“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” —Steven Biko
The unseen is always more powerful than what is seen. Small changes in the underlying patterns that organize everything can have large effects, whether it is in our DNA, our culture, or in our minds. This is why design is such an effective place to work and why permaculture can be so powerful. It is also why colonization is so insidious. It may be controlling us without us ever knowing.
Colonialism diminishes us all. Whatever side of the dualistic power-dynamic we happen to be on at the moment, it is dehumanizing. It is a fragmenting force, dismantling ecosystems and communities and separating us from one another as well as from pieces of ourselves. It replaces the delicate patterns of life with the structures of power and the logic of control. Its impacts can be seen everywhere we look, particularly in our hearts and minds.
“The Colonized Mind” is the phrase Brazilian educator Paulo Fierier’ coined to describe the mental outlook that creates, is created by, and continues the oppressions of colonization. This way of seeing has two main points: hierarchies of power are natural and inevitable, and its corollary; that we all deserve whatever we get, our place is a result of our efforts or origins. This is where such ideas as the divine right of kings, natural slavery, the myth of wealth deriving from inborn abilities and hard work and poverty being the result of laziness and lack of self-control, the inferiority or superiority of different races, religions, families, tribes, sexes etc. all arise from.
Its effects can be seen most clearly not only in the multi-directional self-hatred of so many of us humans, but in the terrible reversals following many liberation movements, where the recently oppressed simply flip the power-structure, and become oppressors themselves. They are often worse than those they replaced. Just think about the reign of terror that followed the French Revolution or the Khemer Rouge in Cambodia.
If our only options are to either be on the top or the bottom, most of us will opt to be on top if we can. This is how the Colonized Mind spreads. The oppressors dehumanize those they oppress as well as themselves through their acts of inhumanity. Many of those oppressed become oppressors so as not to be at the very bottom of this pecking order.
Throughout history many have chosen to help the oppressors to avoid the worst punishments and to try and raise themselves and their families in the power structure where status equals power. Slave overseers, native police forces or military guides, concentration camp or POW inmates who help their guards, colonized peoples, peasants, or indentured servants who became slave owners or members of colonizing armies — history is full of examples of this frenzied clamber to the top, stepping on each-others’ faces trying not to be trampled ourselves. Underneath us all and at the base of the colonial hierarchy is the Earth.
In his classic essay “The Land Ethic”, Aldo Leopold the father of restoration ecology, retells the story of Odysseus’ homecoming after his two decade-long absences. After clearing his house of usurping interlopers trying to marry his wife and steal his kingdom, he takes the unfaithful slave girls of his household who had been helping them, outback and hangs them.
“This hanging involved no question of propriety. The girls were property.
The disposal of property was then, as now, a matter of expediency, not of
right and wrong.“
This story is shocking to us, as it should be. The idea of disposing of people as property repels most of us. Yet, owning land as “property” and doing with it what we will is common and usually accepted without question. It is the basis of our entire legal system.
Telling this story in the context of a land ethic Leopold is trying to show us that owning land and claiming the right to dispose of it as we will is as outrageous as owning people. This idea may be the root of our problems.
Re-reading this essay I defensively thought, “ yeah, but I’m nice to my land. I take good care of it and don’t mine it or abuse it like other people do. It is an economic necessity for me and my family…”until I realized that I was almost certainly repeating the words of many slave-owners throughout history when confronted with their own entitlement. It helped me to see that I too accepted without questioning the basic idea of ownership that separated me from the living land and diminished me as a human being.
Owning and ruling over land is the point of colonialism and empire. Imperialism is the taking procession of land regardless who lives there. To own anything and possess the power to treat it as we please separates us from it and so from a part of ourselves, no matter if we are crofters, homesteaders, or permaculturalists. Ownership is the root of colonialism and is the fatal flaw in our democracy.
In the conclusion to his landmark book A People’s History of the United States, historian Howard Zinn paints a troubling picture of how the middle class acts as the imprisoning guards of the poor. Scared to lose the little they have worked so hard to own, they protect legal property rights and in so doing the massive ownership of the wealthy. In this way we ensure that this system of inequality continues.
This is how colonization works. Each level of the hierarchy oppresses those below to keep themselves from falling any further even if this is not our conscious intention. This is a system that was designed and once we are aware of it, one that can be redesigned.
This is the power of Permaculture Design. Its purpose lies in observing the organizing patterns of complex communities and designing the small changes that initiate effective systemic change processes. Without such systemic change, everything we do is lipstick on a pig. It will not spread very far and certainly will not make a lasting difference. It will remain a quaint, unthreatening, marginal alternative for those of us privileged enough to have access to land and the time or money to engage in it.
It has the potential to do much more than that and we are in dire need of what it can do. We all know where we are headed if we do not shift the patterns of the systems that control us, both internally and externally. It is essential that we work in the most effective ways and the most effective places. This always means shifting the underlying patterns that determine everything.
Systems thinker Donnella Meadows tells us that the most effective place to work on any systems lies in changing its paradigm. This is what permaculture is excellent at. Just think of your own PDC. The whole point has always been not in teaching information or skills for their own sake but learning how to change paradigms. This is why permaculture is an observation and pattern based design system.
The metapattern of Permaculture is to observe the patterns of how living systems work and to design small leveraged interventions to shift these underlying patterns and through them, the system and all its manifestations. This is true for planting seedballs, prescribed burns, making sourdough bread, swaling, pond building, rotational grazing, revolving loan funds, even the PDC itself. They are all meant to be small well-placed actions that redirect existing forces in regenerative directions. The real skill lies in the seeing — designing where, when, and how.
The aim has always been to use the garden as a place to learn how to see and design these acupuncture-like interventions so that we can bring this mind and these eyes to the task of changing the patterns and systems at the root of our problems.
“We need to do more than just grow our own vegetables. We need to
examine the roots of the problems of world hunger and resource depletion
and make big changes in the prevailing financial system.” Bill Mollison 1983
This is the “least change for the greatest effect”. Here is where effective change efforts need to be designed to work: on the systems level. Everything else is simply redecorating the existing power-structures. A large part of our concentration on designing physical structures is that they can be owned. We can do little else unless we become aware of our colonized minds and continue to grow our natural minds — the minds of free whole humans in an undevided living world — and realize that shifting underlying patterns creates the conditions for the emergence of worlds and yields we can never imagine or control. This is our work.
“None but ourselves can free our minds.” –Bob Marley
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