[permaculture] Permaculture as science

Paul Cereghino paul.cereghino at comcast.net
Fri Jan 26 13:06:59 EST 2007

Thanks Jedd & Greg -- perhaps I am just distracting myself from spending time working on the garden...

> Permaculture practitioners and scientists .. do you mean?
Good clarification.  It reduces the importance of generalities.  I 
recently went through a 3 year intensive science training and have been 
working in a 'science-driven' legalistic resource management policy 
world ever since.  I have met scientists that are open minded and closed 
minded, but as a group they seem both open-minded and reflexively doubting.

>slightly disturbed by the faith-based approach
> adopted by some people, 
I have had interesting discussion with horticultural scientists who 
ridicule "faith-based gardening".  Not because of what garden techniques 
they employ, but rather because they pretend to be 'science-based' but 
have no data or their experimental designs are seriously flawed.

>This may be based on my desire for it to be science based, and for it to appear science based.
I have encountered the term 'science-based' in many policy circles as 
well.  It is a term I increasingly distrust.  Scientists simply do 
science -- to gradually and incrementally grow a body of theory that 
explains how things work.  Then cultural groups with some material 
interest other than 'the truth' takes that information and uses it to 
develop policy.  They call their policies 'science-based'.  However, 
when you freeze that policy and the power games, and take the time time 
time to break it down, and track back to the science... the science 
doesn't necessarily support the policy, but the policy solution just 
used science to gain cultural legitimacy.  Permaculture practitioners 
can follow the same path.

There is a world of difference between saying "science says I'm right" 
to saying "science suggests this course of action may work, but we are 
going to move forward humbly and continue assessing the situation so we 
can continue to learn".  The latter is a more mutually useful 
relationship between science and policy be it regulatory policy, 
programmatic policy, or permaculture policy.

> I'd also suggest that scientific theories (or rather the developers
> of same) aspire to be useful in all situations 
I'd adjust this by saying that people who do science aspire to finding 
mechanisms and explanations that are big and important.  However, in 
studying ecosystem dynamics, where there are multiple factors 
interacting to form patterns, theories are increasingly small and 
situational.  An observed pattern is relevant to the combination of 
circumstances that shape that pattern.  The results of individual 
studies are not earth shattering -- and many mistakes are made by 
extrapolating from one setting to another.  It brings to mind a series 
of studies I read related to recruitment of conifer seedlings in 
shrublands.  These folks observed that were there was thick salmonberry 
(Rubus spectabilis; rhizomatous cane fruit) new conifers were not 
coming.  They then inferred that competition (for light?) from the 
rhizomatous shrubs was preventing conifer seedlings recruitment.  
Another scientist looked closer and looked for patterns of conifer 
recruitment in these floodplain shrubland, and found that seedlings did 
pop up, but only within around 80m of seed trees -- dispersal was also a 
strong control.  But in a drier climate perhaps competition (for water) 
would be a bigger factor.  And these observations are all averages 
across a population of places, and don't tease out the secondary 
patterns that cause deviation from the master pattern (microclimate 
effects, soils, herbivory etc...).  So in acting on a piece of land you 
are necessarily in the world of intuitive 'policy development'.  We make 
decisions between alternatives based on available information.  I have 
not met many permaculture practitioners who do science... make 
systematic replicable observations (perhaps quantitative) within a 
theoretical context for the purposes of infering how things work.  This 
is a problem in ecological restoration as well.  When the people who are 
doing the work are not helping build the theory on which the work is 
built this is a weakness... in permaculture terms, the experiential 
output of the worker is not connected to the inspirational input of the 
scientist.  I have heard some on this list point at academia and say 
they are disconnected from reality.

> This is very bad news for anyone who's ever read a permaculture book,
> or done a course, and then tried to replicate or transfer what they've
> learnt to their own plot of land !
That's not exactly what I ment.  In my experience, permaculture teaches 
people to develop intimate relationships to places, and to creating 
patterns based on an intuitive OR emperical understanding that place to 
retain and reuse resources, energy, water, nutrients, etc...  
Permaculture also teaches us to look at natural systems for those life 
increasing patterns and to replicate functional patterns in our 
creations.  If someone goes out and makes a herb spiral in the shade... 
they will be dissappointed in the muted microclimate effect.  If they 
spend lots of energy creating earth structures to infiltrate surface 
water when infiltration of surface water is not an issue in their system 
they will be dissappointed.  The practical nature of a place keeps you 
humble.  Observe place... than apply humbly... keep learning... all news 
is good news.

>Observation is one of the cornerstones of both pursuits.  Not sure
> how well intuition...
I would expand this to say that observation and intuition are 
fundemental human resources, critical in ALL endevors.

>I'd happily argue that most
> scientists are intimately aware of things going on in their field of
> research .. it's a bit of a necessity.
I think there is a substantial difference between understanding of a 
'field of research' and 'understanding a place' encouraged by 
permaculture.  I regularly work with fish scientists working in forested 
environments but who are not aware of what is going on in forest 
research.  Threads of science move forward in isolation, often to their 
detriment, while permaculture is integrative.  It can be that 
integrative because it moves fast, scavenges useful information, and 
leans heavily on intuition.

> It's a bit early on to be deferring to Godwin's Law, isn't it?
What is Godwin's Law?

> the altruism doesn't really exist
> theory, and all that.
Eeek! lets not go there... :)

More information about the permaculture mailing list