My partner, Doro, recently reflected on her experience visiting the Permaculture Research Institute at Zaytuna Farms. It inspired me to write about how the design principles that went into the farm can be applied way beyond farming — even to the point of transforming a career, home, and community.
It was amazing to see such abundance coming from a farm that largely functions as a closed-loop sustainable ecosystem. Compare that to conventional farms that rely heavily on external inputs (fertilizer, chemicals, seed, feed, fuel) and generate massive waste streams (chemical runoff, loss of soil fertility, animal waste). It was a complete system that benefits people, planet, and creates a surplus (profit).
That’s the beauty of systems thinking and holistic design. Permaculture is one such framework to practice systems thinking and holistic design. There’s plenty of others. But, Permaculture has profoundly resonated with me ever since discovering it 10 years ago. In fact, it’s motivated me to rethink and change my whole life — including where I live and the work I do.
What?? Isn’t permaculture a system of farming or land management? Didn’t you live in a city and work in the software industry?
Yes, and Yes.
But, it’s really a way-of-thinking and a way of problem solving that can be applied to any aspect of life. After all, most of it just boils down to common sense with ethics. The basic ethics are care for people, care for planet, and return of surplus. This might be more familiar to some in the form of triple bottom line accounting: People, Planet, Profit.
When you use this lens to examine your life, you can apply this to so much more than just a way of land management, gardening, or food production. One of my teachers, Jack Spirko, defined Permaculture as:
A system of design that works with nature to provide all human need and benefit all planetary life
Is that just lofty academic speak? What does this really mean? To me, it’s a profound life changing concept when applied. Let me try to explain why.
Let’s start by simplifying the last part, and break it down into 3 parts: Permaculture is a….
System of design that
Works with nature to
Is this just a bunch of hippy-dippy babble talk, or is this a deep and profound way of rethinking and remaking our relationship with the world? Like anything in life, it is what you make of it, and to me, it resonates. Let’s examine how….
What is a “System of Design”?
If we stop to think about it, virtually every aspect of life has been “designed” by someone. Sometimes the design is abstract – things that come about by an evolving process — social conventions, cultural norms, etc. But other things are more directly designed by individual people or teams — the houses we live in, consumer products, cars, roads, government regulations, etc. In the global west, we live in a consumer culture where virtually everything we buy and interact with on a daily basis has been created and designed by humans. The more complex society has become, the more our jobs and professions have become specialized — this division of labor has been going strong since the industrial revolution, and specialization has resulted in astonishing material and technological abundance.
But specialization means that people are more and more interdependent on society because they produce and design less and less of the things to meet their basic needs. Think about how much more more self-reliant we were just a generation or two ago. Before globalization, we were undeniably better connected to the systems that provided the daily needs of life.
This specialization also means there are very few people who observe the world from a holistic systems standpoint. As the saying goes… it’s difficult to see the forest through the trees.
Permaculture, being a “system of design” gives us a framework through which to practice systems thinking. Systems thinking is really just about understanding how an entire system works. To practice systems thinking, you don’t need to understand how every component within the system works (there will be a specialist who does), but you need to understand 3 things:
There are Inputs
Stuff happens (Processes)
There are Outputs
The details of the processes aren’t important. You can think of this as a black box, or the domain of the specialist. The systems thinker understands how the various components connect to each other, interact with each other, impact each other, and work together to achieve some outcome….. after all, the outputs of one component are inputs to another component.
So, a system of design is a way-of-thinking (a framework), that allows us see patterns, understand how those patterns either benefit or harm people and planet. To paraphrase Bill Mollison: With this knowledge, we can learn to assemble components (material, people, energy, social) in a pattern that benefits all of life,
Jack Spirko goes on to sum up this “system of design”, calling it ecological troubleshooting.
It’s an evolving living system — not a template but a methodology. It does not provide all the answers, but gives you a system to figure out the answers to problems now and in the future
We don’t need to look far to see where a lack of systems thinking has resulted in terrible outcomes. There’s no lack of areas some good systems-thinking couldn’t improve:
In the permaculture world, we often talk about working with nature. Sounds warm and fuzzy, but what does it actually mean?
Is it a passive aggressive way of saying that everyone else works against nature?
Does it mean we worship trees and soil, and furry animals?
Does it mean we reject modern society and technology and advocate returning to an agrarian society?
Of course not.
For me, the phrase “work with nature” is carefully chosen and says more metaphorically than literally. Certainly, most practicing permaculturists spend a lots of time outdoors, and are not afraid of getting dirty. But the phrase packs a much bigger punch when we put it in the context of achieving more with less.
