What is permaculture? (continued)

Toby Hemenway hemenway at jeffnet.org
Thu Dec 27 19:06:04 EST 2001

Russ wrote:

> What makes permaculture so hard to explain and comprehend is its sweeping
> breadth... its inclusiveness. Unlike other fields of knowledge, permaculture
> is not a single, defined entity. It has leaky margins...

What I'm getting from these thoughtful contributions is that much of the
difficulty in defining or finding a context for permaculture comes from the
facts that:
1) permaculture is a comprehensive design tool, not a study of a subject,
2) permaculture emphasizes processes rather than objects (unfortunate that
the word "permaculture" makes it sound like a thing, not a process.
So: 1) means that permaculture searches for general principles of design.
It's not limited to the design of a particular class of entity the way
architecture or engineering is (though there are some pretty philosophical
works on architectural design theory that leak into other fields [e.g.
Moholy-Nagy, Chris Alexander]). Permaculture's ideas aim to be useful for
creating human habitats as well as understanding how natural ones are
designed/have evolved. Thus the problem permaculture attempts to solve could
be described as "how are sustainable systems designed?" Since nearly
everything humans do could be described as some kind of design,  Pc is going
to "leak" into a lot of fields.

But about the idea of Pc leaking into other fields: I realize I wouldn't
describe it that way. I'm  coming to the conclusion (a la Holmgren) that
permaculture isn't a field. It doesn't lie on the same plane as biology,
physics, or even architecture or economics. It doesn't fill up an empty
space between other disciplines (the way paleontology fills up a gap between
biology and geology).

Nearly every idea in permaculture can be found in an existing discipline:
ecology, agronomy, anthropology, economics, etc. So it doesn't lie "between"
or with these fields. But what _can't_ be found in other disciplines are the
patterns permaculture uses to connect the various pieces of knowledge from
these disciplines. Thus permaculture doesn't "leak" into  other disciplines,
but rather organizes them; it gives you patterns with which to use available
knowledge to design or comprehend sustainable systems (human or nature's).

So perhaps Pc operates at a "higher" level (a more inclusive holon) than the
various disciplines. It tries to solve the problem of a lack of connection
among, and poor application of, various fields of knowledge. It shows
relationships among fields of knowledge.

Point #2) means that English and most western languages can't describe
permaculture very well, being so noun-oriented. Ecologists have had a
similar struggle, for example where biotic ecologists, who are
thing-oriented, describe a tree as leaves, trunk, and roots, planted in
soil, while functional ecologists, who think in terms of processes, say
you're looking at energy capture (leaves) and nutrient retention (all the
rest). Then they argue about who's right.

Part of Mollison's genius is that he's given us a way to combine objects and
processes through patterns. A synthesis like that will take a while for both
camps to digest. And it's too bad Bill and David made up a hard-to-grasp
noun, one that doesn't describe a process, instead of a term whose
definition begins to be included in the word itself [like "ecological
design" or "holistic management"]. This has compounded the language and
comprehension problem.

If permaculture is a way to organize large bodies of knowledge into a useful
system, it's a pretty grand thing indeed.


More information about the permaculture mailing list