Inquiring into Systems Thinking with the Making Permaculture Stronger Developmental Community (E64)

In a world first for this project, this episode shares one of last year’s sessions with the Making Permaculture Stronger Developmental Community.

Huge thanks to Han Kortekaas, Ronella Gomez, Nicholas Franz, Zola Rose, Barry Gibson, Jon Buttery, Arthur Buitelaar, Dan Milne, Byron Birss & Joel Mortimer for co-creating this with me and for their gracious permission to share here. Here are some of us during a more recent session.

Learn more about the Making Permaculture Stronger Developmental Community here.

Below is the section on systems thinking in the book Practical Permaculture by Jessi Bloom & Dave Boehnlein (p. 18) that is mentioned during this episode. This section is viewable as a free preview at google books. Similarly, you can also check out page 20 of Toby Hemenway’s The Permaculture City here if you like.


  1. Kia ora Dan
    As you know I’ve been a (happy!) listener of MPS for a while now, although I tend to listen to the eps in clusters and ingest 4 or 5 eps all in one go haha… so my brain is a little overflowing right now.
    In this ep, I answered your proposed questions at the beginning and listened with interest to the discussion and, at the heart of it, I agree with your inquiry and critique of Systems Thinking, or at least how the majority apply it or define it; I agree that it seems really to have come from mechanistic thinking and this idea of reconstructing the previously deconstructed reality and calling it a whole, with analysis arising from there. Which is never going to give us a truthful or accurate understanding of any whole (in my humble opinion).
    I found it interesting when you got to the jelly analogy because where you eventually lead the group to is the place where I began: in my definition of “what is a system” I started with an acknowledgment of the elements in a system, the relationship between those elements and the space in between the elements as all forming what that system is. It went on from there but I really just want to make the point that some of the things you’re talking about feel intuitive and somehow in my cell memory as a way of knowing the world (and all the infinite worlds within it!).
    Of the latest round of episodes I particularly enjoyed the conversation with Tyson Yunkaporta (as you suggested I would!) and felt so much affinity with, and deep understanding of, much of the kōrero. In a way I felt deeply heard, seen and acknowledged in that conversation. It was the delivery too which was bullshit-free and also playful.
    I also really enjoyed your kōrero with Jason Gerhardt as I always do. I’m always happy to see when you post another kōrero with him and I need to emphasise that it’s not only the perspective and āhua he brings to the wānanga but the quality of the interaction between the two of you… the mutual respect is palpable and out of that some real gems of wisdom emerge! There’s that ‘space in between’ and that relational energy at play!
    Keep up the great work Dan.

  2. Hi Dan,
    Thanks for a fantastic podcast episode. I’m quite new to permaculture and found this discussion very interesting! The discussion of a bicycle (and agencement as in the comments above) seems like a deep well to explore. A bicycle does not have emergent properties because its constraints/relationships are fixed. In a forest or river, the constraints are much looser, more fluid, and have an element of chance. It is dynamic in a way that a bicycle cannot be.
    Very interesting to consider what/how one can use field thinking into design. One idea that comes to mind is how one’s expectations might change for seasonal/annual/longer cycles. E.g. the banks of the river will change, the quality of the water as well (and the life within it!). To create an eddy I can place a rock in a certain place – but the eddy is not guaranteed to be there always….

  3. Thank you Dan and the core group for sharing this talk. The analogy of flowing water with the shapes, patterns of eddies and whirlpools really helps with accepting that fields contain everything, and is the primary reality. As one in the group expressed, contemplation of the living world rather than observation allows to tune into this primary reality and detach from the mechanistic, dualistic lens we interpret it through. I have always used this intuitive aspect when doing design work, but have resisted putting words on it for fear it’d sound too woo-woo for the client! And I think it is essencial we integrate it into permaculture practice, both to teach westernminded permies what the world actually is, and of course to be able to understand indigenous people’s view.
    Enough ramblings, thanks for a great episode (as always)!

  4. This whole-parts conversation reminds me a lot of the book Phenomenology of Perception by Merleau-Pointy, the works of David Seamon, and many others.
    Even if there is a whole, you always have a fragmented perception of it. Even if you are convinced about the indissociable nature of reality, it is very hard for you to operatively use that knowledge. Interdisciplinarity has been a beacon for the hope of bringing forth holistic processes within science, technology and design for the very reason that it should *somehow* bind those fragments into (nested?) wholes – holistic processes of development and design.
    However, because omniscience is kind of a remote skill for any human to hone, one is prone to disregard the usefulness of studying the undivided flowing wholeness of reality unless they can afford it. On the other hand, we all pay the cost of generalised ignorance of such matters. It is very important to understand though, how exactly can such a thought-process or state-of-being be investigated/developed, how can it bring forth or regenerate value.
    Here in Denmark, this very issue within Architecture design is so breathtakingly broad that people are developing all types of criteria for performance indicators and quality levels to keep track of the value creation their designs can bring forth. (through Danske Ark’s – Danish Archicture Firms Association – and DK-DGNB (German Sustainable Architecture Certification System in Denmark influence mainly). However, it just looks like a constellation of interlocking synergetic parts.
    I mean, their efforts are commendable, but they seem to go in the opposite direction of what is being discussed here. Is it though? And how so? What could be changed? What is really so different between fields and systems? Between living systems (or beings?) and systems and general? I think the time is coming to peer-review some definitions.

