A Proposed Weak Link: Neglect of Design Process: Part One

Here I want to propose a first weak link of permaculture in its design system sense. This weak link is the neglect of design process in permaculture literature, education, and media.

In teaching permaculture design, my colleagues and I (primarily Adam Grubb) rely on two main diagrams. The first we introduce is a permaculture design framework, the second a permaculture design process. Here I’ll share the framework diagram as I find it brings into focus the weak link we are to discuss here.

I should acknowledge Bob Corker and David Holmgren before proceeding, as both have shared alternative versions of this pyramid with me in the past and got us started with it. I find it a powerful teaching tool and am grateful to the both of them for putting me onto it. Bob Corker, I recall, was using a version that he attributed to Max Lindegger and Leigh Davison.

Anyways, let’s first consider the base of the pyramid, which is the place for the most foundational influences on permaculture design: ethics. Whether you go with earthcare, people care and fair share, or some other wording, the idea is that all permaculture design in all contexts honours these ethics.Permaculture Design Framework - Ethics

Now let us process to the next level, which sit on top of the ethics, but are still universally applicable: permaculture design principles. Again, no matter which list or hybrid list of principles floats your boat, the idea is that these principles apply to all permaculture design, everywhere. It always makes sense to design from patterns to details. It always makes sense to use edge effect, or to catch and store energy. These principles, like the ethics below them, are context-independent.

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Now let’s jump up to the very top of the pyramid – the most context-dependent content you might learn on a permaculture course or in a permaculture book. These are techniques – specific actions or processes used to achieve things. Examples are double digging or grey water reed beds.

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What sits a level more general than techniques? These are strategies, which are more general than techniques but more specific than ethics and design principles, being once again context-dependent. Examples are biointensive gardening or greywater reuse. Once you have a strategy you can move to consider which techniques are appropriate to implement that strategy in a given context. Strategies are like the rubber, you might say, and techniques the road.

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So this is all well and good and I can’t imagine a permaculturalist who would have an issue with the overall gist of this framework. But here’s the rub. The key to successful, achievable, appropriate, relevant strategies and techniques is the extent to which they are grounded in the ethics and design principles. But you can’t just jump from one to the other and hope for the best. You can’t go straight from ethics and principles to strategies and techniques. It does not and cannot work.

Yet this is the impression one takes away from many permaculture design courses and books. It is the impression I took away from my first permaculture design course. What it forces is hit and miss design, where you try and replicate this strategy or that technique, like your teacher said, while also trying to keep the ethics and principles in mind.

What is missing, of course, is design process – the only thing that can get you from the universal ethics and design principles to the specific strategies and techniques appropriate to a given context.

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In my experience, permaculture education & literature has tended to distribute the focus something like this:

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Ethics are touched on, design principles are covered in some depth (sometimes patterns are covered in here somewhere too), design process is glossed over (covering design methods, by the way, is very different from covering design process – which is another discussion for another time), then the rest is all strategies and lots of techniques – whichever the teacher or author happens to like most.

Where I feel that in contexts such as a permaculture design course something more like this would be so much more appropriate and effective in terms of empowering participants to go out and use sound design process to get to appropriate strategies and techniques.Screen Shot 2016-04-16 at 9.56.03 am

Here ethics and principles are still covered in some depth. There is much less time spent on strategies and techniques with the core focus being on how all these things feed into (ethics and principles) or are generated by (strategies and techniques) sound design process.

Before closing and until next time, I should mention that this is not a previously unrecognised weakness in permaculture. Various folk have been tuning into it and some of them doing something about it (the initials DJ and DJD come to mind ;-)). I will be not only writing about my take on much of this work, but inviting many of these folk into this conversation/project.

That said, we still have a heck of a long way to go. It is clear to me that permaculture in general continues to suffer from chronic and systemic design process illiteracy. Until we acknowledge the widespread neglect of design process, it will be hard to galvanise steps toward literacy, which is foundational to making permaculture stronger.

Endnote: See part two of this two-post set here (in which I get to the same point a different way).

