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Minimum Intervention

How Close to Do Nothing Can You Get?

One of the most attractive principles in Permaculture is minimum intervention. The idea that you can be more productive by doing less has many attractions. If we can get higher yields by working less, we also consume less energy and produce less waste.

Our first child was born in London in 1988 and Nancy and I attended ante-natal classes run by the National Childbirth Trust and taught by hospital midwives. Mother after mother left the group at term, vowing to have minimal medical intervention, and came back with gurgling infant a couple of weeks later to report back to the group. An alarming number had had interventions that they vowed to avoid beforehand up to and including Caesarian section.

The midwives have a term for it: ‘The Spiral of Intervention’. Expectant mothers in labour arrive at the hospital for delivery of the baby, and the first thing that happens is they are asked to lie down and a foetal monitor is wheeled to the bedside and plugged in. This is a medical intervention to check that the foetus is not distressed and that things are going as they should, Mother and Baby fit for the challenge ahead.

Two things happen: the act of lying down takes away downward pressure and the rate of contractions slows. Secondly, hat any one time half the monitors aren’t working properly. Result: distress. Clinicians get nervous if the delay is too great and in far more cases than necessary injections are administered to induce birth. The next intervention that happens is the end of the doctor’s shift and we get even more nervous. Hence far more deliveries are made by Caesarian section than should be necessary if the woman is allowed to go through labour naturally.

Personally, I’m very glad these medical services exist for when they are needed, but it’s a classic example of how intervention can be unhelpful. The rate of Caesarian births in the US is up to 80%- my guess is that Doctor’s medical insurance is deemed more important than the needs of Mother and Child far too often.

Forgive the graphic example but for us it was a timely reminder that we can all make choices with the opposite effect (we elected for home births for both our children). These choices might be about how we heat and cool our homes, how we grow our food, how we conduct meetings, where we work and at what.

The first option is always to do nothing. As we go up the scale we make the smallest changes we can to achieve the output we are looking for. If we lose 20% of our crop to predators we can plant 20% more. If that doesn’t work, the least harmful interventions are biological. Many predator situations can simply be solved by using greater diversity- creating habitat which attracts useful life which predates on the predators, such as song birds eating aphids. Next up there are mechanical (physical) interventions- such as tilling the soil, which may have positive effects, but also has negative effects if done too much / too often. Only as a last resort should we reach for the napalm… Chemical interventions have consequences which are the hardest to control. There are still penguins walking around in Antartica with DDT in their body fat.

So next time you reach for the spray can in the garden, or the 12 furrow plough on the John Deere tractor, or ship building materials from over the sea, just think if there isn’t a lower intervention way of getting from the position you’re into where you want to be. Over time it becomes an art form.

Graham is teaching a Permaculture Design Course at the Permaculture Research Institute Australia from October 17 – 28 2016.

Come and learn from this dynamic and always engaging teacher with a lifetime of experience. Visit the course listing page here for more details and to book.


Graham Bell

I live and work in the Scottish Borders. My wife Nancy and I have created a Forest Garden which is approaching its twenty-fifth anniversary and provides a great deal of food, fuel and company (wildlife). Our children Ruby and Sandy (now in their twenties) have also been great contributors to developing our house and garden as an energy efficient home place. I have written two books on Permaculture, the Permaculture Way and the Permaculture Garden which thousands of people have enjoyed as easy introductions to what Permaculture means in a Northern temperate climate and the society that goes with it. I have taught Permaculture on four continents. After many years engaging with business and politicians in my work to get these essential principles understood and used by people who govern and direct the world's economies I have returned (2012)to teaching courses and restarted a North Hardy Plant Nursery specifically designed to support Forest Gardeners. We welcome invitations to teach elsewhere, and visitors here by arrangement. Full details can be found on my website.

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