Overstory #116 - Observe and Interact
In hunter-gatherer and low-density agricultural societies, the natural environment provided all material needs, with human effort mainly required for harvesting. In preindustrial societies with high population densities, agricultural productivity depended on large and continuous input of human labour. Industrial society depends on large and continuous inputs of fossil fuel energy to provide its food and other goods and services. Permaculture designers use careful observation and thoughtful interaction to reduce the need for both repetitive manual labour and for non-renewable energy and high technology. Thus, traditional agriculture was labour intensive, industrial agriculture is energy intensive, and permaculture-designed systems are information and design intensive.
In a world where the quantity of secondary (mediated) observation and interpretation threatens to drown us, the imperative to renew and expand our observation skills in all forms is at least as important as the need to sift and make sense of the flood of mediated information. Improved skills of observation and thoughtful interaction are also more likely sources of creative solutions than brave conquests in new fields of specialised knowledge by the armies of science and technology.
The proverb "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" reminds us that the process of observing influences reality. We must always be circumspect about absolute truths and values. Good design depends on a free and harmonious relationship to nature and people, in which careful observation and thoughtful interaction provide the design inspiration, repertoire and patterns. It is not something that is generated in isolation, but through continuous and reciprocal interaction with the subject.
Observe, recognise patterns and appreciate details
A process of continuous observation in order to recognise patterns and appreciate details is the foundation of all understanding. Those observed patterns and details are the source for art, science and design. The natural and especially the biological world provides by far the greatest diversity of patterns and details observable without the aid of complex or expensive technology. Those patterns and details provide us with a great repertoire of models and possibilities for the design of low energy human support systems.
While good observation is the source of new insight and creativity, it is also the foundation for renewing the most basic abilities that we appear to be losing as fast as technology finds substitutes. For example, observation of a baby's pattern of bowel movements and early action to hold them over the potty at the right time can lead to easy and early toilet training, saving endless work, water and energy. Computerised Geographical Information Systems, while very useful, often substitute for, or cover up, a deficit in simple skills of reading the landscape.
Interact with care, creativity and efficiency
There is little value in continuous observation and interpretation unless we interact with the subject of our observations. Interaction reveals new and dynamic aspects of our subject and draws attention to our own beliefs and behaviour as instrumental to understanding. The interplay between observer and subject can be thought of as the precursor to design. The accumulation of the experiences of observation and interaction build the skill and the wisdom needed both to intervene sensitively in existing systems and to creatively design new ones.
The thinking and design revolution
Everyone knows about the breathtaking emergence of the information economy. The information and knowledge systems that direct and organise the physical economy of goods now have the greatest value and power. Computers are the most obvious feature of the information economy, but changes in the way we think, especially the emergence of design thinking, are more fundamental to the information economy than the hardware and software we use. Permaculture itself is part of this thinking revolution.
A large part of the thinking revolution involves the emergence of design as a universal skill alongside those of literacy and numeracy. It is not so much that we are just beginning to design; rather, we are becoming more conscious of the power of our individual and collective design processes and how to improve them. Design is fundamental to humanity and nature, and yet it is so difficult to define.
Victor Papanek defines design as "the conscious and intuitive effort to impose meaningful order." This emphasises that design is not simply the result of rational, analytical and reductionist thinking, but also depends on our intuitive and integrative capabilities.
To design requires that we are familiar with models generated by nature and humanity (past and current solutions and options) as well as having an ability to visualise some new adaption, variation or possibility. The capacity to imagine other possibilities is another important aspect of design thinking. The most creative design involves the promiscuous hybridisation of possibilities from apparently disconnected, or even discordant sources to create a new harmony.
From a systems ecology perspective, "design by nature" is not simply a metaphor but a result of the forces of self-organisation which can be observed everywhere in the living and wider universe. This imposition of meaningful order is a counter-flow to the prevailing entropic forces of disorder within nature and the wider universe. Self-organisation occurs wherever energy flows are sufficient to generate storages. Designing is as natural as breathing and, like breathing, most of us can learn to do it better.
Observation and interaction involve a two-way process between subject and object: the designer and the system. The maxim "everything works both ways" is a useful general reminder that finds expression in many diverse examples. The following more specific maxims provide the concrete guidelines and reminders which can help us as designers.
Design thinking guidelines
All observations are relative
Observation can be a reflection of an internal state rather than objective fact. Even the concept of objective fact in science is now acknowledged as flawed; scientists know that observation, directly and indirectly, influences reality.
Given the limits to objectivity, it is better to be clear and articulate about our assumptions, preconceptions and values, and to acknowledge how these influence and structure how we see. Ethics and ideology act as filters that determine what and how we see. These filters are unavoidable--in fact, essential--but the rush to judgment of right and wrong frequently clouds our observation and prevents understanding. This commonly occurs in our attitude to pest plants and animals.