Good folk already Making Permaculture Stronger

Here I list known (to me) practitioners of permaculture actively doing the work of making permaculture stronger by at the least assessing & articulating weak links, and in most cases then doing something to address the weak links thus identified.

Obviously it is important to recognise and celebrate folk already doing a great job of this stuff, particularly given that in future I’ll be standing on some of their shoulders and generally bouncing off many of them.

To be clear about the criteria for making it on to this list, these folk are genuinely sympathetic to permaculture, and they are coming from a place of honestly reflecting then earnestly addressing gaps, issues, or weaknesses within permaculture. Where the attitude or intent is to make permaculture better. But where part of the process of doing so is being openly critical about at least one central aspect of permaculture. They are actively sharing their work along these lines with the world. I also just happen to know about them.

I should also be clear that most of these folk are not working in the specific target area of Making Permaculture Stronger (with the exception of Dave Jacke, David Holmgren, and Darren J Doherty) which is design process thinking and practice. I mention them here therefore due to aligned intent in their approach to other aspects of permaculture, where the intent/attitude is at least half the story.

I should finally mention that I have excluded folk working to make the way permaculture is taught stronger. This is such important work but I have decided to exclude it for now in that it feels like opening a can or worms larger than I can currently handle or do justice to (but I do remain open to suggestion). It feels like it should almost be a whole other project in itself. Making Permaculture Education Stronger anyone? This project’s focus is permaculture design process and here I include folk going outside that focus, but who are still working on the substance or content of permaculture as opposed to how it is taught (acknowledging that the two blend into each other in practice). But I want to think more about this and invite any clarity you (yes you there) might bring me.

Please submit suggested additions to our contact page.

I’m slightly embarrassed they are all men so please to make any suggestions of women doing this work (who in my personal experience in terms of making permaculture stronger by addressing weak links are working in improving how the content is taught – Rosemary Morrow being a significant mentor of mine on this front and Robyn Clayfield another significant contributor) would be very much appreciated.

David Holmgren / Holmgren Design Services

I find it incredibly refreshing to find that one of the most outspoken critics of so many aspects of permaculture is one of the co-originators. I’m not going to try and compile a list of David’s published work in this vein here (in a way almost all he has written since permaculture’s inception is a contender) but intend to to so as a separate post in future. I have enjoyed many great conversations about permaculture design and whatnot with David over the years, and one of many things I respect about his approach is that he has no attachment to being right and is ready to critically consider & revise any and all views or approaches, including those he holds himself.

Rafter Sass Ferguson / Liberation Ecology

Rafter is doing some fantastic work and perhaps more than anyone I’m aware of is actively, and sympathetically, getting real about many of permaculture’s shortcomings and doing something about a lot of them. His epic article Permaculture for agroecology: design, movement, practice, and worldview. A review is very worth checking out as is his more recent Grassroots engagement with transition to sustainability: diversity and modes of participation in the international permaculture movement.

The Institute for Participatory Design

I don’t know much about these folk apart from this brilliant article.

Dave Jacke / Edible Forest Gardens

Dave Jacke was the lead author (backed up by Eric Toensmeier) of the two volume Edible Forest Gardens which is hard to deny the status of a classic original contribution to the permaculture literature. In addition to his synthesis and practical application of modern understandings of forest ecology (in Volume I), Dave has explicitly critiqued the lack of emphasis on sound design process within permaculture and made an impressive contribution to doing something about it (in Volume II). Again, we’ll be focusing in on details of Jacke’s work in this latter area in due course – given it is so relevant to Making Permaculture Stronger’s mandate. As fate would have it I enjoyed a fantastic conversation about this stuff with Mr Jacke a few days ago and was delighted to have his interest in this project and his affirmation of its relevance and importance.

Joel Glanzburg / Pattern Mind

Joel is bringing many unique flavours of deep holism and systems thinking to permaculture – see this open letter to the permaculture community he wrote.

