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Integral Permaculture Design
Chris Dixon: this draft September 2021
What follows can be considered as work in progress and is intended as a contribution to the larger evolving work both within and without the permaculture community. It is an area I have been working in for many decades now and I have presented earlier versions and models at various times and locations. This is now the most up-to-date text version. Please feel free to use it as you choose.
When we design, how do we know that we have not left something important out? No matter how detailed or thorough our work, can we be certain that we have taken all the significant variables into account? Do we even know what all the significant variables are? Perhaps our work looks fantastic, yet five or ten years down the line, will go pear-shaped because of some fundamental omission at the design stage. We may employ check-lists or design schemas but how do we know whether these are complete, or at least complete enough? We may draw upon many different perspectives to produce our designs (agricultural, horticultural, silvacultural, conservation, energetic, hydrological, chemical, biological, sociological, psychological etc. etc.) but how are we to combine these multiple perspectives into a harmonious whole that is our design?
What would be useful is some sort of base map or pattern that allows us to rationally integrate these multiple perspectives and thankfully, as we often find, this work has already been done; several integral maps are available to us and we are free to choose.
Permaculture ethics as an integral map
When I first studied permaculture design formally (a weekend introductory course in 1989) the course leader, Andy Langford, presented the ethics as earthcare, peoplecare and limits to consumption/give away surplus. The first two seemed pretty obvious and self explanatory. Regarding the third ethic, I asked Andy, who would decide what were the limits and what was surplus. His reply was, "you", meaning me, and for me, this was one of the most powerful and empowering moments of the course; I saw immediately that as a permaculture designer, I was not going to wait for a government or external authority to set limits for me, I was going to choose my own limits for myself.
It also meant that from that day, I saw the ethics as relating to three major aspects or perspectives of reality, namely the environmental perspective, the social/cultural perspective and the personal perspective. All these perspective arise and operate simultaneously; in reality there is only one; It is a consequence of the limitations of our own consciousness that makes us see them as separate. Since then I have tended to apply this three-fold pattern or map to pretty much everything I do and consciously re-integrate them into the whole that they are. (To be accurate, at first I called this a holistic map and referred to the Big Three of environment, community and self as components or aspects of an undivided reality. Later I adopted the term perspectives and integral, as I will explain further below).
So from this integral perspective, every act I undertake involves these three perspectives; sometimes this is very obvious, sometimes it requires more thought. As an example, if I choose to make a journey, then there are environmental, community (social/cultural) and personal consequences to my choice. Depending upon how journey (on foot, push bike, horse, car, rail, aeroplane etc.) there are different consequences for each of the three major perspectives. So by relating our possible choices or decisions to each of these primary perspectives we can move towards integrated, win/win/win solutions.
To give some other examples, during the early 1990s I spent several years on The Permaculture Association ( Britain) Council of Management. In those days the council met at various embryonic sites around the country and, in addition, I was often invited to other sites as a sort of trouble-shooter or mediator. This meant that I got to see many different sites in the early stages and meet the groups and individuals who were involved with them. Using the ethics as an integral model I was able to conduct simple assessments of where the gaps were in design work and thinking.
So, for example, some sites had given fantastic attention to environmental concerns but very little to community aspects (how to run positive meetings, techniques for resolving conflicts, decision making processes etc.) and suffered from unresolved conflicts and unexpressed or partially expressed concerns. In contrast, some groups had developed excellent communities but their environmental understanding was very limited, evident in weaknesses in the landscape around them. And further, some groups had a good grasp of both the environmental and community perspectives but individuals were still not happy (burned out, overburdened, unable to achieve personal goals).
This led me to believe that in order to design and implement genuinely sustainable systems we need to give equal attention to all three perspectives, the environment, the community and the self. This integral map or pattern functions as an extremely powerful thinking tool for integrating the various strands of exterior and interior realities into a coherent whole, a coherent whole being the intended outcome of permaculture design.
To me this became so obvious that I hardly thought about it any more; to me it had become ingrained, automatic almost, unconscious competence. So much so that I was surprised when people had problems with it or failed to see the relevance and indeed I was initially surprised when other interpretations of the third ethic began to appear, such as Fairshares.
