant that would not have survived in this tough environment if it weren’t for the resourcefulness of the first two. This next plant may take hold and even flower, inviting a pollinator such as a honeybee to communicate with other small plant communities, and thus a network is born.

People who are the second or third generation of a movement often have entirely different characteristics, goals and needs than the pioneers. They may not have been able to take hold in the harshness of the first degraded environment, but they, in turn, contribute to the microclimate and help it become richer, more favorable, and, importantly, they help it spread. Even though their look and function may be entirely different, their existence is critical in the succession model and movement towards a thriving ecosystem. Without this diversity, no ecosystem can emerge, thrive, and sustain itself. In Permaculture, we have a saying: “Everything Gardens.” It helps us to see the important role in the system that each component plays, even if it is not evident to us at first.

It is noticeable that there can be strong misunderstanding among people of different generations who share principles, goals, and values, and it is a result of not understanding our places in the stages of growing a movement. In the environmental movement exists resentment from the pioneers towards the more tender newcomers who might expect to be able to express themselves more easily in the current environment. There also exists feelings of impatience on the part of newcomers to pioneers’ thorniness and attachment to their founding roles. Yet the environment teaches us that without pioneers, the next generations cannot take hold and thrive; and without the next generations of different beings the whole movement stagnates and does not thrive.

If we are to all move forward as a whole towards a healthy ecosystem or social system that enables every one of us to thrive regardless of who we are, how tough we are, or what our aspirations are, we must embrace and accept that each person has an important role to play and appreciate how interdependent our relationships are to the whole system’s success.

So the next time you see a scrappy weed blowing in the hot wind, think of the early pioneers of the movement you identify with and thank them for breaking new ground. And if you are one of those tough pioneers, be thankful that your hard work is being built upon by a thriving community of diverse newcomers. Each person’s role is critical to the well-being of all. Or as they say in Permaculture, “Everything Gardens.”