Why Permaculture?

Science, Technology and Permaculture – How much do you really need to know?

“The further one goes, the less one knows.”
– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Permaculture has been around for over thirty years, and is finally beginning to reach mainstream audiences as a result of decades of advocacy work by the global Permaculture community. It has yet to gain mainstream scientific acceptance, and some may find this troubling, but what’s a greater concern is that anytime people make the effort to undertake permaculture projects and share their results, there’s often a small group of cynical people who question the results with such inane comments such as “where’s the science? …”. The problem is talk that is cheap, and many people don’t know the difference between science and technology, and where permaculture fits into the whole scheme of things!

Permaculture = solutions = ACTION!

From my observations, there are two types of people in life; there are talkers and there are doers. To take action requires intent, initiative, conviction and most importantly, effort. To sit back and talk takes little effort and a few thoughtless utterances of opinion, more often than not in criticism of the doers. This is the realm of the lazy intellectual, the armchair coach or general, or their more modern counterpart, the ‘keyboard warrior’. The difference is that doers contribute to the world, while the talkers just stand in the way.

Permaculture is about implementing solutions rather than whingeing from the sidelines. Every permaculture project promotes the movement and the discipline, and every person that does something to improve the planet makes a difference, no matter how small. Every effort does not need to be a scientifically controlled experiment that will end up in peer reviewed journals – why should it? What other activities other than academic research have these expectations placed upon them?

I recall a particular instance on this site, and not a unique occurrence, where a group reported increases in yields as a result of adding large quantities of beneficial soil microbes produced using aerated compost teas or similar methods to the soil. The so called ‘sceptics’ reared their heads, spouting their fundamentalist views with all the necessary buzzwords of their dogmatic worldview – unscientific, peer reviewed journals, controlled experiment and so on.

As a gardener, I know firsthand what all other gardeners know all too well, that through constant contact with Nature, you develop an intimate knowledge of it, and become acutely aware of any changes, even the subtlest ones. No gardeners are climate change denialists for a good reason, they’ve been observing the effects of climate on their plants for decades. To imply that a gardener is mistaken about noticing a change in a system they nurture and care for day in and day out is ignorant, insulting and something that can only come from the mouth of those who have no such experience and possibly no education in science.

I value science deeply, I’m a scientist by training with a double-major in the biomedical sciences, and to me science is an excellent tool for describing and explaining the nature of the physical world, but when people misuse it through ignorance and use it as a tool to create personal worldviews that act as substitute quasi-religions in order to judge others, to me that is a straight-out perversion of what science is all about.

There’s always bound to be some smart alec in Permaculture forums wearing the mantle of ‘exalted sceptic’ and purporting to be the ‘voice of science’, most often without any formal training in the sciences, berating others about the alleged lack of science, in Permaculture in general, or in the reported results of their work. It’s high time to address this phenomenon in a logical and reasoned analysis, scientifically if you will.

A lot of confusion arises from people misunderstand the difference between science and technology and how they relate to Permaculture.

Show me the science!

“Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science."  - Edwin Powell Hubble, The Nature of Science, 1954
“Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science.”
– Edwin Powell Hubble, The Nature of Science, 1954

Want to ‘see the science?’ Depends what you understand science to mean, right? First of all, let’s get some definitions out of the way so we’re all the same page in terms of meanings!

Science – The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. (Source: Oxford Dictionaries – Oxford University Press)

The term can also refer to the body of organized knowledge produced through scientific activity.

This type of science as defined above is more correctly termed Pure Science as it exists for the purpose of accurately describing and explaining the physical world to increase human knowledge and understanding.

Quite distinct in purpose from Pure Science is Applied Science, which is the application of scientific knowledge to human needs and to solve practical problems.

Permaculture itself is an applied science, and its definition describes the practical problems it seeks to solve. The definition I use on my own website is – Permaculture is a holistic design system that emulates systems that exist in Nature to create sustainable human settlements and food production systems which integrate harmoniously with the natural environment.

Permaculture has foundations in many sciences. As a quick illustrative example to mention a few, from the biological sciences it draws on the fields of ecology and botany, from the earth sciences it draws on the fields of environmental science, geography and hydrology. Then there are also the social sciences which it draws from but I won’t go into for the sake of brevity.

The ecological influences are quite prominent, ATTRA (The US National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service) defines Permaculture as “ecological engineering” or “cultivated ecology”.

The technology that defies definition

While science is about knowing, technology is concerned with doing.

There is a lot of confusion about technology, even the dictionary definitions don’t quite get it right, just look at the following example.

Technology – the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry: “advances in computer technology”, “recycling technologies” (Source: Oxford Dictionaries – Oxford University Press)

This sounds exactly like the definition of applied science (the application of scientific knowledge to human needs and to solve practical problems). Is technology applied science? Yes and no. A lot of modern technology may be the result of applying scientific knowledge, but not necessarily. All ancient technologies existed before the existence of modern scientific explanations, so it would be more accurate to describe technology not as a subset of science, but a field that overlaps with it.

Science, Technology and Permaculture

As we can see from the very existence of pre-scientific technologies, we can know how to do something and teach others to do so without understanding the detailed science behind it. We may not even need to understand the detailed science behind it, and doing so could be a pointless waste of time if your goal is to solve that problem right now, using a known workable solution!

The important point to understand here is this – We can know how to do something without knowing how it works exactly.

Technology without pointless science – an experiential exercise for readers

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a lot.”   - Alexander Pope
“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a lot.”
– Alexander Pope

Fire lighting is one of the oldest human technologies that pre-dates any science by millennia. Our ancestors knew none of the science, but the technology employed got us here today, and many people still practice the skills of ancient fire-lighting for outdoor and survival purposes.

To all those smug ‘show me the science’ types, do you personally understand the science, the detailed physics and chemistry of our most primitive pre-scientific technologies, fire (the combustion of wood)? Bet you don’t! Our ancestors didn’t and it didn’t stop them from getting on with their lives! A little humility goes a long way.

Since the ‘show me the science’ types are fond of playing games, let’s play science games…

Step one – Don’t read any further. Take out a pen and paper, and if you can, explain the science of fire, give it your best shot, write it down. Saying it’s the combustion of organic matter in oxygen doesn’t cut it either, that’s lame primary school science. Show me the science!

Step Two – Now read the explanation below based on the “How Fire Works” article from the HowStuffWorks website [1] to see how your notes compare:

Typically, fire comes from a chemical reaction between oxygen in the atmosphere and some sort of fuel which is heated to its ignition temperature. Here’s the sequence of events in a typical wood fire:

First the wood needs to be heated to a very high temperature, from sources such as a match, focused light, friction, lightning, something else that is already burning. When the wood reaches about 300 degrees Fahrenheit (150 degrees Celsius), the heat decomposes some of the cellulose material that makes up the wood.

Some of the decomposed material is released as volatile gases (smoke) which are compounds of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen. The rest of the material forms char (nearly pure carbon), and ash (the non-combustible minerals in the wood such as calcium, potassium, etc.)

The actual burning of wood happens in two separate reactions:

1. When the volatile gases reach a sufficiently high temperature (about 500 degrees F (260 degrees C) for wood), the compounds in the wood break apart at the molecular level, and the atoms recombine with the oxygen to form water, carbon dioxide and other products – basically, the wood burns.

