Social Permaculture

Social Permaculture is a project exploring the intersection of the edges of current permaculture theory and integral theory, looking to expand the understanding of permaculture design and ultimately help us create a more holistic life.

Anyone who is seeking to make change in the world would do well to take a look at Donella Meadows’ list of leverage points, 12 places to intervene in a system. For us the real power lies in the ability to look beyond the direct effects of a decision to what would in essence be the effects of the effects. The increasing leverage we can gain from our decisions comes about because of tuning in to and actively designing with these radiating effects in mind.

Leverage points fulcrum

Numbers 1-6 of the Places to Intervene in a System are about changing the path you are on (inflection points), while number 7-12 are about how you are going to take the path you are currently on (smaller points of leverage along the same path). We’ll write more about this next time, for now take a look at the leverage points, read the article, and get a feel for what sort of decision each is and on what scale it is compared to the others.

LEVERAGE POINTS – PLACES TO INTERVENE IN A SYSTEM

(in increasing order of effectiveness)

12 – Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards).
11 – The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.
10 – The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures).
9 – The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.
8 – The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.
7 – The gain around driving positive feedback loops.
6 – The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information).
5 – The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints).
4 – The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure.
3 – The goals of the system.
2 – The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises.
1 – The power to transcend paradigms.

There are several versions available, http://www.thesolutionsjournal.com/node/419 is more complete than some.

For further reading on leverage points check out http://www.thwink.org/sustain/glossary/LeveragePoint.htm.

 

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Ethics Ribbon II
Energy (earth) & Awareness (people). Energy is external, physical world, awareness is internal.

Energy is required to interface between systems; the energy cost of interaction increases the further apart systems are from each other in terms of storing energy and/or awareness.

Permaculture is a tool that increases our awareness so that we can capture and/or store more energy and cycle it through the system in a greater number more and efficient ways.

We have available a fixed energy budget based on the sunlight that hits the earth. There is also a limited supply of energy stored by live on earth.

Our ever growing awareness is the only thing that can increase.

 

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Permaculture Design - Needs Products Behaviors & Intrinsic Characteristics

In our past blog posts we have explored holons, quadrants, and states. The next aspect of integral theory we’d like to examine with a permaculture eye is the concept of types.

What are types in integral theory?

Paraphrased from Integrallife.com in an overview of integral theory, types are the variety of consistent styles that arise in the different aspects of our lives. They are stable and resilient patterns that can overlap and may even be incongruous. For example, Myers-Briggs personality types, masculine and feminine genders, and even astrological signs are different typologies that we can use to attempt to understand people.

A simplified way to think about types can be seen in human language. We organize our very existence by giving names to objects and concepts, allowing us to access and communicate layers of information by understanding a simple pattern – nouns, adjectives and verbs. Words are therefore types: the connection between the abstract and concrete, internal and external realms. However, types are not so much the definition of something as they are a framework for how we organize and communicate about the world by identifying patterns and shared characteristics. And in language, it is how we stitch the types together in functional relationships that creates meaning.

The productive edge: relationships between types

Each element in any permaculture design is essentially a type. Permaculture uses a mapping technique known as needs, products, behaviors and intrinsic characteristics to help flesh out what we know about the elements (types) in our designs. This exercise helps us discover the edges of our elements, revealing the potential relationships between them. Once we know this information, we can connect our elements to each other in a functional network. In other words, these relationships define the functions that a type can provide to the design.

Permaculture Design - Needs Products Behaviors & Intrinsic Characteristics of an Oak Tree

Needs Products Behaviors & Intrinsic Characteristics of an Oak Tree

 

For example, a group of trees which primarily function as a windbreak can also produce firewood, create microclimate and serve as wildlife habitat. These functions all are dependant on the connections to other elements in the design: a windbreak needs another element to protect, firewood needs someone to burn it, etc. In permaculture we want each element to serve multiple functions and have multiple connections to other elements. The more connections between the needs, products, behaviors, and characteristics of elements, the stronger and more resilient the design. Once we’ve made an initial connection, we need to continue to observe the elements to ensure the relationship is functioning through time.

