Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Holmgren Design Principle #5: Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services

Going through David Holmgren's version of the Permaculture Design Principles, here's #5.

Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services

More sun comes tomorrow (or at least more solar energy), as do the wind and tides. On a longer timescale the fruit and nut trees produce a harvest each year and the alfalfa covers the back field. The trees provide shade each summer, the flowers give pollen to the bees, and the hedgerow is a windbreak.

The first list, energy and food, represents resources that are consumed and will be replenished. The second list represents intrinsics that can be thought of as renewable services since use of the service is non-consuming. Both aspects should be priorities, as we try to eek out every useful bit in our designs.

Holmgren takes an interesting approach to the consumables, asking "what is the half-life of the product?" I'm not sure I agree with this, since his example is the lifespan of paper (a few years) compared to the trees that produce it (decades), and suggests that the trees be put to more lasting use (we'll get to slow solutions in a later principle). I think a better method would be to appropriately value the replacement cost/time for the underlying resources into how we value the products. By being more plugged into the true costs of the things we use everyday, we can make better choices about how we consume.

Sticking with trees, the rule of thumb is that you can sustainably harvest about a cord per acre. Here's what one paper industry site says you can get from a cord of wood:
  • 12 dining room table sets (seating eight)
  • 30 rocking chairs
  • 250 copies of the Sunday New York Times
  • 942 one-pound books
  • 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of paper (depending on grade)
  • 1,200 copies of National Geographic magazine
  • 2,700 copies of an average (36 page) daily newspaper
  • 4,000 one-gallon milk containers
  • 61,370 standard (#10) envelopes
  • 89,870 sheets of letterhead bond paper
  • 460,000 personal checks
  • 4,384,000 postage stamps
  • 7,500,000 toothpicks

I'm thinking that this means that a reasonable size woodlot can sustainbly produce a range of products in differing amounts that balance both the productivity of the forest with the needs of the community.

Pretty picture of the principle at permacultureprinciples.com

Monday, February 27, 2012

Holmgren Design Principle #4: Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback

Going through David Holmgren's version of the Permaculture Design Principles, here's #4.

Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback

At the system level self-regulation should keep our designs from getting out of control. Jerusalem artichoke is a hardy perennial food plant, but it is also expansive and any system using it needs to limit the growth. An abundant food supply for one animal without the presence of that animal's predators is likewise a poor recipe. Uncontrolled positive feedback loops will drop us into Malthusian boom-and-bust.

Fortunately, nature provides a lot of negative feedback in the form of scarce resources, competition, and predation. We can also provide our own feedback by way of pruning and culling the less successful individuals in our design, and by altering the design to meet changing conditions.

This principle also expresses the third ethic - by setting limits on the system we help the resource distribution remain balanced within. We don't need to tell our neighbor what limits he needs to live within, but we can self-regulate our own consumption. On the other hand, accepting feedback means listening to that neighbor when he comes by to discuss the spread of our sunchokes...

Pretty picture of the principle at permacultureprinciples.com

Holmgren Design Principle #3: Obtain a Yield

Going through David Holmgren's version of the Permaculture Design Principles, here's #3.

Obtain a Yield

We invest (our time, attention, energy) into systems that reward us, so it is important to make sure that the permaculture systems we design properly thank us. A food forest design that won't produce any food for the first 10 years needs to be rethought and integrated with an understory that fruits early and often, as well as a fair mix of annuals that will motivate the owner to get out and care for the maturing design. Yields provide the positive feedback that maintain the system.

And there are lots of yields:

  • Food

  • Mollison started us out on this one - replace the non-edible landscaping with edibles! If you are going to have a tree, why not one that pays a dividend of food every year? Permies love the perennials because they take less work, but if you love your tomatoes then plant them too!
  • Habitat

  • Show love for the critters big and small by welcoming them in. If we have bee-attracting plants in flower throughout the season, then the little pollinators are a lot more likely to be around when we need them. That's a yield, because hand-pollination kinda sucks. Forage for the deer can keep a handy protein source nearby, and it is one that finds its own food.
  • System improvement

  • Build the soil, build the soil, build the soil. Oh yeah, also catch the water, catch the water, catch the water.
  • Money

  • Love of it may be the root of all kinds of evil (seriously, get the quote right folks), but it is also how our civilization currently keeps score. I don't have any interest in withdrawing from the global economy, so I either need a big enough pile to buy whatever I need (unlikely), or my systems need to be designed with some kind of marketable output.
  • Beauty

  • Include a yield for the soul - tell yourself that we don't know all of the useful connections between species, and throw in a few ornamentals just because.