2. The carbon in the char also acts as a fuel and combines with oxygen in a much slower reaction (which is why charcoal in a BBQ burns for a very long time).

The chemical process of combustion is exothermic, so a lot of energy is released in the form of heat, which in the case of burning wood, raises new unburned material to ignition temperature, which sustains the fire. This is unlike many other fuels which burn in one step, such as gasoline (petrol) for example, where heat vaporizes it and it all burns as a volatile gas.

As carbon atoms (as well as atoms of other elements) in the burning material heat up and rise, they emit light. This “heat produces light” phenomenon is called incandescence. This is what causes the visible flame. It’s the same principle in operation in the older style incandescent light bulbs with tungsten filaments.

The colour of the flame depends on which chemical elements are burning (a principle used to great effect in fireworks displays) and how hot the flame is. The variations in colour within in a flame are caused by uneven temperature, where typically, the hottest part of a flame, the base, glows blue, and the cooler parts at the top glow orange or yellow. In addition to emitting light, the rising carbon particles may be deposited on surrounding surfaces as soot.

The chemical reactions in fire are self-perpetuating. The heat of the flame itself keeps the fuel at the ignition temperature, so it continues to burn as long as there is fuel and oxygen around it. The flame heats any surrounding fuel so it releases gases as well. When the flame ignites the gases, the fire spreads.

The shape of the flames are determined by the Earth’s gravity – the hot gases in the flame are much hotter (and less dense) than the surrounding air, so they move upward toward lower pressure. This is why fire typically spreads upward, and why flames are “pointed” at the top. In an environment with low gravity (on-board the space shuttle for example), fire would form a sphere!

Now that we’ve covered that, as intellectually interesting or boring as you may have found it, ask yourself two questions and answer them honestly:

How much of that did you really know?

How much value is knowing any of that when it comes to lighting a real fire?

The point of this exercise was not to bore you to death with irrelevant science, it was to illustrate a point through first-hand experience – how much science is too much science?

Scientific reductionism – how low do you want to go to get the job done?

What many people don’t realise is that science is reductionist, each question raises a new one and the process almost never ends. You can keep drilling down almost indefinitely with scientific knowledge and you ultimately have to draw the line at the point where you have the necessary information to solve your problem.

The ignorant misunderstand science to be a binary thing, you either can explain something or you can’t. That’s the opinion of scientifically illiterate people who pretend to be the voice of science on forums. The truth is science is reductionist, it can explain things at many levels, as you saw in the example of burning wood.

We could have gone even further and deeper, that was by no means an exhaustive explanation of wood combustion. For instance, we could have drilled down deeper into the phenomenon of incandescence as a conversion of thermal energy into electromagnetic energy, because thermal radiation (such as the light from the fire) is the emission of electromagnetic waves that occurs in all matter that has a temperature greater than absolute zero. The explanations never really end.

The Daoists have a thing about keeping life simple for peace of mind, that’s not to promote ignorance, but to avoid cluttering the mind with “the ten thousand things” as they call it, an endless amount of irrelevant mental clutter.

For example, consider the question – how far away is the moon? For the majority of people on the planet for the majority of their lives, the answer “far away” is sufficient. Does knowing the following help in any way?

“The moon’s orbit around Earth is elliptical. At perigee — its closest approach — the moon comes as close as 225,623 miles (363,104 kilometers). At apogee — the farthest away it gets — the moon is 252,088 miles (405,696 km) from Earth. On average, the distance from Earth to the moon is about 238,855 miles (384,400 km). However, the moon is moving away from Earth at a rate of about 1.5 inches (4 cm) per year.” [2]

Okay, so you’re not travelling to the moon or sending a rocket there, but growing food. If you’re teaching starving African villagers to prune their fruit trees for increased productivity, (a horticulture technique) do you really need to teach them the details of the research oriented plant science (botany) about the plant hormone auxin and its role in maintaining apical dominance, or do you teach them enough so they understand what they’re doing? The answer should be obvious.

When science becomes something else

“I am compelled to fear that science will be used to promote the power of dominant groups rather than to make men happy. “  - Bertrand Russell, Icarus, or the Future of Science, 1925
“I am compelled to fear that science will be used to promote the power of dominant groups rather than to make men happy. “
– Bertrand Russell, Icarus, or the Future of Science, 1925

We’ve seen that technology has existed and does exist without scientific explanations. We’ve also looked at how scientific explanations only need to be sufficient for the purposes of developing and implementing solutions without creating unnecessary complexity (unless you’re a research scientist!)

So why do self-proclaimed ‘mouthpieces of science’ go around accusing people of not having enough science in Permaculture forums and other places, when it may if fact not be necessary? It often has nothing to do with sufficiently objective observations and explanations, but more to do with pushing unstated personal subjective world views in public forums.

Humans are complex creatures psychologically and their behaviour may be driven by hidden agendas. No news here! When it sounds like someone is proselytising science, I advise scratching a little deeper below the surface to find out what’s really there. Just because someone proclaims something to be science doesn’t make it so! When is science not science? When it becomes a worldview!

True science is a tool for investigating and understanding the material world, it is not a personal worldview any more than engineering can be. Many of those trying to shove what they term ‘science’ down other people’s throats by trying to prove themselves more ‘scientific’ than others and claiming that others have ‘insufficient science’ are playing a very deceitful game.

What they’re actually doing is promoting their misguided personal worldview where they believe their subjective opinion of the world is right because they believe it is based on science. In their mind this makes everyone else who disagrees with them wrong, supposedly because others are ignorant, stupid or liars.

As the bearers of ‘absolute objective truth’ they see it as their rightful duty to go around calling out or allegedly ‘debunking’ those who fall short of their perceived intellectual virtue The subjective worldview they never state outright that drives such behaviour is the philosophy of materialism, the belief that science is the only way of knowing reality because the material world is the only reality that exists. This is the central tenet of the belief system of scientism, which is different to real science. Real science is silent about matters beyond its scope of investigation.

I enjoy finding patterns in things, and it’s quite amusing to find parallels in behaviours of certain groups and those who they see as their opponents and whom they criticize for the very same behaviours! Oh, humans… Ironically, these scientism types have a problem with religious folk and their beliefs, yet they mirror the worst aspects of such groups. I’m all for people respecting others beliefs, this is Permaculture, sorry we don’t do ‘monocultures of the mind’ here! What I have no time for is people trying to force their worldviews on others by claiming it’s supposedly ‘science’, which it is nothing of the sort.

For some humour, let’s compare some ‘parallels’. A favourite activity of the congregation of the church of scientism is to run around decrying that things are ‘unscientific’, they see their role as to identify all forms of ‘heresy’ and complain loudly.

Scientism is just a substitute religion – it has its high priests, the fundamentalist atheist scientists who do a really bad job of dabbling in undergraduate level philosophy which is out of their field and in which they are out of their league. Their high priesthood write corny badly reasoned emotive and unscientific populist books, which scientists denounce as unacademic. These exalted ones actually claim to have answers to problems that have vexed philosophers from all camps since the Greeks invented philosophy itself, so much so that they even declare that philosophy is no longer needed because they have all the answers – that’s called omniscience, something attributed to divine beings in philosophy or religion, wow!

