I’ve found a wonderful flower; I discovered it not long ago. Still, it’s not so much what I know about it that touches me, I’m just drawn to its colors. This flower is unique, it thrives in every country and climate, and adapts very well to the specific conditions of culture and place. Its colors, smell and form is therefore of unlimited variety and complexity, yet it is the same flower. It is the permaculture flower.
Some people think the permaculture flower is a remnant of the hippie’s flower power movement, or that it has something to do with New Age – just another consumerism idea to be sold to the confused and rich people of the middle classes. Oh no, the ‘flower power’ of the permaculture flower has real power. It has the power to reunite humanity with the complex systems of nature, so they can live in symbiosis, enriching each other. Nothing else possesses this power.
The petals’ colours are given by the pattern languages they cover. These adapt to place and culture, giving the flower a local color. The seven petals together support all aspects of life. It is not just a flower of beauty, or with a pleasant smell. No, this flower can provide you with everything you need, for all aspects of life. Nothing else I know can do that.
In the core you find what are most valuable, the basic ethics and the guiding principles. The core is like the heart of the flower; every permaculture design has its origin here. The evolutionary spiral path is the sign of the permaculture flower – it’s visionary, integrated into its genes. It starts with ethics and design principles, and it starts with you at a local level. The path is then moving outward connecting all the fields of the society into integrated patterns and pattern languages, making the world a living whole. And this spiral is eternal, like evolution is.
Even though I’m not a permaculture designer I’ve put some consideration into these guiding principles. Before I learned about permaculture these thoughts were hidden from me, but when I see the world from a permaculture perspective it looks different. Very different. But keep in mind these are just some loose thoughts from me, a deeper understanding are to be found at David Holmgren’s home page.
Good design starts with observation and interaction with place and history. Here we see the difference between permaculture projects and other projects – the time and energy spent to observe and understand the patterns of time and place, before implementing any new design. This is why I set up a list of criteria that should be met before you invest your time or money in a project. For example, an aid project:
- The project is using time and energy in observing the patterns of place, nature, culture, community and history. This is done in cooperation with the native people they are intended to help.
- The project is paying a lot of respect to the patterns of place, nature, culture, community and history, being very careful not to disturb any of these patterns, and that any new systems of design will enrich and strengthen the existing patterns.
- The project leader should be skilled / experienced in decoding and implementing patterns.
Design from Patterns to Details
In a pattern language you start with the whole and put in the details as you go, if not the whole cannot evolve.
Every pattern has to be unfolded; a living process is by nature morphogenetic, using generative codes. A flower is made this way and nature works this way to avoid trillions of errors – errors that unavoidably occur if you try to force a design upon nature or a community.
If an embryo were shaped by fabrication, and not generated, the number of mistakes would be unbelievably large.
The human embryo is created by 50 doubling of cells. Starting with a single cell (the fertilized egg), after 50 doublings, the embryo has 250 cells. During this doubling process that occurs 50 times, each cell has the opportunity to adapt itself, and to remove possible mistakes by position, adaption, pushing and pulling. The total number of opportunities for correction, then, in the growing embryo, is (1+2+22+23+….250) = 251. Reversing the argument, we may express this by saying that the assembly of embryo cells, if not given a chance for adaption and instead made by design and fabrication, would typically have 251 mistakes – a truly enormous number, roughly 1015, or a thousand trillion mistakes. That is what would happen if an embryo were designed and built, not generated. If an embryo were built from a blueprint of a design, not generated by an adaptive process, there would inevitably be one thousand trillion mistakes. Because of its history as a generated structure, there are virtually none. – The Process of Creating Life, by Christopher Alexander, page 187-188
And the fundamental answer is, that there is a fundamental law about the creation of complexity, which is visible and obvious to everyone – yet this law is, to all intents and purposes, ignored in 99% of the daily fabrication process of society. The law states simply this: ALL the well-ordered complex systems we know in the world, all those anyway that we review as highly successful, are GENERATED structures, not fabricated structures.” – The Process of Creating Life, by Christopher Alexander, page 180
Always keep this in mind; a living structure cannot be fabricated, it has to be generated!
