But, I’m Not Using My Physics In My House

One problem with our media-heavy life is that good things come and go unnoticed because 1) they are buried amongst an avalanche of junk, and 2) we are always going on to something new.

But in order to make something our own we have to sit with it a while, chew it over some, set it aside, and then come back to it again with new eyes.

In that spirit, I’d like to revisit an Alan AtKisson interview with Bill Mollison published in In Context magazine in 1991. (There is a lot on this site that is worthwhile, and still relevant — check it out at:  http://www.context.org/

Back then Bill was always being asked  to define permaculture, and always struggling to do so. Part of his genius was that his mind was forever shooting off in a hundred different directions at once. So it was easy for him to see endless possibilities, but hard to catch and hold down one simple formulation that would satisfy inquirers. But by 1991 he was saying quite clearly that permaculture is a design system — a “Design for Living” (which is the title of the interview).

“Why is it,” Bill asked, “that we don’t build human settlements that will feed themselves, and fuel themselves, and catch their own water, when any human settlement could do that easily? When it’s a trivial thing to do?”

We (in Western cultures) need to change the way we see things, change the way we think, change the way we separate our knowledge from the way we live our lives.

Take physics professors, for example: “they may teach sophisticated physics at the university. But they go home to a domestic environment which can only be described as demented in its use of energy. They can’t [even] see that.”

“Once you’ve said to yourself, ‘But I’m not using my physics in my house.’ or ‘I’m not using my ecology in my garden — I’ve never applied what I know to how I live!’” the changes begin to “unroll like a carpet” in front of you.

So — permaculture is a design system and “One of the great rules of design is ‘do something basic right’. Then everything [following] gets much more right by itself. But if you do something basic wrong (a Type I error) you can get nothing else right.”

He also takes time to warn us against excess ‘individualism’. Permaculture, he says, means ‘complete cooperation’ with people and all of nature. “You can’t cooperate by knocking something about or bossing it or forcing it to do things. You won’t get cooperation out of a hierarchical system. You get enforced direction from the top and nothing I know of can run [well] like that.”


Permaculture Principle #12: Creatively Use and Respond to Change

“Vision is not seeing things as they are, but as they will be.”

We need to deal with change in two ways:

  • When changes beyond our control occur we adapt, and
  • We also make use of change deliberately and cooperatively.

Watering our garden during dry times is an example of the first. Making and using compost for the garden is an example of the second.

As another example of the second, permaculture often deliberately accelerates the natural processes of ecological succession in our cultivated systems. For example, we may turn a degraded old field into an area of productive food trees in just a few years by allowing dynamic accumulators to grow, planting nitrogen fixers, then inter-planting the food trees and progressively thinning out the nitrogen fixers, while also using animals to help us trim, reduce pests, and fertilize.

Ecological succession is also a good model to use to understand the dynamics of group processes over time. Visionary members will advocate innovations. More established leaders may then influence the acceptance and adoption of useful innovations. In any group, people will come and go over time, and each new person can bring a different set of assets to the mix.

In permaculture we want to build stable, long-lived systems and, paradoxically enough, in order to do so we must allow for constant change within a larger structure. Rigidity at the individual level cripples a group, and will eventually kill it as too many valuable members feel oppressed and leave to find more congenial surroundings. Thus change at the smaller level actually contributes to higher order sustainability.

And so we have spiraled around and come back to the beginning with Principle #1: Observe and Interact — but now at a more complex level. Now as we observe we hold the conscious intention of accounting for the elements of a system, the relationships between and among the elements, and the nature of change processes over time as well.

The butterfly is the symbol for this principle. It reminds us that change is not only inevitable, it may also be transformative and beautiful.


This concludes our short introduction to Holmgren’s permaculture principles. On the web, look for a presentation of these principles (and more) at www.holmgren.com.au and for those interested in learning more, see David Holmgren’s book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.

Permaculture Principle 10: Use and Value Diversity

This principle would seem to be self-evident until you look around to see what is actually happening in the world.

Large monoculture fields vastly increase crop vulnerability to pests or diseases, and vastly increase the amounts of fuel and toxic chemicals used to counteract them, as well as leading to serious loss of topsoil — yet our agriculture has been moving in this direction for at least 50 years.

Architecture adapted to its own unique region saves energy, both in building and maintenance — as well as being beautiful — yet cookie-cutter subdivisions and endless mind-numbing strip malls invade more and more places.