While the details will be different from situation to situation, types give us a rough framework of patterns from which to stitch our design together. Ultimately, the possibilities of types that we could work with are not as important as how they connect and relate with one another.

People are the most complex element in the whole design.

By definition, permaculture is designing for people. Culturally, we have a habit of not considering people enough in the first place in all the things we do, let alone integrating them into any sort of permaculture design. We need to make an attempt to take into account all aspects the design, starting with creating an awareness of for whom and within what social contexts the design is occurring, and of the broad patterns that people create within and surrounding the design.

People are not as simple as a chicken or a windbreak, but have layers to their lives owing to the different life experience, roles and responsibilities they take on. In other words, just as in the definition from integrallife.com, people are a combination of many overlapping types, and the types can even be conflicting or contradictory. This greatly increases the complexity of the design.

Adding to the complexity, all of these types will change through time: a design for a bachelor would be completely different than one for a family, and in time, the bachelor could eventually have a family. Through time the design has to have the flexibility to change as both the landscape and the lives of the participants in the design change.

Connecting the Dots

Knowing what types of people are present, what types of lives they lead and what type of community surrounds them does give us some guidance as we create a design. But we need to keep in mind that with all the potential complexity that people bring to the table, actually creating a working, static design is very improbable. Instead, we need to create feedback loops that allow us to emergently understand and be more sensitive to the needs of a particular person, group of people, or place.

Permaculture tells us to carefully observe all the elements of our design, which includes the people involved. We must open our eyes to all the myriad things that that support us as humans, as well as see and change the things that don’t. We can increase our ability to do this by recognizing that designing for a place and a person are reflections of each other. Crafting an element for a space also requires room for that element in the person – and conversely, a design for a person requires the support of a place. At the end of the day, if the place does not support the person – or the other way around – it is not a permanent (permaculture) solution.

A permaculture design cannot exist apart from the rest of the world, and especially not from people. Not only does the physical world require constant exchange of materials and energy, but our mental and social selves need that exchange too. Our permaculture designs are supported by systems and structures not only within our human selves, but also in the outside world, and we need to be aware of and connect to those elements.

Perhaps striving for the perfect self-contained permaculture design is the opposite of what we need to do; it can only create a bubble that will ultimately stagnate and become irrelevant. People are a major agent for change, and the more connections we make to and through them creates more possibility for change. Therefore, people are the most important asset to any design. When we create as many connections within and outside our design as possible, we can become truly sustainable and create real change in the world.

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In addition to holons and quadrants, integral theory brings another useful concept to permaculture: states. Simply defined, a state is a mode or condition of being; its nature can be either baseline or altered. In order to bring the concept of states into permaculture, we have reframed the scale of permanence as the baseline state for a system, and expanded it as a model to include altered states. We need to know when a system enters into a chaotic state or how we can induce one, as this creates abundant opportunity to “Creatively use and respond to change.” And finally, while permaculture already makes us aware of states in the physical landscape, we also need to become aware of states in the mental/emotional and social realms.

Establishing a Baseline

A standard tool used in permaculture design is the scale of permanence. This scale of permanence, essentially a tool for mapping the physical world, helps us to organize the elements of our design in order of our ability to influence them, from least to most. Climate is the least influenceable and most permanent, then landform, water, access, vegetation & wildlife, microclimate, the built environment, zones, soil and aesthetics, each being more and more malleable in our designs. This scale gives our design a template so that we don’t design ourselves into a corner. A rather simplistic example would be putting vegetation ahead of climate: if you decide you want to plant mangos in the North American midwest, you will quickly find that come winter that was not an appropriate plant choice. Designing in the order of the scale of permanence would prevent you from making such a mistake.