The truth is that we – as individuals, communities, and societies – spend a great deal of time fighting nature.
Let’s pause for a moment to get philosophical about what “nature” is. Nature is a way of describing how the universe works. The heart of scientific endeavor is to understand the nature of the universe. That is, unraveling the basic rules through observation, hypothesis, testing, and iterating. In this context, nature is synonymous with science. Nature is the laws of physics — motion, energy, thermodynamics, entropy.
So, to “work with nature” we embrace what we can understand about the systems in nature, and apply systems thinking to solving human problems in a way that benefits all of life — people and planet.
Without a systems perspective, we start solving human problems in isolation. This always happens at the expense of the health of the system as a whole. This holds true about systems on many different levels. For example:
Personal Health — The typical western approach to health care is always dealing with symptoms, rarely with root causes. Our “take a pill” mentality is solving a problem in isolation rather than solving a problem holistically by considering the body as a system. This is working against nature.
Housing — Typical housing construction in the US is designed to maximize space for minimal cost by using standardized components and industrial processes. The problem of space is solved at the expense of energy efficiency and air quality, which would require proper lot siting and is not suitable for mass production. So the result is homes that are massively inefficient at providing quality lighting, heating, and air. This necessitates a constant supply of cheap fossil fuel energy just to keep people warm and dry. This is working against nature.
Food Supply — On a bigger scale, our entire food supply system is a victim of solving problems in isolation which only creates bigger problems at a system level. Numerous examples include depleting aquifers for irrigation, leading to the erosion of topsoil, leading to dead zones in the ocean due to the nitrogen fertilizers, which were applied to solve the problem of animals being separated from crops. All of it leads to massive waste streams that didn’t used to exist. It goes on and on. This is working against nature at a global scale.
Nature builds ecosystems. Ecosystems have no waste. They are closed loop — all the waste products from one process are inputs to the next.
That’s the goal of “working with nature”. It’s all about understanding the system, solving problems and designing things in a way that enhance life, minimize effort and inputs, minimize waste, maximize health and enjoyment of life. In other words, working with nature provides abundance.
This applies to physical health, family, business, buildings, transportation, and all other aspects of modern life.
What kind of abundance can we create?
Bill Mollison says that the goal of permaculture design is to assemble components in a pattern to benefit all of life. I like to simplify this and say that it means to create abundance.
What does it mean to create abundance?
It depends on what your goals are. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a great framework to think about what kinds of abundance you want to create
Physiological — physical comfort, shelter, healthy food, water
Safety — security of body, resources, health, property
Love/Belonging — friendship, family, intimacy
Esteem – confidence, achievement, respect
Self Actualization – creativity, morality, problem solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts
All the needs above level 2 require community, so creating abundance means building community and social capital as much as it means abundance of food, energy, and safety.
In modern society, we often have illusions of abundance. For example, food seems abundant — plentiful and cheap to almost all Americans. Likewise, to the average middle class person, electricity and fuel seem abundant. Even if people like to complain about prices, almost no one has a real problem accessing or paying for basic electricity, shelter, or transportation.
I contend that this perceived abundance is only an illusion based on a lack of abundance of other things that are scarce and precious — time, health, fulfilling work, peaceful relationships, laughter, fun, friendships.
How many of us sacrifice time, health, fun, or relationships in order to make money to maintain the material abundance that we have in modern society? Why do so many people toil away in the rat race of meaningless and joyless work in order to maintain a material lifestyle at the expense of so many other meaningful things?
Permaculture design teaches us to look at whole systems, and encourages us to build systems that maximize abundance of what matters most. This may be different for each person, family, or community.
Framing the world in terms of abundance instead of scarcity can lead to radical new ways of achieving goals.
Personally, I want an abundance of
high quality, healthy food
time to relax, think, and reflect
nature and natural beauty
Very few of these things are inherently scarce or unachievable through purposeful lifestyle design. Nor do you need to sacrifice the ethics of people care, earth care, and returning a surplus of whatever value you create in the world.
That’s how you can take the lessons of a permaculture farm and apply them toward personal transformation. The key is living an examined life. If you engage in purposeful lifestyle design, you can create abundance in a way that benefits you, your loved ones, and leaves the planet a better place.
So, there you have it… you can learn to think holistically, as a systems designer. This allows you to work with nature and achieve more with less. And that leads to abundance — not just material abundance, but the kind of life-affirming personal abundance, meaning, and health that so many of us lack in our frenzied consumer-driven lifestyles.