As a discipline that tries to create sustainable systems, permaculture is wonderfully diverse. You don’t just develop expertise as a gardener or as a farmer, but you also work with ideas from water, waste, from energy systems and architecture. You engage in the spectrum of human knowledge, and this is intensely rewarding. It is how we come to develop holistic systems that are sustainable.
This diversity can also be daunting. How can any one person possibly understand all there is to know in all of the fields of knowledge that are relevant? And is this not essential if one is to be a good designer? To be a true systems integrator must surely require an intimate knowledge of all of the parts.
Well, in a word, no. In this video, Geoff talks about how Bill Mollison would approach the problem of expertise. That a good permaculture designer doesn’t need to have the depth of expertise of a botanist or an architect. You don’t need to be able to drive a bulldozer or build a house or even put up a fence. They are all important to permaculture, but are fields of expertise that are rightly left to experts.
What a permaculture designer needs to do, however, is understand the essence of each discipline. What Bill would refer to as the undeniable truth at the core of a subject which makes it work. So you don’t need to be able to build a dam, but you do need to understand the principles that go into earthworks. You don’t need to understand all of the aspects of designing and building a house, but you do need to understand the core principles of architecture. You don’t need to understand all of the detail of plant biology, but you do need to understand the principles underpinning botany
For the key role of a permaculture designer is to connect disciplines together. Permaculture is one of the great integrators of knowledge. The stuff that permaculture designs with is the relationships, the connections between each of the specialised disciplines. It about understanding what a discipline is, at core, and then knowing how to join that truth with the truth from another discipline.
You don’t need to know the specifics of hydraulics to understand how to incorporate water into your design. You may well need somebody with specific expertise to get the details right, but the designer’s role is to understand the generalities. The expert gets the details right. The designer makes sure the expert is working on the right details.
Knowing this changes your thinking entirely. You don’t want to know everything there is to know about geology or energy systems. There is no time for this and you end up losing the general understanding as you hone in on the specifics. Instead, you need to learn the core insight from many disciplines, spending time forming the relationships between bodies of knowledge. It’s a matter of stepping up and back from the fine grained knowledge, and seeing how disciplines connect into each other, how insight can flow between the disciplines.
The real skill as a designer is to know how to form these connections. To make great sustainable assemblies that interlock and support each other. To form systems, to be a generalist, to create something that can be sustained in a natural world that is always and everywhere integrated. To see how every field fits in to create something that is truly sustainable. To understand the relationships between disciplines.
We design in the space where knowledge connects.
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