Permaculture revisited

It is 25 years since I studied my permaculture design course and 28 years since I last sat down and read the permaculture designers manual from cover to cover. Maybe it is time to back to the start and revisit the book that started it all off. Bill Mollison’s epic tome might turn out to be the most important book ever penned, OK a humongous and not-provable claim but let us look at it like this, through the words of Buckminster Fuller.

The world teeters on the threshold of revolution. If it is a bloody revolution then it is all over. The alternative is a design science revolution.. a design science that produces so much performance per unit of resource invested as to take care of all human needs

Buckminster Fuller.

This idea is illustrated beautifully below. Consider the degree of improvement in the performance of water in this model. A few simple design interventions prevents water flow from cascading directly out of this system but instead by making it travel much further it stays in the system significantly longer and has the opportunity to nourish every part of the system. The same amount of water eventually leaves the system and flows to the sea, however by simply slowing down the potential yield of the system and its resilience is significantly enhanced. Now imagine this multiplied over huge areas.

illustration from Bill Mollison's Permaculture a designers manual
Illustration of a permaculture approach to design; strategic interventions in whole landscape to divert the flow of water so that we may derive the maximum benefit before the water leaves the system

A policy of responsibility – to relinquish power

Living in such tumultuous times leads us to question everything and permaculture is a discipline that takes one right back to the very start, what is it that we are even trying to achieve? In this world of abstracts and disconnection our goals seem to be more along the line of how many Twitter followers we can achieve or how many 0’s and 1’s can be generated on a computer screen to represent wealth creation in some way, intangibles that in themselves are affected by so many variables that they actually have no real meaning. Going back to source, to Bill’s original worlds in Chapter 2 of the Designers Manual we get a clear answer:

The role of beneficial authority is to return function and responsibility to life and to people; if successful design is to create a self-managed system.

“In life and in design we must accept that immutable rules will not apply, and instead be prepared to be guided on our continuing exploration by flexible principles and directives. While the sun (still) burns we are in an open system, if we don’t destroy the earth , open-system energy saving will see us evolve as conscious beings in a conscious universe.”

“Hard science such as we apply to material systems (physics, mathematics, inorganic chemistry) studiously avoids life systems, regarding as not quite respectable those sciences (botany, zoology, psychology) that try to deal with life. Rigorous scientific method deals with the necessity of rigorous control of variables, and in life systems, indeed in any systems, this assumes two things which are impossible.

1: that you know all the variables possible before you start

2: that you can control any of the variables without causing disorder in the life system.”

It seems apparent from the opening paragraphs of this remarkable book that we have to let go somewhat. A key lesson in our relationship with nature is that we are not in control, we cannot eliminate all background variables, especially not in understanding the dynamic complexity of living systems. We can at best be steered by nature, we must learn its lessons and decode its pattern language through a constant process of interaction.

We need to understand living systems much better because quite clearly we are destroying the one we are part of.

Steven Jones

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Permaculture’s core lesson is to study and learn the patterns of nature. That no two situations are exactly the same that we have to plan for diversity, to allow for designs to evolve and in that process inform the designer.

Embraced within these observations is a set of tools, techniques and strategies which enable the achievement of these goals. Permaculture design is not to be confused with the tool kit. Permaculture is not forest gardens, raised beds and compost heaps, however if properly thought through and well deployed they certainly can all be components or manifestations of a permaculture design process.

Geoff goes through the whole Permaculture Designers Manual and ties it all together in one hour.

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