Scale of Permanence

 

Since all of the aspects on the scale of permanence will change through time, what this tool can help us do is take a snapshot of the current conditions: in other words, to outline the current state of climate, landform, et cetera. The sum of all of these states makes up the baseline state of our design, which is the condition or conditions that the system will naturally tend toward. Knowing this baseline state is useful because it will be the basis for all of our future design decisions, which depend on how much energy we will need to use to make changes we want to see in the design. It also will help us to recognize when that baseline, once it has been established, has changed.

Altered States

The baseline state is not actually a constant, permanent condition, but in fact the average of many different states through time. When a condition deviates far enough from the baseline state it can be considered an altered state, or even a peak state if it is at a theoretical maximum or minimum. These are events that may occur regularly or seemingly randomly and can cause a change in the baseline state, bringing the system to a new baseline as the altered state moves through the system. An example would be when a river floods, leaving the river’s path, banks and floodplain permanently changed. The amount of swing between between the baseline and the altered state will inform the degree of change between the original and the new baseline.

Some examples of altered states might be:

  • Climate – tornado, hurricane, thunderstorm, hail, drought,
  • Landform – earthquake, landslide
  • Water – flood, tidal surges, tidal waves
  • Access – loss of access routes
  • Vegetation & Wildlife – plagues, “invasive” species, clearcutting
  • Microclimate – change in microclimate
  • Built Environment – building collapse, major damage
  • Zones – loss of planned use
  • Soil – salting, nutrient loss, stagnation
  • Aesthetics – cultural shift

Sometimes altered states have cyclical rhythms, the cycles themselves becoming baselines. For example, the annual changes of seasons, phases of the moon, and regular patterns of monsoon and drought are all altered states that are effectively a baseline because of their regularly recurring nature. Even climate change is cyclical on a geologic scale – though it has also been influenced by one-off events, such as a volcanic eruption that spews sunlight-blocking ash into the atmosphere, or tapping into global carbon reserves to power a civilization.

Changing Baselines States

How do altered states fit in with the scale of permanence and permaculture? We need to expand the scale of permanence to include an awareness of potential altered states that could happen within and outside of our design. Knowing the potential for altered states can help the designer organize and size the particular elements of their design so that they don’t become overwhelmed and fail in an altered/peak state situation, possibly even to the point of absorbing or deflecting the impacts of that altered state entirely. For example, a flood (an altered state of water) might wash out individual roads, swales, plants, and even wash away soil. All of these elements could be designed to work together so that they slow down and harvest the water, ultimately changing the nature of a flood from that of an event which completely alters the baseline and depletes the system, to one which recharges the system with water. In this example, climate is the root cause of the flood, but the overall effect on the design is determined by other elements on the scale of permanence.

Of course, we will never be able to design for every altered state that may come to pass, and that’s where the chaotic state comes into play.

Chaotic State

When our planning and preparation abilities are not enough, an altered state sends our whole design into a chaotic state. This is the point where one or more elements of the system becomes so altered that it throws the whole system into disorganization. Chaotic states are moments of great possibility that we can make creative use of if we are prepared to. Chaotic states can also be introduced to force a change in other elements of a system. Whether introduced or naturally occurring, the chaotic state can be a useful tool that allows us to more easily reorganize a system, but they can be even more destructive if they persist for too long. Keen awareness about the existence of a chaotic state and when it has reached the limits of its usefulness is essential.

The usefulness of the chaotic state depends upon the designer’s mindset. While there is a limit to being physically prepared for an altered or chaotic state in the design, theoretically there is no limit to being mentally prepared. While we can’t know what will happen in the future, we can cultivate the mindset that enables us to deal with whatever situation arises. This is eloquently stated in David Holmgren’s twelfth permaculture principle, “Creatively use and respond to change,” and its accompanying maxim, “Vision is seeing things not as they are, but as they will be.”

