This episode continues the Back to Basics series covering David Holmgren’s 12 Principles of Permaculture found in his book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Today we’ll look at Principle 4: Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback, which bears the subheading “The sins of the fathers are visited on the children unto the seventh generation.”
Before we begin I would like to thank Jason of The Fifth World RPG for sponsoring this episode. Imagine a collaborative, structured, storytelling experience where you and your friends can come together and explore what the future could hold for your descendants, hundreds of years from now. The Fifth World is a free, open source, open world tabletop role playing game that uses the framework of permaculture to consider the endless possibilities. Find out more at TheFifthWorld.com.
Principle 4: Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback
It sounds kind of simple, and I know I’m prone to simplification, but the practice of this principle, like so much of permaculture, is more difficult than it initially sounds. Part of that stems from this principle applying to more than just negative impacts and growth, but also the positive. With this principle we’re reminded to work towards a balance between negative impact loops, things that take away, as well as too much of a good thing, the positive feedback loops.
We’re also to take action when we come to understand the potential impacts. In the case of the positive loops they can lead to ideas that at first glance appear good, such as the yields from monocrop agriculture. As more information becomes available, and we see emerging patterns, then we change the system.
Holmgren begins the chapter by walking us through feedback loops and energy hierarchies, but the meat of it, for me, begins when he starts looking at personal responsibility, reflecting the Prime Directive of Permaculture from Bill Mollison’s, Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual:
The only ethical decision is take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children.
David uses this as a framework for discussing how we can use personal responsibility, combined with ethics, to move away from a trap of consumerism and consumption. In order to do that we need to understand our wants, needs, desires, addictions, abilities, liabilities, and responsibilities. David follows this with a self-audit walking us through that process of self-discovery. I did this as part of my Permaculture Design Course in 2010 and was surprised by what I discovered about myself once I dug deep. I’m here, now, a voice in your ear, because of that process.
I’d like to take that a step further and consider an idea that Dave Jacke shared with me, though he is not the originator for, of espoused values versus governing values. You might things these as “what we say” versus “what we do.” Have you ever met someone who said they believed in something, but their actions don’t line-up with their words? It’s like that. Knowing the places where our own thoughts and actions don’t line-up is important to the big work of becoming the permaculture practitioners we want to be, in a realistic way. We can then understand our own biases, our own hypocrisies, and own up to it. Face them. Admit them. Find strength in our vulnerability, and do something about it.
That’s part of the active engagement required in the practice of permaculture. Permaculture is applied. It’s activity based. Or, to borrow from the interview with Jack Spirko, permaculture works and is inspiring because it’s a do-ocracy.
We might accept feedback, but if we don’t do anything about it, what does it matter? How much permaculture are we really doing if we don’t do something? I’d rather you go out and plant a blueberry plant and get it wrong, like I did, and learn from it, again as I’ve done, than to sit and listen to this show if you’re just consuming it for no other purpose but to listen and feel like listening alone makes a difference. It might, but there’s more to it than just taking in information.
Once you have then come back and tune in again. Don’t worry. I’ll still be here chugging along when you’re ready to hear and learn more by adding to your experiential understanding.
I also consider this principle as a reminder to tinker and tweak our designs. To work on a piece here, a piece there, and then to make changes by interact with it as necessary. The desire to create self-functioning systems may not be possible. From page 71 of Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.
Self-maintaining and regulating systems might be said to be the Holy Grail of permaculture: an ideal that we strive for but might never fully achieve.”
And you know what? That’s OK, so long as we learn as part of the process and improve on our own abilities.
I mention blueberries above, and my own mistakes, because in the beginning of my design experience my understanding of patterns over time was wrong. I didn’t have the understanding or body knowledge to create the design I envisioned. Now I know not to presume that a tree has reached maturity and will not change or expand in some way. I also know more about sun angles, the ideas of heavy shade, light shade, partial sun, and full sun exposure. I could also move the blueberries to where they would do better, but leave them there as a reminder of that first lesson. Plus, the Norway maple they rest under will probably be cut down in the next year or two, as it’s in poor health, completely changing the environment for those bushes.
I speak to these experiences because the other information David provides in this chapter relies on an understanding of systems thinking and theory that I’m not in a place to cover at the moment. I understand it from within the confines of my computer science background, so won’t claim to be the best at this interconnected way of seeing the world when it comes to ecological systems. There are, however, ways we can all get better at that holistic understanding of the Earth.
If you haven’t already, you should read Donella Meadow’s Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Many of the ideas presented by Holmgren in this chapter, including feedback loops and lack of direct feedback mechanisms, make more sense after reading Ms. Meadows book.
With that recommendation I’ll draw this discussion to a close for now. I’m sure this principle, like all the others, will get revisited in the future. There’s so much more permaculture to cover than this byte allows.
For those of you who follow the show on Facebook, as this episode comes out I’m meeting with Ben Weiss and his apprentices to see how the pond project worked out. They’re planning to fill the pond and see if the gley holds water. I’ll take and post more pictures to facebook.com/thepermaculturepodcast documenting the results.
What are your thoughts on Principle 4? Get in touch:
The Permaculture Podcast with Scott Mann
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