I’ve been thinking a lot about Toby Hemenway’s blog post about what Permaculture is and what it isn’t. I really love his idea that it is a method like the scientific method. I think that we can be a bit more specific though and that specificity might be helpful.


Toby says that Permaculture is a method for solving practical problems. That method has a fairly specific approach worth stating: solving multiple problems at once by shifting underlying patterns. Where most approaches to problem solving work on symptoms, Permaculture focuses on the underlying causes. Because these causes are organizing patterns, Permaculture is a pattern-based approach. This is what allows it to solve multiple problems at once.


In his essay of the same name, Wendell Berry called this, solving for pattern. He shows how it is in fact the only way to truly solve problems because it is a biological approach rather than a purely mechanistic approach. In machines, problems can be solved by simply replacing a part, making an adjustment, or repairing a break. This is not true in living systems. Mechanical problems in living systems like a broken arm, can be helped through setting the limb, but unless underlying patterns like nutrition and behavior are shifted the break may never heal of soon break again. Think of the problems of repeated concussion in American football. Subsoil plowing in relation to the contours (keyline plowing) can alleviate compaction and increase water infiltration, but it will not last unless grazing patterns are shifted to allow the plants to build on the mechanical intervention. In a living world the only way to really solve problems is through shifting underlying patterns.


This is where the Permaculture principles: The problem is the solution, Least change for the greatest effect, and Stacking function come from. The problem is the solution because it is only a symptom. The least change for the greatest effect always lies in shifting the underlying patterns. Multiple problems can be solved by addressing underlying patterns, because a single pattern may have multiple symptoms.


Andy Lipkis of the Tree People in L.A. tells a story about how planting trees with school kids led to lower absentee, drop out, and teen pregnancy rates, while grades and test scores improved. Multiple environmental problems from cooling to air quality were addressed at the same time as social and cultural issues. That is stacking functions by addressing underlying patterns of low self-worth and hope.


Underlying patterns determine everything, from our eye color to our response to particular words. The same is true of the entire natural world. Life is exchange. The same patterns apply to all exchanges whether biological, economic, or genetic. All of the Permaculture techniques were developed to address underlying patterns.


People often look at the Permculture techniques and think that this is all there is to Permaculture. This is like thinking that science is test tubes and scales, and Buddhism is beads and chants. The forest is not the trees, it is what the trees are doing, their relationships and exchanges. It is all about the underlying patterns not the superficial forms.


Martial artist and peace consultant Terry Dobson told a story about studying Aikido (Way of Peace) with its founder Ueshiba. He’d been told not to fight but was anxious to test his abilities. Determined to fight a rowdy drunk he was stopped by an elderly man who’s kind words, quickly revealed the cause of the violent drunkenness: his recent loss of his wife, home, and livelihood. While the elderly man comforted the drunk, Dobson realized that he had mistaken the form of the Way of Peace for its underlying approach of shifting underlying causal patterns. In every art, forms are practiced as a way of learning underlying patterns. But form can be so captivating  and intriguing that the underlying patterns remain unseen while we skate about on the surface.


The same is often true for Permaculture. It is important to be clear that it is a pattern-based method for addressing multiple problems in diverse realms simultaneously by addressing underlying systemic patterns. If not, we may get lost in repeating its forms without ensuring that they are addressing underlying patterns and effectively making the changes we are after. That would rob Permaculture of its power and cheat us of the opportunity to make the differences that the world so desperately needs.

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