(This post probably owes a debt to Looby Macnamara, who has written an entire book on this subject.  I say probably, though, because I haven’t read it – I wanted to write my own thoughts on this subject and didn’t want to 1) read anyone else’s before I articulated my own, and 2) get discouraged from writing because someone’s already tackled this topic better than I could.  So if anyone wants to go more in depth on this topic, her book is – I assume – a great place to dig.  I know I’ll be reading it soon.)

Now.  While I’m relatively new to the permaculture community, I’ve spent a number of years in and around some other similar and overlapping circles – namely, small-scale farmers, and activist-y types.  The farming circles are generally composed of workers on or owners of small farms, who are bucking the dominant food system in one way or another – local scale, ecological practices, off-grid homesteading, etc.  And the activist-y cirlces consist in general of folks working for social justice, equality, environment, or otherwise against the dominant system.  The permaculture folks I’ve known here in Colorado seem to fit into one or both of those circles, and so I feel like I’ve had some frame of reference.

There is a lot of good done in these circles, and I’m convinced that if change does indeed come to our extractivist society before it’s too late, that these farmers, activists, and permies will be among those ushering it in.  They are doing good and necessary work.  But I’ve seen so many of them working in an unhealthy way, or for unhealthy reasons.  And those who do this tend to slide down one of two slippery slopes of ineffectiveness: burnout or assholedom.

What do I mean by these two categories?  Burnout is easy enough to recognize – to me, it’s when one is no longer capable of doing one’s work because the levels of responsibility, commitment, stress, energy, waking hours, or (perhaps fundamentally) internal drive, are too high for a human to sustain in a healthy way.  I’ve been one of these folks, during the year I worked 70-80 hour weeks on a farm with a flawed business plan (more on that in a forthcoming essay!). When people reach their limits, they push past them for one reason or another, and then if they keep going, reserves drained, they become bitter, irritable, ineffective – or they just quit.  Like the Molotov cocktail emptied of gasoline, they burn out.  This category is more often associated with a lack of perceived success.

The other category, assholedom, I don’t think we think about as much, but it’s just as prevalent, and just as much of a problem.  The term came up in a recent discussion I had with a colleague as a descriptor for that realm people enter into when they become more important than the work they’re doing.  In other words, when they become assholes.  This happens more often in tandem with success: an individual thinking that their successes, and their self-image as a success, are more important than their work or their community.  They begin to value that above all else, and inflate their self-image to the point at which it becomes all about them, and they begin disrespecting others, sleeping with their interns, creating rivalries, and generally feeding the image of themselves as worthy of attention.  The image here is of a balloon continuously filling with hot air, which will rise above the crowd briefly before it bursts.

At this point I think it’s important to point out that I am not intending to use the terms “burnout” or “asshole” to judge or deride.  I mean them to be merely descriptors of the extremes of a spectrum, in the healthy middle of which rests the balanced self.  The asshole, on one extreme, is merely too full of themselves; the burnout, at the other, too empty of themselves.  See my meticulously-illustrated example below:



Both of these outcomes are sad, not only because they hurt the causes these individuals work for (either by effectively removing themselves after burning out, or by repelling others from joining by being assholes), or because of the personal pain these individuals undergo, but because both assholedom and burnout reflect patterns in our dominant society that so many of them, and us, are working to change.  When we burn out, we buy in to the attitude society has towards all resources, including humans – that they should be drained of all useful energy, and then discarded and replaced.  And assholes buy in to the myth that says the individual is more important than the community, or the group, or for that matter the ecosystem – society worships stars, and when we veer into assholedom, we take that as truth.

That being said, I don’t want to blame society for burnout or assholedom – plenty of people engage in important work without falling off either edge.  Nor do I think we can blame the work that an individual does, or the outcomes (positive or negative) of that work.  I think the seeds of both burnout and assholedom lie within us, in who we understand ourselves to be – or maybe more to the point, a lack of understanding of who we are.  I see, in myself and in many others, that there is necessary internal work being neglected, avoided, run away from, or otherwise ignored while seemingly necessary external work is being pursued.  These internal projects are easy to dismiss for many reasons – they would be too much work, they dive into unfamiliar or frightening territory, they’re disruptive to what we’ve constructed our identity to be, or simply (to quote a man who could’ve done more internal work himself, Donald Rumsfeld) because they are “unknown unknowns” – that is, we don’t even know there’s internal work to be done.

In the next part of this essay, I’ll show how I’ve used some of the tools of permaculture design to explore this internal work…..