In our efforts to empower large-scale land restoration and effect cultural transformation to a society of earth repair and stewardship, we must educate, inspire, and engage. To accomplish this, we must form a connection between ourselves and our audiences. We need to create a space with a consistency of purpose, a compatible language, and a common ground for understanding.
In this case, leading by example means to practice self-education, inspiration and engagement. Since this article focuses on tools for communication, let’s begin by reviewing some basic models of the communication process. These models help us to understand how context and content bias our communications and how noise interferes with our communications. Understanding of these factors provides a baseline for developing tools to overcome both bias and noise. Our ultimate goal in practice is to reach agreement; both sender and receiver interpret the message in the same way.
1. Intro to Communications Theory
Presented here is a chronological, graphic depiction of basic communications models as developed by Shannon and Weaver (1), Berlo (2), and Foulger (3).
Shannon and Weaver’s model shows the two types of noise (semantic and technical/physical) and where they enter the communication loop. Noise distorts the message, so these are locations in the communication pathway where adjusting our approach to clarifies each communication. To check the influence of semantic noise, collect feedback on a diversity of terms and descriptions before assuming agreement. To check the influence of technical/physical noise, vary the medium of communication using pictures, videos, real-world examples and more.
Berlo’s model outlines the factors which create and transform bias. These factors provide a framework for variation of message. By acknowledging the suite of influence on the sender and receiver, another set of tools for framing and phrasing communications emerges. A willingness to understand the knowledge and culture of another allows us to communicate in terms and examples that match their worldview and helps us to reach agreement more rapidly. During the process of rapid iteration that educates both parties, an open mind and listening ear create fertile ground for agreement and positive action.
Foulger’s model integrates the multi-dimensional ‘shape’ of the message imbued with language and embedded within a medium. With more thorough mapping of the process which ‘encodes’ and ‘decodes’ a message, Foulger supplies added opportunities to adjust the content and form of a message towards mutual agreement. In particular, inventing, evolving, and learning new languages and media, match well with the Permaculture principle of Accellerate Succession and Evolution (4).
2. Lessons from Foreign Cultures
When trying to teach or build regenerative systems in a foreign country, the cultural and language gaps are hard to miss. Even when focused on achieving clarity across these communication edges, mis-communications occur. Often these are caused by mis-translation of a word, lack of a common word or concept in both cultures, or inversion of positive and negative statements (‘do not do’ becomes ‘do’). At least this was my experience when working in both Haiti and Mexico. Although I spoke a little of the native language, we relied upon translators as the edge technology to communicate details, which added one more step in the communication loop.
To solve this, we focused our efforts on using a diversity of media such as drawings, photos, videos, 3-d models, and real-world situations to overcome our language barrier. To test retention and understanding, we created many small group exercises where students were asked to translate information communicated with them in one medium into another, such as viewing a small agroforestry operation from the top of a building and creating a plan view drawing of the existing system. Every day I worked on my vocabulary by collecting examples of plants and asking local names. Various forms of this ‘call and response’ technique helped us, as teachers and designers, to understand which forms of communication were most effective for our audience. Not surprisingly, a ‘planned redundancy’ approach which repeated the same information in multiple formats was most effective, especially when we included role-playing and hands-on demonstrations.
One of my favorite role-plays was laying out an agroforesty system using the human body as a ruler rather than a purchased instrument. Since most management would be hand labor rather than machine, this tool was appropriate to their context and easy to understand. Each student calibrated their pace using various mature fruit and nut trees, then spacing of trees and row crops was determined using a number of paces. The human body truly is an amazing tool for measurement and communication.
Part of Permaculture design’s genius is the explicit call to action and the use of the principles as directives for agricultural and cultural transformation. If we define Permaculture as ‘the art and science of designing beneficial functional connections,’ then it is imperative to use our imagination and available information to foster beneficial relationships between ourselves and the people, communities, landscapes, and societies we strive to transform. Context, the first step on the Regrairian’s Platform (5), can be assessed using the ‘relative location’ principle which directs us to understand our location then position it to work harmoniously with the location of another audience (4).
3. Lessons from Science and Industry
As with visiting a new culture, when learning a new discipline, one of the first steps is to learn the specialized terminology that forms the common language within that field. Permaculture practitioners, who are generalists by nature, often bridge many disciplines. This cross-pollination increases the likelihood of working with many individuals who use the same word to mean very different things based on their cultural and professional context.
A broad example of this phenomenon can be found in the relationship between common names and botanical names of plants. There is (or at least we hope) only one botanical name for a given species and the same Latin name is used all around the world. Ideally, I can use it when discussing a plant with any botanist and be confident we’re referring to the same plant. However, many times when dealing with people and groups who don’t know any botanical names, we must use common names which are notoriously inaccurate. One plant may have many names and many plants may have the same name. At this point, I prefer to shift the medium from speech and use physical samples for accuracy and clarity.
The initial impetus for this article was a conversation surrounding the many working definitions of a swale and the difficulties this presents when working with designers and equipment operators in the USA.