They also have their faith-based statements in miracles. You’ve all heard them before, but somehow they make these lofty declarations publicly without question – one day science will cure all diseases and solve world poverty, feed the hungry, etc. That’s usually the justification they use for GMOs too. Yeah, and one day a room full of monkeys typing randomly will produce the collected works of William Shakespeare too… No thinking person would see these claims as evidence-based!

Then there’s the holy writ, the peer-reviewed journal, if it’s not written there, it can’t be true (despite the fact that science operates on the basis of constantly revising what it accepted to be true, so what is understood to be a valid explanation today may be changed and revised tomorrow).

I’ve already mentioned the acts of hunting and accusing heretics. A pseudo-religion wouldn’t be complete without labelling the heretics who don’t believe the dogma dispensed by these exalted ones with their superior intellects.

Let’s not forget the original sin, the curse of the masses, the stupidity of non-believers which prevents them from recognizing and bowing down to the superior intellects of scientism’s high priesthood like they rightfully should.

Amongst the scientism crowd, their biggest objections to religion which they ironically strongly criticize and are extremely intolerant of, are not any of the things others might complain about. They don’t have a problem with the human hierarchies, structures of power and authority or obedient belief in dogma that many employ Their biggest issue is simply that they sincerely believe that they should be up there, as grand authorities, telling people what to believe unquestioningly, not the other guys, and everyone should revere them instead. So much for objectivity…

It is high hypocrisy to act out the very actions that one would accuse another of and deride another for. Often those complaining loudly about a lack of science are not scientifically trained individuals reasoning about a matter analytically, but rather the faithful flock of scientism zealots, fundamentalist thinkers emotively pushing their personal belief system in scientism down people’s throats under the guise of promoting science. That’s often what you’re really dealing with. It is the height of illogic and a failure in reasoning to assume unstated premises in arguments as being a priori correct, and arguing from there.

These zealot’s commitment to the integrity of true science is questionable though, despite their fundamentalist fervour about the primacy of science, they are all unusually very silent when corporate marketing departments start spouting junk science to sell products and pervert scientific research to hide the harm caused by their products to human health and the environment. It baffles the mind to reason why for them it’s more important to focus solely on inconsequential speculative matters such as cosmogenesis (the creation of the universe) rather than address any real issues in matters that affect the health and well-being of all living things on the planet!

I’m not telling people what to believe here, I’m just pointing out those that go around pretending be something they’re not, who are pushing their personal belief system under the pretence of promoting science, so people can recognise them for what they are when they encounter them and choose how to respond. All things are not necessarily what they appear to be. Like I said earlier, this is one element we need to be aware of which muddies the waters and causes confusion when people discuss matters of a scientific or technological nature. Enough of this aberrant human psychology, let’s take a holistic view on the topic and see what we find when we take a step back to observe the big picture.

A reality check

“The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.”  - Albert Einstein
“The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.”
– Albert Einstein

Those that know anything about science are clear about the fact that there’s a lot that we still don’t fully understand about one of the most complicated ecosystems, the soil. This doesn’t stop us or anyone else of from working with the soil – growing food, regenerating natural ecosystems or gardening for pleasure.

How would the pre-Columbian Indians have explained the “Terra Preta de Indio” (Amazonian Dark Earths) they created in the Brazilian Amazon region from 500 to 2500 years BC? Would it diminish the technology if they explained how it worked in spiritual or metaphoric terms as long as the method was repeatable and reproducible? Do Rudolph Steiner’s mystical explanations diminish the success of biodynamic farmers worldwide?

A common criticism raised is that many findings or results from non-scientists in non-laboratory conditions are at best circumstantial evidence – evidence that relies on an inference to connect it to a conclusion of fact. The other is the charge of anecdotal evidence – non-scientific casual observations or indications rather than rigorous or scientific analysis.

Seriously, common sense should prevail here. For example, we don’t need double-blind controlled trials with specific sample sizes to realise that companion planting works when we underplant our crops and we see the appearance of beneficial predatory insects and a corresponding reduction of pests. Science tells us which ecosystems beneficial predatory insects favour and about predator-pest ecology.

Observation of a cause-effect chain that results once the change is made is ample proof for anyone who has eyes to see and is looking for a natural pest control solution rather than publishing research papers. Logic would tell us that the system of natural pest control obviously already exists and works in Nature somehow, otherwise the pests would have eaten everything millions of years before humans appeared! Pragmatism anyone? People wanting to grow more food for their community in remote villages to fend off starvation or malnutrition in third wold countries wouldn’t care for fanciful explanations either if the solutions work.

The question to ask is how much details or explanations do we need to implement a working solution? Permaculture is an applied science, it is concerned with using technologies, explained or unexplained but proven to work by human experience (from different cultures all around the world), to solve specific problems in a sustainable way. The pure sciences have a different goal, they use academic research to further human knowledge and understanding. Why mix the two up?

Most so-called sceptics forget that scepticism works both ways, and should be applied in equal measure to their preferred subjective beliefs too! It would be equally viable and logically necessary to ask the scientific question – why would natural pest control not work if I’m recreating an ecosystem that attracts a specific species? A basic principle in logic is that ‘absence of proof is not proof of absence’! Electricity was just as real before humans were aware of it! Just because something hasn’t been discovered or explained doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or doesn’t work. Sometimes the most scientific thing to say is “I don’t know” but intellectual pride and vanity along with an inflated ego do much to prevent acts of honest humility in many people in modern western societies.

Complaining about needing ‘more science’ in respect to basic technologies that people use successfully, or methods that are based on fundamental scientific or ecological principles simply shows a lack of perspective and a view that is not congruent with how things work in real life.

Let’s have a look at a real-life example of a specific technology and how this erroneous line of thinking falls apart immediately in such a case. We’ve all seen the instructions for building a frog pond – recreate their habitat and the frogs will come (assuming you are near an existing frog population). In Australia it’s illegal to take tadpoles or frogs from their natural habitat and relocate them to a new home you’ve built them, so it’s done this way as a matter of practice, and it works.

By all rights, this practice should be subject to the same irrational complaints – “where’s the science?” as there aren’t any peer-reviewed journals on controlled experiments that I’m aware of that place random objects and structures outdoors to prove that frogs are attracted to something that resembles their ecological niche and not random objects. Yet we ‘know’ or accept that people prefer to inhabit houses rather than cardboard boxes and never question that.

It really is a matter of perspective. The question is simple. Are we publishing scientific journals or are we solving a problem? Are we practising a pure science or an applied science?

Permaculture, as an applied science, solves problems, that’s what applied sciences do!

In Conclusion

Science is a tool to explain why things happen so we can further human understanding or use that knowledge to develop better solutions. Technology can tell us how to solve problems, how to do something, with or without scientific explanations. We can know how to do something without knowing how it works exactly.

If the first humans who discovered fire and invented the technology to make it waited for explanations, they would have waited for 400,000 year or longer, in which time they would have probably frozen to death and become extinct.

It is said that the control of fire by early humans was a cultural turning point in human evolution. Fire gave humans the ability to change their environment and provided an engineering tool to create further technologies. Fire provided warmth, protection, the ability to cook food and extend human activity into the night. These advancements allowed humans to spread far and wide and to evolve culturally and technologically in ways they never could beforehand.