Pretty picture of the principle at permacultureprinciples.com

Holmgren Design Principle #2: Catch and Store Energy

Going through David Holmgren's version of the Permaculture Design Principles, here's #2.

Catch and Store Energy

There are only a few actual sources of energy around us: solar is the primary driver for the energy I'd expect to capture in a permaculture system, but there is also the geological energy in the planet's core/crust (subduction, tectonics, vulcanism), the gravitational effects of the sun and moon, as well as radioactive decay of the higher elements. (Interesting question, is there a sustainable way to use nuclear energy? The decay is going to happen whether or not we capture it...) Yes, I recognize that none of these are actual energy creation processes, but other than nuclear the relative size of source vs sink is such that any energy we extract from the process has no effect on the process itself.

This principle is all about fighting the increase of entropy. As the universe tends toward general disorder, we biological systems create local order, and the more order we create, the more resources we have available for our success. Catching energy for immediate needs and reorganizing it to make energy available for future needs provides for both growth and flexibility.

So how do we catch energy?

  1. Grow stuff

  2. Plants do a great job of turning sunlight, air and water into stored energy. We can consume the plants directly, feed them to animals to create higher density energy storage, use them as combustibles for heating, and about a billion other things :-)

  3. Heat stuff

  4. Solar can be as simple as a black curtain behind your window, or as complex as photovoltaic panels - a greenhouse is a great way of capturing some energy. If you live in Iceland then volcanic heat capture is a real option, though that has its risks. So does standing next to a pile of pitchblende.

  5. Move stuff

  6. Wind, hydro, tidal flow capture - all of these convert "free" kinetic energy into more usable forms.

Once we've captured the energy, storing it for future use is its own challenge. Plant seeds can last for a long time, and our animals are energy on the hoof/claw. We can use rocks as a heat sink and let them radiate, we can move water uphill so that we can capture its energy again when we decide to let it down, we can compress gasses and liquids for pressure systems, and we can ferment some of our biomass into combustibles. Imagination is the only limiting factor. (Okay, the laws of physics probably come into it, too).

There is an implicit assumption here that a system isn't viable if it requires external inputs, e.g. conventional agriculture's energy equation of 10 calories of fossil fuel burned to create 1 calorie of edible food. We have to be careful about where we draw the boundary for "external" but a system that captures as much of the energy available to it as possible is a key design goal.

Pretty picture of the principle at permacultureprinciples.com

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Holmgren Design Principle #1: Observe and Interact

Going through David Holmgren's version of the Permaculture Design Principles, here's #1.

Observe and Interact

For all permaculture designs we should use nature as our template, and not just any nature but the specifics of the environment in which our design will grow. It is good to know that water always flows perpendicular to contour, but it is better to know the contours you are starting with and how the water flows today. There are a million things to learn from our location, so stop, look & listen!

"Interact" reminds me that we don't want to wipe the slate clean with a tractor, instead we want to work with what is already there. What is the smallest change we can make to achieve a goal? What are the current systems already accomplishing, and how can we use them?

Pretty picture of the principle at permacultureprinciples.com

Monday, February 6, 2012

Permaculture Ethic #3: Return of Surplus

The third ethic is a bit of a problem for me - there are a lot of different versions and interpretations:

  • "Setting limits to population and consumption: by governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the above principles." -- Mollison, Permaculture A Designer's Manual

  • "Fair shares, is a matter of acknowledging that the Earth has limits" -- Whitefield, Permaculture in a Nutshell

  • "Surplus Share. This involves the contribution of surplus time, money and energy to achieve the above two aims of earth and people care." -- Mars, Getting Started in Permaculture

  • "Reinvesting the surplus that this care [earth and people] will create." -- Hemenway, Gaia's Garden

I've arranged these in increasing order of resonance for me.

