Tag Archives: David Holmgren

The Permaculture Flower I

So I’ve been working with the GLPDC to create lectures for our ongoing PDC. We’ve adopted using the permaculture flower, by David Holmgren, as a landmark for each topic but I’m thinking it works differently than we initially understood. Before we thought that a topic, say water, would manifest certain petals of the flower. Now I think it’s  the opposite. The whole flower manifests through every topic; it’s why instead of what.

What’s more the flower can be divided into two distinct groups. Things that manifest in the physical world, like buildings, trees, swales, etc. and those that are invisible structures: education, community governance, finance. 

Integral Permaculture Flower Internal/External

Notice that I’ve rotated the flower so that the top three petals represent the physical and the the bottom four are “invisible” as if they are roots below.

So, to take the example of water:

Land & Nature Stewardship
How we take care of the physical water we have. 

Dams, ponds, piping, water treatment plants.

Tools & Technology
How we treat, move, and clean water. 

While the three above are not exclusively physical, they have very real manifestations in the physical environment.  You can go to a place, walk into a building, and grab a tool. You can’t do that with the others. They arise emergently out of the combination of people, physical places and things: 

Land Tenure & Community Governance
Regulations and requirements, how we use, or even how we think about water. Who owns it.

Finances & Economics
The business and cost of water.

Health & Spiritual Well-being
Our health in relationship to the water around us or the spirit or life of the water (see Spirited Away for one manifestation of this).

Education & Culture
How we act and communicate the importance, care for, and cleaning of water.

The flower gives us an organization and structure for different aspects of how water can be used and thought of. The same holds true for any other topic in permaculture. We can orient ourselves to the different petals of the flower on a topic, thereby seeing (and then being able to make use of) the patterns of.





Baseline, Altered & Chaotic States

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.

Future Care

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

Permaculture Flower

Permaculture Flower SquareAs we pursue our interests in permaculture, sometimes it feels like we’re out there all alone. If we take a broader view and look at the whole picture it’s easy to find people who, while they’re not doing the same things we are, are engaged in same process. Knowing how our work is related can enhance what we do.

David Holmgren illustrated this beautifully in his Permaculture Flower design. Not only is it packed with information, but its arranged in a meaningful way. This one graphic goes a long way towards explaining the whole of permaculture. This and more are available on his website Permaculture Principals and everything there is worth investing time into.