So, if we know how to do something that makes our lives more sustainable, leaves the planet in a better state than the one we found it and encourages people to reconnect with Nature, then why not use it? Why not teach others to do so too? We all know this is what happens in the real world, it’s what ‘s always happened, and will continue to. This is the modus operandi of humanity as a technological creature.

Silhouette of a woman in a sun hat, holding a hoe and pulling dandelion weeds from  a garden in the lawn.

Permaculture doesn’t believe in waiting around for governments, authorities or organisations to implement solutions, it’s all about going out there and making it happen ourselves. Look what happened with climate change entrusted to those in power, a true case of too little, too late. Despite the protestations of those who are talkers rather than doers, Permaculture will continue to draw solutions from all cultures and use them rather than wait around for explanations, if we did otherwise, civilization would surely end well before the explanations ever arrive.


1. Oregon State University, Department of Geosciences Volcano World article – “Obsidian Is Hot Stuff” by Jim Miller – https://volcano.oregonstate.edu/book/export/html/205

2. Space.com article “How Far is the Moon?” By Tim Sharp, June 21, 2013 – https://www.space.com/18145-how-far-is-the-moon.html


  1. An interesting article and analogy. I once made a comment on an anti religious fb post and I got all sort of armchair science experts stating that you cant be a scientist (Ive got a Bachelors degree in Chemistry) if you’re not an atheist…Ive always loved the saying ‘as the pool of knowledge grows, so does the circumference of ignorance’. People who know little strangely always claim to know it all.

    Ive always loved Permaculture for its scientific methods. Science doesn’t have to happen in the lab, its simply hypothesizing based on your current knowledge, formulating an experiment to test that hypothesis and then observing the results in an as unbiased way as possible. I think that happens all the time in Permaculture and has all over the world throughout history. I try to do this with many things I grow/do.

    Id love however to see more science in Permaculture. I think people get a bit compelled by the romantic notion that natural=better which it of course does not. A terraced landscape is by no means natural, nor is an artificial pond. They are manipulations of a system in order to create habitats suitable for what we want to achieve. Permaculture itself is a synthetic ecosystem, designed by humans from the knowledge they’ve gained from their environment. Personally i think if we did this on a global scale we could act as the ‘immune system’ of its ecosystems. Helping them to be stronger and more resilient.

    Science is a great tool we can use to better understand what were doing in the garden/farm, how and why it works, how to improve it and how to change it if it turns out some things we are doing is wrong (and we’re all wrong all the time). People often fall into the trap of correlation=causation and they may fall into the wrong conclusions.

    The research on predator prey relationships has shown us something I dont think anyone was expecting. That predators essentially are the keystones of an ecosystem, they help keep it healthy, diverse and functional. In fact, predation helps to keep the very prey they eat healthy and populous. By ensuring the landscape isnt overgrazed, that new generations of plants can grow. Herds of animals, instead of causing soil erosion and desertification can instead become compost machines, building soil and helping their environment to thrive. Learning how trees ‘talk to each other’ can help us to better understand plant systems, how diversity interacts and how/if/why its important to protect the ‘mother’ trees of a forest.

    We can and should study these systems and many more not only to understand their importance but to figure out ways in which to implement them into Permaculture design. We can for example be the predators in a cow paddock, herd them like wolves do and learn how to farm cattle more sustainably on an industrial level. We can then, like we do, integrate other crops and trees into that system.

    We can use this knowledge to better understand and further refine our systems, making them better, more productive, efficient and sustainable. I look forward to the day that Permaculture becomes (like it should) an element of science.

  2. Yep, the bio-fert article.

    I don’t disagree with what you say. I’d go even further and say that because of the complexity of Nature and our ability to grasp the complexity, scientific testing is very difficult to do. If I add rock dust to the hole before I plant my tomato plant and the plant does spectacularly, I can’t really conclude anything since there are so many other variables – soil, rainfall, sunny days, partially sunny days, overcast days, temperature, etc. OK, so I grow my tomato plant and a control in a greenhouse where those variables are eliminated. But what about the seed itself. Did it come from two different plants? No? OK, so do all seeds from the same fruit perform exactly the same. It gets complicated quickly. So what should I do? Well, I should think about why I used rock dust in the first place. If I used it because some article somewhere said that I should and that if I did, I would get cabbages the size of a house that really doesn’t give me an understanding of what is going on. If cabbage growing is describe as taking minerals out of the soil, then I know that those minerals need to be replaced if I want to continue to have big cabbages. I don’t need the science to confirm that rock doesn’t does or doesn’t work. I just need to understand what is going on when I grow and harvest a cabbage.

    Having said that I think that there are situations where calling for proof is valid. The one that comes to mind is dynamic accumulators. This one entered the permaculture world because some very respected authors (Jacke/Toensmeier & Hemenway) included material in their books from another source without checking its accuracy. I would argue that they never looked at the sources that the original author, Robert Kourik, listed. If they had, they would not have presented the material the way Kourik did or maybe wouldn’t have presented it at all.

    When you are making critical design choices, you have to make informed decisions not simply copy/parrot what someone else has copied/parroted. Sometimes the informed decision can be made on the basis of common sense as in the case of rock dust but other times it needs to be based on proof as in the case of dynamic accumulators.

    To be clear here on subject of dynamic accumulators, I’m not saying that the concept is bogus. We know that certain plants are used in phytoremediation to accumulate heavy metals. What we don’t know except from one source is that plant “x” accumulates mineral “y”. From a common sense point of view it would make sense to select plants that have deep tap roots – dandelion, dock, chicory, comfrey since their roots reach into a depth where most plant roots don’t go. Or do they. If you have a healthy population of mycorrhizal fungi in soil that is not disturb by tilling and is rich in soil organic matter, the roots of even the most shallow rooted plants will be able to draw water and minerals in soluble form from areas beyond the reach of the roots.

    What it comes down to is reading and learning beyond what is taught in a permaculture course. For good design, it’s necessary to understand why something works and why it works where it is being used since it may not work well elsewhere.

  3. I agree Angelo and am thankful you wrote about this issue of elitist discouragement which a small minority use to white-ant the valuable sharing that can lead to better permaculture community results. Criticism in any form should be as welcome and useful as weeds in a ‘chop and drop’– if it BUILDS UP. But as a ‘deforestation measure’ to purely cut a person and their discovery/results down, labelling them ‘lacking science’, it is not respectful of their experience, or generosity in sharing. Human interactions, like ecosystems, need diversity to thrive. As design scientists we need to always have the spirit of enquiry in our minds and observed experiences/patterns/results as our guideposts– prompting further discovery. We need to congratulate ourselves and others for discoveries made, whether they can be described in scientific form (yet?ever?), or not. Provided results are arrived at safely for ourselves, others and the environment, and move understanding forward, what is the harm in an ‘unscientific’ experience or discovery? Let’s keep it real – and that doesn’t necessarily always mean ‘scientific’, does it!

  4. Great article Aggele! I’ve made numerous times times this exact discussion with people, also expanding it to the futile efforts of modern man to explain and control nature through pure science, which only cause misery and imbalance to Cosmos.

    This is the first time I’ve ever came across so well structured arguments as yours.

    Greetings from Greece!

  5. A confusing / confused article.

    Science works. Muddled thinking, hymns and prayers, and new age gibberish don’t work. Period.

