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Linear Vs Cyclical Paradigms and Permaculture Mind

The power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round

Black Elk

'Linear' vs 'Cyclical'

Permaculture and indigenous cultures contend that all natural processes are cyclical (i.e., naturally repeating, archetypal, inter-related with surroundings) rather than linear (i.e., not repeating, unique, separate).

In linear thinking, exhaustion or death on any level is a failure. In cyclical thinking exhaustion and death are seen as natural, as letting go of old ideas and going within.

Seen as a period of release and gestation, this 'going within' is deeply integrated with the following inevitable 'birth' phase. In cyclical awareness we are thankful for the going within that winter provides…in linear thinking we are terrified the sun will not return.

The straight line accurately describes the circle's slope at the point of contact, but is a very poor description of the circle itsef.

This Too Will Pass

Visualize this difference by picturing a straight line (i.e., linear thinking) whose midpoint just touches a circle (i.e., the turning of natural cycles). This tangential line shows direction of travel of the circle at the point of contact but ignores the actual nature of the circle, which is constantly changing direction—never a straight line.

Life and its cycles can never be truly described as any part of a straight line. The circle's true nature is that 'This too will pass.' Life is an unavoidable mix of ease and difficulty, joy and sadness—the one always turning into the other.

If we learn to embrace the Circle, we see there is sadness and joy in each moment. This is the deeper lesson of the Yin/Yang symbol—not alternating good-and-bad, but the eternal, simultaneous 'Both.'

The Linear Straightjacket

Seeing through a linear filter, we might believe that upswings can, through our own careful efforts, be made to culminate in perfection. Linearly filtering the 'downward' turn of the same cycle, we see an inescapable descent into oblivion and loss.

Applying linear thinking to cycles seems to me to be a fundamental aspect of bipolar 'disorder' (a word which implies some understanding of 'order,' an understanding not clearly evident in our culture).

Breathing In, Breathing Out

When we see ebbs and flows as linear instead of parts of a larger cycle, we put too much energy into avoiding the unavoidable. We tend to see natural processes as Nature's moral responses to our own successes or failings. We think that perpetual expansion depends only on our acting 'correctly' and 'doing all the right things.'

These expectations are deadly to self-esteem, since rises and declines come of their own accord and can rarely be diverted.

Cyclical thinking cooperates with natural cycles, expanding when expansion is called for and then moving within, paring down and releasing outmoded ideas when contraction is supported—thus being better prepared and more adaptable when the next expansion phase occurs.

How do you make God laugh?

Tell Her your plans!

Natural Consequences

Societal consequences of viewing a cyclical world through a linear filter include alienation from Nature, production systems which consume more energy than they return and a compulsion to respond to Life's inevitable ebbs and flows with manipulative, often violent attempts at unilateral control (seen in both individuals and societies).

Linear thinking attempts to replace wonder, awe and uncertainty (the only 'sane' responses to the miracle we call 'Life') with a false sense of 'control.'

Enhancing Natural Cycles

Instead of fixating on 'control,' permaculture seeks to recognize existing natural cycles and to harvest from each at a time that enhances or at least does not harm the natural movement of that cycle.

The defining shortcoming of modern agriculture has been the abandonment of natural cycles. Having created farms as disconnected groups of poorly-related linear processes, we then have to constantly add energy, materials and other resources in order to keep those processes moving and restarting.

In a modern farm, whenever the energy and nutrient inputs stop, the farm stops. By isolating all the elements of the farm both on the ground and in our minds, we have lost the natural interactions which make true ecosystems self-renewing.

Broken Cycles

An example of linear thinking carried to its (il-)logical extreme in agriculture is failing to return wastes to the soil. Organic nutrient cycles having thus been abandoned, we now have to continually add chemical fertilizers and pesticides to keep the soil 'functioning.'

Sadly, chemical fertilizers and pesticides lack beneficial micronutrients and in fact are actively harmful to many of the soil organisms most critical to soil health and nutrient recycling (including the familiar and extremely important earthworm). This shortcoming necessitates, in the linear mind… what? More chemicals!

Thus a negative feedback loop is created (the 'cycles' created by linear thinking are called 'vicious circles').

Fish will work for food.

Linear Thinking Competes...Cycles Cooperate

As Permaculture recognizes, cyclical interactions are the reason so many natural processes work better when sharing a space. A good example of this effect is fish stocking rates.

If a pond contains as many trout as it can support, for instance, catfish can be added without lowering trout stocking rates—in fact due to the catfish's cleaning effects more trout can actually now be safely added. If sunfish are then included in the mix, both more trout and catfish can then be added, because of more food for both fish.

Free the Chickens!

Another simple example illustrates this well. Chickens in an orchard enjoy eating weeds, fallen fruits and insect pests, returning the favor as manure, pest control and fallen fruit cleanup in a mutually-beneficial cycle of giving and receiving.

By the single, seemingly innocuous act of removing chickens from orchards and putting them in a 'chicken yard,' this mutual relationship is severed and the benefits lost. We've broken a cycle and are doomed to the extra work of feeding chickens, cleaning and mowing the orchard and spraying trees with toxins (poison fruit—mmm, good!).

Chickens will work for food.

We also end up with diminished yields, and an inexorably self-degrading system (since, for instance, trees don't like toxins or tractors, and chicken yards usually become scratched-bare deserts).

Factoring in the extra work, our 'modern' system is now poorly suited to either trees, chickens or farmers! Our apparently self-serving, manipulative hubris is actually quite self-defeating.

Don't Fight It...

Life is cyclical, and we must learn to move with the natural currents and cycles of Nature to survive over the long term.

By cultivating awareness of and sensitivity to Nature's cycles and where we find ourselves within them, we may even learn the secret of increasing the natural flow of Nature's bounteousness through respectful, humble stewardship.

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Reprinted from (Perma) Culture and Sanity Website