From an integral perspective, all these various interpretations of the third ethic are valid and can be usefully included as part of the rich diversity inherent in permaculture design, a product of the subjects adaptive, dynamic practitioners. We can still use an integral map to organise or make sense of this variety; the graphic below uses the Big Three.
Current governmental models
Using the Big Three integral map as a baseline for comparison, It is useful to consider the current maps or models that governments and other organisations use in relation to what is termed sustainable development, such as the “three pillars of sustainable development”, used by the EU, UK and Welsh Assembly governments. Here, the three pillars are given as the environment, the community and the economy.
Although the attempt to use a model to integrate solutions is worthy, the elevation of the economy to a position of equal importance to the environment and community, with its own agenda and priorities (such as perpetual growth, which is not possible on a finite planet) has allowed governments and corporations to pursue business-as-usual agendas while claiming to be acting in sustainable ways.
I would say that the economy is much better seen as a consequence or emergent property of individual actions within the community, in relation to the environment; that is to say, the economy is a product or outcome of the interaction of the three primary perspectives, and again, depending upon what choices we make, our economic decisions will have consequences in each of the three primary perspectives. And vice versa, by redesigning our own interactions with our community and environment we are in effect redesigning the concept and actuality of our economy.
Another consequence of these three pillars of sustainability (environment, community, economy) is that the individual perspective is subsumed by the community perspective. As permaculture designers we will be aware that both these perspectives, community and the individual, which can be radically different, require attention. Take as an example, designing for a family home; we would wish to address the needs of the family as a whole, a unit, a community, but we would surely want to include something of each individuals' personal ideas, needs, ambitions or aims, which may differ widely within the family.
It is also useful to consider this in relation to the past, and hence the changes that have taken place within human society over time. On an advanced design course in 1990 (I think) at Ragman's Lane Farm, Bill Mollison talked about the differences between tribal law and modern law. Bill pointed out one fundamental difference, that tribal law dealt predominantly with protection of the environment and the tribe, (the community), whilst modern law, until quite recently, dealt almost exclusively with the protection of the individual and the individual's property.
In the instance of tribal law, he gave an example of tribal law being used to restrict the hunting of a particular animal species during prolonged drought, even though some members of the tribe might starve as a result, in order to ensure the recovery of that animal species after the drought and thus the long term survival of the tribe. From our modern perspective, tribal cultures may seem quite oppressive of the individual, with arranged marriages (constrained by totem groups and other mechanism to ensure as much genetic diversity as possible within the tribe), or body adornments and piercings that we might regard from our perspective as mutilations or abuse, conducted sometimes on even young children.
Modern law turned all this on its head, as can be seen from the Big Three map, with human attention turning from the environment and community and focusing very much on the individual. Only relatively recently has some attention been turned back toward the environment and the community. Despite this, what could almost be called the cult of the individual, has become very strong, with self-publication of our needs, thoughts, desires, ambitions, posted on social networks, blogs and the like, and so many youngsters just wanting to be famous, doesn't matter what for, just famous. Apparently, according to a radio 4 interview, I should have a right to listen to my music on whichever of my devices I choose whenever I want.
I hope it is reasonably clear from the above that a re-integration of these fragmented perspectives will provide us with a more useful map as we make our way onward through time.
Other integral maps
Over the years I have occasionally presented the Big Three of environment, the community and the self, as an integrating model, on courses and at various workshops including those at UK permaculture convergences, always with positive responses and, so far, unanimous support from participants. At one event I even found Satish Kumar (editor of Resurgence) presenting a workshop at the same time as me on Soil, Soul and Society; that is, the same integral map or model with different titles for the Big Three primary perspectives.
Similarly, Ken Wilbur, who is amongst the world's foremost thinkers on integral perspectives, describes the environment, community and self as the Big Three which are essential for us to take into account. Wilbur went on to develop a four fold map he calls AQAL, which is an even more sophisticated tool for both the analysis and synthesis of system designs, among other things, and offers excellent opportunities for permaculture designers. However, I have found the Big Three entirely adequate for much of my work and thinking and in many ways both simpler to present, understand and use.
I often start a session on the ethics of permaculture design by asking the group what aspects of reality do we need to address in order to design genuinely sustainable systems. In the early nineties people would come up with long lists of things before finally someone would suggest "everything", which was the answer I was looking for. Interestingly, doing this same exercise today provokes the suggestion "everything" almost immediately, which I guess we could take as a measure of change.