    Hymns and prayers won’t protect a child from measles. Vaccines do.

    On the other hand, if you know a scientist who treats science as religious dogma, then he’s not really a scientist. Perhaps a politician, or an ideologist, or a wannabe prophet, but not a scientist.

    Science is never set in stone (unlike religion), it perpetually renews itself. Theories are made and discarded, if/when they become obsolete. Simple as that. Any ‘scientist’ who tries to claim otherwise is not a real scientist.

    Science may be challenged, by anyone, including yourself, as long as you do so based on sound methodology. Science is not a faith system.

    BUT… while theories may come and go, sound evidence, clear thinking, and sane logic remain constant requirements.

    And that’s what’s lacking in those who are offended by some people’s insistence on science.

    1. I’m not sure what you find confusing, considering that you’re basically agreeing with one of my premises, that science IS NOT a faith or a worldview, and should not be treated as such.

      You mention “On the other hand, if you know a scientist who treats science as religious dogma, then he’s not really a scientist. Perhaps a politician, or an ideologist, or a wannabe prophet, but not a scientist.”

      Yes, I would agree completely with you here. The ‘new atheists’ Dawkins, Harris et al, are making appeals to their authority as scientists to write unscientific populist second-rate badly reasoned philosophy and opinion pieces in their books and are fundamentalist ideologues and wannabe prophets. Unfortunately, they have followers accepting the dogma with blind faith. Ironical, isn’t it?

      As you’ve missed a key point, I’ll restate it. You stated that what’s lacking in those who are offended by some people’s insistence on science are sound evidence, clear thinking, and sane logic”.

      My point is that that is not always the case. In some cases people may be legitimately questioning the soundness of the methods or the validity of conclusions drawn from the evidence. In other cases we’re seeing people waving their ideological banners, those illegitimately proselytising scientism, who run around claiming this and that is ‘unscientific’ or ‘lacks science’ as a heresy. Any good scientist should be able to distinguish one from the other. The former is a genuine scientific criticism, the latter is a secular fundamentalist religion masquerading as science for legitimacy, they very different things!

      Hope this helps clear any confusion.

  6. TL;DR Science is an essential tool in the development and validation of permaculture techniques and the effective communication of those techniques to those outside the permaculture community. The use of the scientific method in permaculture needs to be encouraged and celebrated rather than dismissed and denigrated as is done in this article.

    Although I agree with several of the points made in this article, on a whole I find it very concerning.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the author that we don’t need to understand every nuance of a particular technology in order to apply it. As the author said, we’d probably still be stuck in the dark and cold if we waited to use fire until we understood it! I further agree that not every effort in permaculture needs to be a controlled experiment. Once we know a technique works for a particular situation, there is no need to continue proving the effectiveness of that technique. The author’s concern with “keyboard warriors” attacking individuals who are making honest efforts toward implementing and improving permaculture is appropriate, and I appreciate him/her taking time to express those concerns. I will try to not fall into that stereotype as I express my own concerns below.

    First, while this article does address the existence and prevalence of psuedo-scientific “keyboard warriors”, it does nothing to address their objections. In fact, I fear it may gloss over legitimate concerns on the use of the scientific method in permaculture. The rhetoric used in this article to describe people who ask ‘what about science?’ is quite harsh. Words like “zealot”, “inane”, “hypocrisy”, “dogma”, “illiterate” and “fundamentalist” are very inflammatory and often cause people to become defensive, leading to a breakdown in civil discourse. There are certainly individuals who fit the author’s description and are worthy of this criticism, but I believe there are many more who genuinely want to see the research behind permaculture techniques. Inflammatory language like that used in this article dismisses their legitimate questions out-of-hand, perhaps leading them to dismiss the permaculture community in return and resulting in the loss of their valuable efforts and expertise.

    I believe that those efforts and expertise are truly valuable. I said earlier that I agreed with the author’s points about not needing to understand technology before applying it, and not needing every effort to be a controlled experiment. I do agree, but I also think both are still extremely valuable in context, and some of the people asking ‘what about science’ have the expertise to do the science in permaculture, but are turned away by articles like this one.

    For example, if I apply a technique that has been shown to work, it will probably work for me. However, if I understand how or why it works, I may be able to improve it beyond what already exists. The author used building frog ponds as an example. I can look up generic instructions for building my frog pond and follow them to the letter. It will probably work for me, since it has worked for so many other people. However, if I do a bit more research, I can learn the purpose of particular elements and optimize my pond design for my specific site or the species of frogs I want to attract. Knowing the purpose of each element is not necessary for success, but is often necessary for improvement.

    The purpose of a designed, controlled experiment is to identify the extent to which a specific input influences results, and to make sure that you are not falsely attributing results to a particular input. For example, suppose I want to run a little experiment in my backyard garden on using mulch on tomatoes. I put mulch around the first half of my row of tomato plants, and leave the second half unmulched. I weigh all the tomatoes I harvest that summer and my data shows that my mulched tomato plants yielded 20% more tomato mass than the unmulched plants. Great! Mulching increased my yield by 20%! Next year I mulch all my tomatoes. Just for fun, I weigh all the tomatoes I harvest again. But I notice something odd. All the plants in the first half of my row give 20% more tomato mass than the other half, just like last year. Wierd! Is it because that was the half I mulched last year, so there is more organic matter in the soil? Is it because my garden is on a slope, and the top half drains better than the bottom half, so the soil wasn’t water-logged during the rainy spring? Is it because that half gets more sunlight?

    At this point, I have no idea, because my experiment wasn’t set up well. The field of statistics and experimental design grew out of efforts to improve crop yields and is still extremely useful in that regard. I could have used some of those techniques to improve my confidence in the effect of mulching, like mulching around random plants instead of one long block, to help minimize the influence of slope or sunlight or other factors I haven’t thought about. Let me point out here that, in both respects, I still grew tomatoes. As a gardener, I was successful regardless of whether or not I used mulch. The author’s point that not every effort, not every garden, needs to be a controlled experiment, is absolutely valid, because I was still able to grow tomatoes.

    However, consider one of the goals of permaculture, which is to promote more sustainable techniques for agriculture. If I am trying to convince my neighbor that he should use mulch around his tomato plants, I will be a lot more successful if I can prove that it works. Putting mulch around the plants is work, and if I’m going to get him to do extra work, he wants to know it’s going to be worth it. This is where science shines. If I can explain to him why mulching works, how it helps retain moisture and over time improves the soil quality, he is more likely to put in the extra effort. If I can show him data from experiments that were set up correctly, proving that putting mulch around the plants improves yield, he is even more likely to do the extra work, even if he never know why it helps.

    An excellent source for the type of data I need to convince my neighbor that mulching works is a peer-reviewed journal. Like the author, I value science deeply. I am not trained in a pure science as the author is, but I do have a PhD in Mechanical Engineering. I was required to publish in a peer-reviewed journal as part of completing my doctorate, so I am familiar with the type of work necessary to pass the scrutiny of the peer-review process. When an article is submitted to a peer-reviewed journal for publication, the editors pass the article to another individual who is familiar with the field. That peer then reviews the article, using their own expertise to make sure the original authors have done things like set the experiments up correctly or not attribute results to unrelated factors. They may not know the author personally, but they can look at the article to be published and verify that the scientific method appears to have been followed and the results should be valid and repeatable. This system isn’t perfect, but it yields much more reliable data for decision making than anecdotal results often reported in case studies on permaculture websites. Case studies are inspiring and informative, and may be based on the scientific method, but the way they are reported is often not specific enough for the reader to have confidence in applying the methods mentioned.