  5. I was listening to your podcast on systems thinking and among the tensions I heard was one about ‘how do we teach field theory to novices?’. Mollison not surprisingly beat us to the punch. I just relistened to his lecture on patterns from the 1992 PDC that’s easy to find on YouTube. Replace “media” with “field” and think you’ve basically got it.

    Even though Mollison definitely slips into “parts to wholes” mechanistic systems thinking at points when he’s dealing with pure ontology like he is here he basically sounds like Deleuze. We have a sequence of events in a field. You have some differences. This is darker than That. This is saltier than That. Because difference tries to equalize there is a pressure against the boundary of This and That. This pressure creates movement, events, processes.

    Difference based ontology (as opposed to the ontology of the One which comes from the Neoplatonic and Christian tradition) seems to be the trick. Alexander, Deleuze, probably Mollison are all Spinozists. There’s something about Spinoza that gets you out of mechanistic thinking. God or Nature is simply that which entails itself. It’s simply the totality of difference or a body of the whole multiplicity of all difference.

    Which brings us to patterns. What’s easier to communicate? Field theory or patterns? Consider your example of the jelly over a garden. I get it but would it be easier to talk about patterns? We already have a language of patterns. If you have a black line and a white line how do you make a whole? A field of lines that is more than random? Are there parts? Perhaps there are motifs, refrains, themes but the pattern is always the whole of differences, the field of differences, the map of immanance, the positive force of good shape and the affordances and possibly of the Void.

    Anyway here’s some annoying rambles for you to wake up to. Good night from the other side of the world.

    1. Awesome ramblings Aaron and I will check out Mollison’s 1992 thing for sure!

      I take your points re patterns especially given that field theory is completely undeveloped in this field (well, maybe I’ll take that back after listening to Bill) though I find that “pattern” very quickly becomes a synonym for “system” again, as much in Mollison’s writing as anywhere.

      Hey can I put your comment on the site as a comment on the ep please?

      1. Sure. Feel free to post it. I’d do it myself but I’m a little overwhelmed with farm things.

        Here’s a link to that lecture. I find, aside from an off joke that didn’t age well, it’s really Mollison at his finest:

        Did you ever get into Deleuze in your philosophy days? I find he’s built this incredible toolkit for ontological thinking, especially for getting out of the machinic ontology. They (as Deleuze and Guattari) famously use the image of desiring machines but these are coupled with the flows of pure immanance from the body without organs.

        A final thought on machines. If we take Donella Meadows definition of systems being purposeful then the bicycle itself is not a system. It has certain affordances but to have purpose it needs a rider. In a sense a desiring agent makes a system. At a minimum we would need something that entails itself, the way a river is self entailing (and a bicycle is not). Maybe that’s why D&G are talking about desiring machines? A bicycle and rider and pavement is like their image of the nomad which they call an agencement (usually translated as assemblage but I think this is incorrect because the agent is lost). In the bicycle and rider is, historically, the becoming of pavement and paved roads. Cyclists were the first to advocate for paved roads which then ironically becomes the affordance for modern car culture. The point is that the authors drew the boundary around the system in the wrong place. The bicycle as a system is not the machine. It’s the agencement of bicycle, rider, and the becoming of roads. It’s the set of connections that becomes self entailing.

        1. I sniffed around into little Deleuze and Guattari in my day. Wild ride! I remember appreciating the critique of arboreal metaphors in favour of the rhizome (actually Alexander’s essay A City is not a Tree overlaps at least somewhat in my recollection and the overall dissolving of the subject-object dualism). Wasps-becoming-orchids-becoming-wasps and all that. I hadn’t picked up on the notion of agencement which rings better that assemblage to me.

          I’m reading The Spell of the Sensuous at the moment and enjoying his coverage of Merleau-Ponty which I think of in reading about flows of pure immanence etc. Also Henri Bortoft has much of relevance to offer. The sensuous pre-conceptual experience of undivided flowing wholeness and all that. And distinguishing-relating as something we do prior to analysis and synthesis (which is where the whole idea of connected elements comes in).

          Finally your last paragraph resonates hugely with Gregory Bateson’s famous line about the blind man with the stick:

          “Consider a blind man with a stick. Where does the blind man’s self begin? At the tip of the stick? At the handle of the stick? Or at some point halfway up the stick? These questions are nonsense, because the stick is a pathway along which differences are transmitted under transformation, so that to draw a delimiting line across this pathway is to cut off a part of the systemic circuit which determines the blind man’s locomotion.”

