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Rick and the doug fir: a story about consensus  RSS feed

 
paul wheaton
master steward
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Location: missoula, montana (zone 4)
bee chicken hugelkultur trees wofati woodworking
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Once upon a time there was an intentional community.  It had existed for many years - so it was, therefore, a wee bit famous.  It had some troubles, but it was getting better.

Rick, the hero of this story, was in charge of the grounds for this community.  As a permaculture instructor, he was well trusted to do the right thing. 

One day, Rick noticed that several of the douglas fir trees were a bit sickly.  But not just any kind of sickly ...  Rick knew the exact type of sickness that they suffered from.  And he knew what caused it:  a lack of diversity in the forest.  He also knew that if he thinned the stand a bit, the remaining trees will have a chance of survival.  But if he turned his back on the situation, nearly all of the douglas fir trees would die in the next few years. 

So Rick set out with his chainsaw to do what needed to be done. 

"Stop, stop!  STOP!"  Yelled a woman "Where are you going with that chainsaw?"

Rick explained. 

The woman insisted that he was not to cut down a single tree until the whole community reached consensus. 

Eight months later the community agreed that Rick was right.  So the trees were to be cut.  And there was to be a ceremony for each tree that was to be cut. 

For the first tree, dozens of people attended the ceremony which went for over an hour. 

For the second tree, a few people came, and the ceremony lasted about ten minutes. 

Only Rick was there for the third tree.

I ran into Rick last fall.  I had told this story so many times, I was a little worried that my retelling may have taken the story off track a bit.  Nope - Rick confirmed it's spot on. 

When it comes to a moral for this story, I can see quite a few.  And I suspect some folks will see something quite different than other folks.


 
                    
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Rick valley?  I swear I've heard that story.

Oh yes, confirmed in the other thread that it's that Rick and the same story.  I hired him as a consultant and he spent a day and some nights here talking with me about this land and permaculture in general.  He's a great man.  Really knows his stuff.  Has seen a LOT. 

I think that story is a fabulous representation of "mob mentality."  As in, the emotional tide of a situation can sweep up a whole group.  Then when the emotional surge ebbs, the tide suddenly sweeps back out to sea and leaves just a few people standing on the beach.  This can be seen in many situations -- there's a lot of enthusiasm at the start of whatever project, and then as the "fun" of planning wears off the reality of work dampens participation. 

Man, I have my own personal mini-beef about ceremony/ritual in general.  But I'll can it for now. 
 
                          
Posts: 211
Location: Northern California
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It definitely illustrates two things necessary for effective cooperative living: sharing information, and trusting in the good intentions and expertise of your community members--especially those selected for particular tasks. Consensus decision-making will get hung up if some members do not have the background knowledge necessary to make good decisions about an aspect of community they are emotionally invested in, and it will get hung up if people are unwilling to place their trust in members who are selected to carry out certain roles. Of course, that also means those members have to be worthy of trust--in another world, with a very different Rick, we might be telling the story of how consensus communities don't work because that mean old Rick2 once went outside the consensus process and cut down a huge swatch of very important trees without consulting anyone else.

One of two things could have happened better here:
1) All the community members could have been educated about permaculture in advance, so they would be able to quickly understand the decision to cut the trees.
2) The community members could have seen that they had different levels of knowledge about forestry, and consented to invest decisions about forestry in the people with the most knowledge. Having consented to this, they would have to back up the decision with actual trust.

Around the ceremony stuff, it sounds like it might have been something to appease the members who felt like they should object to the tree-cutting on an emotional level. I'm a pagan and a Jew, and I take ritual seriously. I don't think ritual should be used to appease people that way. If you're serious about showing respect to trees you are cutting, and ritual is a way to do that for you, that's one thing. If you're using it as a way of getting some power over a situation you don't like on an emotional level, that's trivializing. Since the people who insisted on ritual stopped showing up once they had interfered with the process of cutting as much as they were able, I suspect the underlying motivations were the latter. That kind of ritual does irritate me--and I also recognize it's sometimes useful as an appeasement tactic for people with a certain mindset, but I don't want to live in a community where decisions are frequently made in order to appease people who use power-under strategies to manipulate the group dynamic.
 
                    
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they would have to back up the decision with actual trust.


Oh isn't that the truth, and maybe the hardest part of community living.  Then again, like you pointed out, the power checking of the group is supposed to be able to stop actions that Rick's evil twin might have made.  Knowing Rick, it's a funny exercise to imagine his evil twin.  To me he exemplifies soft spoken gentleness, even when wielding a chainsaw. 

I agree that emotional tides can be powerful when there are members of the group who are less than ideally educated about the decision to be made.  Leaves the door wide open for manipulation by a few members, who may have good intentions but can sway the majority nonetheless. 

Kerrick, you devil, you articulated my problem with certain rituals (meaningless ones actually, not ritual/ceremony in general) really really well!  Thank you! 
 
Iliya Rashev
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I don’t know the guy, he obviously is a really nice guy… but I wander why he did not explain the situation to his friends before taking action. If he assumed they will be emotionally or any other way involved in this decision it is only normal and reasonable to share the information with them. If he had no idea that they will react so strongly on this decision then he obviously don’t know them very well.
Do you think that the steward system is a good way to go in a community? How much power should a steward has over the decision making in his domain?
 
