An introduction to the permaculture concepts of “whole systems thinking and embodiment” that can create the next economy that will serve all of humanity.

On July 26th, 2011 something changed for me.

My eyes were opened!  

I began to see a more comprehensive thought system – a way of thinking, seeing and being.

A way of designing our lives and our world that was much broader in scope and took into consideration the whole ecosystem.

Looking for meaning

Since I was in my teens I have known that something was wrong.

Not so much a conscious awareness that I could articulate but more of an under the surface feeling that there had to be more to life then what was being presented to me. Something deeper, something more meaningful.

The superficiality of pop culture in the 80’s only exacerbated this feeling but at the same time, there was some powerful creativity through music and the arts that was expressing a deeper ethos. Still, it was not articulated. It was more of a crying out for more.

More substance, more meaning, more real connection.

For the next few decades, I searched for this “something more” through various forms from Christian community and Christian mystical literature to success philosophies through books and seminars of the thought leaders of that realm.

Then came 2008.

I experienced the 2008 crash in a first hand way. As a Real Estate agent for the 5 years leading up to the 2008 collapse of the mortgage industry and the financial markets, I did not fully understand what was happening at the time but have since gained a deeper understanding of the systemic causes.

There were valuable things that I learned and experienced in all of these spiritual and philosophical communities and I am thankful for those lessons and all of the friendships formed throughout those years.

However, I never found what I was looking for.

The common narrative of “work 40 hours a day for 40 years then you can retire and enjoy life” rang hollow. It was not tapping the deeper core meaning and connection I was craving.  

What I did not know through those years was that there was a common thread through all of these communities. It was a common narrative that was under the surface that informed and guided what was presented as truth and prosperity. And what it meant and looked like to thrive.

This common thread was an underlying narrative, a specific set of goggles (i.e. survival of the fittest philosophy of Darwinian Capitalism) we were all looking through. The problem was we did not know it. It was a way of seeing the world that was limited, fragmented and although we thought it was just “the way it is”, it was actually a relatively new paradigm in the context of history.

Let me pause for a second and say that I am not suggesting the purveyors of these ideas were necessarily “evil.” I think most of them were probably doing what they thought was best but they were also seeing only a part of the picture. This fragmented way of seeing and then operating from over the period of several generations is what has brought us to this point of dis-function in our culture in America and the world.

YouTube and a new life trajectory

So back to the epiphany. It was my birthday on July 26th, 2011 and a newer friend showed me two YouTube videos that have changed the trajectory of my life for the better and set me on a journey that now, 8 years later, is really only beginning. They were Geoff Lawton videos called “7 Food Forests in 7 Minutes” and “Vietnamese 300 Year Old Food Forest with Geoff Lawton

It was an introduction to Permaculture, a term I had never heard before but was immediately impressed with on a deep level. It is about working with nature to create resilient systems; the example being a 7 layer food forest. The upper canopy are nut trees, then fruit trees, berry bushes and other shrubs then the herbaceous layer, the ground cover, the root layer and the vine layer. In the case of the Vietnamese forest knowledge of the plants for both food and medicine had been passed down generation after generation.

This system is extremely resilient because there are mutually beneficial relationships between all of the elements. For instance, you don’t need pesticides because there are beneficial insects and animals that prey on one another and keep the system in balance. Also there is very little need for irrigation because water is carefully managed and stored in the landscape and in the nutrient rich soil.

A new way of seeing

What struck me about this was that it presented a way of seeing that was taking into consideration all of the elements in an ecosystem. By doing so it creates an extremely resilient system that can continue to thrive through significant hardship and disruption. The comparison is a conventional industrial agriculture mono-crop of corn or soy vs. a dynamic polyculture food forest. In the conventional ag system if there is a loss of 10 to 20% of the connections they whole thing breaks down and ceases to function. In the food forest you can lose up to 80% of the connections and the system will rebound and thrive again because there every element in the system provides multiple functions and every function can be performed by multiple elements. It called stacking functions. Here is a bit more detail:

One of the more original ideas of permaculture is that every component of a structure or a landscape should fulfill more than one function. The idea is to create an integrated, self-sufficient system through the strategic design and placement of its components. For example, if you need a fence to contain animals, you might design it so that it also functions as a windbreak, a trellis, and a reflective surface to direct extra heat and light to nearby plants. A rain barrel might be used to raise aquatic food plants and edible fish, in addition to providing water for irrigation.