Top-down thinking, bottom-up action
In considering any subject it is always useful to step back and look for the connections and contexts which can reveal our subject as part of large-scale systems. This assists us to identify important inputs to the system that are outside system control or feedback effects and also to see outputs and losses that larger-scale systems are absorbing.
This "top-down" systems thinking is a useful balance to "bottom-up" reductionist perspectives that seek to understand a subject by looking for its fundamental parts. On the other hand, bottom-up action focuses on the leverage points that are available for small-scale elements or individuals to influence large-scale systems in which they participate. This is especially important when we are trying to manage rangelands, forests and other wild landscapes where our "management" options are a small part of the larger system. Similarly, in trying to foster appropriate community change in a context of more powerful forces, recognising leverage points where we can make a difference is essential. Perhaps the current prevailing mode of action could be characterised as "top-down" (dominant) action typified by governmental and corporate management. Instead what is needed is more bottom-up (participatory) action at all levels in natural and human systems.
The landscape is the textbook
The natural world provides such a vast diversity of subject material for the observer and designer that we can characterise the landscape as the textbook to follow. All the knowledge we need to create and manage low energy human support systems can come from working with nature.
By observation we usually mean using our eyes, but this just reflects how visually dominated modern people are, raised in a literate and now graphical world. All of our senses have great potential to provide valuable information. For example, smelling or tasting soil can reveal otherwise invisible aspects of its biological, physical and chemical balance. An experienced bird-watcher often learns more from songs and calls than from glimpses of birds that may be elusive.
The development of good observation skills takes time and a quiet- centred condition. This in itself requires a change from a lifestyle that is indoor, semi-nocturnal and media-dominated to one that is outdoor, mainly daytime, and nature-focused. At our office we balance indoor deskwork with observation and physical work in the garden that supplies most of our food. As well as feeding us, working with nature provides the inspiration for, and testing of, the more abstract ideas expressed here.
I have found that skills in "reading landscape" to be the most important a designer can develop to be useful in advising others on the potentials, limitations, land use history and successional processes of any particular parcel of land.
Failure is useful so long as we learn
Planning and design processes (like life in general) often involve incremental adjustment in response to experience. No matter how little knowledge we have, we can proceed from a very narrow perspective to a broader and more wholistic one by incremental adjustment.
Although this is an excellent and simple process, when working with complex natural systems we need to remember that we don't understand, let alone control, all the factors; and that cause and effect are often a loop or a web, rather than a linear chain. When you try some action, don't assume you were the reason for any success. Conduct small trials and think about other possible causes for success or failure.
Elegant solutions are simple, even invisible
In science the simplest answer that explains all the facts is regarded as having more validity than a complex answer. Similarly in design, enormous complexity often indicates poor design. A really effective design solution may be remarkably simple. This simplicity may be inherent, or it may arise because self-organising (living) complexity that works without us understanding or controlling it is doing most of the job.
Effective systems may work so well that we don't even notice them. This is common with free environmental services, such as purification of air and water or soil rehabilitation and good design solutions that go unnoticed until they fail from abuse. The saying "we don't know what we've got till it's gone" is relevant here. Careful observation and a respect for humble life forms and processes is a partial antidote for this perennial problem.
Make the smallest intervention necessary
In attempting to adjust systems to fix problems, we need to be careful that we don't damage or disrupt other processes that are working perfectly. Because much effective design is invisible, large-scale interventions are likely to do more harm than good, and they require large amounts of energy and resources to implement. Japanese natural farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka has written eloquently about the value of doing nothing and the damage from large-scale intervention in nature. The Bradley method of bush regeneration, based on the careful observation and minimal interventions of the Bradley sisters, has been acknowledged as highly effective in conserving bushland from spread of environmental weeds. Its focus on minimal disturbance to remove weeds from the most intact areas of native vegetation runs counter to the prevailing approach, which is to attack the weeds head-on with herbicide and other high-impact methods.
Avoid too much of a good thing
When we experience a positive result from an action, there is almost always a powerful temptation to repeat the action, working on the often misguided idea that if some is good, more must be better. In sustainable societies and nature, limited resources often acted as a natural constraint on such actions, but in the modern world these temptations are everywhere. One of the universal effects of affluence is the change in diet towards consuming more sugar, fat and protein. Foods with these concentrated energy sources have always been desirable, but in the past natural limits protected us from the adverse effects of overindulgence.
Any gardener or farmer who has a great harvest following use of a fertiliser knows the temptation to use more next time. The slowing in growth of world food yields, despite increases in fertiliser use, shows the problem is widespread. As in the case of overindulgence in sugar, fat and protein, overuse of any fertilisers creates imbalances that reduce long-term yields and plant health.
Many of these statements that caution us against bold and impulsive action reflect a general observation: that success or function in any system may represent failure in connected systems that are larger or smaller in scale.