Adding in the Quadrants

As we have demonstrated above, in permaculture there is already an awareness of physical states that are relevant to a design, such as the natural change of seasons, weather and climate, and succession. These exist in an obvious way and are relatively known and tangible phenomena. Equally important to our designs are the states of the designer, other actors in the design and the social landscape that interacts with a particular site. People themselves have different physical and internal states: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and elderhood, emotions and moods, and sets of knowledge, experience, and cultural conditioning. Some social states might include local zoning and other laws, the local acceptance of a “messy” yard, and states of economic expansion or contraction. They even can have chaotic states, which may range from the death of a spouse or parent and loss of a job in the personal realm, to revolution, pandemic, or the loss of a local industry in the social realm. All of these states influence our human systems and should be appraised and accounted for in our designs.

To that end, the tools that we use to organize and document states in the physical/external landscape can also help us identify states in the social and internal realms. The scale of permanence – with a bit of imagination – helps us establish baselines in other quadrants. What is the social climate that we live in? What is your mental climate and ability to deal with change? What is the climate of the institutions that exist around you?

Another issue we may encounter is how to know when a baseline we’ve established reflects reality or is rather a projection of our personal perception of reality, which can be influenced by personal bias, cultural conditioning, or even misinformation. This is where the integral model really comes into play. Possible states can only be determined by our observations and available evidence, but the information available to two different individuals and can still be radically different, causing each person to interpret the state differently. This is why we need to gather many different perspectives as we craft our designs and leave room for the possibility of new ones that we may not have considered.

The point of observing and documenting our baseline, altered, and chaotic states, in the natural, social and individual realms is to both be able to plan for them and know when and how to intervene, if possible. How a design interacts with the rest of the world is just as important as how the design functions within itself; therefore bringing our attention to different states within and outside of our design in all the quadrants can truly help us achieve permanence.

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In her book People and Permaculture, Looby Macnamara speaks of the way we humans have a penchant for categorizing, compartmentalizing and for creating boundaries between things (where boundaries do not really exist) to facilitate our understanding of the world. This division does allow the human mind to begin to understand complex systems. At the same time, however, there is a danger of losing sight of the bigger picture and therefore our ultimate goals, which can prove counterproductive. “Can’t see the forest for the trees,” as the old adage reminds us.

1280px-The_Scandinavian_Permaculture_festival_of_2013_-_7_HugelcultureOne paradigm informing our current civilization is that humans are separate from nature, an idea reinforced throughout the development of Western religion and philosophy. Because it emerged in the context of this paradigm, the mainstream environmental movement of the late 20th and early 21st centuries has undermined its own intentions. By envisioning humans as separate from the environment, a dichotomy has been created where humans should be “hands-off” and not set foot in nature, lest they “disturb” or “disrupt” natural ecosystems. In reality, we humans are a part of nature, deeply connected to and dependent on all other species for our survival and continuance on this planet. However, it is also apparent that we would not, nor should not, sacrifice ourselves as a species in order to protect nature, since we are inextricably part of this planet’s biome just as is every other species on earth. The paradigm of humans as separate or outside of nature has effectively doomed most environmental action to the status of window dressing, preventing any truly meaningful, long-lasting change toward the end of real sustainability.

Permaculture, a holistic design science which attempts to reintegrate humans into the landscape, was first developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s and 1980s. Permaculture’s three ethics – earth care, people care, and future care – are implied to be three aspects of the same concept. Over the years of permaculture’s development and practice in the context of the environmental movement, itself in the context of the human/nature separation paradigm, people have naturally tended to emphasize earth care over the other two ethics. This is evident in the fact that most people today tend to think of permaculture primarily as landscape design or as an agricultural, gardening, or homesteading method.

If one of the three permaculture ethics is missing or deemphasized, then the other two ethics break down. Tim Winton describes an example of this disintegration in this article, which starts with his experiences at Tagari Farm, a permaculture proof-of-concept farm designed and established by Bill Mollison. While all the members of the farm came together in like-mindedness and worked hard at the earth care aspect of permaculture, the farm as a whole eventually suffered because the needs of all the people involved were not being met.  A lack of structure and a prioritization of earth care over people care meant that people burned out on the project, realities fell short of expectations, and that tragically, a member of the Permaculture Institute took their own life.

