We Grow From Here's Blog

A Community Garden Project

Leave a comment

The Lowest Common Denominator

The Lowest Common Denominator.



The Lowest Common Denominator

low·est common denominator (lst)


1. See least common denominator.


a. The most basic, least sophisticated level of taste, sensibility, or opinion among a group of people.

b. The group having such taste, sensibility, or opinion: “The press can resist the standard of the lowest common denominator, the rationalization that all news is fit to print that has appeared anywhere else” (Edward M. Kennedy).

least common denominator

n. Abbr. lcd

The least common multiple of the denominators of a set of fractions: The least common denominator of 1/3 and 1/4 is 12. Also called lowest common denominator.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Cultural Dictionary

lowest common denominator definition


The smallest number that can be divided evenly into two other numbers ( see common denominator). When fractions with different denominators are added together, their denominators have to be made the same; thus, fractions with denominators of nine and twelve have thirty-six as a lowest common denominator. Seventy-two and 108 are also common denominators for fractions with denominators of nine and twelve, but thirty-six is the lowest.

Note : The term lowest common denominator  is often used to indicate a lowering of quality resulting from a desire to find common ground for many people: “This fall’s TV programming finds the lowest common denominator of taste.”

The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition
Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

See, this is not what I think of when I use the term “lowest common denominator”—not, at least, the social reference of “least sophisticated”, or “lowering of quality”—what I think of is quite the opposite, in fact. To me, if applied particularly to education, it refers to common ground—to the place where everyone meets in the middle–the place of origin or space where a cultural pattern may begin, like the zero point field, or a sacred numeric pattern such as the Fibonacci Sequence. Once the common ground has been established, the potential for exponential growth is enhanced, also exponentially. This could begin at ‘one’, at ‘zero’, or endless other possibilities, because ‘community’ begins with 1+1.

In nature, this would be termed a “guild”—plant groupings which enhance the survival and abundance of one another. In the plant kingdom, ‘weeds’ have a function—they may shelter the soil from sunlight, creating a space where other plants can gain a foothold, or they may even have more specific functions, such as enabling nutrient availability for other plants. You can tell a great deal about any soil by the types of weeds springing up, as each individual seed sprouts from its own optimum conditions.

Guilds also function in the same way for people, and communities are where guilds begin. The first step in recognizing potential guild members in the human community could very well be by looking to the ‘weeds’—the people who just don’t seem to ‘fit in’, the ones we tend to disparage, shun, ban—the crabgrass of humanity. Many of society’s weeds are homeless, addicted, or mentally ill—others are simply non-conformist.

Many of those drawn to permaculture might be considered ‘weeds’ in society or current en vogue culture—our yards may stick out like sore thumbs amidst the neatly manicured suburbia which surrounds us, or we may not dress or behave the same as our family or the ‘norm’. We choose lifestyles based on a different scale of values than many of our neighbors, often opting to shun popularly accepted practices, whether it be eating animal products, driving a gas-fueled vehicle, shopping at Wal-Mart, or attending a church.

As in nature, we can choose how we deal with ‘weeds’…what the study of natural systems teaches is that everything has a purpose, and that if we become soil-tenders, stewards of the earth rather than ‘weeders’—a lovely rhythm emerges. Instead of spending our lives stooped over, pulling ‘weeds’, we can re-define what it is they really are and what their purpose is—we actually see them, and appreciate what they do, rather than focusing on the ‘eyesore’. This is why the first rule of permaculture is ‘observe’—this is an essential part of the process and cannot be skipped or skimped. Part of observation is acceptance without judgment, which goes against the grain of our culture—the society which taught us that rows are good, and conformity was reinforced more than creativity.

As with anything, if we are to find the lowest common denominator in our community or guild, we must first observe our own selves—what do we see as our ‘part’, where do we fit in, and what happens if we don’t feel accepted, respected, or honored? If we tend our own emotional soil, if we compost feelings and choose to communicate from the heart, relationships with other people become less about unmet needs and more about truth. Sounds pretty high-minded, right? It’s true, though—study the work of Marshall Rosenberg, who pioneered NVC (non-violent communication) and you will find just the tools needed for turning anger, depression, guilt and shame into delightfully rich compost to nurture all of our relationships! It begins at home…and, like most things in permaculture, it begins with slowing down.

The way that we assist in creating land systems which are not only sustainable but regenerative is by slowing the flow of water through the landscape, utilizing and maximizing every single drop—torrent to flow, flow to trickle, trickle to soak. The way that we can remain connected to our own feelings and emotions, thus more able to relate to others, is also by slowing down—composting feelings, rather than throwing them off or protecting ourselves behind walls. Relating and connecting with needs—those which are met or unmet, is also crucial in any inter-connected activity. We are, after all, in a body for only one reason: our bodies are communication devices, so that we are capable of connecting with others on this planet. The choices that we make, the guilds in which we participate, whether seemingly by choice or not, will make all the difference in whether or not we thrive, just as our botanical friends, so choose wisely!

Consider this—observe your activity in groups, and whether or not the ‘lowest common denominator’ of those groups is nothing more than proximity and a single interest, such as, for instance, my sailing club—we are people who are interested in sailing in the immediate region of Tampa Bay, more specifically North Pinellas County. The range of participants in this group can be extremely broad, if we then choose to observe other social factors, such as marital/parental status, profession, or spiritual practices. Thus, some common ground may be found between individuals within the larger group, but not on the whole. Therefore, it is not conducive to the future of the group as a whole to focus attention on activities other than “proximity” and “sailing”. Doing so creates fragmentation and eventually erosion, just as in any guild in nature—planting an apple tree in a banana guild would not lead to fruition or any advantage to the whole.

Another example—a Toastmasters group I participated in for many years, and was even president of at one point—once the group began focusing on one or two members’ areas of outside interest, the club simply disintegrated, its members disenfranchised, and within a very short period of time, when considering the overall length of time the club was active. If the focus of the club had remained on the goal of Toastmasters, which is twofold: public speaking and leadership, the club might have continued.

The internet has allowed us access to something never before in the history of the world—to step outside of the common ground of place, to expand our guilds beyond the scope of proximity into the entire planet. Social media venues such as Facebook can help to at the very least connect with a larger audience, which can then bring us closer to those we are most likely to build real soil with—because that is what we are, as stewards of the Earth: soil builders. Use these tools wisely, as ‘appropriate use of technology’, and your guilds will flourish. Become focused on self-centered or ego-based pursuits, and the guild will wither and die. What we learn as permaculturists is not to be so hasty to ‘pull the weeds’ – instead, we observe, and in the process of slowing down, enhancing the soil with the rich organic matter of non-judgment, we grow healthy, regenerative people systems—what I like to call “true guilds’.

In one of my favorite interviews with Geoff Lawton and his mentor and friend Bill Mollison, Lawton asks: “…how do we know…when what we are doing is the right thing?” Mollison’s answer:

“Because resources will gather around you, many of them people.”


©Loretta Buckner 2013