The problem is the solution
This slogan expresses the idea that things are not always as they seem; the things we view negatively may have a positive aspect that is more important than, or at least compensates for, the predominant negative perception.
The most common examples of this idea relate to weeds or other life forms which we regard as pests. Weeds or pests may be environmental indicators of need for management change, agents repairing damaged soil, etc., or resources which, for economic or cultural reasons, we fail to value.
An open, inquiring attitude to problems is almost always more fruitful than an urgent demand for solutions. The latter is often driven by fear and an unquestioned consensus about the nature of the problem.
Another aspect of this maxim is that the best solutions to problems can be found in places and cultures where the problem is extreme. In these situations co-evolution over time will develop the best responses. In places where the design problem is less severe, people often ignore it or come up with solutions that use more effort or resources to overcome the problem. For example, in my brief time on the precipitous Amalfi coast in southern Italy, I became aware of several creative solutions to the problems and limitations of very steep land, some traditional and others modern and imported. Conversely, while travelling in the Mediterranean I was surprised by the poor development of rainwater tanks and small earth dams compared with Australia. Despite the dry summers, the prevalence of permanent streams, springs and good-quality groundwater in the Mediterranean has reduced the stimulus to harvest rainwater.
Recognise and break out of design cul-de-sacs
When we recognise the potential to turn problems into solutions, we often encounter the inertia of fundamental beliefs, system architecture and power structures that stand to lose by the innovation. Although modern culture appears to encourage innovation (within narrow limits), we need to be aware why conservatism--resistance to radical change--is an important characteristic of both natural and human systems.
In nature and in human behaviour, proven solutions tend to become entrenched, while recent innovations are easily swept away by unfavourable conditions. In the history of life, mutations in the basic chemistry of cellular life almost never manage to get past early embryo stage because evolution over hundreds of millions of years has perfected these processes and any variations are usually lethal. More recent evolutionary patterns have rarely been vested with fundamental functions, so occasional mutations survive, at least initially. For example, variation in the number of nipples, and even of digits, is common in mammals. Stress and competition tend to suppress such variations through low success in reproduction.
In families, most parents deliberately or unconsciously teach their children the lessons (good and bad) that they learnt in childhood from their parents, in preference to their own insights as adults. The more stressed parents are, the more this becomes true. The cycle of battered child to battering parent is now well recognised. Similarly in human culture, patterns of proven behaviour or knowledge become entrenched through tradition and institutions. Over long periods of relative stability, institutions rather than individuals are the critical keepers of culture. What is needed in these situations is the capacity to think laterally, readiness to abandon the proven and take risks.
Broad experience and observation of the world outside the particular situation or system can allow recognition of the patterns of design cul-de-sacs and the general nature of transformative solutions. In most cases these solutions will challenge and undermine existing structures of power and wealth in society and are therefore strongly resisted.
The importance of interaction
These and other insights, drawn from the interpretation of traditional systems of knowledge and for the great thinkers of the modern world, provide a wealth of ideas that can help us make sense of observation and experience. But unless we get out there, and open our eyes and use our hands and our hearts, all the ideas in the world will not save us.
Thus the thinking and design revolution, of which permaculture is a part, only makes sense when it reconnects us to the wonder and mystery of life through practical interaction.
King, F.H. 1911. Farmers of Forty Centuries. Rodale Press
Holmgren, D. 2001. David Holmgren: Collected Writings 1978-2000. Holmgren Design Services, Hepburn, Australia. Web: holmgren.com.au
Fukuoka, M. 1978. The One Straw Revolution. Rodale Press.
Larking, J., A. Lenning and J. Walker (Eds). 1988. The Bradley Method of Bush Regeneration. Lansdowne Press, Sydney.
Gall, J. 1977. General Systematics. Harper & Row.
Papanek, V. 1984. Design for the Real World (2nd edition). Thames & Hudson.
This article is excerpted with the kind permission of the author from:
Holmgren, D. 2002. Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Holmgren Design Services, Hepburn, Australia.
To order this and other publications by David Holmgren, contact:
About the author
David Holmgren is a permaculture designer and consultant. He is perhaps best known as co-originator of the permaculture concept and for co-authorship of Permaculture One (1978) with Bill Mollison, a milestone in the application of environmental design to productive land use. Since 1978 he has authored numerous articles and several books, conducted workshops and courses, and consulted for urban and rural projects in Australia and New Zealand. David is respected for his commitment to presenting permaculture ideas through practical projects. He teaches by personal example that a sustainable lifestyle is a realistic, attractive and powerful alternative to dependent consumerism. Contact David at: Holmgren Design Services, Melliodora (Hepburn Permaculture Gardens), 16 Fourteenth St, Hepburn, 3461, Australia; Tel: +61 (0)353483636; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Web site: holmgren.com.au.