We as permaculturists too often have overemphasized the earth care aspect and are still viewing the care of the earth/environment as separate from caring for ourselves as human beings. Often when we design with permaculture, the more subtle needs of people are ignored or misunderstood, or the design has unrealistic wishes for what the people will be able to do and when they will be able to do it. If we create designs that don’t take into account all of our personal needs, behaviors, and cultural context, then we are not creating effective, holistic designs that meet all three permaculture ethics.

Human beings, especially those of us living in high material wealth societies, have trouble understanding our own needs a lot of the time. The first step in people care is to identify our needs – observing ourselves as we might observe a landscape to gather information for our design. Increasing our awareness of our true needs in the first place leads to better understanding the needs of the earth, and the needs of future generations of people. Only when we have identified what our needs are will we be able to put them in the appropriate relationships with other elements so that they work for and not against the system.

Ultimately, to achieve permanence, we seek to integrate ourselves into the landscape – as is our rightful place – as functional players in a functioning ecosystem. Permaculture’s holistic view requires the integration of all three ethics: earth care, people care, and future care. Prioritizing one of the three ethics means we “unprioritize” the other two, thereby negating the possibility of a “permanent culture.”  When we balance the meeting of our real human needs with the needs of the earth to sustain itself and with the needs of future generations to provide for themselves, then and only then are we living in an ethical and permanent way.

Where to go from here

  • A simple action that we can take to assess whether our design is balanced is to state explicitly how it fulfills each of the three permaculture ethics – essentially, to use the ethics as a design tool. More about this at liberationecology.org.

  • A lack of design for people care is the inspiration for Looby Macnamara’s book People & Permaculture. This book is an excellent and highly recommended exploration into what people care really means, and a useful tool to begin discovering and designing for our human needs.
  • For more on future care, and why we use that term instead of the more traditional “fair share” or “set limits and redistribute surplus,” see our past post Future Care.

Image Source: Øyvind Holmstad (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

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Future Care

Permaculture as a design science is unique among other systems because it makes use of ethics. What are ethics? On his website permaculturist David Holmgren says, “Ethics are culturally evolved mechanisms that regulate self-interest, giving us a better understanding of good and bad outcomes.” Essentially, ethics are a tool that allow us to evaluate our actions and guide us toward a desirable end result. In permaculture, there are three ethics by which we design landscapes and other systems. Earth care and people care are always the first two, but over the years of permaculture’s development, there have been multiple interpretations of what the third ethic of permaculture is. We think future care should be the prefered choice.

In Permaculture: A Designers Manual, written in the early years of permaculture’s development in the 1980s, Bill Mollison states the third ethic of permaculture as, “Setting limits to population and consumption.” On his website and in his 2002 book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, David Holmgren similarly states the third ethic as “Fair Share: Set limits and redistribute surplus.” Starhawk has a slightly different way of articulating the third ethic: future care. Examining these three interpretations more closely, we see that setting limits and/or sharing the surplus are not the same as future care. They all are grasping for a similar concept, but which version should the permaculture designer use?

With this in mind, this is an instance where an integral approach, specifically the notion of the holon, can provide clarity. In short, holons allow us to hierarchically order elements and determine their relative order of importance, causal relationships, and dependencies. A simple exercise is to make the statement, “If we did away with x, there will be no y.”

Looking at the earth and people in this way, “if we did away with the earth there would be no people” is true while the reverse, “if we did away with people there would be no earth” is false. This tells us that people are a subset of and therefore dependent upon the earth, not the other way around.

The statement, “if we did away with limits there would be no earth” is not necessarily true; at the same time “if we did away with the earth there would be no limits” is also not true. They do not demonstrate a holarchic relationship.  It is the same with the statement, “if we did away with fair share there would be no earth” and its inverse. Both are untrue. If we substitute “people” for “earth” in the latter statement and its inverse, both instances are again untrue.