It’s the rare example of regional cuisine that manages to survive the onslaught of miles of fast-food chains.

We can now travel hundreds (maybe thousands) of miles to sleep in the same motel, eat the same burger or chicken or taco, shop in the same big-box store, and watch the same TV shows that we had at home.

One of the main problems with a lack of diversity (besides the fact that it’s incredibly boring) is that any deleterious effect can pretty much sweep unimpeded through the whole mass in a fairly short time. This is as true of fads, rumors, or disinformation as it is of products or pests or diseases.

Diversity is absolutely necessary as the chief way to provide the redundancy needed to maintain any healthy natural system. Only a short period of observation will show you that this is how systems evolve and maintain themselves in nature. If we humans want to remain a part of a healthy functioning ecosystem, we need to understand this necessity and work within it.

The proverb “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” reminds us of the consequences of ignoring the need for diversity — as much diversity as we can encourage.

Come on people, learn to enjoy your differences while you still have them.

Permaculture Principle #9: Use Small and Slow Solutions

The simple yet profound idea of this principle is that human endeavors work best at human scale, both in size and in speed. Let me say it again — we get the best results when we keep our projects at human scale — not too big, and not too fast. Naturally.

Our systems should be designed, like good clothes or shoes, to do the job with style and elegance, while fitting us perfectly. The embodied values are appropriateness, sustainability, beauty, and substance — not power, greed, or display.

The anomalous availability of cheap energy in the last hundred years or so provides a subsidy to large-scale and fast systems. We should keep in mind that cheap energy represents a sharp exception to the lives of most people, most places, most times. But to those of us who grew up in the ‘first world’ in the 20th century this abnormal situation seems normal.

We were born, grew up, and learned to live in a profoundly unusual set of world circumstances. Worse, we have been taught to become boosters for this consumerist way of life.

And yet, somewhere deep within most of us remains the feeling of being a “stranger in a strange land”. We immediately recognize the picture of Hell in Bruce Eric Kaplan’s graphic novel — Edmund and Rosemary surrounded by rude and indifferent strangers talking on cell phones, awful movies and tv, bad art and music, robot voices on the telephone, giant stores that never have what you need — just more and more of what you don’t need, more wars, more religious nuts, more genocide, more diseases, more natural disasters, food contaminated with pesticides and hormones and other toxins, and incessant, overwhelming traffic. (Edmund and Rosemary Go To Hell) More. Awful. Hell.

But nothing lasts forever. The end of cheap energy will once again shift the natural economies of scale back toward smaller and slower systems. This is already beginning.

Those who can prepare themselves to welcome and adapt to these changes will be more comfortable with the transition. The recent upsurge in the sustainability movement, voluntary simplicity, the ‘Buy Local’ and ‘Slow Food’ movements, cohousing and other cooperatives, and so on shows that (at least) a sizable minority of us are already working on ways to transition gracefully.

Holmgren gives example after example of the kinds of problems caused by systems too big or too fast. He reminds us, for example, that slow-growing trees tend to live longer and be more valuable than fast-growing ‘weed trees’. A small, carefully-tended garden produces more and better food per acre than a large ‘factory-farmed’ field. Organic free-range meat animals are healthier and more nutritious than ‘feed-lot’ animals. Too many cars produce gridlock and pollution, and so on.

He uses two proverbs with this principle. “The bigger they are the harder they fall.” reminds us of one of the disadvantages of excess. And “Slow and steady wins the race.” encourages patience and reminds us that grand results are produced by humble steps.

David Holmgren’s Permaculture Principle #7: Design from Patterns to Details

In general, Principles 1 through 6 look at systems from the bottom up — concentrating on system elements, organisms, and individuals. Principles 7 through 12 will emphasize a top down perspective — the patterns and relationships that emerge from system self-organization and co-evolution. Pattern recognition is a difficult skill to learn and must always proceed from the application of Principle 1: Observe and Interact.

Pattern recognition is, in a certain sense, an ‘outsider’ skill — you must be willing to step back, to distance yourself, to try differing perspectives and arrangements. You must be willing to look with detachment, to see what can be seen, rather than seeing what you have been told is there, or what you would like to be there.

To some extent, this skill can be learned and practiced. But it is also a talent, requiring the eye of an artist. This being so, we need to rely on one another.

