Type One Error

 One of the great rules of design is do something basic right. Then everything gets much more right of itself. But if you do something basic wrong – if you make what I call a Type 1 error – you can get nothing else right. – Bill Mollison

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Fancy, but is this the right thing to put here?

The quote above is something like how my introduction to the concept of a Type 1 error went, some comment made by Mollison in an interview. A Type 1 error sounds important, something we must never do, but what exactly is it? 

When I think of Type 1 errors, I think of things like positioning the length of a house on a North/South axis, designing for the wrong climate, putting rain gardens in in marshy, wet areas, putting tall hugelkultur beds on a steep slope, etc. — from macro to micro, I can name loads of examples, but damn if I can give you a solid definition.

So, let’s try and figure it out. 

First, let’s survey the landscape: how has permaculture defined a Type 1 error? A little sleuthing with Google turned up these results:

Based on this I still don’t really know what it is. They define the effect of the error, that it causes a cascading problem or an is element that requires a lot of inputs (such as time or money) to keep it in operation. Yet none of them say anything more specific.

A little additional research turns up that there are other types of ‘Type 1’ errors, in statistics, computers, medical; essentially it’s a false positive. Doing something that doesn’t need to be done.

In all of the cases above it seems to be an error of awareness. In each of the quotes above an overlooked or unknown sector makes a mess of the best laid plans. It also tends toward a lack of respect for what is being designed, what the personality or place offers and asks for. Deep observation and interaction is required to build this respect and begin to hear the voice of the landscape. 

Permaculture is becoming aware of this cascading functional relationships, sort of like a fountain. When a piece is out of place we can cause all sorts of problems for the rest of the system.  

Lack of observation of the system we’re working with can quickly lead to expensive or ongoing problems if our plans even work at all. So the old permaculture adage “first observe for one year” might be said “in order to not make a type 1 error, first observe for one year”. 

Perhaps this could be more flexibly stated as don’t jump in and work on major projects or limit your actions if you haven’t observed for one cycle (this year the garden will be here but smaller  , next we’ll see). Be aware of both smaller cycles (daily rhythms, ) and larger cycles (flood, drought, new job, moving, birth, illness, death). 

The world is bigger than us, we have to operate by its rules first. Perhaps this is the ultimate source of the error. Granted we can’t be aware of everything but a little humbleness about our place in the world can go a long way.

Published by Milton

C. Milton Dixon is an permaculturist, forager, educator, and computer wizard. He is co-manager at the emergent Cooperative at Dawn Farm and teaches with Three Waters Permaculture. You can reach him at or 773.789.8887.

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