Turning Problems Into Assets

Most of us are familiar with the saying, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Can you imagine being able to take that approach to all of your problems, or even a sizable percentage of them? It would be a much-improved world! Fortunately this is a mind-set anyone can cultivate: the mind-set of turning problems into assets.

In my field, permaculture design, we express this mind-set as “Obtain a yield” or “Turn problems into solutions.” One of the best illustrations of this principle is the “snail problem” story that’s told in permaculture classes. As the story goes, a property owner was having a problem with snails, and consulted a permaculture designer for help. The permaculture designer told the property owner, “You don’t have a snail problem; you have a duck deficiency!” In other words, what seems like a “pest” is actually a resource (in this case, food for ducks). (Side note: The permaculture designer in this story was Bill Mollison, who founded the permaculture design movement back in the late 1970s together with fellow Australian David Holmgren.)

Once you start thinking along these lines, you start to see opportunities all around you for turning problems into assets. (Many of you already do this, either because you’re trained in permaculture design or because you’re just naturally smart and creative.) Food scraps become compost; a know-it-all student gets enlisted as an unofficial assistant teacher.

Here are just a few recent examples I’ve noticed around me:

• A neighboring city is considering discontinuing its recycling program, and there is talk that my city and others may follow. As an everyday person, I can obtain a yield by taking the opportunity to ruthlessly eliminate single-use-packaged foods from my diet (such products were costing me a lot of money, and also keeping excess weight on me, so my yield is a slimmer body and more money to spend on better things). I can also increase my repertoire of crafts that repurpose old packaging. Or, if I’m a local manufacturer, I can obtain a yield by developing a product made from throwaway cans or bottles. I’ve heard of textiles, decking materials, park benches and other products that were made of material from single-use containers. Or, as a community activist/neighborhood organizer, I can set up a “free store” in my garage. The empty jars and bottles can be used to hold items such as buttons, hardware, thread. The containers themselves would also be offered as a store item. (One person’s trash is another person’s just-right container!) The main yield from a “free store” is neighborhood friendship and community cohesion, as well as possibly cleaner sidwalks.

• A neighbor child is pulling out some plants along my fence. I can solve the problem by sternly telling him to stop. Or, I can obtain a yield by saying hi, introducing myself, asking his name, saying I’m happy to meet him, and explaining that the plants are food for bees and butterflies so they need to be left alone. The yield is multi-fold: increased community awareness, child nurturance (it takes a village!), and friendship ties. (And that neighbor kid has been a friend ever since! Always stops and says hi to me.)

• I wake up in an utterly desolate state of mind for no external reason. (I have a rather wide range of moods and feelings, so that is something that happens!) I can “solve” the problem (get myself out of the desolate mood at least temporarily) by distracting myself with some substance or recreational activity. Or, I can obtain a yield by utilizing these emotions as material in a novel I’m writing. “Hey! This is exactly the kind of feelings that my character would be having in her situation!” With the “obtain a yield” mindset, a dark mood is transformed into something of great value. Fiction gold! (And as I write, the feeling of desolation gives way to happier feelings, such as gratitude, joy for a new day, satisfaction of engaging in creative work.)

Permaculture design (like sustainability in general) is at least as much about the inner landscape as it is about the outer. As these examples illustrate! Can you think of some examples from your own life, of how you’ve obtained a yield (or could do so in future) rather than merely stopping a problem?

Further Exploration

If you liked this post, you might enjoy studying the permaculture design principles in depth. This page by Deep Green Permaculture offers a brief overview of some design principles. Also, you might consider taking a permaculture design class. It’s truly a life-enriching experience; it pays for itself quickly; and the benefits will ripple out into your community.

Permaculture Design Courses in central Texas: Austin Permaculture Guild

Permaculture Design Courses in Florida: Grow Permaculture

(The above links are where I have personal and professional ties. But regardless of where you live, do a search on “Permaculture Design Certificate Course” and you are likely to find something near you. If you don’t find anything in your area, contact me and I’ll do my best to help.)

Also, there are a number of permaculture design certificate courses offered online these days. The online course I recommend is the Permaculture Women’s Guild course, taught by a team of 40 instructors from around the world. In addition to the standard 72-hour Permaculture Design Certificate, you also earn an advanced certificate in Social Permaculture Design.