    One of the goals of permaculture is to show the world there is a more sustainable way of living than the standard western industrialized agriculture consumerist model. The ability to convince someone to use a particular technology hinges on providing definitive evidence that the proposed technology is superior to other potential solutions. I believe that scientifically controlled experiments published in peer reviewed journals are essential to permaculture techniques becoming more broadly implemented. I would expect an organization like the Permaculture Research Institute to be leading the charge in generating and publishing this type of study. That is why I find this article so concerning: not only does it not address legitimate concerns over the use of the scientific method in permaculture, it actively dismisses people who have those concerns.

  7. Hi all,

    I was not looking for a well known fact, that some people on the internet comment with hate and stupidity.
    What I am looking for is a detailed description on the “essentials” in a “forest garden” to accommodate for the bees, birds other insects and maybe even a bunch of chickens for those that eat eggs.

    Is there somewhere on this site a resource for finding which trees, plants, bushes and such are the “required first order of business” on any size of land to sustain a healthy biome.
    With hopefully only those that have to be planted once instead of the seed, grow, eat, repeat stuff (I’m lazy, as most are).

    Hoping for a genuine web address, book or any other source.

    With kind regards,

    1. Come on Dennis, you know how to use the search engine on this website, and Google search!

      People in this modern information age have more information available at their fingertips than any other time in history, yet they mostly use the ‘information superhighway’ to access porn or buy and sell things!

      Some of us remember the days when we had to visit libraries to get information… :)

    2. Dennis
      Are you still looking for information on food forest planting? If so I would be happy to share some helpful resource suggestions.
      Regards, Wink

  8. Thanks for the interesting article. As mentioned above science is a language and partially also a social construct since it is an agreed upon system which develops itself through falsification. Just like anything else that the human species touches, science will also be an imperfect social construct since each observer undoubtedly adds a level of subjectivity due to theor unique view of the world.

    What grinds my gears as an agricultural sciences student is to see claims about increased yields or increased profits at worse in scenarios that i could simply bet my buttocks that weren’t true. For every “wheres the science” comment you will find a person who claims that permaculture ethics will save all.

    You mention in your conclusion that people should be allowed to do what we know are sustainable. Knowing and sustainable are both incredibly vague terms and I would like to believe that you meant that we should all do what feels right.

    Permaculture teachings tell us to observe and replicate patterns in nature. An applied scientist sees the hills and shapes of the landscapes, a scientist sees the patterns in statistical distributions, molecular interactions or macroeconomic events. I also believe that the message of permaculture is an inclusionary one.

  9. This was all a bit personal e.g. ‘the church of scientism’ err, what?

    @ DG Green – search the site for the term ‘Dynamic accumulators’ you’ll find an article by me, a scientist, attempting to qualify them correctly.

    As for metal detox – I’m writing a book. It’s LOADED with science and by golly this community (and the world) needs it – not the random ‘throw compost at it’ advice I’ve heard in permaculture circles.

    There’s a time and place for science bashing, it’s not here. There are people who are scientifically illiterate everywhere on the web using whatever excuse they can to troll you even saying stuff like show me the science – oh, I will.

    Don’t go throwing out the baby with the bathwater, there are scientists on your side, and we are a VERY useful bunch.

    Have a great day, continue to hypothesise, take notes, experiment – it’s science baby!

  10. Thanks for an interesting range of comments, some great comments in there, though some have regrettably missed the point! It’s always interesting looking at people’s underlying assumptions.

    No one is rejecting scientific research into permaculture here, it’s very welcome actually if anyone has time and money and training to conduct it!

    For those who don’t know my background, I have a double major in the biomedical sciences, I’m a sustainable horticulture trainer and am employed part time conducting meta-research on horticultural chemicals and evaluating their environmental impact.

    There’s a wide range of opinions out there on the place of formal scientific research in permaculture and its efficacy in promoting social change and progressing permaculture’s goals.

    If people are waiting for ‘science’ to save the planet rather than working with their available resources and taking responsibility for shaping their own future, then I firmly believe that the forecast is dire.

    A number of questions have been raised here, to which an adequate response would justify a follow-up to this article.

    1. @ ANGELO ELIADES, I look forward to your follow up article although I do hope that it uses language that is less polarizing, less combative. I’m pretty sure that you’re looking for a discussion that builds not a pissing match.

      By your words will the tone of the discussion be set.

      1. Great comment DG Green, I couldn’t agree more.

        This article was written to emphasize the fact that permaculture IS accessible and inclusive of all types of people, technical and non-technical, and their projects can be as scientific as they want or need them to be.

        There is no authority in permaculture can demand a strict level of scientific scrutiny with every permaculture activity that takes place, and my polemical tone in this article is directed towards those who unrightfully assume this authority and judge the activities of others as ‘not being scientific enough’. These detractors will always exist, but people need to see them for what they are so they can ignore them and not be discouraged by their negative, unconstructive chatter.

        Permaculture activities can also be fun, community building, linking individuals and facilitating the sharing of knowledge and experience. As with any life activity, if your not enjoying it, if it doesn’t inspire you, if it doesn’t develop you as a person, or if it doesn’t contribute to bringing you closer to your ling-term goals, then why do it?

  11. Good point about talkers vs. doers.
    If your PC practices have provided a major amount of food, fuel, and fiber to supply your family’s needs; great, let’s hear about what it is.
    If you produced excess to sell, even better. How much?
    There are lots of articles about my guild supplying some berries, eggs, some fruit and medicinal herbs. That is an admirable hobby.
    There is a dearth of examples of pc sites that actually produce enough product to fully support a family.
    That type of evidence is what might actually propel pc from a fringe movement to actually producing positive change.

    1. Hi Acorn, a bit of an objective check of background information might help before making subjective assumptions about my credentials! :)

      Check out my work on https://deepgreenpermaculture.com/

      Google my name and the word “permaculture, there’s about 5,000 results about me you can check out too!

      I’m not one to wave my banner, my work speaks for itself, but you asked…

      I have pioneered urban small-scale intensive backyard food forests by combining the system of backyard orchard culture and food forest design to scale down food forest design to fit into small urban backyards. I have also built the first fully-documented demonstration urban backyard food forest in Melbourne, Australia, with all facts and figures, even raw data available to the general public for scrutiny. My garden is now 8 years old, I have yield figures for the first four years where only two-thirds of the trees were established. I produced yields equivalent to over 14 metric tonnes per acre, which eclipses what agribusiness can produce in rural farms many times over. It’s all organic, no-dig, water-wise (in Australia, the driest continent of the planet), pest-free naturally due to tested and proven companion planting strategies plus effective living ecosystem design.

      My garden as a demonstration site sees hundreds of visitors each year, has won a local government sustainability awards, was featured in the esteemed Australian Open Garden Scheme in its last two years which showcased the nation’s leading examples of ornamental and productive gardens of their type.