Darren J. Doherty / Regrarians

After working in permaculture design for many years Darren has developed a fresh approach to farm-scale design process. One prompt for this has been his identifying a dearth of quality design process thinking in permaculture, and an integrative approach bringing useful stuff from outside permaculture into his professional consultancy and teaching work. Darren is most recently calling his approach the Regrarians Platform. In this vid he gives the flavour though it has developed a lot since then. I should mention that Darren has been a significant mentor of mine and is nowadays a close friend & colleague – I hope these facts don’t bias me against the rigorous critical analysis of his work should the time come for such (something I know Darren openly welcomes and takes on board where valid points are made – this is one reason he’s a leader in the field).

Tim Winton / Pattern Dynamics

Tim doesn’t fly under the permaculture banner these days, but he has in the past practiced, written and thought a lot about this stuff and has expressed an interest in being part of Making Permaculture Stronger which I am very happy about. This article of Tim’s is well worth a read and includes the line (in reference to the integral approach he uses): “Now, I can see the strengths of permaculture more clearly and I am more effective at working through its weaknesses..”

Chris Smaje / Small Farm Future

Chris is a rather sharp cookie who has written a lot of thought provoking stuff to do with, among other things, widely held assumptions (dare I say holy cows) within permaculture. This review of Mark Shepard’s book Restoration Agriculture is one example that captures his vibe nicely, but the ultimate in terms of overlap with the focus of Making Permaculture Stronger has got to be this post (along with the comments) on what he calls Permaculture Design Course Syndrome. A highly recommend discussion to check out. I should mention that Chris is probably the least sympathetic to permaculture on this list. But his work is nonetheless extremely relevant to Making Permaculture Stronger.

Peter Harper

I don’t know much about Peter Harper apart from he is a distinguished fellow at the Schumacher Institute, he coined the term “alternative technology,” he wrote this article in 2003 (PDF) which is of clear relevance, and he is a colleague of David Holmgren’s. From what I do know I like the cut of his gib though.

Rob Scott

Rob wrote an article in 2010 entitled A Critical Review of Permaculture in the United States focusing mostly on permaculture’s general disconnection to solid research.

A bit more context

So I feel that the scene is about set, and that I can nearly launch into some of the substance, the content I have in mind to get the ball rolling here. But first with this post let me scene set just a little more.

In March last year, a little over a year ago, I found myself at an Australasian Permaculture Convergence in Penguin, North-Eastern Tasmania.

Several significant things happened over the several days of the event that were formative in the sense of helping set in motion a sequence, one outcome of which has been this project.

The first thing was during Bob Brown’s opening speech. Great speech, by the way. Great speech from a great man. In effect a rousing urge to environmental activism. One comment was that “the stupid are cocksure, whereas the intelligent are self-doubting.” Anyways, toward the end he said something like “if you lot were running the country, we’d be fine. But unfortunately, you’re not.”

Now of course he was being nice, flattering the crowd, giving permaculture the thumbs up, and all that. But the thought that hit me at this statement was along the lines of “my god, let’s be honest here, if this lot were running the country, we’d be [let’s just keep it clean and say not so fine]” So that was one thing. I’ll get into why I had this thought in due course.

The second thing that happened was that I led a session called “critical self-reflection in permaculture.” Maybe 30 people came along including several elders of Australian permaculture, which I was delighted with. I played the thing by ear and introduced the concept of a weak link analysis, introduced a few of my pet weak links in permaculture, calibrated against the group, and then invited others to submit theirs. I won’t get into the details now, though, but what the heck, I will share this list that came out of the session (we will come back to a lot of these items in more detail in future posts):

  • Neglect of design process
  • Lack of post-PDC pathways
  • Dearth of evidence
  • Lack of stress/focus on implementation and management
  • Permaculture design course evaluation & evolution
  • Conscious decision making/leadership/management skills
  • Doing everything ourselves
  • False confidence
  • Closed shop vibes
  • Permaculture of the inner landscape (this from Professor Stuart Hill)

Details aside the main point is that my feeling from the vibe of the session along with feedback afterwards was that the approach I was suggested resonated with the group. Which was encouraging. I remember actually joking about starting a website like this, not expecting myself to actually do so over a year later.

The final thing that happened was not only an aspect of the convergence but of the two-day advanced permaculture design course I led directly afterwards. With two able assistants and 19 lovely participants, we had a special few days. But where I’m getting to was that I was deeply struck by the number of folk, often younger, sometimes not, that had permaculture design certificates and were earnest, and intelligent, and wanting to take it further, often with a component of professional design work.