However, we can truthfully say, “if there was neither earth nor people there would be no future.”  The future is dependant on both the existence of the earth and of people. It should be clarified what is meant here by the use of the word “future.” The future in general (to our human understanding) will always continue to exist, whether humans are there to see it or not. What we are specifically speaking of when we say “future” in permaculture is the future of this planet Earth and the future for humans living on it.

People are dependant on the earth; they are a subset of our planet, not independent from it. Without the earth (earth care) or people (people care) there will be no future for either. So holarchically speaking, caring for the future rests on the first two permaculture ethics, which allows us to more clearly see the relationship between these three elements.

Fair share can still be understood as a part of caring for people. In order to care for people, we need to shift to an abundance mindset that allows us to freely redistribute surplus. However, it is easy to forget that the earth also needs its fair share. In order to care for the earth, we must not completely consume it (even if people have their fair share amongst themselves). Additionally, the future needs its fair share. Living well today at the expense of future generations is not a viable option.

Similarly, setting limits and sharing surplus are part of caring for the earth, people and future. They are directives toward the goal of future care, actions we can take toward that desirable outcome. It is possible that fair share, setting limits, and sharing surplus may not be enough to accomplish the goal of caring for the future. More or altogether different actions could be required. It is important to understand that these ideas are directives moving us towards a goal, but are not the goal in and of themselves.

Starhawk explains:

Permaculture’s approach to climate change let’s [sic] us avoid short-sighted errors and find true solutions, because it is rooted in three core ethics: care for the earth, care for the people, and care for the future. The three ethics work together.  We cannot truly care for the earth unless we take into account the people and the long term impact of our interventions.  Ecological solutions that ignore issues of justice are doomed to fail.  And we cannot care for the people if we don’t take into account the life-support systems of the earth that sustain us all.  Social and economic justice movements that ignore the environmental constraints and ecological realities cannot truly improve peoples’ lives. To care for the future, we must share the surplus we create and limit our consumption.

When we bring people care and earth care together with an eye to future generations, we create a synergy that has immense power for healing and regeneration.

In permaculture, small changes can have large effects; these are the leverage points that designers look for. Shifting the phrasing of the third permaculture ethic to future care, more clearly defining our goal, better fits the pattern set by the other two ethics. This change will make the ethics more effective as design tools, make it easier to achieve our goals, and ultimately increase the likelihood of the desired outcome: a future for this planet and its people.

Earth Care – People Care – Future Care

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What is integral theory in a nutshell?

Integral theory is a framework for understanding life, the universe and everything, developed by Ken Wilber. We think that integral theory provides an additional toolset that is useful in permaculture and want to develop and explore how it can enhance permaculture design. You can see our other posts on integral theory here. For a more in-depth explanation, here is Wikipedia’s article on integral theory.  

What are the four quadrants in integral theory?

The quadrants describe four aspects or perspectives inherent in every holon (for more on holons, see our post on holons). Every holon has both an internal and external perspective to its identity, and these two perspectives have both an individual and a group aspect to them. Another way to define the quadrants, which we find to be particularly useful for permaculture, is to think of the internal and external perspectives in terms of “what” we are doing versus “why” we are doing it. Integral Quadrants Basic - Creative Commons License

How is the idea of the integral quadrants useful for permaculture?

One of the difficulties of understanding permaculture is that it resides in the internal singular quadrant (why I do), while the design is usually manifested in the external singular (what I do). Designs that are made using permaculture – or the elements in a design (e.g. swales and herb spirals) – are commonly mistaken for being permaculture themselves. We think that using the quadrants can help illuminate not only what permaculture is, but lead to better designs through a more thorough observation of the design site.

Typically in permaculture we use the concept of zones and sectors as a way to organize our thoughts on energy inputs and expenditures. Zones are a way to place elements in our design based on the amount of energy needed by us (the permaculturist) to have an influence or make a change. Sectors denote flows of energy that we can capture or deflect, coming into and through our permaculture designs: like sunlight, wind, water, wildlife, views, or noisy neighbors. The current permaculture concept of zones 0-5 fits neatly into the external singular quadrant, the “what I do” quadrant. These zones are external to our person, but generally end at the border of our property or sphere of personal influence.

