Permaculture Design and Action

Jeff Owens kowens at
Fri Aug 23 10:23:44 EDT 1996

Jeff Owens wrote:
> "Umm, I understood most of what you wrote and agreed, but the part
> about action confused me.  Are you saying we should not act without
> a proven design?  It would seem that action would point out the bad
> designs by their results.  To some extent nature randomly tries
> various combinations until one achieves stability and survives.

> My assumptions have been that Pc is dynamic and changing and our
> role must also be dynamic.  In other words we can not use cook book
> approaches and expect them to work forever or work in a different
> location.  Chaos and change is all around us.  Is this what you were
> saying or do I need to rethink this?"

Dan Hemenway Replies:
The last shall be first. I have no interest, right, duty or prerogative to
indicate what you should think or rethink. My posting was intended as
offering not dictum. I expect your phrase was rhetorical convenience or
perhaps a courteous way to avert confrontation. Fear not--I do not
proselytize, merely offer my viewpoint.

I agree with Dewey about action. That it defines the actor. The word actor
suddenly gives me a way into this. When I was about 20, I lived in a dramatic
theater with the intent of studying playwriting by studying plays being
rehearsed and performed. I imagined (and experienced) no difficulty in
understanding what it took to get a particular set of words in sequence on a
page, but what happened to the words when the actors and director attempted
to blast their several egos through them (I met not one of these people
primarily concerned with dramatic art per se.)--that determined the success
or failure of the play. (This analogy has more potential and more logical
traps than I anticipated when I began. Given AOL's 28K limit on email, I'm
going to stick to my first thoughts)  That theater also sponsored
improvisational productions--people from the audience would posit a basic
situation and actors would be given information about the
situation--different actors different parts and/or different information--and
they would then make it up as they went along. The actors were generally good
and they made up impressive scenes. However, not surprising, nothing held
together as well as the least good of the plays we produced. On the other
hand, playwrites sometimes came to us, posited the information given to
various actors, and let them work it out. This was always helpful, though not
always necessarily as a model for the written script in process.  

The thought out design (playscript) worked better than the improvised scene,
even improvised by people who had intimate experience with
hundreds--sometimes thousands--of written playscripts.

The point is the superiority of the written design in achieving the effect.
This is only of passing financial concern when operating a theater, but can
mean the difference between destruction and healing when we are talking about
making changes in the material world.  In 1968, I moved from NYC to the
country.  I had been involved in the nonviolent resistance to the Vietnam
War, mainly as a photographer photographing police and military brutality
against nonviolent demonstrators. The photography had some restraining
influence, except from time to time when an enforcement guy went beserk with
violence lust.  Anyway, I acquired friends who had taken other roles in the
nonviolent resistance to that war. A few years later, many of them moved to
the country, largely to form communes and be one with nature. What these
people did to the farms that they bought was the most violence against nature
I have ever witnessed in a rural North American setting. (I've been around
the world teaching permaculture, so I have to be careful how I phrase that.)
That their violence was inadvertent, the result of a misguided interpretation
of the cause of "freedom", is irrelevant. Inadvertency is never a defense
against rape. They were trying to break loose from all restraint, including
the restraint of consequences. They didn't intend bad consequences, they
merely insisted that consequences of THEIR actions could not be bad because
their intentions were in their own view good. They really fucked over those
farms, and any suggestion for moderation, no matter how gingerly posed, was a
bit welcome.

The second example is a microcosm of the European invasion of North America.
 Now this is not strictly parallel to your description of a process whereby
we act and gain information therefrom because in your scenario, we intend to
learn from our mistakes.

Permaculture Design has an abhorrence of such mistakes to begin with, unless
they are only made on paper. When people with experience in the material
world (a massage therapist or a blacksmith or whatever) take a mighty effort
to inform themselves, attune to the point where they know they need guidance
from an elder, and immerse all their faculties in the history, current state,
and direction of change of a specific site, then on paper experiment with
changes (experience is necessary to make reasonably accurate estimates of
interactions), then, when the design is the best that they can do, and makes
the minimum changes necessary for desired effects, they may carefully
implement it. Then the feedback loop you described comes into play.

I had a Mohawk man attend a Permaculture Design Course I taught New York
State 10 or more years ago. He told me that white folks never seem to get
their Seventh Generation principle right.  One does indeed look seven
generations into the future to see the consequences of an action/change. One
ALSO looks seven generations into the past, to see what the people have done
about this matter. He went on to explain that this creates a very
conservative behavior.  "One of our great geniuses might have spent his
entire life designing a small change in the shape of a canoe paddle."  We can
agree, I think, that this approach of restraint and seeking the wisdom of
generations served better than what our people are up to now in New York
State. (I mean "our people" culturally, not biologically, for I and perhaps
you too, have genetic ties to these people, rather incidentally to the theme
here. I apologize for the oxymoron of applying the word ":culture" to
western society.)

