All theory

Toby Hemenway hemenway at
Sun Jun 25 10:27:00 EDT 2000

 Myk wrote:

> As a design system isn't it 'all theory'? [snip]
> To my mind 'data/examples/recipes/whatever' are examples of permaculture's
> application not permaculture . . .

An interesting and useful distinction, Myk. I've been circling around what
permaculture "is" for a while, in hopes of learning why Pc is so hard to
define and characterize (and accept): where does it lie in an epistemology?
It's not a discipline, says Holmgren, but it informs disciplines. And I'd
say it's not a science, like ecology, because it has a preferred outcome.
The sciences claim to be "objective" searches for knowledge with no
preferred outcome or defined endpoint (hence their claim to be value
neutral, their pro-industrial consequences notwithstanding), while
permaculture definitely has a preferred outcome--a sustainable culture--and
rejects certain paths or practices on ethical grounds, unlike the sciences
(A-bombs and vivisection come to mind).

So Pc can't be one of the sciences. Thus maybe, following on what Myk says,
Pc is more like science itself, which is a set of practices designed to
arrive at a particular goal (for science the goal is an understanding of the
world), and which moves toward this goal via implementation through various
disciplines and technologies. This means Pc falls in the same category as
math or science: a body of principles, postulates, and theories that help
understand and model the natural world. The goal of math, science, and
permaculture alike, we have to admit, is to manipulate our environment so it
will sustain us. Pc just seems to do a more conscious and long-term job at

In this model, the applications of permaculture are analogous to engineering
and mechanics, which are the application of science. The "sciences" of
permaculture are the subunits of the design course curriculum: soil, water,
earthworks, patterning, etc. By analogy, we'll develop more of them in time,
just the way science and math do (take *that*, copyrighted curriculum!).

Analyzing permaculture this way--finding a niche for it in the systems of
knowledge people have developed--might help sort out the hodgepodge of
principles that Mollison, and now Holmgren, and others have come up with.
I've always been bothered that ethical principles ("share the surplus") are
jumbled in with technical suggestions ("stack functions") and other
categories of injunctions and guidelines, with little order and sense.
Perhaps sorting the principles out the way math does--something analogous to
the difference between postulates, theorems, algorithms, etc--would put them
in a more orderly and usable form.


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