Integrate Rather than Segregate
The core of the pattern practice is to integrate rather than segregate. This means to use and value diversity, all in a meaningful relationship with each other. A completely integrated pattern language produces no waste, especially by not wasting human capital, which is the largest waste problem in our western societies. Our so called “modern societies” produce almost nothing but waste, and the more waste, the more “modern” according to most political and economical theory. Even recycling, which for the most part means downcycling, is mainly a waste of time and energy. See also.
A modern city like Brasilia is based on the completely opposite – segregate rather than integrate – which is the core of modernism. And this is a tragedy, because this is the opposite of an integrated life, and to live an integrated life is the meaning of life.
The world’s leading anti modernist, Christopher Alexander, has dedicated his life to creating an integrated world, which means a world that consists of a deep wholeness. Just take a look at pattern 9 in A Pattern Language.
The artificial separation of houses and work creates intolerable rifts in people’s inner lives.
Use zoning laws, neighborhood planning, tax incentives, and any other means available to scatter workplaces throughout the city. Prohibit large concentrations of work, without family life around them. Prohibit large concentrations of family life, without workplaces around them.
There is nothing I despise more than these monocultures of houses so common today; I hate them even more than lawns. To make the situation even worse are houses ordered in rows, like a plantation of houses, every house separated from one another, while in nature most things are ordered in clusters or guilds. Urban and rural design should have been based on house clusters.
People will not feel comfortable in their houses unless a group of houses forms a cluster, with the public land between them jointly owned by all the householders.
Arrange houses to form very rough but identifiable clusters of 8 to 12 households around some common land and paths. Arrange the clusters so that anyone can walk through them, without feeling like a trespasser.
Why can’t people understand that monocultures make life monotone?!?
The opposite of this madness is the ecovillage, but because of individualism (which today is identical with consumerism) and sectorialism (most visible in bureaucracy), people find it almost impossible to create something so nice today.
Still, my dream is someday to live in an ecovillage by Lake Mjøsa.
Using small and slow solutions is maybe the most neglected principle today. There is a lot of talk about renewable energy and green technology, but almost nothing about using small and slow solutions, which could have been the most important solution. I recently learned that the amount of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas consumed every year within the European Union equals 12000 times the annual hydro power production of Norway. Where in the world is the EU going to get 12000 Norway’s worth of renewable energy to replace this? Maybe we have to reintroduce the slave trade, because this abuse of fossil fuels equals roughly 1000 energy slaves for each one of us.
Our large and fast solutions are enormously resource hungry, and not just for energy. For example, the amount of macadam necessary for the EU infrastructure equals 10 – 15 tons for every person every year. With an average life span at ca 75 years this means 750 – 1125 tons per person. Try to crush 1000 tons of granite by using a sledge hammer, and you might get an idea about how dependent we are upon fossil fuels to sustain our lifestyle.
Quite a lot of this is taken from the Norwegian mountains. When they find a proper mountain close to the Sea they produce the macadam this way:
First they drill a vertical hole down to sea level, where they make a cave inside the mountain for the crushing mill. Then they start crushing the mountain from above in a large circle around the hole, into which they pour the bigger stones going to the crushing mill. The macadam is transported from here to a ship – one ship every week. The hollowing of the mountain is placed in such a way that it’s not visible from the sea, so not disturbing the mountain’s profile and the tourists view from a cruise ship.
I came to think that our “modern societies” are like these mountains, just an illusion.
Much of this macadam is mixed with asphalt, and this way the people of Europe drive on the top of the Norwegian mountains every day, not even giving it a thought.