These three things (becoming aware of my own perception that the permaculture movement generally doesn’t have its shit together in a lot of basic ways, a positive reception to the topic of critical self-reflection in permaculture, and tuning into a huge wave of interest in taking permaculture design work to a higher level) affected me quite deeply, and are part of how I came to be the me that is having a go at setting this whole thing up.

So, yes, just wanted to acknowledge the contribution of that convergence toward getting this whole thing, whatever it is, exactly, off the ground. Thanks, convergence!

Over and out.

Setting a vision & some themes/rules of play for this project

I thought I’d put a little more thought into articulating the space in which I would like to see this project exist. First, here’s a draft statement of purpose or reason for existing:

Making Permaculture Stronger is a space where permaculture practitioners come together with a spirit of strengthening the design system aspect of permaculture by clarifying its weaknesses and coordinating efforts to address them.

Here are several things I would like to be true of the way in which this purpose is delivered upon:

  • Making Permaculture Stronger is about slowing down, taking stock, and sharing with honesty about where we are at
  • This sharing happens with a positive focus on improving permaculture. We are interested in clarifying what is problematic only to the extent it will assist our subsequent efforts, or the efforts of others, to make it less problematic.
  • Making Permaculture Stronger is a collaborative project open to anyone for whom the project/effort resonates and who is happy to operate within the context of these parameters (i.e., this list)
  • To participate in this project is to give permission for the administrators/s to make any required decisions according to their judgement of whether a decision accords with the above stated purpose and this list
  • All sharings and communication on Making Permaculture Stronger are focused on patterns, trends, gaps, and so on in permaculture and are not focused on the perceived failings of particular individuals.

Okay, that’s it for now. For anyone interested in this approach to defining an approach to something, it comes from something called holistic management decision making, and you can see an article I wrote explaining it here.

Weak Link Analysis – What is it?

I should say a little more about the overall approach that defines making permaculture stronger as a project. I am calling it a weak-link analysis of permaculture in permaculture’s design system sense. It amounts to one way of approaching the way we design the way we practice permaculture design. It is very simple:

  1. Coordinate the identification of weak links in the sense of factors limiting or constraining permaculture as a design system. This is something like a scanning or auditing process.
  2. Assess, coordinate and if necessary initiate efforts to address those weak links

The inevitable result of following these two steps repeatedly is that permaculture gets stronger. I am becoming concerned with the amount of effort in permaculture that goes towards sharing what is already strong. This work is important, but when it takes up the entire stage, then the equally if not more important task of tuning into and strengthening what is not already strong (or was once strong but has become weak) gets neglected.

It is like a bodybuilder who in proudly building and sharing their magnificent biceps, abs, and calves neglects other muscles that are in very poor shape. The result is a funny looking figure that when push comes to shove, and they attempt useful work, they not only have serious deficiencies, they are very likely to injure themselves, and come out of the whole situation with a bruised body and a bruised ego. I fear that if we are honest with ourselves, permaculture in its design system sense is a currently funny looking figure. I get the feeling I’m not alone.

Weak-link analysis is a kind of quiet background capacity building effort that ultimately gives the set proclaiming permaculture’s strengths (myself included) more to share.

I think permaculture design has more than enough good stuff going on to maintain morale sufficiently for the odd excursion into the stuff that isn’t so good (where the whole point is trying to then make it good!).

The First Post

About six months back I had a dream in which I was talking to my friend and colleague Adam Grubb. I was telling him I had some things I wanted to get off my chest with respect to the topic of permaculture, and that I was thinking about doing so via a website called Dan’s Permaculture Ramblings. We looked at each other in the mutual realisation that this was not a good name for a website. So I said, “well, what about Making Permaculture Stronger?”

That is as much as I can remember from the dream. But the next day, wide-awake, I happened to be talking to Adam on the phone and so I told him about the dream. He liked the idea of the website – under the latter name suggestion – and said he’d contribute. I rather liked it too, so after our call I registed the url. That evening I wrote this very first post. And now I’m getting around to posting it.