Regenerative agriculture applied to economic and social systems

This is fascinating in the context of regenerative agriculture. However, over a period of time I began to think about how these ideas could be applied to our dysfunctional economic and social systems. How do we look at the entire ecosystem and design resilience into that system so that all stakeholders thrive?

In the food forest, the stakeholders are the trees, animals insects, water, soil, people etc.In society, the stakeholders include, people, companies, governmental agencies which are nested in ecosystems, bio-regions, and watersheds.

One of the major problems of the current economic system is the profit first motive that infuses every part of the system to the exclusion of other essential parts – like the living ecosystem of earth. There are, however, many other forms of value that have been ignored for far too long. In the article “8 Forms of Capital” by Gregory Landua and Ethan Soloviev, they list the different forms of capital: Financial Capital, Material Capital, Social Capital, Intellectual Capital, Experiential Capital, Living Capital, Spiritual Capital and Cultural Capital.

How can we create a system in a way that considers and develops all forms of capital and the well being of all living entities including people, rivers, forests, social relationships and structures and systems of governance?

The “Next Economy”

This is where the “Next Economy” comes in. The “Next Economy” is an economy based on the wisdom of natural systems and on the wisdom tradition from many different cultures across time.

Author Hunter Lovins points out, “Capitalism, as practiced, is a financially profitable, nonsustainable aberration in human development. What might be called ‘industrial capitalism” does not fully conform to its own accounting principles? It liquidates its capital and calls it income. It neglects to assign any value to the largest stocks of capital it employs — the natural resources and living systems, as well as the social and cultural systems that are the basis of human capital.” Hawken, Lovins and Lovins, (1999) Natural Capitalism, Pg. 5

The “Next Economy” is based on the ideas of not just sustainability because sustainability means keeping things where they are. We need to restore our ecosystems and we need to focus on how to create regenerative systems like the food forest in business, economics, and cultures.

The fact is that Western capitalism is fueled by natural resources like oil, coal, timber etc. These resources are finite therefore it is impossible to have exponential never-ending growth in an economy fueled by finite resources on a finite planet. Our entire financial system is nested inside of living ecosystems and so if any form of prosperity is going to continue we must care for and responsibly manage our common living systems of planet earth.

What is prosperity?

This brings me to the question “what is prosperity?” One of our key productivity indicators is GDP, Gross Domestic Product. This is a very poor measure of true “prosperity”. Kate Raworth suggests a better goal and metric.

“For over 70 years economics has been fixated on GDP, or national output, as its primary measure of progress. That fixation has been used to justify extreme inequalities of income and wealth coupled with unprecedented destruction of the living world. For the twenty-first century, a far bigger goal is needed: meeting the human rights of every person within the means of our life-giving planet.”  Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist

So true prosperity is living in a world where all beings thrive. A world where the natural resources, as well as all people, are treated with honor and respect. This can only happen if we realize that,

 Humanity is an integral part of an interconnected web of life in which there is no real separation between “us” and “it.” ……Damage to any part of that web ripples back to harm every other part as well.”  “Principle 1 In Right Relationship”,  of John Fullerton’s  8 Principles of a Regenerative Economy

The paradigm shift

We can change the world because it is our world.

This not only a paradigm shift but process that leads us to embody these truths and realities.

In order to change society, we have to change ourselves.

The way we think, act and live in the world.

What we value, what we allow and don’t allow to happen.

Change, transformation, is an inside job. We need to decide what is truly important, live it in our daily lives and do everything we can to effect change in our local communities and in the larger systems in which they are nested.

If you would like to learn more about how to help create the next economy, visit and listen to my interviews with regenerative business thought leaders, including Otto Scharmer, Stuart Cowan and Hunter Lovins.  Links are shown below.

David Bilbrey

David Bilbrey is the founder of and the co-host of The Permaculture Podcast with Scott Mann. His focus is on regenerative enterprise and community development. He explores the intersection between permaculture and our economic and social systems. David has interviewed important thought leaders of our time.  Listen in at these links: