[permaculture] agroecology, permaculture, and data

Toby Hemenway toby at patternliteracy.com
Sun Mar 29 16:09:07 EDT 2009

rafter t. sass wrote:
> If permaculture had focused more closely on crop ecology and community  
> development, and embraced academic research rather than (mostly)  
> spurned it, it would look something like the agroecology movement.
> Fortunately, it didn't - more functional diversity in the system!

Good observation, Rafter. I've cogitated a bit on the fact that 
permaculturists have ignored, for the most part, the idea of collecting 
data and documenting research. Being a former scientist, it used to bug 
me a great deal, and it seemed like it reduced permaculture's 
credibility. But I've realized that there is a pretty good explanation 
for it. First, there's been a ton of research done in the various fields 
that permaculture helps link together, such as organic farming, tree 
crops, renewable energy, water harvesting, and all the rest. And 
whole-systems theory has a mass of both mathematical and empirical 
research behind it, as does ecology, and those form the underpinnings of 
permaculture. So the data are there, just not under the heading of 

But more to the point, if you were trying to measure the effectiveness 
of permaculture, what would you measure? Does my yard yield more food 
than my chemical or straight organic gardener neighbor's? Probably not, 
and although I suspect their inputs are higher, they might not be since 
I pour on about 10 yards of free tree trimmings or mulch every year or 
two. But how do you measure that as an input, since it's waste, not 
manufactured, and not much of the mulch goes to growing food? I'm sure 
my yard is better habitat, but my neighbors are not trying to create 
habitat, while there are some yards where the owner is trying purely for 
habitat that may host more biodiversity than mine, but that don't 
produce food. Too many variables for any but the most sophisticated 
statistician, and even then, those numbers would be open to argument.

What I'm saying is, I'm not sure what you would measure to assess 
whether permaculture outperforms anything else, and I don't know what 
you would compare it to. Is the comparison to a site using chemical 
methods? Not really, since permaculture is not a method, it's a design 
approach. So do you compare it to a site designed using, say, holistic 
management? But a site using permaculture for its design might have very 
different goals than one using HM, so how would you compare the two? By 
designing two side-by side sites with the same goals but using 
permaculture versus some other design approach? Good luck with getting 
that one off the ground!

So I think we're back at saying Pc uses a variety of tools, and each of 
those tools has data to support it.

For me, the proof is less tangible. I walk into a place that's designed 
using permaculture, and it feels more alive than one done any other way. 
Can't measure that, but you sure can feel it.


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