It is in the nature of things that each of us only sees a limited slice of reality. This is so for (at least) two reasons: our senses and our intelligence have limits; and our own particular set of experiences, influences, and tendencies add other limits. In all things, but especially when dealing with social and cultural systems, we need to be more and more inclusive of other’s input before drawing even tentative conclusions. Because our knowledge is always partial, mistakes are inevitable. Thus a self-correcting process of problem solving (similar to the scientific method) is necessary.

In our culture we have a tendency to focus on details. We have a corresponding tendency to go from one thing to the next, to the next, and so on. In this way we tend to lose sight of the patterns behind the details — the structures, organization, and interrelationships. We see the trees, but not the forest, the elements but not the system.

One of the most significant symbolic images of the 20th century helped us to turn our attention to the importance of whole systems — the first picture of the earth taken from a satellite. That beautiful blue and white, green, and brown planet floating in the blackness of space suddenly showed us that beyond its’ almost infinite details the earth is one thing — our home.

Permaculture Principle 6: Produce No Waste

Improperly designed systems produce pollution, or work.

Pollution occurs when one system produces too much product or by-product that cannot be used by another related system. Work, on the other hand, must be done when there is a deficiency — not enough product or by-product to assist another system with its needs.

In nature, production and consumption are arranged in many interlocking circles — as for example when animals breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide while plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Global warming is a consequence of unbalancing this cycle.

We have not learned to design our systems this way. Instead, we mostly use a simple linear shape: extract -> produce -> consume -> excrete. For a long time the deleterious consequences of this model were hidden from us by the simple expedient of pushing our wastes away (out of sight, out of mind). Only now are we beginning to realize that there really is no ‘away’. This one small planet is the only place we have to live — and signs everywhere tells us we are pushing past her habitable boundaries. The resultant disaster will affect us all.

As John Gill put it, we need to “avoid the inanity of saying: ‘Why should I bail? It’s your end of the boat that’s sinking!’”

If we want to survive, we must learn to do as nature does: in properly working natural systems one system’s “waste” is another system’s “resource”. Making compost to put on the garden is a good example.

David Holmgren chose two proverbs to emphasize the cautionary aspects of this principle. The first is “Waste not, want not.” With this he intends to remind us that present abundance never guarantees that we will avoid future scarcity.

The second, “A stitch in time saves nine.” reminds us that maintenance and ‘tweaking’ the system are much easier and less expensive than the restoration of already degraded systems. Although, many of our systems are already degraded and in need of restoration.

So make a start, wherever and however you can. We may all do different things in different ways. But if we all head in the same direction — toward sustainability — we will make great changes together.

Permaculture Design Principle #5 is Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services

David Holmgren’s Permaculture Design Principle #5 is Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services.

As you probably already know, a renewable resource is something that provides us with direct yields that can be replenished by nature over a reasonable period of time without needing major non-renewable inputs.

Less familiar is the idea of renewable services: benefits we gain from plants, animals, living soil and water without consuming them.

For example, using a tree for lumber or firewood is using it as a renewable resource. Using the same tree as shade, as a carbon-sink, or as an oxygen-producer, as wildlife habitat, and/or as a pleasure to be around is using it as a renewable service.

Historically, the human use of domesticated animals provides clear examples of both renewable resources and renewable services. Horses helped plow and reap, pulled things around in wagons, took people to town, and provided terrific fertilizer for the garden, for example. Chickens ate insects and laid eggs, and eventually provided meat, and so on.

One of Bill Mollison’s key insights occurred when he was taken through tropical jungle tribal territory by some native hunter-gatherers. When he began the trip, what he saw was “the jungle” or “the wilderness”. But as his hosts pointed out the gathering grounds of plant after plant he slowly realized that to these people the area was not a “wilderness” at all. They knew exactly where and when each useful food or medicine plant was to be found. To them, this “wilderness” was an enormous garden. They did “intervene” by deliberately encouraging the spread of useful plants and discouraging harmful ones. He understood that these people carefully maintained their garden territory by using an excellent balance of renewable services and resources.

This insight has been formulated into the permaculture rule of thumb: use renewable services first, renewable resources second, and only use judicious amounts of non-renewable resources where needed to restore degraded systems (for example to move toward reproducing the natural garden).

The proverb: “Let nature take its course.” reminds us that we can only succeed in permaculture by working with nature, not by trying to fight it. Everywhere we have tried to fight nature, nature has become degraded, and we lose.