Ok, restraint. Look at this a simpler way. Conservation is the first
principle of permaculture design.  Restraint is the backbone of conservation.
"Get the most benefit from the least change," is a Mollison maxum, and a damn
good one. (Like the rest of us, his maxims are of uneven quality.) The design
that is worked out as fully as possible is restraint, only small amounts of
paper, very little if we use computers when available, is destroyed. The
results will be imperfect, but the best we can do.  (I believe that our one
absolute responsibility is to always do our best.) In doing our best, we
consult people who know more (via books, the Net, courses, conversation,
etc.) and are wiser and then decide how to design action/change taking full
responsibility.  (The devil--book , teacher, wisewoman, etc.--made me do it
doesn't cut it.)

Now to succession. A fundamental component of permaculture design is the Zone
System. (Photographers, this is not about what Edward Weston proposed--I like
that one too.)  Presumably you have read enough in permaculture to understand
the zone system. (If not, mail $2 and a SASE to me at POB 2052 Ocala FL 34478
USA requesting a reprint of the *Basic Permaculture Article.* or get one of
Mollison's books.) Mollison insists, and again dead center on target, that we
begin our implementation "at our doorsteps," working gingerly out, using the
feedback look you describe. This is very practical, for it gets us started,
holds our attention while we learn to do things better. Mollison is very a
very admirable politician. And we likely will be doing better than we have
been. I've heard from people in the US southwest who have been digging swales
into the landscape helter skelter because Bill said that swales are good.
 BAD, BAD, BAD. Natural selection will get them (and everyone around them.)
Unfortunately, natural selection is too slow for what we can do with
technological tools. The desert, like other places is striving for maximum
life, even if it is a desert of human creation (by agriculture, climate
modification, etc.).  Understand what it is doing already and see how you can
fit in to make things go faster. (If you are really advanced in permaculture,
you can substitute energy for time and end up with more energy sooner because
the system becomes more adept at trapping/storing it quickly. This isn't done
by random swaleing.)

People like my Mohawk friends did a good job, and could use the 7th
Generation principle because they had a culture. They could look seven
generations back--they spent their lives learning culture so that by the time
that they were elders, they knew such things, at least enough of them.  My
Maori friends use a word that sounds like "maouna or manna" to describe an
elder (one with old knowledge, not necessarily biologically old) with
spiritual pizzaz. What is the English word? Right. We don't have a vocabulary
for wisdom.

Permaculture--Permanent Culture--is not a description of what we design, it
describes the vision toward which we design. Permanent is a weak word because
it has no correspondence in reality--the Universe itself is likely
impermanent. However Stabaculture is less catchy. Mollison, being a good
politician, is a brilliant showman and knows a catchy phrase when he hears
it. (There is controversy about who, in Australia, actually coined the
phrase. Between the lines there is a caution in that information.) The Mohawk
word for this concept is probably a translation of Mohawk. Their culture
embodied it. Having failed miserably with the reductionist, scientific,
industrial approach and lost our former cultures (Celtic, Teutonic, old
Slavic, etc.) we of the western society can't look back seven generations and
find the RELEVANT information. We can't look ahead to next week. So we use
one of our tools, writing (on screen or paper doesn't matter), and what we do
have to make a poor substitute for having done things right all along.
Permaculture is vastly inferior to culture, but it is the best that we can do
now, in my opinion. We research the past, plot the future, and record the
process on paper because there will be no elder to tell the next person on
the site what we were thinking and we have no cultural patterning to help us
out.  We 've got to use our most complex material sense, vision, to lay
things out, using overlays, projections, etc. AFTER we have done that, then
we do what you suggest, moderated by Mollison's caution to start at the
doorstep, and become part of a feedback loop.  In seven generations, maybe we
will have a real culture and the word can fall into disuse. However our job
is harder than any people ever faced. We have destroyed much of the tissue of
Mother Earth, imbalanced things like global weather and ocean currents, maybe
the magnetic field, the spectral distribution of light penetrating the
biosphere, etc. We've done more than enough damage so that many of these
tissues will continue degenerative cascading on their own, amplifying one
another in an extremely negative positive feedback loop. Now we need to fix
this, and the best we can do is to start at our doorsteps.
However, if we do our best, we will succeed as people, even if we fail our
intent. Possibly, if we perfect ourselves in this way, we can be more
genuinely powerful than we now imagine.

I'll probably not get back to post this reply. If you think it merits more
widespread attention, will you post it for me? (I don'te even remember where
this discussion began.)

For Mother Earth, Dan Hemenway, Elfin Permaculture

We don't have time to rush.

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