Permaculture and Managing Holistically

I’ve been wanting to write and post this article for some time but have been hiding behind the excuse that I just don’t have the time. I suspect though, that it has been because what I want to talk about is probably a contentious issue for some and I’m generally a placid soul who doesn’t like to ruffle feathers.

Why then write now, some will ask? Well I love teaching and more particularly, I love teaching PDCs. When someone turns up at a PDC they are there because they realize that there is a bigger picture at play in the world and they want to be part of it. They are ripe for change and if you do your job right, you can literally alter their lives. What school teacher could hope to have such an incredible dynamic going on in the classroom where everyone is buzzing with excitement for their newfound knowledge? It’s heady stuff but it also means there is a huge responsibility to do the best possible job you can.

Anyway, I’m always looking for ways that I can improve or better integrate the information in a PDC so that students can get some leverage on the Permaculture design process and really make it work for them. I, like most other PDC teachers, I’m sure, am always considering different exercises to better illustrate points, or on the hunt for the latest information to bring into the teaching room.

Over the last year or so, there has been much discussion between the practitioners of Permaculture and those that manage holistically, with both sides talking past each other and failing to even recognize that they are making fundamental errors in defining what the other actually is. A comprehensive look at what Permaculture and Holistic Management are and are not, is a subject for another time — what I want to discuss now is that each side, in pointing out their differences, has failed to consider the similarities, synergies and complementary nature of Permaculture and Holistic Management.

Leaving aside all other considerations, at its core Permaculture is a design process whereby we use ethics, principles, patterns, strategies and techniques to achieve certain design goals.

Holistic Management is also a process, but in this case, it is a decision making process whereby we use a very similar set of ethics, principles, patterns, strategies and techniques to help us make complex management decisions while addressing environmental, social and economic outcomes.

It’s about now, someone usually insists Permaculture is about growing food and someone else insists Holistic Management is about grazing cattle. While it’s true these are common techniques of the respective processes, they do not define those processes and we do ourselves a disservice if we insist on limiting our view simply to strategies and techniques.

Regardless, we need to step back for a moment and consider that here we have a process for design and a process for management that are in no way contradictory. In fact PC and HM offer very valuable insights and perspectives into each other. Just as it’s a permaculture principle to value edge as often the most fertile and productive areas between two ecotones, so we should value the fertile edge between these two processes and embrace that which comes from it.

There has always been somewhat of an unspoken assumption in some circles that Permaculture doesn’t work. Now whether or not this criticism is valid and I fully believe it isn’t, it can be argued that for every functioning project there seems to be at least as many dysfunctional ones.

I’m sure this will bring howls of outrage from some, but bear with me — I am not criticising the Permaculture process, I am merely pointing out that there are quite a few examples where for one reason or another, the act of turning the process into reality fails or is poorly carried out.

The reasons for this are many and varied and directly correlate with the many and varied people practicing permaculture. More than a few will assert that this is mainly through lack of practical experience or knowledge and I won’t disagree, however, I also believe that lack of experience and specific knowledge aren’t necessarily impediments to good design. Experience and knowledge can be gained — we all start from zero at some point. The important thing is to recognise this.

I believe the problem lies with the fact that we all have different strengths and weaknesses and various biases and blind spots and that it is these factors that ultimately influence how we make decisions. It’s these biases and blind spots that give us definition and make us who we are, so I’m not arguing against these things but simply stressing that we need to be well aware of them when we make decisions that have potentially large consequences. It’s also why I think that those people who have designed and managed highly functional permaculture systems would very likely do well regardless, as they tend to be good observers and as we should all recognize a good observer tries to neutralize all cognitive biases and prejudgment so that they have the greatest pallet of possibilities to work with. David Holmgren always emphasises the trap of starting to design before we have simply observed, free of any value judgments. Another trait of a good designer is the joy and fascination in the learning opportunity of a good mistake. While most of us downplay our mistakes, a good PC designer relishes them as true learning.

Now, if you are struggling somewhat with the concept of your making poor decisions, then it is highly likely you’re right in the middle of a cognitive bias. We tend to be blind to our own faults but find it much easier to see those faults in others. Those that find this hard to agree with, I simply direct to any search of Cognitive Bias on the internet which will bring up a huge number of biases that have been consistently and replicably shown to exist in humans. There are probably a large number of readers now vehemently denying this, but I would like to throw the challenge out there, that true intellectual honesty comes not from just questioning others, but yourself also.