      I have horticulture classes visit as part of their curriculum to learn about effective, working sustainable garden design, and I design multisensory gardens, not just plain food garden, so my work has a greater appeal beyond the permaculture movement. Many garden clubs organise trips to my garden every year and I get glowing feedback. I also get lots of permaculture teachers bringing their classes to visit my demonstration site.

      My worked is recognised around the world, I’ve done many international interviews, and I have received recognition as an urban food pioneer – you can see my story amongst several other notable Australian in the documentary “Fair Food” or read about it in the book “Fair Food, Stories From a Movement Changing the World”, edited by Dr Nick Rose and published by Queensland University Press, in which I was a contributing author.

      As a qualified adult trainer and former technical writer, all the work I have done has been documented in step-by-step instructions which I share freely on my website which has reached close to 3 million people to date, with 1,500-2,000 people daily accessing the educational material I write based on practical experience. Many of my articles have been translated into other languages, and I get many international visitors year after year who read about my garden and then ask to visit when they’re travelling here.

      Quite significantly, I have been a permaculture and food forest advocate for the last eight years, and my work has resulted in pushing permaculture into the mainstream in my area – my local government and many local governments pay me to talk about permaculture to the public. Before that nobody in government mentioned permaculture at that level and permaculture practitioners only spoke about the idea of food forests around here. Most of my audience, around 80%, are from the mainstream public, not the ‘permaculture fringe’. I don’t preach to the converted, what I do is inspire permaculture practitioners to embrace the breadth of possibilities of what permaculture can achieve. With the general public, I don’t proselytise permaculture, I show them what it can do, through real examples of demonstration sites that they can see with their own eyes, to witness first-hand what its possible. I present the science, the facts and figures to back up my claims, then, most importantly, I explain to them how they themselves can do the same of similar, to the extent which they are comfortable with. Then I tell them this system of ecological design is called “permaculture”.

      So, yes, I’m a doer, I lead by example, and I have results to back up my claims :)

      1. Angelo, I think you made an assumption about acorn making assumptions about you… their comment could be interpreted several ways, but the actual content was simply asking for information, which you then provided.

        You could also assume that a skeptical tone was implied, which would be fair enough.

        You could also assume that the comment was directed ‘you’ meaning permaculture practitioners reading the comment (that one is a bit of a stretch).

        I find it interesting how it is so easy for text comments to be rather ambiguous in their tone and so can easily be interpreted/misinterpreted in many ways, and gives some clues as to what the replyer is assuming (but then, those comments can ALSO be misinterpreted! Ahh the internet…)

  12. I must add that we must think through who we’re trying to convince with the need for ‘more science’, and I’ll use that term loosely.

    If it’s to gain approval of the scientific community, then consider that even if we could get most scientists on our side, facts, reason, data and evidence in western society does not trump subjective political ideology and corporate financial interests. The scientific community is only a small segment of the population and those in power do not necessarily respect what science says – the case in point is climate change, and the rest of it, soil erosion, glyphosate research indicating it’s a carcinogen, etc.. Realistically, would we as a species be poisoning our planet and ourselves for money and sacrificing Nature at the altar of the great secular deity called ‘economics’ (who has the mystical property of being able to grow indefinitely in a finite system) if science and reason had the influence we idealise it should have?

    Secondly, if Permaculture is seeking more influence, to reach more of the general public, in my experience you can throw all the science at people and very little sticks. Forest ecology may be fascinating to some but to most people they can take it or leave it. Everyone has theories but they only count when you can practically demonstrate them in the real world, when you can make them work. Remember, sound science is reproducible! When you build a permaculture demonstration site as I have and people see it with their own eyes, and you can produce yield figures, that eclipse agricultural yield figures, people notice, and their interest is captivated, and their behaviour changes, they start doing things differently. Seeing is believing, which is why Geoff Lawton emphasises the need for more permaculture demonstration sites! That’s what makes a real difference.

    Thirdly, permaculture is a flexible system that allows practitioners the freedom to work in the way that is optimal for them. Those who have enough understanding can go out and do what they need to do, and enjoy the results and share them. Those seeking more understanding have no obstacles to pursuing further study to skill themselves up until they feel competent enough to undertake the task at hand. For those who want more scientific proof for whatever reason, well, there’s nothing stopping them from pursuing such activities for themselves and getting all the science they want until they’re content. If people start demanding that others supply them with the things they want, or wait for others to do so to satisfy their needs, then complaining about it is a bit rich, much like a man complaining about a lack of food and refusing to grow any.

    1. I appreciate your view of ‘seeing is believing’. It is clear that real life proof sells better than academic papers.
      I hope that your future posts will also address the beauty of having a community with a vast diversity of skills and the importance of also having those few cynical critics!

      I also don’t think that there’s anything wrong with doing something because it ‘feels right’. It’s a helluva lot easier to respond to criticism that way, than claiming that what you’re doing is sustainable, which is such a vague and misused word in so many ways.

  13. Hello, Permaculture is a DESIGN practice. DESIGN is an ART. Never mind Technology. As for it being a science, I think Mollison wanted to give more substance to it by claiming it to be a science. So be it. Maybe both/and art and science. Why obfuscate, complicate and confuse permaculture design by intellectualizing it. Just do it.

    1. Thanks Bruce, I would say Permaculture is both an art and a science, making it accessible to people with strengths in one are or the other or both! I would claim to use my creativity alongside my technical skill in my designs.

      Remember that Leonardo DaVinci was both a famous artist and scientist’invetor, greatness comes about when we can bring both sides into our lives! :)

      1. Thanks Angelo, I agree. Permaculture is both an art and a science. At the Phayao Permaculture Center in Northern Thailand I teach permaculture using the scientific reductionist method, having reduced permaculture elements to 21, that when integrated into a design (an art) “web of life” forms the basis for a permaculture main frame design plan as Mollison (my teacher) taught me.

  14. Angelo,

    I would argue that we don’t have to convince anyone. Everyone will find their own way, however you define it, regardless.

    I think that the reason for more science in permaculture is so that we can build even more robust systems and better designed systems than we have. Going back to the dynamic accumulator example that I gave, there is nothing inherently wrong with the concept nor with using the so-called list of dynamic accumulator plants but a system build on the unconfirmed mineral gathering attributes of the plants on the original Kourik list is a questionable system. Let’s do the research, the field studies, the citizen science that helps us build better systems. Let’s construct the tests that we need. They don’t have to be peer reviewed for publication purposes. They just have to produce results. Let’s combine the creative, innovative accumulated knowledge that exists among permies to create Permaculture 3 Wiki on the net. The editorial nature of a wiki is such that it provides dynamic peer review.

    Less talk and more doing. Less cut-and-paste expertise and more hands-on expertise. People have to move beyond their comfort zones of the gospel of their PDC courses and start to find out what works and what doesn’t and then tell others.

    I applaud your start. And there are others – Deano Martin, John Kitsteiner, Patrick Whitefield (R.I.P) who immediately come to mind. They are doers who have documented what they have done.

    Let’s not waste any time on the critics beyond listening what they have to say, considering it fairly, and acting upon it accordingly. It’s fairly easy to shut them up, if absolutely needed, by asking “What have you done???!”

    1. Great comment DG Green, I couldn’t agree more.

      This article was written to emphasize the fact that permaculture IS accessible and inclusive of all types of people, technical and non-technical, and their projects can be as scientific as they want or need them to be.

