What Politics Can Learn from Permaculture

Ed Dowding
Friday, 1st April 2016

Represent (www.represent.cc) is moving us beyond petitions to a democracy reinvented for the internet era. Its founder, Ed Dowding, tells us how he drew on the principles of permaculture to develop the idea.

Politics is sum of the choices we take to maintain and grow civilisation. I’d like to think that permaculture and civilisation share these three things at their core: to care for people, stewardship of the earth and resources, and to maintain and enrich itself.

Alas, we have become aware that we are falling short on these goals. The choices made by our businesses and governments lack the humanity and perspective necessary to make us proud, and the gap between ‘what we know is possible’ and ‘what happens’ grows ever wider. 

Their decisions are driven not by observations of reality as it is, but by three key concepts that make the world easier for them to think about:

1) The Economy is the best measure of good,

2) The most important human network is a Nation, and

3) Individuals are primarily concerned with their own well-being. 

It is self-evident that these are not true.

This simplified thinking also ignores fundamental characteristics which drive humankind: We appreciate autonomy; we despise injustice; what we value most is rarely counted in the economy; we find joy working for a purpose larger than ourselves; and we are loyal and caring. In short, as our name suggests, humankind is humane and kind.

Until a century or so ago this misrepresentation was relatively unimportant. We had many opportunities for expression and resources to work with. Populations were low, the earth relatively bounteous, and most people rarely travelled or traded more than 50 miles from home.

But as we push our planet to the limits we need to make better decisions. Our governments have lost their way and need our guidance – and permission – to change the rules to create the better world we know is within reach.

We created Represent to help you give them that guidance and to give you a way to represent your wishes as a responsible citizen. (I’ll not tell you about it here, but would invite you to go play at www.represent.cc).

In designing Represent, we drew heavily on nature’s tried and tested models as summarised in the principles of permaculture, and I’d like to share some of our thinking with you. 


Most obviously, it should be permanent. Democracy is a continuous and dynamic thing which deserves and demands our attention as a matter of routine, not just every five years. You should be able to have your say whenever you think it counts.

Watch, and learn from the experts

When a new government is elected to power they seem to find it hard to admit that their predecessors could have done something that doesn’t need changing. Like children in a toy-shop they want to play with everything – immediately. This means they never take the time to observe and learn, and so rely on ideology and not evidence to guide them.

We need evidence based policies which draw upon the expertise of those working in that area who understand the follies and wisdom of that which already exists.

Consulting large numbers of people is no longer difficult or expensive. Represent makes it ridiculously easy for any group of people (e.g. NHS staff, teachers, residents on a flood plain) to raise, discuss, and vote on issues. There’s powerful analysis which can sort by consensus, shows correlations between issues, or shows changes in peoples’ values by location or age. 

There’s no longer any excuse to neglect this evidence and expertise.  

Human ingenuity is an endless resource

Human ingenuity and passion is infinite, and given the opportunity it flourishes. The internet has given people around the world that opportunity. We can learn anything for free, and we can share ideas across the world in an instant.

So far we’ve harnessed this in giving voice to anyone, anywhere, who wants to make their voice heard. But now we are going further. Because we all learn from and trust the ideas and expertise of others, why can we not delegate our vote to them, too?

If you trust George Monbiot, for example, to both share your values and have more expert knowledge of environmental systems, why should you not be able to delegate your vote to him for any environmental issue? Or delegate to Susan for education? Or delegate everything to the candidate I voted for, perhaps with the exception of the occasional vote on foreign policy?

We’re adding this dimension in spring this year. Until then the system is learning from your favourite topics and votes to make recommendations, so hop in and help it learn!

Lead with great values and the rest will follow

Everyone voting on everything is boring and silly. Vote delegation is one of the things we’re adding soon to fix this. Another is patterns vs details.

Most votes can be categorised into ‘fundamentals’ (we shouldn’t build more houses), ‘conventions’ (all new houses should be net-zero), ‘administrative’ (should an off-grid dwelling with more than six occupants still have mains-powered fire alarms?), or ‘curiosities’ (would you like to live in a micro-home?). 

As such, we can express our fundamental values without being bogged down in the administrative detail. That’s what the civil service is for! 

Raise barns, not mobs

People are great at working together – even when we disagree. With a large shared purpose we quickly empathise, find compromise, acknowledge each other’s strengths and compensate for weaknesses – and become better people because of it. The trick to progress is to find those large shared purposes, and be challenged to reconcile our differences.

ePetitions have been fantastic at showing quite how much we yearn for our values to be heard, but one of their fatal weaknesses is they don’t challenge us. We are never forced to consider another point of view or nuance to the debate we’d not considered, and we are never invited to consider compromises, or volunteer what sacrifices we’re prepared to make if required.

Learning, empathy, consideration, and changing one’s mind are all crucial features of a democracy. The opposite is a mob. 

Unlike ePetitions, because Represent allows you to agree OR disagree with a vote, all sides of a debate can meet in one place. This lets us present you with counter-points, show you how your friends answered, show you how popular positions are, and – if you choose to – change your mind. (I should point out that you can vote privately if you want to. You don’t need to lose friends over small differences!)

Make resilience our greatest strength

We have a very crass political system inherited from an era when the fastest thing was a horse and the extent of government was rather small. Now we try to make one size fit all, and it doesn’t work (see also: Devolution). We just don’t like our governance being so distant and inflexible – not just on principle, but because it prevents many good things from happening.

If residents of a city are paying local taxes, should the city not also have the right to spend them, and choose how they are spent? This allows for local experimentation, allowing us all to learn more, faster; and gives us the freedom to adopt regional policies to suit the unique nature of our environment.

Thus it is that Represent allows ‘geo-fenced’ questions so that residents of a particular area can debate locally relevant issues.  

Make your values count – all the time

You have a lot of values and opinions. As we’ve shown, to only express these in one ‘X’ on a ballot paper every five years is a tremendous waste of your intelligence.

In a continuous democracy which invites you to share your thoughts across any topic which interests you – locally or globally, big picture or detail – you can collect and aggregate your thoughts into a personal ‘values bank’. Between us all, this builds up a comprehensive picture of the world we want and the rules we would like to be governed by.

We can anonymously make these available to your elected officials, candidates, organisations, and businesses to show them the world we all want them to work towards. The ones who deliver it will get our votes and our custom.

Make positive change rewarding

It would be nice to think that being a responsible citizen is its own reward, and that contributing to bringing about a better world would be enough. Alas, not everyone is like you! But like most things, the problem is the solution.

If you’ve just told us that you don’t support fracking, we can show you a link where you can change to an energy supplier who shares your values. You’ll get a welcome hamper and we get a small payment. Tell us you support British craft and favour sustainable products and we could offer you a discount at Howies. They get more business, we charge them a small fee for showing you the advert.

Please be aware that we’re not fans of advertising either. We will never show you something that doesn’t help you take the next step on something you’ve just told us you support, and when we have more advertisers, we’ll give you the opportunity to turn them off for a small fee. It is important for a system like Represent to have a way to pay the bills which is independent of the influence of grants or government money so that we can work directly for the benefit of people everywhere. 

Forever changes

Finally of course, it is vital for us to keep learning and responding to your wishes. What’s the point of having a versatile democratic system if you don’t let users vote on its future? You can vote on our features, processes, and priorities at https://represent.cc/group/represent

Ed Dowding is the founder of Represent. Join the herd at www.represent.cc

Further resources

How online democracy can change everything


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