                    
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I'm sure Rick did his best to explain his position many times over the course of the eight months of community debate over what to do about the trees.  He's not a barge and charge type of guy. 

I think part of Paul's story was dramatic effect?  I don't think Rick was literally out there with his chainsaw when someone stopped him.  But I could very well be wrong about that....been a few years since I heard the story from Rick himself and my memory isn't perfect.  It is part of Rick's job description to cut and plant trees when he sees fit.  I'd assume that job was granted to him with some kind of consensus process. 

Might be good to point out that nearly the entire property in question was clear cut by the group from whom the Lost Valley people purchased it.  They have spent years rehabilitating the land, planting trees, and helping the regrowth along as best they can.  This must have had something to do with the emotional reaction raised by the suggestion to cut down more trees. 

Rick is an experienced enough forester to know that cutting no trees at all was not going to speed succession of the regrowing forest (and would in fact ultimately harm more trees), while other people might not have understood this, or been strongly influenced by their desire to "save the rest of the trees." 
 
paul wheaton
master steward
Posts: 22178
Location: missoula, montana (zone 4)
bee chicken hugelkultur trees wofati woodworking
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There was literally a chainsaw in his hand.  The story is 100% fact.  I recently ran the story by rick and he verified it.

I know that rick shares lots and lots of information all the time.  And, when you are getting a lot of work done in a day, there may be a dozen things each day that somebody might take exception to.  There are so many things that if everything had to be run by the community first, then it could slow progress by a factor of 100.

 
Joel Hollingsworth
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Location: Oakland, CA
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What a great story.

I see a deep parallel between rituals and trees.

Their permanence and what they add in terms of structure tend to be tremendously important. They thrive on richness. Many start, but there isn't room for them all to survive, and most people make their peace with that as the necessity of it becomes clear.
 
Anna Spangle
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  This is indeed a fascinating and revealing story --- what strikes me is the gap between those who do the work and those who feel involved but actually are not really. Do you know about those fMRI brain-scans that have proven how a person watching sports can feel the same emotions as someone actually playing? People can be very interfering even with things they don't much care about.  They imagine they are involved when they arent. Lots of that going on.
      This story is about consciousness as much as its about community or respect for trees as living beings. 
    All of us typing away at computers should realize that we live during times when everyone is losing touch with the real physical world. Those of us who identify with nature's pain and those of us who spend more than an hour a week with a shovel in the dirt are uniquely clear on where imagination ends and  the bottom line begins --- but most people dont have that realization and dont want to.
  Do you  listen to the news? Why? Its mostly vicarious living, because you have no power over it.
  People are mentally and emotionally out-to- lunch and don't even know it. We are so absorbed in paying the bills and feeding the kids and cleaning the bathroom that we cannot really see the patterns in the sky nor in our own hearts. Then we get absorbed in watching screens and live in that little box world.
  I hope Permaculture people can remember who Mollison was, what an unpretentious and practical person. Then we can grab a shovel and get on with it.
 
Todd Hoff
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I wonder if an intentional community could be run on gamifcation principles? A sort of permaculture Worlds of Warcraft.
 
                                
Posts: 98
Location: Eastern Colorado, USA
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A ceremony to cut a sick tree? 

Small wonder permaculture is getting a bad rap.  Small wonder mainstream farmers see it as a movement of dope-head unwashed metaphysical losers who want everyone to live in grass huts without electricity and be vegetarians.  Real farmers have work to do.  They don't have time for Peak Oil and Free Tibet and spinning their own wool and cuddling the chickens.

That's the perception I'm finding out there in farm country.  They've heard the word "permaculture," and it means "hippie."  This we need to fix.

It's my opinion that anyone teaching PDC's, herding interns, or otherwise instructing, should nip those hippie tendencies in the bud.  The real working farms of this country are where the change needs to happen.  There's a dearth of labor and creativity here.  Most of the farmers are over 50, and they do the things they do because they've always done it, and now they're too heavily invested or indebted to rock the boat.  THIS is where we need the youth and vigor and new ideas.

Out here in the grain belt, converting ONE farmer fixes as much land and pollution as SEVERAL THOUSAND backyard gardens.  These hard working country folk are allergic to patchouli and dreadlocks.

They are not, however, allergic to increasing production, decreasing inputs, and making a living in a sustainable way. 


</rant>

Kerrick wrote:
Consensus decision-making will get hung up if some members do not have the background knowledge necessary to make good decisions about an aspect of community they are emotionally invested in,


That's a pretty delicate way to put it.  I prefer the blunt: some people are too dumb to know they're dumb.
 
Fred Winsol
Posts: 155
Location: Sierras
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Once could take this to another level and talk about the consensus and democracy process.  Are ALL people really the best ones to decide on the direction of a community/country? 

I'd rather spend my time getting smart + trusted people into a community and then entrust them to do what they need to do within their field of expertise.  Maybe some monthly get togethers to review stuff... but absolutely minimal interference. 

Things need gettin' done.
 
Fred Winsol
Posts: 155
Location: Sierras
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One could take this to another level and talk about the consensus and democracy process. 

Are ALL people really the best ones to decide on each and every work task within a community/country? 

I'd rather spend my time getting smart + trusted people into a community and then entrust them to do what they need to do within their field of expertise.  Maybe some monthly get togethers to review stuff... but absolutely minimal interference. 

Things need gettin' done.
 
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