The suggestion "Everything" meant I could draw a big empty circle and label it so. "Everything" means not just all the external stuff like landscapes, trees, food, transport, buildings etc. etc. but also all the internal stuff like thoughts, emotions, knowledge systems, psychology, group dynamics etc. etc.
However, a big circle containing everything is not necessarily very useful for designing sustainable systems so we need to do something else to make it useful, so I divide the circle into the three primary perspectives. I often draw these as overlapping, to suggest a sort of blurring at the edges of these perspectives, but this is not necessary. From here we can then look from each perspective in turn and consider what are the essential requirements or criteria for each? What do we absolutely have to get right?
As usual, as permaculture designers we are free to look at the work of others in these areas and assemble our own priorities. We may come up with a difference in details but fundamentally we will cover the same ground, something like the following. (I have deliberately left the community perspective pretty sparse at the moment, for reasons I shall explain as we go on).
Some more detail on each of these criteria within the three primary perspectives will make things more clear. The environment is, perhaps surprisingly as it is so massively complex, relatively simple. Much of this will already be familiar to permaculture designers but I consider there are two important points which I will make at the end of the following section.
Essential requirements, criteria or areas of attention, within the environment.
The most important criteria in the environment is the air, or atmosphere. It is highly likely that our activities have altered, and are still altering, the composition of the atmosphere to such an extent that the temperature of the earth is likely to rise such that many forms of life that currently exist may become extinct, including us. So an absolute priority must be to drastically reduce the carbon dioxide that we currently put into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels, ideally to zero. A parallel action is to rebuild the ecological systems that extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and those that store it safely, including plant systems, especially those including trees, and sphagnum bogs.
The importance of water is familiar to permaculture designers, as is the growing concern over water scarcity and any designs involving landscapes (however small!) will consider methods of increase the trapping, storage and cleaning of water.
Soil as the medium for growth and the easiest and most accessible storage for water. It is prone to erosion and degradation through the loss of nutrients and minerals. Permaculture designers will generally give attention to soil creation, building and fertility.
Biomass (essentially plant material) is the principle biological storage for carbon dioxide. In a temperate climate, a significant store fro biomass is in the soil as humus (in a tropical system, most of the biomass is in the plants and animals). We can also take biomass out of the usual cycle of plant growth, death, breakdown, by creating and using plant textiles and wooden structures, to give only two examples.
Biodiversity represents a pool of unique life forms with unique characteristics that cooperate to produce the living aspect of the environment. Permaculture designs will strive to conserve existing biodiversity on a site and generally increase it.
So, as I said at the start of this section, there are two main points to make here. Firstly, it should be clear that all these essential criteria are interrelated, in that plants extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, build soil which in turn stores more water which is then available to the plants for further growth, and so on.
The second is that all these criteria are relatively easy to monitor on a site. We can calculate our carbon dioxide emissions fairly accurately using carbon foot-printing or similar methods. We can measure soil building and hence to an extent water storage in the soils. We can measure water quality as it leaves the site. And we can monitor biodiversity through relatively simple observation. The questions we can ask our selves run along the lines of,;
are the emissions of carbon dioxide from the site increasing, staying the same, or decreasing?
is the site storing more water each year, the same amount, or less?
Is the water cleaner when it leaves than when it arrives?
Is the soil increasing in quantity (depth) and quality (fertility)?
Is there more biomass each year, the same, or less?
Has biodiversity increased, remained the same, or decreased?
Answers to these simple questions will give us good performance indicators for the success, or not, of the system from the environmental perspective.
The question then arises, is it possible to generate similar essential criteria for the other primary perspectives and thus monitor them in a similar way? The following provides tentative examples to give some idea of how we might progress, bearing in mind David Holmgren's mantra, “there are no sacred cows in permaculture; everything is relative.”
Essential requirements, criteria or areas of attention, for the Self.
If I draw a circle to represent something we could call “the whole self”, its rather like back at the start, drawing a circle and labelling it “everything”, that is, it may be true, but not that useful. So again, it is more useful for us to consider different aspects of the self, while recognising that somehow all these apparently different aspects all relate to the same being.
