All observations are relative

“All observations are relative”

“Observation can be a reflection of an internal state rather than objective fact. Even the concept of objective fact in science is now acknowledged as flawed; scientists know that observation, directly or indirectly, influences reality.” ~ David Holmgren – Permaculture; Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability

I would go as far as to say that most, if not all observation is a reflection of an internal state rather than objective fact. And, maybe it is more that as human’s we have a tendency to present our subjective opinions as facts, therefore revealing our internal state.

David Holmgren’s design thinking guideline “All observations are relative” has got me thinking a lot over the last few weeks, and since I have been on that train of thought I have come across many ‘opportunities’ to either back up my thoughts or make me question my beliefs.

I have always liked the game ‘If you were a animal/vegetable/fruit or color, what would you be?’ I think the responses reveal a lot about people, how they see themselves and maybe in turn how they would see others. Who would be their natural enemies, predators, companions, supporters, admirers and what kind of response, reaction or mood would they illicit. It can often reveal levels of self-confidence, self perception, values and maybe even judgements.

I particularly like to play this game for myself and I have noticed my responses have changed or varied at different times, over the years, depending on who I am with, my present situation and other variables I am sure. I have been an eagle,  swallow, cat, tiger, lion and then an aubergine,  orange,  mango, passion fruit, pineapple, lychee and colour wise I have been and continue to be green, purple, pink, burnt orange and sky blue. All these could be interpreted, observed or judged to mean many things, or millions of things by millions of people based on their experiences and ideas. Have I revealed myself? What have I given away about who I am and what I stand for? What sense do you get from me? I am sure the responses would be as diverse and creative as we are as humans.

This is me, what do you see?


If I told you my sex, colour, nationality, sexuality, educational background, religious beliefs, income bracket, age or even my parents profession I wonder if you would come to the same conclusions? Or if the conclusions would be more heavily based on your relative experience or judgements?

David Holmgren goes on to say

Given the limits to objectivity, it is better to be clear and articulate about our assumptions, preconceptions and values, and to acknowledge how these influence and structure how we see. Ethics and ideology act as filters that determine what and how we see. These filters are unavoidable – in fact, essential – but the rush to judgement of right and wrong frequently clouds our observation and prevents understanding. This commonly occurs in our attitude to pest plants and animals”

I am interested in this attitude to ‘pest plants and animals’ but in using it as an analogy, in terms of humans.

Do we have ‘pest plants and animals’ or ‘weeds’ in our lives?

For a while now I have hosted travelers in my home, for me it is a way to connect with the wider world, to meet people from different backgrounds, to find out about our similarities or differences, to enrich my life, to stimulate my mind and to share experiences. I find it exhilarating, I find people interesting and they never cease to amaze me. What I particularly enjoy is the opportunity to experience trust amongst fellow humans; their trust in coming into my home and my own in opening my door to strangers. I feel we have lost a lot of trust and it has been replaced by fear and sometimes ignorance, and I don’t want to buy into that. I would even go as far as to say I want to make a point that it is not necessary, that human beings are fundamentally trustworthy. This flies in the face of the current evidence that we cannot be trusted as humans when it comes to caring for the earth, caring for the people or sharing and distributing the surplus. But the connections I have made have taught me that at their core most humans do want to do these things and value an opportunity to do just that.

I also like to think that in sharing my home I am also sharing my values and ‘giving’ something back, but I always end up getting so much more than I give. I have had many long, intense, informative and enlightening conversations with my guests over the years. Some have become friends, or at least stay in touch with me. I have hosted people from all corners of the globe. When I was in Spain people naturally would ask me about all things spanish, the culture, the food, my experiences about being a foreigner there. Now, being back in my mother land I am being asked about British culture, the people, the attitudes and also about this thing we have in the UK called a ‘class system’.

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting a young American women who is traveling around the UK, she is a very curious young women, who asked me many questions; About the culture here in the UK? What are our perceptions of Americans? How I came across permaculture? And many other things about my beliefs and way of life. I enjoy this type of conversation, it helps me to get focused, to clarify my thoughts, to share experiences and to learn. I also really appreciate this kind of curiosity, I think it reveals a brave attitude and a genuine interest to find out about the world and not be afraid to ask what could be sensitive questions or have potentially sensitive answers. Of course it helps when the person asking is doing so with empathy, understanding and lack of judgement. Someone seeking answers but who is doing so from a clear state of mind.

My American visitor, keen to find out about British culture raised this question about class in the UK, which apparently we are known for… She wanted to know; Was it real? And was it ‘fluid’?