But macadam is also used as a bed for pipelines all over the continent, for transporting water and sewage in huge systems. Here where I live they catch the water from ca 200 meters below the surface of Lake Mjøsa, from where they pump it to people living up to 400 meters above the lake. For some of these remote dwellings there is no pipeline for the sewer, so they pump it into trucks driving it down to the sewage cleaning plants from where the water is finally pumped back to Lake Mjøsa.
You maybe call this a sick pattern, but it’s not a pattern at all, because a pattern is something which is in a meaningful connection with something else.
Part of the solution is pattern 178, a compost toilet. This small and slow solution uses no energy at all, still producing both compost and negawatts. Small and slow solutions produce a lot of negawatts – saving megawatts – the easiest way to “produce” new energy. In some countries 30-40% of the energy consumed by society is invested into the delivery of potable water and the removal of sewage. Pumping fluids is extremely energy intensive.
In addition about half of the 15 million tons of phosphorus exploited each year ends up in the oceans. Much of this flushed down the toilet. The world’s known phosphorus reserves can only supply us for another 30 – 80 years.
Our “modern societies” are almost completely running off large and fast solutions. Small and slow is mostly laughed at, as if they were romantic little dreams with no connection to reality.
Small and slow solutions give people control back over their own lives, and in this way giving them back their dignity. Large and fast solutions are left in the hands of specialised ‘experts’ only, destroying the dignity and responsibility of ordinary people.
I cannot think about anything more packed with small and slow solutions than an earthship. It’s a completely integrated system, ready to meet the collapse of our large and fast solutions – a collapse that is getting closer every day.
The symbol of this principle is a snail, known for its slow speed and small house. More than ever it is time for going to the snail to become wise.
Use Edges and Value the Marginal
Here I’ll just say a little about the last part of this principle – to value the marginal. The word marginal has many meanings. I’ll concentrate on the meaning “not of central importance” for the beauty of the area. This according to pattern 104, site repair:
Buildings must always be built on those parts of the land which are in the worst condition, not the best.
On no account place buildings in the places which are most beautiful. In fact, do the opposite. Consider the site and its buildings as a single living eco-system. Leave those areas that are the most precious, beautiful, conformable, and healthy as they are, and build new structures in those parts of the site which are least pleasant now.
I hardly think anything has destroyed the beauty of our world more than the violence against this pattern. It’s horrible to see how the rich and privileged people have put their holiday residences and mansions at the most beautiful spots along the Oslo Fjord. And this way they destroy both the beauty of the fjord and the access for ordinary people to these places.
We, the permaculture people, are designated to heal our world. This is why we should pay a special attention to this pattern.
But still I’m just a permaculturist by heart, not by diploma, so please forgive me my limited understanding. I have just started my walk at the evolutionary spiral path of permaculture. How I wish I had been given this path by birth. And please, share the permaculture flower, so that the world can recover. Let us create a new kind of world, a world sustained by real flower power.
Thank you, Oyvind, for a wonderful article. I am printing it out for bed-time reading and thinking.
Also thanks for the link to Living Neighbourhoods. I’d not come across them before. More bed-time reading (think I’ll just give up on the sleep bit!) relevant to a ‘thesis’ I am writing. There’s a lot of serendipity about at the moment _ must be the pollen from your flower!
An exceptionally well-written piece. Thank you, Oyvind. So good in fact, I will send it to my friends and colleagues, far and wide.
Thanks Oyvind! The article interests us so much! And, we fully agree with the observation that
it’s seeing the world from a different perspective, the “permaculture perspective”.
Oyvind, why dont you take a course? its not the piece of paper that is important. you can do it here for free…integrate. love from chile.
Thank you for encouraging comments, very much appreciated!
“The existing water-based waste disposal economy is not viable. There are too many households, factories, and feedlots to simply try and wash waste away on our crowded planet. To do so is ecologically mindless and outdated—an approach that belongs to a time when there were far fewer people and far less economic activity.”
Read the article from Earth Policy Institute, Reducing Urban Water Use: https://www.permaculturenews.org/2010/11/04/reducing-urban-water-use/