Permaculture Zones and Sectors - Creative Commons License Because we want to make sure that we are mindful of all of the potential influences on our design and our design’s effects in the world, we can use the quadrants as a tool to expand our model of zones and sectors. This expanded tool can help us more clearly identify where we can make changes to improve the success of our designs. These changes could include: adjusting our intentions, thought patterns and conceptions of our own designs (why I do); educating other people about what we are doing, how we structure contracts, or advocating for or against laws (why we do); changing behavior patterns or doing physical work in the landscape (what I do); working together with other people to build a specific project, or the sum of the changes that humans make in the landscape (what we do).

The internal singular quadrant, the self, is the overarching conceptual framework for the real-world manifestations of a person’s intentions (e.g. their permaculture design), which is constantly influencing and being influenced by what’s happening on the ground. In our visualization, the self completely encompasses zones 0-5, like the glass dome encasing the contents of a snowglobe.

Surrounding the self and zones 0-5 of our permaculture design are the external and internal plural zones, what we will call the world and culture, respectively. These are the sources from which the flows of energy (sectors) coming in to our permaculture designs originate.

The world is the societal and ecological “super-infrastructure” that encompasses “what we do” as a particular society, as a human species, and as a planetary community with all other life forms and natural forces. This super-infrastructure forms the physical basis for “what I do” in our individual daily lives and in designing for permaculture. In our visualization, zones 0-5 of a permaculture design sit atop this infrastructure and are dependent upon that base in order to exist (much like holons, and our holon mountain visualization). Sectors that come into our permaculture designs from “the world” include sunlight, wind, rain, water, climate, people, wildlife, plants, materials, pollution, views, and roads.

On the internal plural side, we have culture, the “why we do.” This cultural zone encompasses the world, the self, and all of the external zones within our permaculture design. Sectors that originate from this cultural zone include: business and economics, laws, politics, tradition, concepts of property, and cultural identity or bias. Integral Quadrants & Permaculture Zones - Creative Commons License

It should be said that in practice, zones are not some monolithic, perfectly concentric construct, but instead are messy and reflect the interaction of many people in the real world. We have also considered expanding this model to include multiple people or locations, but thought that it would quickly increase the complexity beyond usability.

Permaculture expanded

What we’ve done is taken the idea of zones and sectors and expanded it so that it can encompass more than it previously did, including the concept of permaculture itself. This model makes clearer the nature of permaculture design as the “why” rather than the “what,” and thus allows us to better communicate what permaculture is. In addition, by incorporating integral theory’s quadrants, we are better able to conceptualize, understand, and design for all the influences that affect our site and the effects we cause in the world. This gives us a holistic view of how individual elements fit into the entire design, and allows us to see the environmental and socio-economic context within which they exist. Because we gain this holistic view, we reduce our wastage of energy and time by having a full picture of not only what an element does and where it should be go, but also why we are using that element from a personal and cultural perspective, and what its effects in the world will be before we place that element in our design. With this understanding, we can expect our permaculture designs to be more successful – giving us a broader, system-wide view of what and why we do something not just for the benefit of us humans, but for the rest of the landscape and its non-human inhabitants.

Expanded - Zones and Sectors - Creative Commons LicenseAdaptability and self-regulation are the keys to the persistence of any system, be it an ecosystem or a permaculture design. By more thoroughly observing our site beforehand and evaluating the context in which our permaculture designs exist, we can better design our sites to adapt to change and are able to consider the impacts that our design decisions may have as they ripple outwards. This allows us to increase the adaptability and self-regulatory capacity of our designs toward the goal of their continued success. Our expanded, integral model of permaculture zones and sectors is a useful tool in our permaculture toolbox allowing us to do just that.