What labels we apply or how many different aspect we define, does not really matter, just so long as they cover all the essential areas. I tend to use a four fold division which I got from the work of Carl Jung, but there are many antecedents to this fourfold perspective and also many alternative perspectives. Jung's will do adequately here by way of explanation.
I will start with the physical as, in many ways, this is the basis or foundation of all the others.
Our physical bodies are as much an intrinsic part or aspect of the larger environment as any other creature or plant or whatever. In order to generate genuinely sustainable or regenerative systems, its essential that we care for our bodies. Rural people have known this for millennia; given the often extremely demanding physical work of a peasant lifestyle in the past, giving yourself a “bad back” might mean that you or your family starved. Hence it is from peasant societies that the forms of movement now known as the martial arts first developed, particularly T'ai chi, as physical disciplines to ensure sustainable use of the body.
Similarly, many of the weapons of the martial arts are agricultural implements; a peasant could not afford a sword as a tool of defence. So in our gardening (and indeed, in all our physical activities) we can turn any repetitive movement associated with a particular task, into a physical exercise that forms part of an overall physical discipline. This requires that we first learn to move more correctly and I have found T'ai chi an invaluable guide in this (others have similarly used yoga or aikido but I find the forms and exercises of T'ai chi more adaptable to everyday activities, such as washing up). My first T'ai chi teacher got us to walk very, very slowly, so we could observe what was happening (much as we survey an existing landscape). Within half a dozen steps it was clear that none of us in the class actually knew how to walk! This is a very good start; we are now consciously incompetent.
We could put a lot more in here, such as personal diet but this is enough for now to give the idea.
We are emotional beings, in that a wide range of emotions are available to our experience. We like some (such as happiness and love) and are not so keen on others (pain, despair). Whatever, they come and go in our attention and sometimes ones we don't like hang around for ages and we feel like we can't get rid of them. They can become severe limiting factors in our activities and leave us crippled or frozen or otherwise stuck.
Thus methods of dealing with emotional distress would be very useful to include in designing for the self. Again, much work has already been done in these areas; examples include co-counselling, support groups, shadow work, role play.
Again, much work has been done in this area and here I will use Bloom's taxonomy of the cognitive domain as a simple example. I don't intend to say much about this here other than to say that Bloom considered knowledge to be the simplest, as in 2+2=4, with evaluation being the most complex, as in choosing between two or more designs for a site.
Some people are happy to call this spiritual. Swami J calls this area meditation and we could also mention mindfulness. Again, much work has been done here already and individuals will generally develop their own individual approaches or adopt or adapt that which fits best.
Speaking generally, the individual/self is the most amenable to change in that we can, in theory anyway, make choices as individuals and stick to them. Also, here is where change can be fastest, as in, "snaps fingers", like that. Permaculture design is exactly right in placing so much emphasis here as it is our individual choices which favour either destructoculture or permaculture (which is also why its a shame that the individual is not given such recognition in the ethics).
Essential requirements, criteria or areas of attention, for the Community
The environment is actually very easy. We have a vast wealth of knowledge from pretty much all environments on how to apply our ecological principles and work with nature to regenerate or create hugely productive environments. In the area of the self, a very wide range of options are available to us.
I will state clearly here that in my own opinion, it is the community that requires the most effort and is the most challenging to work with. This is reflected by the vagueness and paucity of the criteria in the graphic above.
When working with groups, I have regularly asked them to brainstorm essential criteria in the domain of the community, things that we have to get right. In each case we will generate a list of a dozen or more key aspects, often with some difference between groups. This is an exercise that is well worth repeating regularly and it would be useful to collate such lists from multiple sources.
Here I will just give an example taken from Fukuoka which has an elegant simplicity. Fukuoka gives two essential criteria for the survival of human communities, as follows (I have paraphrased his work):
the growth and cultivation of the highest quality food
the care and nurture of young humans
I could give examples of the much longer lists generated with design course groups over the years but I think it would be more useful for designers and teachers to generate their own lists for a more general collation and discussion at some point. It is also here that Indigenous knowledge could be profoundly important.
Succession, development, growth or just change
In some of the examples I have given above (and please remember, these are only given as examples to make a point) there is an implicit concept or idea of development or growth. In the second part of this piece on Integral Permaculture Design, I will look at these concepts in greater detail, as this is where considerable contention may arise, particularly, and understandably, from Indigenous peoples.