Holistic context

This is where Holistic Management can be of great benefit. As stated earlier, to a large degree HM is a decision making process. However, before we start making decisions, we have to work out what we are making decisions about and what those decisions are for. Without this, we are like a ship without a compass. Very, very briefly, a HM practitioner first creates a holistic context — previously, this was referred to as a holistic goal but context is a much more apt description. As my trainer, Brian Wehlburg of Inside Outside Management, puts it “Think of context as the umbrella under which want to operate”. Ultimately creating a holistic context is a clarifying and empowering process that helps us articulate our heart’s true desires and it is this that is the engine that drives the whole process.

Define the whole

So the first step in creating our context is to define the whole under management. This is simply a recognition that nothing works in isolation and that everything is connected and cannot be truly understood as individual components, but rather only in how they operate within a functioning system. Interestingly, the systems thinking which undergirds Permaculture was itself derived from holism.

So in defining our whole under management we look at the system we want to manage. It might be a business, a farm, a government department, a town or your life and your family’s life.

The decision-makers

We then list our decision-makers. These are simply all the people who from day to day make decisions in the whole as defined, from the most mundane to the most far reaching. So for a business, it’s everyone from the CEO to the lady serving in the cafeteria. For your family it will be you, your partner and the kids. In this category, we also include anyone who has the power of veto or alter your decisions.

The resource base

Next, we list all the physical resources that are available to us to help us achieve our context. Though we don’t yet have the context formed, we should have a good idea of the resources we have available to us. So it may be a car, machinery, land, a house or in fact any physical thing we have access to or use of. This implies also that we don’t even have to own whatever it is but merely have the use of it, so it can also include things like other people, the internet, libraries etc. Be creative here because the more you list the more potential resources you have to help you achieve your context.


You may have been tempted to list money in your resource base but we tend to list money separately. Again don’t limit yourself to what you actually have but also potential sources of money. Here is where you put down savings, precious metals, stocks, bonds, etc., but also money that can be obtained from bank loans, grant money, social security and even money that can be generated by things in your resource base.

Statement of purpose

Depending on the whole you are managing, you can have a statement of purpose. This is a preface to setting your holistic context and serves to focus you on what you are actually trying to achieve. It should be only a sentence or two. You could almost call it your mission statement.

Quality of life statement

Here we are attempting to express what we really want out of life — what excites us and motivates us. This statement has to reflect the desires and aspirations of all the decision-makers as listed earlier. If your holistic context is the engine that drives the process then your QoL is the fuel. It’s what gets you up in the morning, eager to move yourself closer to your context. Here it’s important to drill down to the root of what motivates us, so instead of saying things like "I want lots of money", we would ask why do we want lots of money? We very often find that words like security, prosperity or stability pop up, so it’s really important to get right down to it. We also find that what most people really want, tends to be universal, regardless of race, gender or creed.

Areas to consider are:

  • Economic well-being
  • Relationships
  • Challenge and growth
  • Purpose and contribution

We all want freedom from financial woes, we all want to love and be loved. We also know with challenge comes growth and we all seek purpose and the possibility to contribute and have meaning in our lives. So approaching writing your QoL statement by using the above categories can be very helpful.

You want to be using short simple phrases — it doesn’t have to be long and beautifully written sentences, and indeed these can block the process somewhat. Try to express these things using emotions and try to express them as you want them to be, not how they are now. An example might be “I have loving relationships with my family”, “I feel secure and prosperous”, “I am well respected” “I enjoy challenge and the growth that comes from it”, “I am happy and healthy”. Don’t get too specific, it should be about how you want to feel, not how you are going to achieve it. That part comes next.

Forms of production

This is where we look at the various parts of our Quality of Life statement and match it with a means of producing the listed desirable outcomes. Again we don’t want to be too specific but we want to address those things that will either block or assist us in achieving our quality of life. Remember we are talking holism here, so there is always going to be some overlap with with some forms of production addressing multiple areas of our quality of life statements. For instance, the form of production for "loving relationships" might be more open communication or better time management or work/life balance, which might also be forms of production for “being respected by and involved in my community”. Although if I had put down “More time” instead of “Better time management” then I wouldn’t have been addressing the real issue as we all have the same amount of time — some just manage it better than others. The forms of production for “feel secure and prosperous” might be “sound financial planning” or “Community involvement”, remembering that to prosper doesn’t necessarily mean to profit.