CC BY-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

What is integral theory in a nutshell?

Integral theory is a framework for understanding life, the universe and everything, developed by Ken Wilber. We think that integral theory provides an additional toolset that is useful in permaculture and want to develop and explore how it can enhance permaculture design. You can see our other posts on integral theory here.  For a more in-depth explanation, here is Wikipedia’s article on integral theory.

What is a holon in integral theory?

A “holon,” a term coined by Ken Wilber, is a “whole part.” For example, we can describe an atom as a holon – a whole entity made up of smaller parts (protons, neutrons, and electrons). The atom itself can be part of a larger holon: a molecule (multiple atoms chained together to make a new entity). The molecule is a holon that can be part of a cell, which can be part of an organ, which can be part of a human being. Thus holons have a dual nature: they are complete, autonomous individuals, but they are also parts of other wholes.

Holons form “holarchies,” where a whole is part of another whole, similar to a hierarchy but one in which the levels are concentric and build upon each other. We can determine whether anything can be considered a holon by looking at its prerequisites for existing. For instance, cells could not exist without the existence of molecules, and humans could not exist without cells. If any of the prerequisite holons is destroyed, all the other holons further up in the holarchy is also, by default, destroyed. However, if molecules were destroyed or could not exist, atoms (the lower, prerequisite holon for molecules) would still exist.

How is the idea of holons useful for permaculture?

Using the idea of holons to think about elements in a permaculture design allows us to organize our observations. Permaculture already has a similar concept — tessellation, meaning a whole created by one or more patterns — but holons allow us to hierarchically order elements and determine order of importance, causal relationships, and dependencies.

For example, observing an especially green area on our land leads us to observe the dependencies of that green area: it is first dependent upon water that pools in the area, and the fact that water pools in that particular area is dependent upon the shape of the land.

The holon hierarchy for permaculture - Creative Commons License

The image of a mountain is useful for thinking about holarchies, showing each holons’ dependence upon the holons preceding it. In this example, the earth is the base holon that holds up the rest of the mountain, with the human-created economy at the mountain’s peak. In between are the holons of climate, biosphere, human beings, and culture, each supporting the next level above it. All of these holons and the earth holon are prerequisites for the human economy to exist. Take any of the lower holons away or damage them enough, and the economy cannot maintain itself, and thus crumbles.

The following image plainly shows that our current human society, in damaging the biosphere, climate and planet upon which it depends, is undermining its own existence.

The holon hierarchy for permaculture, when the economy consumes what it is dependent on - Creative Commons License

Another example is to compare the idea of having a single employer versus having a more diversified approach to making your living. In the former, in return for working at a job you are compensated with money so you can buy the things you need to live; the necessities of life are dependent upon the job, and losing that job leaves you unable to provide for yourself. With a more diversified approach you could directly provide some of the things you need to live — like food, water, shelter, or sanitation — and develop multiple small income streams to supplement this livelihood. Anything that you could not directly provide for yourself could still be bought, but the loss of any one element or income stream would leave the rest intact, leaving you more resilient and requiring less energy to return daily life to normal. In reality, having a job is dependent on living, but when we perceive that our livelihood is dependent on a single job and let that job be our only means of providing for ourselves, we are perceiving the importance of holons out of order. Applying the concept of the holon helps us to realize this distorted perception and to see that our priorities are upside-down, leaving our lives vulnerable to disruption — and helps us to see how we can fix that problem.

Correct our perception, identify our priorities.

The concept of the holon can be useful to help determine the relative importance, causal relationships, and dependencies of any given element in our design, and of the design itself, which is of course a holon. Visualizing holarchies in a “mountain” shape can help us understand the state of our design, evaluate its logic, and see where we might be undercutting elements that hold up the rest of the system. Holons can help us to correct our perception of reality and see the way things actually exist and relate, and identify when our priorities are out of order.

This post is just part one in a series on integral permaculture. You can follow our discoveries here.

CC BY-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

CC BY-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.