      There is no authority in permaculture can demand a strict level of scientific scrutiny with every permaculture activity that takes place, and my polemical tone in this article is directed towards those who unrightfully assume this authority and judge the activities of others as ‘not being scientific enough’. These detractors will always exist, but people need to see them for what they are so they can ignore them and not be discouraged by their negative, unconstructive chatter.

      Permaculture activities can also be fun, community building, linking individuals and facilitating the sharing of knowledge and experience. As with any life activity, if your not enjoying it, if it doesn’t inspire you, if it doesn’t develop you as a person, or if it doesn’t contribute to bringing you closer to your ling-term goals, then why do it?

  15. Fukuoka said nature is too complex to reliably study in a scientific manner (or something like that) , and I agree. But there are some things in permaculture that need validation. Like compost tea, and planting vegetables in fresh chicken manure (post chicken tractor). Most of permaculture makes perfect sense IMO, it just gets sticky in a few places for me and I would appreciate validation.

  16. There are some interesting comments here and, as Angelo has replied, many of them have assumed that the tone of the article is somewhat anti-science. I think the article covered everything well and I agree with the gist of everything that was said. My only criticism is that, like many articles in the media today, it has falls into the trap of setting up a group of people as villains (and possibly the other side as victims?), i.e. people who follow ‘sceintism’
    it could perhaps have been clearer/more concise (but I’ll let you know how when I myself can write brilliant insightful concise articles haha). You’re right about some people following scientism and some people will misunderstand your writing as suggesting we should do away with science. People have all kinds of opinions and beliefs and I don’t know how you would write an article that sends your message accurately to all the people who read it.
    It’s actually a great term ‘scientism’ and as he says, many people who follow it blindly are not people who are scientifically literate.

    Aside from offering unnecessary criticism of a good article, I’ll add my contribution below.

    Many people seem to think of as science as performing scientific experiments, which is normal in agronomy/agricultural sciences, but there are other branches of science (including ecology, which I trained in) which make greater use of other methods out of necessity, e.g. more observational methods and multivariate statistics, etc. In other words, there are many systems which are too complex and occur over too large a scale of time and space to do any meaningful controlled experiments, so the only solution is to gather enough data to use statistical tools to determine potential patterns in the data and the probability that those patterns are not random but based on real patterns. Good luck trying to determine cause and effect in an ecosystem involving millions of interactions between thousands of species across timespans and landscapes that are never identical. My point is that approaching permaculture with a scientific approach, but from the discipline of ecology, is likely to be much more useful than approaching it with agricultural science (i.e. biology, chemistry) as it is not so reductionist (but it is still science and is somewhat reductionist).
    There is actually a field called ‘agroecology’ and I am currently reading a book ‘Agroecology’ by Stephen Gliessman (I think the first edition) and I can highly recommend it as a scientific foundation for permaculturists. It starts with basics of plant biology, and environmental factors, and then goes into the ecological part which includes dynamics and interactions at the ecological level. I would almost say that agroecology is the science for permaculture, and permaculture is applied agroecology. For those of you who don’t know the definition of ecology, I’ve seen it defined as: “the study of the interaction/s between organisms and their environment”, i.e. the organism interacting with things outside of the organism. This means that many biological sciences focused on parts of an organisms, cells, tissues, etc (e.g. anatomy, cell biology, physiology) are not really covered in ecology, except where it is connected to an interaction with the environment, e.g. changes in physiology based on environmental factors, which would be physiological ecology (an example would be a lack of soil moisture triggering development of flowering). I point this out to illustrate that science involves much more than simply running narrow-focused controlled experiments in labs/greenhouses, but that is what many people consider to be ‘real science’.

    You make a great point that permaculture is applied science. In other words, science (obviously) has a place in permaculture in terms of adding to the base of knowledge and increasing the depth of understanding of the processes involved, which is then applied in practice in permaculture. I don’t think we need to pause management to wait for clear science to confirm that it is the right choice, but I also think we need to build up scientific knowledge to better understand what is really going on in the system and why it works.
    Perhaps a better way to think about the interaction between science and permaculture is to have both running concurrently, rather than considering them links in a chain to be done in sequence (i.e. first discover the science then take action). This means using ‘adaptive management’ (a fancy term I learnt) where managers (i.e. people practicing permaculture) trial different management approaches on different areas but without the rigour of a scientific study, observe/record the results and use that to inform their future management. At the same time, rigorous scientific studies can be being done on different approaches that are used to get a more in-depth understanding of why and how different management approaches work/don’t work. By understanding the principles behind the results, the methods can be more intelligently applied to different situations.
    Because the rate of scientific discovery progresses at a speed slightly faster than continental drift (that might be exaggerated but it is still too slow for most people) it will take forever to establish as scientific fact things that people already know, but it will be much more rigorous, comprehensive and credible, and possibly more widely applicable, information than the compilation of people’s experiences. But having such comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms at work will enable these ideas to be applied at much greater scale with confidence.

    1. Hi Dale,

      very good points. I have gotten into permaculture since corona started and had to be at home a LOT. I learned quite some practices and design principles. But I have studied philosophy and have always been interested in pretty much all sciences and math, and now I’m looking for facts that support (or discredit) permaculture practices. Not just anecdotal things like “look it works”, but also WHY it works, and if that is actually better than doing it another way that we already know about. DDT seemed to work very well – someone even got a Nobel Prize for inventing it – and I really wish there had been more people around at the time when it got introduced who would have asked where the science was. How DDT actually worked, how it broke down, what the long term effects would be. Maybe that could have averted some major problems.

      Anyway, I’ve been googling and ecosia’ing for a while, and most of the things I found about science & permaculture are flat out pseudoscience. Even though often presented by people with majors or PhD’s in the field they are talking about. “Native Americans already knew about ‘harmonic energies’ influenced by other planets that in turn influence molecular movement and thus plant growth” says for example one guy who is introduced in a podcast as having a PhD in both agriculture and biophysics, confirming that he thinks this planetary influence is a thing. I looked up some of the other stuff he wrote and he also supports for example the ‘fact’ that viruses can spread by way of UV-photons. I bet they surf the photon waves. For this, he refers to a paper that I looked up and is about something completely different (‘Altruistic other-orientation in intimate relationships’). His article is full of faulty quotes and references. I just write this out in the hope it will make someone laugh :P And this is just one researcher of quite a few I’ve found so far that work in the field of permaculture or regenerative agriculture or similar fields.

      I DID find some interesting discussions on some permaculture forums though, where people were trying to educate others about what science actually IS and how it can help people to develop better practices. And what some of the things are that they would like to see researched, like Hügelculture or biochar. And I DID find some lectures on YouTube by Dr. Eliane Ingham that seem to be about actual science and were very interesting. But I haven’t found much other research that specifically relates to permaculture. I have ordered some books on microbiology, and the agro-ecology you describe also sounds very interesting. But what I’m looking for concerning permaculture would be something like a Wikipedia but for permaculture, or perhaps a repository of papers that have influenced permaculture practices. Would you perhaps know where to look?

  17. Thanks for the article. The permaculture trainer I had drew our attention to a lot of science to help us make better decisions regarding placement of trees/buildings/etc in our permaculture plans. I would still love to see more research done to verify the finer details which I believe will lead to better solutions for all.

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