Future resource base

The final step in setting your Context is to describe your future resource base. Here, you describe how your resource base has to be to support the forms of production that in turn will give you the quality of life you desire. Again, use the present tense as though you have already achieved what you are describing. Describe the people around you, your land, the infrastructure, the ecosystem health, your community. Terms like “supportive community”, “rich black soil”, “high biodiversity” are what you’re looking for. Describing and imagining things thus is incredibly motivating.

So, that in a nutshell, is the Holistic Context forming process. As I’m sure you can appreciate, this is just barely skimming what is at times a challenging but ultimately incredibly empowering process. To imagine and then describe those things that we most desire and in terms that imply that we have them, is truly uplifting.

Testing decisions

To run through the whole HM process is simply beyond the scope of this article but I would like to quickly highlight the fact that once we have our context, which greatly clarifies what we truly want in life, we can start to test decisions to see whether they align or are in conflict with our context. As discussed earlier, we all have numerous cognitive biases and that’s okay as it makes us who we are. However, having poured our hearts into describing what we want out of life, we don’t want to sabotage ourselves by making decisions that seem right but are distorted by those various biases. To do this testing, we have a series of questions which we run our potential decision through. Using this process we can then make complex decisions while always taking into account and balancing social, economic and environmental imperatives. In case there are those inclined to see this as being all Spock-like and hyper-logical, relax, there is even a question that basically asks us “how do you feel about this decision?” Ultimately it’s to achieve our hearts desire, so surely a little structured thought isn’t a bad thing. What this process does is allow us to see past the clutter of complexity and personal biases and make long term decisions that continually move us towards our context.

Finally having made a decision: we implement it and assume it’s wrong. That’s right — assume it’s wrong! When dealing with complex systems, especially natural ones, we have to assume we got it wrong. This stops us falling into the trap (bias) of looking for evidence supporting our decision when often the quickest way to the truth of something is to look for evidence that we are off track. It is far better to make small early corrections to our course than to assume we are heading in the right direction, only to find much later that we are far from our goal and have to cover a lot of extra ground to get there.

Now the best way to do this is to work out what would be some early indicators of problems and monitor for them consistently and regularly. If we are starting to drift we then implement controls and continue to monitor. Then if we find we are still not getting the results we want, we can re-plan and continue to monitor. The take-home from this is the minute you have a plan it’s useless unless you are constantly monitoring, controlling and replanning. In managing holistically, ‘plan’ is a 24 letter word. Plan, Monitor, Control, Re-plan.

Now as I’ve stressed already, this is skimming over a lot of ground quickly, and just like a few thousand words does not a PDC course make, neither does a short article highlighting a small part of the HM process make one a Holistic Manager. There is much more to the process than meets the eye and I certainly encourage interested people, particularly permaculturists to get themselves on a HM training course or a PDC that incorporates it.

So far I have written quite heavily from the perspective of what HM can do for permaculture due to the fact that most of the audience reading this will be reasonably well acquainted with permaculture. Having said that, there is a lot that permaculture can offer HM, particularly in the area of understanding and using ecological principles to design supportive ecosystems.

While HM does in fact talk about various ecological principles and has some great tools for insight, like the Four Ecosystem Processes Model (a topic for another time) it is not as wide-ranging or as comprehensive in this area but instead directs us to go looking for those answers using our ingenuity. I have written about this before but one of Permaculture’s great strengths and often one of its great weaknesses (especially when trying to describe it to someone in a nice concise sound bite) is that it’s not so much about specific information as it is about how to arrange and use that information. So if new information comes to light or old information is found to be incorrect, we can delete the old and plug in the new, but the organizing framework remains. So for a permaculturist, HM is just new information to plug into and for a holistic manager Permaculture is human ingenuity distilled.

I often feel when discussing HM with Permaculturists and Permaculture with HM practitioners that there is altogether too much interest in the idea that one system is subordinate to the other in terms of relevance and that it is somehow important that one is the bigger idea. While certainly a large part of this has to do with prior personal investment in either idea, I believe that it is very much a human tendency to try and categorise or rank things. Me, I’m just grateful that I have more information to work with, fresh perspectives and a strengthening through integration of two vitally important bodies of knowledge.


What: Permaculture Design Course
7–20 September, 2014
Eternity Springs, 483 Tuntable Creek Rd, The Channon, NSW, Australia
Who: Taught by Tim Barker and Byron Joel

From 7–20 September, 2014, I will be teaching a PDC at Eternity Springs which will fully integrate Holistic Management practice into the curriculum. All the subjects required for the Internationally recognised 72 hour PDC will be covered but with the added benefit of holistic management practice to better equip participants to achieve their holistic context. Co-teaching, particularly with regard to designing and implementing Food Forestry Systems will be Byron Joel of Oak Tree Designs. Further, there will be an additional three days included in the course where we will get down and dirty with a number of appropriate technology projects (my other passion). Expect to come away knowing how to build rocket stoves, biochar burners, solar dryers, solar ovens and ram pumps, to name just a few.