This has always been something that bugged me about the UK, how people are classed depending on their postcode, their income bracket, their education, their family history. I do wonder if it would have bugged me so much if I were considered or seen as belonging to another class? Maybe it is the first time I have been asked directly if this class system was ‘fluid’, as in, can people move out of their given class. This made me think a lot, and my answer eventually was… probably not. This I believe is due to attitudes, both from the ‘other classes’ and individuals themselves who believe intrinsically that they belong to a certain class, and that no matter how they live their life, where they go, what they achieve, what they believe, they will still belong to the class into which they were born. I find this sad, and I also find that it is a reflection of us as a society.

What I find sad is not that people don’t believe the class system is fluid, but that a class system exists in the first place. That anyone has to identify themselves by their class or their ‘capital’, because that is what it comes down to; those who have more and those who have less.

“When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system: he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind” ~ J. Krishnamurti

The sentiments of J.Krishnamurti for me represent  ‘permaculture thinking’  emphasizing that when we separate ourselves from any system or disregard any part of the system things start to break down, decay, fester and eventually lead to a violent reaction. When we identify ourselves by our country or any other beliefs it can often lead to thinking that those who are not part of that same group are the ‘pest plants and animals’ and that there is a need to control, over power, eliminate, disregard, disrespect and undervalue, and we can become blind to the functions, roles and fundamental value of every ‘element’ that lives and breathes on our planet.

Less obvious growth, full of ‘pest plants’ the least abundant edge..

Observe and interact – the process of observing influences reality ~ David Holmgren’s Design Principle

My guest had also brought up this same question of class with someone else she had stayed with in the UK, someone she said would be described as ‘very liberal thinking, educated and open-minded’ and she had been surprised by the answer relating to this person’s view of the working class,  which was “that they are another race completely, you can tell them even by the way they look”.  I am sure there was more to this discussion and on a more derogatory tone, but I didn’t feel I could listen to any more.

I don’t think this opinion is rare, if people were being really honest, but we may not hear it much being said aloud because we have such a strict policy of  ‘political correctness’ in the UK. As my guest noted, this person was speaking in a confidential tone, one that she was sure she wouldn’t use outside or publicly. Isn’t that interesting?

For a long time now I have thought, that political correctness is just another way of masking or covering up real beliefs and if we have to make something a ‘law’ then it is not really dealing with the root cause or attitudes of the dis-ease. I should add that I do believe we need to question our language, our terminology, our assumptions and our attitudes, but that, like learning about permaculture or nature is an inside job and comes from a real wish to value the marginal and edges.

Easier here to see the richness, the diversity, the abundance?

Use edges and value the marginal – Don’t think you are on the right track just because it is a well beaten track ~ David Holmgren’s Design Principle

Interestingly, or maybe not so surprisingly my guest made the connection between our UK ‘class system’ (which she says doesn’t exist in the states, but maybe she means that it is not so apparent or clearly defined/identified/obvious as it here in the UK, or it may be that it is more fluid?) with that of the treatment of african’s who reside in the states. I would add, any immigrant legal or otherwise, who is living in the states or any other country. Although the legal immigrants can sometimes have an easier time of it in terms of being accepted.

This edge is full of life, maybe it gets more sun? The ‘right’ energy

In fact it is very similar to any ‘margin’ or any ‘edge’ and once we define the boundary or create the  ‘border’ we cut off the other and don’t recognize and value the diversity, or see it as part of the richness of the whole.

If our observations of others as other are not favorable we can effectively see them as the ‘pest plants and animals’. And in doing so our observations are influencing the reality of our own lives and of those we are observing.

“How will this thought or action contribute to, or interfere with, the achievement, by me and the greatest possible number of other individuals, of man’s Final End?” ~ Aldous Huxley

The bigger picture, showing more equal distribution and diversity


3 responses to “All observations are relative

    • Thanks for the comment Snail of Happiness, that name makes me smile ;-)) I don’t think we should try and not see or acknowledge edges, and not even sure I would agree that we see them as thresholds. I think we should just see them for what they are, different, diverse, full of vibrant life, full of mystery perhaps, something to be explored further and experienced with an open mind. The only barriers holding us back are not the ‘edges’ in themselves but our own thinking about what that edge stands for.

      If we had more snails of happiness around then I am sure the edges would become part of the whole and the ‘border’ line undistinguished in the end. Or instead of edge we would just have the line where all meets.

      Thanks that has helped me see that more clearly for myself ;-))

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