Mollison's definition makes me very uncomfortable - not that comfort should be expected when you are trying to change the world, but because it conjures for me the image of a benevolent state forcing its citizens to do good regardless of what they want. Working from the personal level, no one thinks about setting limits on their own population; instead, they make individual choices about having children - population limits can only be externally applied on a group level. It is difficult to persuade people to your ideas by explaining to them why and how they are wrong. But the rest of it captures the key idea for me - setting aside resources.

Let's keep going - Whitefield's is better (and it makes a nifty rhyme: "earth care, people care, fair share"), but it still leaves me discomfited. Who decides what is "fair?" I really hope it isn't the five-year-old who doesn't get the toy he wants. Again, this has the flavor of externally imposed requirements and not personal choice. Understanding that the earth has limits should drive your own behavior, but it doesn't give you a license to compel others.

Okay, they last two really do it for me. By introducing the concept of "surplus" this becomes an individual choice, and one that can be scaled up to groups/communities and beyond. Each person gets to decide for themselves what their surplus is and how they will share it.

Why does this wording matter? There are some folks who treat the third ethic as a license to steal - turning it into a justification for taking that which is not volunteered. If someone can make a $30,000 profit on their perfectly raised pig, then it is up to that person to decide how to use that money. If one author publishes a book and chooses to give it away for free, that doesn't mean that every other author is required to do so. No one has the right to decide what someone else's surplus is.

These ethics should uplift and encourage, so to me the central idea is "voluntary." Taking from someone, forcing someone to change their behavior or go against their cultural norms will only cause resentment. Allowing each individual to choose what they consider surplus and how they will share it empowers them to see the need for change and make that change.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Permaculture Ethic #2: Care for People

I feel like the second ethic needs an Asimov twist:

"A permaculturalist must care for the people around them, except where such care would conflict with the First Ethic."


Education, education, education. Water, food and shelter - without these people don't care about much else, and rightly so. Permaculture systems can help provide clean water, abundant food and efficient shelter, so supporting and promoting the educators that are designing these systems is a good global interpretation of the second ethic.


Zone zero - the first person to care for is yourself ("secure your own oxygen mask on before you assist others"). A healthy, rested, well-fed you can have a much bigger impact than the alternatives. Do the things you love, make a good profit (heck, make an obscene profit if your skills or products are worth it - you can choose how much to give back in ethic #3), plan for the future, and never stop learning.

Next, your family - a strong relationship with lots of joy, sharing and communication pays for itself a thousandfold. Support your family in their dreams, provide them with food, water, shelter and safety.

Finally, your community - Jack Spirko likes to say that it is better to feed your neighbors than to shoot them. Share your knowledge and passion so that your neighbors can thrive along with you.

Permaculture Ethic #1: Care of the Earth


I am a steward of the land that I occupy, or I ought to be. I need to care for the land that is under my control in a long-term sustainable way. I should leave my land more robust, more diverse and more abundant than I found it.

This doesn't mean I have to turn into a technophobe Luddite who eschews (good word, eh?) power tools and backhoes - I love technology and think we should use the best of the tools at our disposal to accomplish our goals. Open Source Ecology is designing and giving away the infrastructure for a do-it-yourself modern, sustainable civilization, and you can build a robot to produce the biofuel for your machines.

Joel Salatin calls himself a grass farmer, but I'll take it one step further and say that we all need to be soil fertility farmers. Think from soil fertility forward to useful yields and I believe that we can't help but take care of the earth.

The other side of the equation - do good and do no harm - also needs some consideration. This is the driver for responsibly handling our waste, and in fact looking to design our systems so that we include the things that call each waste product "food."

This is another one not to take to the extreme - "do no harm" should probably be "do little harm." Doing a little harm, in a way that is sustainable, in a manner that produces a net increase in fertility, diversity and yield has got to be okay. Case in point, raising chickens using paddock-shifting when you don't have enough space to let each paddock regenerate before you need it again. Do you abandon the approach entirely? No, you designate one "sacrifice area" paddock where the chickens eat feed and destroy the vegetation while the other paddocks regenerate. The overall system is healthy and productive.


