The Path of Least Resistance

I just finished reading The Path of Least Resistance by Robert Fritz. Robert is a systems thinker whose work was profiled in the blog Leverage Points as one of the path of least resistance10 best systems thinking books of the past 10 years (or so).  He presents systems concepts in a very non-technical way demonstrating them as an artist-like way of creation.

Anyway, after reading the path of Least Resistance I am really struck with the frequency with which we in general see things as problems, such as:

  • the problem of global warming
  • the problem of ecological disconnection
  • The problem of unhealthy food
  • The problem of ineffective action.

Fritz argues that an orientation that tries to attack and eliminate the “problem”  leads to system oscillation. One takes action for a little while and once the pain becomes less intense, one relaxes and the problem returns.  This is happening because while you attack the problem, you really haven’t done anything to change the system underlying the problem.

He suggests that creating a totally new vision independent of the constraints of the existing system is a much more effective approach.

This reminds me of Donella Meadows’ work, Places to intervene in a System where she ranks 12 ways to bring about change in a system be it a life activity, group, organization or business from least to most effective.  Most of the problem solving efforts that we take fall into the least effective categories, typically throwing money and resources at the “problem” or “repairing the physical infrastructure”.  Fritz’s approach falls into one of the more effective categories, changing the fundamental goal of the system.Thinking in Systems

When one sets the permaculture goal, one creates a fundamental goal of the system that engages the values of earth care, people care and resource share.

I’ve followed many a permaculture blog since starting this blog and completing the PDC. I’ve found myself being exposed to thousands of little “solutions;”  thousands of little elements that supposedly fit within a larger permaculture project.  I’m not sure if it”s the blogging or facebooking writing framework or the biases of our culture that encourages these little solution snippets but we seem to be stuck on describing these least effective ways of effecting the system rather than the higher level ones.

The model Fritz presents starts with the vision and current reality and then presents three stages of the creative cycle, germination, assimilation and completion. The PDC process I participated in emphasized vision and current reality and then presented a ton of information but really didn’t present the “how to” of the process of germination, assimilation or completion.  As this blog continues to explore permaculture beyond the garden I hope I can find more resources that focus on these creative stages.  Or maybe I can create them myself.

Have you seen other permaculture design resources that focus on these aspects?

See also Moving from Patterns to Details part 2


Moving from Patterns to Details – part 2

Photo courtesy Victoria Pickering

In an earlier post, Changing our Thinking, I talked about Donella Meadows’ article, Leverage Points, Places to Intervene in a System. The article which is an excerpt from her book, Thinking in Systems,  lists ways to intervene in  from easiest to most difficult; from producing the least impact to producing the greatest impact.

I found these line up quite well with Stewart Brand’s Six S’s of Building from the book, How Buildings Learn.  He lists six elements within a  building and classifies them from the most permanent to easiest to change:

  • site (location and building orientation)
  • structure
  • skin
  • services (functions like heating cooling)
  • space plan
  • stuff

For outdoor design, I make the following correspondences:

  • site (location and orientation )
  • slopes, swales, large trees
  • fences, boundaries and edges
  • functions
  • planting layouts and zones
  • specific plantings, animals or other elements

Lining these up with Donella’s system leverage points gives me a nice way to look at modifying my system from items that are easiest to do (but produce the least impact) to those most difficult to do (and produce the greatest impact).

 Ease of Modification  Natural Environment Indoor Designed Environment Outdoor Designed Environment  Meadow’s Leverage Points
 Easy  Bare ground to grasses  stuff Specific plantings, animals or other elements 12.Change rates of flows, 11.Increase size of stocks
 Herbs and grasses  space plan planting layouts 10.Modify physical arrangement of flows and stocks, 9.Adjust length of delays
 Scrubs, herbs and grasses  services  functions  8.Strengthen balancing feedback loops. 7.Balance (reduce the strength of) reinforcing feedback loops, 6.Increase access to feedback
 Low canopy trees, shrubs and herbs  skin  fences, boundaries zones and edges  5.Change the rules (eliminate constraints to expand or better use the zone or edge)
 Mixed Canopy forest  structure slopes, swales large trees  5.Change the rules (by adding incentives and punishments), 4.Evolve the system structure, 3. Change the  system goals
 Most Difficult  Climax Forest  site  site 2.Change paradigms, 1.Transcend Paradigms

This sets the priorities of the list  I provided previously.