As a firm believer in the need to mainstream the concepts of Permaculture and regenerative agriculture in the over-developed and over-consuming sections of our global society, I consistently encounter mis-communications of concepts from Permaculture when engaging trained professionals in a variety of fields such as landscape architecture, hydrology, range management, earth-moving, and more. Often, we speak the same language, use the same words, and yet talk about very different things. This talking past each other can cause mistakes in installation that lead to more time on the ground, more money spent, and general frustration.
In order to ‘integrate rather than segregate’ (6), we learn the semantic variations that occur when we interface with other industries and cultural groups. We educate and engage ourselves in their culture, especially established and mature industries such as earth moving, grading and drainage, and engineering. A prime example of this occurs when building swales. In Permaculture, a swale is defined as an uncompacted ditch and berm dug on ‘dead level’ contour whose function is to infiltrate water and establish tree based systems. In American civil engineering and landscape architecture, a swale (often referred to as a bioswale) is defined as a ditch used to infiltrate and convey water. By definition it conveys water and the base slopes in one direction at a low gradient (often 0.5-3% depending on soil type). Since most heavy equipment operators in the USA have worked for thousands of hours within the construction industry, they are familiar with building ‘swales’ designed and inspected by civil engineers and landscape architects. These swales are diversion drains used to convey water away from a site and may be designed to infiltrate and treat stormwater to a degree.
The US EPA defines a bio-swale as “vegetated, mulched, or xeriscaped channels that provide treatment and retention as they move stormwater from one place to another. Vegetated swales slow, infiltrate, and filter stormwater flows. As linear features, vegetated swales are particularly suitable along streets and parking lots.” (7) Remember that the current management paradigm in the US is liability driven to focus on conveyance, and drainage which integrates retention and soakage is considered when space allows. Though this paradigm is shifting, it is still embedded within the culture of planning and development.
Even the concept of ‘contour’ is often mis-communicated. When referring to terraforming agricultural techniques such as ‘contour bunds’ may be on-contour or have a slight gradient (often in the 0.25-1% range). An historic example of this can be seen in the paper by Kohler (8) and the US Soil Conservation Service on Contour-Furrow Irrigation. In this paper, Kohler states contour furrows have ‘just enough grade to carry the irrigation streams.’ In order to facilitate the parallel and equidistant layout that is common to modern agriculture because it is most efficient for machine management and filling space with crops, these ‘contour’ systems deviate from a pure contour layout. However, they are still called ‘Contour’ systems. For this reason, practitioners must be clear with ourselves and our partners in implementation. By stating exactly what we are trying to accomplish and the specifics of the design, we can reach an agreement about how to install it accurately.
4. Learning from and Communicating with our Audience
Within Permaculture, we use a lexicon that is consistent to those who have studied and trained in the concept and discipline, which often allows us to communicate complex ideas rapidly. However, this approach can backfire when interfacing with standardized ways of operating, because we are communicating across a gap in cultural practices. Our position within this communication gap can be conceptualized using an adaptation of Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation concept (9,10). As permaculture practitioners, we often find ourselves on the early adopters section of the curve while many equipment operators or other professionals we interact with exist on the early or late majority sections. There is a chasm that exists both in practice and terminology which we need to cross to enable effective communication and implementation. Crossing this chasm requires both the patience and creativity to express ourselves through many iterations and various media. Once the chasm is crossed and agreement is reached, these early and late majority professionals become translators and may become our strongest advocates and conduits to industry.
When practicing Permaculture, we often face the challenge of maintaining a balance between keeping it simple for pattern understanding and accessibility and being rigorous enough with detail to fit the actual situation and context. As educators we strive to teach people the skills of pattern recognition and reading the landscape. By practicing and improving our skill at reading landscape processes, we apply our pattern understanding at a level of detail appropriate to engage the actual situation. Reading the landscape includes stating our assumptions and deductions, then collecting evidence that supports our conclusions.
This same process can be applied to interpersonal interactions with professionals when we’re working in the field designing and implementing systems. Personally, I resonate with the tools developed by Steven Covey in ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,’ (11) and have matched them with my attempt to create a set of directives for cross-cultural communications.
At the core, these practices focus on understanding the culture and bias of our audience. Initially I called this the ‘audience effect’ but upon researching the definitions, I learned that in the field of Communications this is called ‘audience analysis.’ The ‘audience effect’ refers to how the presence of an audience affects our level of performance of a given task or skill (13). In contrast, ‘Audience analysis is the process of examining information about your listeners. That analysis helps you to adapt your message so that your listeners will respond as you wish’ (14). While working to expand the understanding and application of Permaculture, we can learn a lot from the field of communications. We want to know our audience, listen to them, and speak their language.
There are 3 phases to Audience analysis (15):
- Adapt before you speak,
- Adapt as you speak,
- Analyze your audience after you speak.
