What is permaculture? (continued)

Pacific Edge Permaculture + Media pacedge at magna.com.au
Sat Dec 29 06:20:48 EST 2001

> From: Toby Hemenway <hemenway at jeffnet.org>
> Date: Thu, 27 Dec 2001 16:06:04 -0800
> To: "permaculture" <permaculture at franklin.oit.unc.edu>
> Subject: Re: What is permaculture? (continued)
> 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,
> and
> 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.

I think this really is the point, Toby. You can take a principle and adapt
it for application in particular circumstances. You can't take an inflexible
technique and adapt it.

For instance, with our poor, sandy, low-nutrient and low water holding
capacity soils on the Botany Bay coast in Sydney, we use double digging to
quickly incorporate organic matter into the soil rather than the slower
method of sheet mulching. This applies the principle of improving soil
productivity but goes against the commonly-taught permaculture practice of
not disturbing the soil profile. We find it works well and produces a better
initial crop in the garden.

> 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).

A good way of describing it. In regard to the present move to identify
competencies and to formulate a course in permaculture design acceptable by
the Australian National Training Authority as vocational education (thus
opening permaculture training to professionals and to people who at present
do not consider it), it would be necessary to describe, clearly, how
permaculture organises these other disciplines.

Am I right in seeing in your statement that you regard permaculture as a
'linking technology' - one focusing on constructively connecting existing
bodies of knowledge and practice so that they produce something like an
'emergent system' - something greater than the sum of their parts?

...Russ Gryson

> 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.
> Toby
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