So, let me give a feel for what I intend this website to be about, and my motivation for bringing it into existence.

I have been studying and practicing permaculture for a little over ten years. Over this time I have seen permaculture become a lot more mainstream in both Australia, where I have lived for most of the last ten years, and New Zealand, where I am now based. Along the way I helped start the now global permablitz movement, a well-respected permaculture design, implementation and education company, and several overseas permaculture projects in India and Africa. I’ve taught or co-taught perhaps a dozen permaculture design certificate courses, read and written a lot about permaculture, and learned from many senior designers and teachers within permaculture and in related fields.

In the last year I have started running what I call Advanced Permaculture Design courses, in which I get to work with folks that already have some training and experience in permaculture (and want to take it to the next level). I also continue to design, with several hundred professional design projects behind me (most in collaboration with Adam), and three currently on the go.

Obviously, given after ten years I’m still at it, I like it. There is no two ways about it. I’m a fan, and if I had to come up with a short, snappy description of my profession I’d probably say permaculture designer and educator.

That said, as well as being an insider to the permaculture movement, scene, whatever you want to call it, I am also a critic. Though my journey with permaculture is relatively young, I have been around long enough to be able to proclaim, with confidence, that permaculture well and truly needs a good injection of critical self-reflection. From within.

Why? In order to make it stronger. You see I not only like permaculture, I’d like to see it get stronger. I’d like to see permaculture become more and more mainstream, but in a way where it is a shape to offer solid, holistic solutions in a world flying headlong over a cliff where shit is about to get even more out of control.

The best way I know of strengthening something is to identify weak links and then to direct energy toward making them less weak. This approach seems blindly obvious to me, and yet for some odd reason seems to me not to be a significant part of the culture of permaculture. In so much permaculture literature, education, presentation, online media, and so on, the focus is on links that are already strong, and in some cases on making them even stronger. I would like to contribute to the bucking of that trend.

Yes, permaculture is amazing. Gobsmackingly relevant. Awe-inspiringly solution-packed. But let’s be honest about the fact it sucks at some things, that it lacks or neglects other things, that it has had an embarrassing amount of failures & causalities. Furthermore, if it barrels on oblivious to all this, then when push comes to shove, at the very moment when it needs to shine and get its gallop on, one or more of these neglected gaps or weak spots will see it fall flat on its face, or at the least, failing to shine as brightly as it might have.

Now no one really knows what permaculture is, really, in the sense that it is not only continuing to evolve, but that it is a lot of different things all at once. My interest here is not in defining permaculture. Go figure out what permaculture is some place else, then come back here and see if what this site has to say about it rings true for you. As Bill Mollison often proclaimed on my first permaculture course ten years ago, “google it.”

I will say this though. However permaculture is understood or defined, there is something fundamental to all permaculture that involves design. Conscious design. Functional design. Integrative design. Holistic design. Ethical design. Principled design. Permaculture is almost always defined, in part, as a particularly flavoured design system, approach, or method.

It is this aspect of permaculture that I am interested in making stronger. Permaculture as design. I declare that it is this aspect of permaculture that this project is about strengthening. The rest, I believe, will follow.

I don’t know how this site will evolve. Perhaps I won’t even get around to uploading this post. Perhaps I will, and then two friends will see the site before it sinks into obscurity. I’m not fussed. The main thing is that I’ll have a chance to get those things I hinted at earlier off my chest, post-by-sweet-cathartic-post, in a way that develops and sharpens my thinking about them.

Beyond that, I am starting to get some inklings about how wonderful this project could be as a collaboration amongst permaculture practitioners for whom it resonates. Together we’d get clear firstly on identifying what permaculture design’s weak links are, and secondly on finding out what, who, where or if anything is being done about it (and possibly even coordinate efforts to do something about it ourselves – imagine that!).

So, there it, is, post numero uno. I will post again as the urge takes me, and at some point I’ll let others know the site exists, and perhaps figure out ways of enticing others to start contributing. Maybe I’ll pester a few senior colleagues for their two-cents worth. And from there we’ll just have to see what happens, won’t we!

A good day to you.