 Priority Ease of Modification Meadow’s Leverage Points Potential Changes
A Easiest 12.Change the rates of flows, Make changes to the system to increase the production rate (of food).Make changes to the system to increase the efficiency of food production.
 A  11.Increase the size of stocks Make changes to the system to reduce decreases in yield due to losses (like the loss of corn due to spoilage).Increase available storage.
B  10.Modify physical layouts of flows and stocks,  Change layouts of planting areas, animal storage areas etc. within each zone.
 B 9.Adjust length of delays
 C 8.Strengthen balancing feedback loops. Increase the number of elements you have in the system producing a yield (from just corn to corn, slugs and rainwater from the roof– these would support  the food/duck system).Increase the  diversity of elements included and products (stocks) created.
 C  7.Balance (reduce
the strength of) reinforcing feedback loops,
 Increase the number of functions provided (from raising food and raising ducks to doing these two things plus creating compost)
 C  6.Increase access to
 Create and check new feedback loops.
 D 5.Change the rules (eliminate constraints to expand or better use zones or the edge) Identifying and configuring the zones.Monitor and reconfigure edges so that transfers can happen more easily and efficiently.
 E 5.Change the rules (by adding incentives and punishments)
 E  4.Evolve the system structure Substitute local producers for non local ones (to conserve energy).Substitute renewable producers for non-renewable ones.Increase stocks over time through successionIntroduce small and slow changes to reduce oscillations.
 E  3. Change the system goals  Change goals for example from producing an ornamental front yard to an edible front yard.  Choose to create a food forest.
 F  2. Change paradigms  Re-consider wastes as “foods” for  other  system elements. (View problems as unfilled niches.)
 F Most difficult 1.Transcend paradigms Choose an entirely new site, one that is more suitable in terms of site location and orientation.

I’m ready to begin to list out my projects. I think as I develop my design I’ll work from F (greatest design impact) to A (least impact).  This way I’ll design from concepts to details.

I’ll then develop a list of projects. There I’ll prioritize the projects probably from A-F (from the easiest to carry out to the most difficult).  I’ll use the evaluation matrix I found here: Evaluating Adaption Projects.

What do you think?   This post will probably get tweaked as I reflect on it a little more. I’m probably also going to create a new projects page to make it easier to find the projects as I move forward.

Changing our Thinking – Part 2

While on the subject of climate change and Donella Meadows’ 12 leverage points, I just found this PowerPoint slide suggesting ways to intervene in the climate change system. It identifies ongoing initiatives specific to each of Donella’s 12 leverage points. Here’s the list:

 12. Constants: Carbon Tax, Carbon Price   6. Information Flow: Democratic governments, science and media, independent internet
 11. Buffers: Carbon sequestration, Carbon offsets   5. System Rules:  Emissions Standards, Pollution Laws, Polluter Pays, Rights of Nature
 10. Structures: Carbon Sinks (10K trees)   4. Power Change:  Direct and radical democracy
  9. Delays:  Energy Global Descent North   3. Goal:  Climate Justice (10K trees)
  8. Negative Feedback: Climate Movement, Environmental Protection Agencies, Nature’s’ Rights Litigation   2. Mindset or Paradigm:  Planetary Permaculture
  7. Positive Feedback:  Carbon Farming, Permaforestry  1. Power to Transcend Paradigms: Great Transition

This slide is part of a 165 slide presentation, Permaculture Cooperation: Climate Change and Peak Debt made by Nicholas Roberts in March 2010.  The presentation  was one of the Permaculture and Cooperatives Talks of Permaculture North Sydney.   (FYI, it looks like the links to the speakers notes for most of the talks are accessible from this site.)

Even though there is no audio to go along with the slides, this looks like a great presentation to check out for an overview of different responses to climate change and peak oil as viewed by a long-term permaculturist. Since the speaker is from Australia, this presentation has more of a world-wide flavor than we typically get here in the States.

Link to previous post: The Greatest Challenge is to Change our Thinking

The Greatest Challenge is to Change our Thinking

© Copyright Martyn Gorman and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons License

Two of the core principles of the permaculture paradigm are to first observe and understand then intervene in the system leveraging feedback.  I’ve studied systems thinking informally for a little while now.  One of the blogs that I regularly read to add my understanding of systems is Leverage Points.  Their recent post talks about change to our thinking being the most important challenge in responding to climate change.

Bob Doppelt of Leverage Points writes:

Capital is now flowing into clean technology sectors, in part to reduce climate-damaging carbon emissions. However, as important as new technologies are, we won’t solve the climate crises until we overcome a much more fundamental problem: our maladaptive beliefs and practices.

Read the complete text of Bob’s article  here.

In reading this I’m reminded of the chapter Leverage Points – Places to Intervene in a System of the late Donella H. Meadows’ book, Thinking in Systems.  The change in our thinking that Bob Doppelt writes about equates to a change of paradigm, the mind-set out of which the system – its goals, structure, rules, delay and parameters – arise according to Meadows.  Meadows contends that of the 12 possible system leverage points, making a change to the paradigm is the second most powerful place to intervene in a system. This may be why it is so difficult.

In the article Doppelt contends

Second-order change is difficult because it requires three factors. People must feel significant dissonance between their current conditions and a desired new state. They must also experience a sufficient sense of efficacy or confidence in their ability to do what’s needed to eliminate the dissonance. And, just as important, they must believe that the benefits of making the change significantly outweigh the detriments. Without adequate sense of dissonance, efficacy, and benefits, people can remain stuck in less-than optimal or destructive patterns for long periods of time.

More and more people have observed the current climate situation and are feeling the dissonance in it. Permaculture is an alternative to the current  paradigm, the one from which the problem of climate change has arisen. Books, articles, lectures, training and blogs like this one help us see what is possible.  They show us the benefits of a new paradigm and help us to see that we can make it happen.