From the broader perspective, the first ethic is also a call to make big changes. Polly Higgins' work to give the earth itself rights in a court of law is a huge step. For the most part corporations are not actively evil, they are simply motivated by risk (minimize) and profit (maximize), so making Ecocide a crime for which corporate officers can be personally accountable could tip that balance to a much healthier point.

We've only got one planet here that can support our kind of life, and low-impact lift to orbit, much less inter-planetary travel is still the stuff of fiction. The other resources of our solar system are kinda out of reach, so we need to take care of what we have.

The Prime Directive of Permaculture

"The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence
and that of our children."

--Bill Mollison

That's right, I think I've read, watched and listened to enough to fumble my way through what the foundations of permaculture (the prime directive, ethics and principles) mean to me. Don't blame the authorities for what follows :-)


Since the PD sits at the root of permaculture it only makes sense to me that we should view it (at first) at the highest level of abstraction possible:

  • - "our own existence" == all human beings alive today

  • - "our children" == our descendants and dependents
What is the one thing above all our descendants need from us? Apologies to Robert Heinlein, but "ancestors" doesn't cut it. They need a biosphere. And we are not on a road to leaving them one. Read the folks in the Resources page, and it is clear - our current global lifestyle is only sustainable with massive input of fossil fuel, and peak oil is coming - maybe in years, maybe in decades, but unlikely to be something usefully measured in centuries.

Ethical diversion: we in the first world have built our phenomenal standard of living on the back of taking from the planet long-term viability (and by exporting a lot of that abuse to the third world). So what do we tell the developing nations? No, you can't turbo-charge your economy and infrastructure at the price of the environment? We got ours, now screw you if you try to copy us? I'd prefer "learn-from-my-fail" - there are better ways, but their short-term costs may be higher. That is a hard pill for anyone to swallow, especially if they don't have a lot else to put in their mouths. Remind me later that I want to talk about using our current (limited) rich energy to build the mature tools we'll need in the epochs to come.

I also include dependents in the abstraction - maybe we'll build real AI or maybe not, but we've already created a lot of domesticated species that we need to take responsibility for. Maybe we should let the sterile GM seed strains from Monsanto die out, but we still owe a debt of care to our cats, dogs, chickens and cattle.


The PD works on the personal level, too, and in fact it is at the personal level that I see the most potential for change. Difficult circumstances, market priorities, corporate imperatives, political necessity - they mean that I can't personally change the world, and neither can you. But I can change myself. I can be responsible for my own lifestyle, my own land, my own carbon footprint, my own food sources, my own disaster-preparedness, my own sphere of influence.

So that's what the PD means to me - keep your eye on the big picture, while taking personal action. Change myself, be an example, and hope that the world follows along.

Magazine: Permaculture Activist

Keeping with the light reading theme, my first issue of my subscription to Permaculture Activist magazine just got here, sadly somewhat torn up (spindled? mutilated?) by its journey from Indiana to NYC but still readable.

A little thinner than PM(UK) but still packed with content. I'm really loving the bite-sized nature of the magazines, though I have to remind myself not to go overboard on subscriptions - the tyranny of an unread stack of magazines can compete with real life!

Favorite article from issue #83: Eric Toensmeier's Perennial Staple Crops. Eric is the co-author of the excellent Edible Forest Gardens books, and this article brings some great information to use in design. As a software geeks, I'm constantly looking for ways to organize information, and nothing cries out for it more than the interface between species and how they fit into permaculture design. This is a great source!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Magazine: Permaculture Magazine (UK)

Just got my first two issues in my subscription to Permaculture Magazine from the UK.

Talk about getting a quick fix! My pile of books is daunting and growing, and as much fun as Volume One of Edible Forest Gardens is (seriously great book), it will be a while before I'm through enough of it to start to comment! So the joy of picking up the magazine and getting my 5-minute shot of permaculture can't be overstated.

Based in the UK so the people and places are on the wrong continent, but they are temperate just like we are here and there is a tonne (see, British spelling!) of articles that are geo-agnostic.

I went right out and got the first 5 issues as PDFs with the vague idea of working through the whole backlog of past issues - a great idea, but now I have to compare 3 pounds * 70 issues, convert to dollars and I could afford the Mollison/Lawton DVD PDC.

I want it all, and I want it now :-)

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