  6. Greetings Dan,

    I have been listening to your podcast with great interest over the last several months whilst taking part in Geoff Lawton’s online PDC. (Although I have been exploring permaculture for many years) I am also a supporter of and very excited about the reading Landscape film, congratulations on making the goal. I was prompted to send this note when I heard the most recent podcast you released regarding a conversation with your core group about systems thinking and more. In that podcast you encouraged your listeners to hit pause and answer the question(s) themselves prior to continuing to passively listen which led me to engage with the conversation more actively and I thought there may be a value in sharing a perspective.

    I agree with you that when you prod systems thinking, it quickly dissolves back to parts, and I believe this is because it evolved from parts thinking (or mechanistic thinking) in the first place. However generative or regenerative thinking is totally different (until the word gets co-opted). I come at permaculture from the perspective of a cultural and spiritual root which is Kongo-Taino out of the Caribbean. When we look at something (be it a person, place, river, mountain, event), the first thing we acknowledge is that it is “Un Misterios” (effectively a spirit) and we know that we cannot possibly understand it fully and if we pull it into its parts, the essence of it (the spirit) will disappear on us. The mode of approach is one of listening and sensing and letting it tell us about itself, knowing that this process could be indefinite. Over time that place (or person, animal, what have you) slowly reveals different aspects or understandings of itself to us, if we continue to pay attention (or “follow the trail”).

    For sake of illustration, let’s say we are talking about a particular land, it could be a “property” a landowner has purchased. Your typical permaculture designer is going to go in and analyze it for water, access, structures and the various desires the landowner expresses interest in. This is a big improvement on blindly going in a throwing structures and access wherever. However, the land itself has its own spirit, as does everyone who lives on it. I really do not see that permaculture as taught even tries to understand this. The reason is simple, it cannot be measured, easily seen, or “proven”. This is where Indigenous or Re-indigenized culture clashes with Permaculture. I understand that people want to shy away from terms that cannot fully be defined such as “spirit” (or even essence). However geometry is built upon three undefined terms- a point, line and plane.

    I do understand why permaculture teachers do not want to get into these waters, (there would be a big backlash and accusations of pseudoscience). Yet, permaculture wants to cosy up with Indigenous cultures (and it should do this to reach its potential). However, if you do want to cosy up with Indigenous cultures, then you have to be ready to see life as infinite worlds within worlds, each one essentially Un Misterios.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Laura thank you so much for your beautiful comment – everything you share resonates with and inspires me deeply. Isn’t it such a muddle how we find ourselves trying to force the deep beautiful mysterious and sacred essence-spirit of a place into our puny little mechanical containers and how in doing so we cut ourselves off from perhaps the most deeply nourishing and soul-warming energies there are to access as a human being (namely relaxing back into the larger pattern of life).

      Un Misterios. Love it.

      Warmly, do stay in touch, and thank you again for reaching out and for supporting the Reading Landscape film!

  7. What a very stimulating conversation. So pleased to be able to be a fly on the wall for this. Thanks all for sharing this out.

    I’d love to comment on all sorts of stuff in there (and share my play-along at home with Dan’s question prompts), however I’ll limit my commenting in this go by sharing that when the conversation moved into discussion about “field-thinking” it reminded me of a book I had read by Peter S. Stevens called “Patterns in Nature” where he came back several times in the book around the idea that what is common to all patterns and their manifestations is not the ‘stuff’ itself, but the space between (more specifically the energy that flows/ebbs/eddies/creates turbulence, vortices, etc. that shapes them).

    From the chapter entitled ALL THINGS FLOW in the section called The Turbulence of the Universe, Stevens begins.. “It is no coincidence that the milk poured into a wet sink imitates the design of galaxies.. ”

    Soon after in the section called Stress and Flow.. Stevens quotes physicist Richard Feynman, who had posited:
    “[.. could it be that] the thing that is common to all phenomena is the ‘space’.. the framework into which the physics is put? .. What is common to all our problems [in the study of ‘physics’] is that they involve space.”

    When I had read this years ago, I never forgot how profound that idea was.. can’t say I comprehended fully or knew what to do with it (and it was framed as a question after all), but so intriguing!

    On another note:
    The conversation about “systems” that commenced this recorded session conversation reminded me of this great quote:

    “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” ~Carl Sagan

    I’d love to comment more about how I can also see that a ‘zoo’ is an ecosystem (of a different but no less relevant sort) and how a bicycle is actually alive (if looked at differently.. and isn’t really much of bike until it is ridden by a living breathing creature!).. but will leave those thoughts for another round.

    All the best to the MPS inquiry community.. really enjoyable to hear what you are up to!

    1. Thanks so much Adrian – that apple pie quote is a gem and I’m glad to learn of Stevens work. Now I must implore you not to hold back on another round! – I for one really want to hear your thoughts about riding a bike through a zoo!

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