Several factors define an audience including age, culture, knowledge of subject, expectations, attitude toward topic, and audience size. In addition people are often egocentric: most interested in things that directly affect them or their community, or as Steven Levitt says ‘people respond to incentives.’ (16) Many times it behooves us to take a ‘bottom up’ approach to designing our communications with an audience by integrating the target audience into the design of the communications (whether a presentation, a flier, a video, or a conversation)(15). While I have focused on verbal communication, do not underestimate the value of matching your appearance and demeanor to the cultural context. Dress the part, play the role, and do so with an integrity and attitude that engages buy-in and empowerment.
5. What is a forest?
Using Permaculture, we design resource producing ecosystems that harmonize with the locally relevant ecosystem processes and provide culturally appropriate products and services. A common pattern in these ecosystems is an element called a ‘food forest,’ a concept I have wrestled with since my home climate of Northern Nevada is a temperate dryland which tends towards a steppe or mixed shrub-grassland ecosystem.
Coming from an American academic background, I define a forest as an ecosystem with 60-100% canopy cover of trees, whereas woodlands are tree systems with 25-60% cover and savannas are fire regulated tree ecosystems with 5-25% cover (17). Well, upon inquiry I realized the global context provides more than 800 definitions of a forest, many of which include any ecosystem that includes trees (18). So the concept of a ‘food forest’ has a very broad definition and one person’s forest might be another’s woodland or savanna. An issue of semantics and what difference does it make?
In the desert and steppe of Northern Nevada, a food ‘forest’ with cover of 60-100% is just a ticking time bomb waiting to ignite in a stand clearing fire and reset the ecosystem to an annual grassland. This is not a resilient ecosystem. In contrast a food savanna that recognizes fire’s role in the ecosystem disturbance regime can be designed to mimic fire with planned grazing and shift physical decay to biological decay processes. This builds soil organic matter and increases water retention in the system whereas a densely treed system (usually pinyon pine-juniper) often leads to minimal groundcover, high rates of erosion, and a dehydrating landscape.
Based on examples like this, I advocate for learning the locally relevant definitions to facilitate communication with local scientists, land managers, and policy makers as we strive to affect large scale land transformation. We can learn by doing preliminary research or just acknowledging our ignorance and asking to be informed. Another approach would be simply to state that a ‘food forest’ is any food producing ecosystem which includes trees and can vary from very sparse tree cover of 5-10% to a truly 100% closed canopy forest. Designer ecosystems are then built in a pattern that matches both the local ecology and the harvest efficiency needed to meet local economic constraints.
While patterns and generalizations help us to understand complex phenomena and are useful to inform design, be aware of their limitations when designing and developing resource producing ecosystems. By paying careful attention to how we communicate with our partners and colleagues, we avoid costly errors during design and implementation of these systems. By acting from a place of confidence and humility, we’re more likely to create the desired end-product and have all parties involved be happy and excited about the result. This in turn increases the time, money, and inspiration available for the next project, and the next, and the next… as we work to transform our global society into beneficial agents of regenerative change.
Contact Neil here:
~We greatly appreciate your shares and likes. If you found something useful, please share.
- What next?
- Shannon, C. E., and Weaver, W. (1949). The mathematical theory of communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Berlo, D. K. (1960). The process of communication. New York, New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.
- Foulger, D. 2004. Models of the Communication Process. http://davis.foulger.info/research/unifiedModelOfCommunication.htm
- Mollision, B. 1990. Introduction to Permaculture. Tagari Press.
- Doherty, D.J., and Jeeves, A. 2015. Regrarian’s eHandbook. Regrarians Ltd. http://www.regrarians.org/regrarian-handbook/
- Holmgren, D. 2002. Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainabilty. Holmgren Design Services.
- Kohler, Jr., Karl O. 1953. Contour-Furrow Irrigation. US Soil Conservation Service. http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc6245/m1/2/
- Rogers, Everett M. 2003. Diffusions of Innovations, 5th Edition. Simon and Schuster.
- Maloney, Chris. 2010. The Secret to Accelerating Diffusion of Innovation: The 16% Rule Explained. http://innovateordie.com.au/2010/05/10/the-secret-to-accelerating-diffusion-of-innovation-the-16-rule-explained/
- Covey, S.R. 1988. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Simon and Schuster.
- Savory, A. and Butterfield, J. 1998. Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making, 2nd ed. Island Press.
- Wikipedia. Audience Effect. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audience_effect
- Steven A. and Susan J. Beebe, Public Speaking An Audience-Centered Approach (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997) 79.
- DeGeer, Stacy. Analyzing your Audience http://department.monm.edu/cata/mcgaan/classes/cata339/audience-analysis101.htm
- Levitt, Steven D., and Dubner, Stephen J. 2011. SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance. William Morrow Paperbacks.
- Illinois Museum. Definition of a Forest. http://www.museum.state.il.us/muslink/forest/htmls/intro_def.html
- Vital Forest Graphics. 2009. UNEP http://www.unep.org/vitalforest/Report/VFG_full_report.pdf