This from Amanda, your host at Eternity springs.

The price for the PDC is $1400, which includes teaching, food and a tent site or mattress space in Follywood, and the extra 3-day appropriate technology workshop.

Prices will be extra for any accommodation option other than camping for this PDC.

If any of you reading this have been waiting for not just teachers with huge amounts of practical knowledge to pass on, but also a site host with a range of accommodation options from luxury (Lotus cabin) to relaxed (Gabi rose room or a shared Cubby cabin) Then click here. The teaching room (Inner Space) is a pentagon lined with books and set up with a video projector to show movies and share more information on the big screen after dinner. Heaven and the Outer Space are also available for group project work. (Internet is available but mobile coverage is scanty.) The communal back verandah of the main house is congenial to good food and good conversation. Food will be wholesome, tasty, produced on farm and organic where possible. Please let us know if you have a special dietary need.


  1. Hi Tim, what a lovely surprise to see your article after meeting you at HM in Clunes. I am only sorry I wasn’t able to finish the course due to substandard time management on my part:) However, I would like to totally support your view that both systems have great synergy and in fact, each extends the other beautifully. I hope you have a lot of interest in your course as it will provide an incredible base for your students to move forward We live in times where we need integrated yet expansive thinking. These two systems will certainly encourage it. Blessings to you and your work.

  2. Isn’t it funny the way humans so easily look for differences instead of what we have in common! People argue with each other without really understanding what each other really says or actually _listening_! Human nature I guess.

    I particularly like the approach you’ve described of assuming you got it wrong. That has so much going for it and I can see how it fits in with the whole continual improvement cycle. Thanks for sharing, even though I know I’ve only absorbed a small fraction of it in my first reading.

  3. Well thought out and presented. I agree with this perspective. HM and PC are distinct decision making processes that can be used together, or separately.

    I find that they are complimentary. The same goes with many other design, thought, and decision making processes (or ideologies).

  4. …accidentally sent before finished with comment… meant to say, participants really appreciated the additional design tools and perspective offered by including some Holistic Management approaches within the PDC, while still covering the full designer’s manual curriculum. As both a certified educator for Holistic Management and a PRI registered teacher who has been integrating these both in teaching and in all of my consulting work since ’07 am very happy to see the continued synergies and mutual co-adoption happening between these frameworks and communities of practice! Let’s keep it growing together!

  5. sorry, looks like the first portion didn’t go… that began just by saying that it is great to see this kind of integration happening in more and more places… have been teaching many aspects of the Holistic Management framework within PDCs since 2009 and find these frameworks integrate quite seamlessly. In fact am in the midst of giving a PDC right now at PRI Tipuana farm where we are incorporating a significant amount of Holistic Management and even the design exercise incorporates the Holistic Context as a starting point…

  6. Hi Carol Thanks for that. You make sure you get back some time and finish your HM. Martin thanks for the link i could have saved myself the the work and just posted the other article as it pretty much says the same thing. Still its good to see the common themes as reassuring that i’m on the right track. Hi Fred i will check Loomio out , i’m always up for learning something new. Hi Owen great to hear you are integrating HM into you PDC. Yes at a recent PDC i taught at PRI New Zealand ( The Koanga Institute) we went through the holistic context forming exercise. A great way to give some muscles to your motivation ! Would love to swap some ideas and perhaps start a dialogue with other like minded souls. I know at least two other PDC teachers who are gung ho for including HM. Can’t wait to get cracking on my next PDC at Eternity springs. Thanks to all for the kind words.Teaching this stuff is just such a great buzz and an incredible privilege .

  7. Sounds like a great course you’ve got lined up there, Tim! Loved the article and the HM refresher. Defining my personal Holistic Context (while traveling India in a time of deep inner reflection) was a profound and enlightening (if not challenging) experience. Working with that goal brought me to a very fortunate place where I am now managing a 150 ranch (soon to be education center) in East Texas. I haven’t worked up the Holistic Context for the project yet but this article has totally inspired me. Thanks mate!

  8. Nail on the head Tim. Most of the critical and not so critical problems I see at permaculture sites would likely dissolve if they started to use the ever so empowering umbrella that is Holistic Management.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Back to top button