“Why’s this so good?” Melanie Rios on intentional communities, governance and the principles of permaculture

As sustainability concepts have gained momentum with the onset of climate change, so have the ideas that influence the practice of intentional living. Melanie Rios wrote this article for the Winter 2011 issue of Communities Magazine. In it she discusses how the Lost Valley Educational Center and Meadowsong Ecovillage transformed an inefficient consensus-based governance structure into a smooth functioning “sociocracy.”

Lost Valley is a non-profit organization outside of Dexter, Oregon. With 87 acres and a conference center, Lost Valley offers classes, workshops and apprenticeship programs in various aspects of permaculture.

Rios’ article discusses the challenges that the well-intentioned Meadowsong ecovillage faced when trying to implement a consensus-based government structure. Ultimately, in 2008 the consensus model was scratched and Lost Valley became a hierarchical business.

A diagram of Lost Valley's sociocracy, including a temporary water circle that resolved an issue with the organization's well water.

Implementing permaculture principles that usually apply to land management, the Lost Valley crew created what Rios calls a social permaculture. As it turns out, what works for the land also worked for the people cultivating it, and this is what makes Rios’ article so powerful. The definition of a sociocracy provided by Rios is so succinct it would be difficult to paraphrase:

A governance system based on a pattern of inter-linked decision-making circles that each contains a small number of people. Meeting together in small groups is more engaging than larger ones because there is more space for each participant to actively participate in the conversational flow. And small groups of five to 10 members are more effective than larger ones at making good decisions quickly.

The circle is a simple symbolic representation of the life cycle in its completeness. It is the symbol of interconnectedness. Lost Valley’s implementation of a sociocracy demonstrates the universality of the concepts behind permaculture.

Rios isn’t just telling us about a governance structure, she is showing us that certain principles are so essential that they span all possible applications.

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