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


PDC Learnings – techniques

The last aspect of the element/pattern/technique triad is  the specific technique used to meet one’s overall goals. Permaculture techniques tend to involve low or appropriate technology solutions which maximize the use of natural, recycled or recyclable materials.  Some of the techniques we looked at were:

photo: Greenminds Ecological Design

  • sheet mulching – a technique to build soil
  • swale construction – a technique to prevent runoff)
  • composting – a technique to decompose and recycle organic matter
  • rainwater catchment – a technique to catch and store water
  • cobb construction – a building technique

Techniques abound and are well discussed on other websites. It’s not my intent to reinvent the wheel; just to complete the picture.  For more information see these resources:

  • This section of Heathcote Community’s Online Permaculture Course provides more suggestions.
  • Also see Appropedia, an appropriate technology wiki and
  • Natural Homes a website providing picture of the home with a short description and links to the owner’s or the builders website for over 400 homes constructed with natural building materials,

PDC Learnings – Patterns

I think of both patterns and techniques as the ways that elements interact with each other.  The patterns are the strategies that produce an overall outcome while the techniques are the specific tactics that refine this outcome. The intrinsic characteristics of the specific elements selected offer a custom “solution to the design problem”. In this way, the design moves from patterns to details. This post will focus on patterns; the next on techniques.

A pattern is essentially a ordered arrangement of objects or events in time or in space.As we create a new system or modify an existing one, we create or change the rules that order the arrangement. Some of the physical patterns typically discussed in permaculture are:

  • waves
  • scattered distribution
  • branches
  • lobes or keyholes
  • spirals
  • nets
  • tiles

Photo of Cornucopia Community Garden Calgary Canada courtesy of ItzaFineDay

We like to marvel and reflect on these patterns, but many of them are not really implemented meaningfully into design. One sees many scatter, branch, flow and lobe patterns in design but very few waves, spirals, nets or tiles. 99% of the time when I’ve seen spiral, it been an herb spiral.  i think we have a way to go to fully understand the benefits and methods of incorporating these patterns into our designs.

Another type of “pattern” is the practice of taking action first at the highest levels of permanence discussed in two earlier posts. In my PDC these levels of permanence were presented as:

  • climate
  • landform
  • water and erosion
  • zoning and legal systems
  • buildings and infrastructure
  • access and circulation
  • zones of use
  • wildlife and vegetation
  • soil
  • microclimates
  • aesthetics

Changing features at the “top” of the list produces greater impacts than those at the bottom, so a thoughtful design will find and address landform issues for example before  tacking vegetation issues. Changing features at the “top” of the list also takes more effort or resources, so one may choose to leave them as they are and select elements better suited for the environment as is.

Another type of “pattern” is the method of completing the design process.  This is circular pattern that moves through time (or maybe a better description is a coil or a spiral).  Reciprocity between elements typified in guild design is another circular pattern where the circulation occurs between elements in physical space.  Yet another is the repeatable pattern that an ecosystem exhibits as it changes over time from a immature to a mature one.

Branching river, South Eastern Australia. Photo: Peter Markowich

Here some of the more typical sources of information on patterns:

  • A Pattern Language is a 1977 book by Christopher Alexander and others on architecture, urban design and community.  Permacultursts are trying to expand the concept of patterns as described in this work to define ecological design patterns:
  • The book Edible Forest Garden volume 2 presents 57 patterns for use in developing the forest garden.
  • Also see link to Forest Gardening: Vision and Patterns that provides a map of these pattern as a pdf to download.  Thanks Appleseed Permaculture LLC.
  • Decoding Pattern Part 1 is a great article from Big Sky Permaculture. Unfortunately, there is no part two.

I think of these as the primary permaculture principles that deal with patterns, system behavior and reciprocity.

  • Apply self-regulation and accept feedback – We need to discourage inappropriate activity to make sure that systems can continue to function well.
  • Produce no waste – By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
  • Design from patterns to details – By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.
  • Integrate rather than segregate – By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.

PDC Learnings – Elements

Well, I’ve finally finished the PDC. I think I  have the big picture.

Based on what I finally learned, I’m going to revise my most recent post.  I still have 4 main areas of study but I intend to break them up differently:

  1. The process of design using a permaculture approach.  This consists of the steps of:
    1. setting the goals for the design (which has already been discussed in this blog),permaculture design process
    2. completing the site assessment (which I discussed last week),
    3. the actual process of completing the design and
    4. implementing the design
    5. and finally, evaluating the design
  2. The elements of a design. These are both the elements that are present on the site and elements (the animals, plants, insects, buildings, equipment etc.) that you as designer add as part of the design.
  3. The patterns, both those inherent in an ecosystem and the physical patterns inherent in nature. In nature, elements interact in specific patterns.
  4. The techniques that you as designer use to mimic or duplicate the natural patterns.

In this post I wanted to cover elements. Elements have needs (inputs) and yields (outputs). One of the key patterns inherent in the ecosystem is that the outputs of one element supply the inputs of another.  Elements are connected in reciprocity.  Elements are living things or equipment that convert the nutrients or water from one form to another either 1) using them to either create a yield or 2) breaking them down to more basic components.

I don’t need to reinvent the wheel and repeat things that others have said about elements. Here some of the more typical things that permaculture says about elements:

  • First, the classic permaculture diagram showing inputs, outputs and intrinsic characteristics of …a chicken from Permaculture Free Library.

A couple extra points that I found important as I did my design.

  • I found it helpful to actually write out the inputs and outputs of the existing elements on my site and see what I was missing. For a typical suburban home,  resources come in and out of the site from far away . Water, for example is conveyed from offsite and used to water plants onsite. Water is an input to plants, while stormwater is taken offsite. There is very little reciprocity on the site.  My design captured and reused more of the resources onsite, locally.
  • Look at elements in the big picture categories of plants, animals/insects, structures and events.  Be aware that your site will need animals (sources of beneficial insects, manure and insect predators) and decomposing organisms (compost, mushrooms) to connect inputs and outputs into a complete cycle.
  • Finally elements play into these basic permaculture principles:
    • Obtain a yield – Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing
    • Produce no waste – By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
    • Integrate rather than segregate – By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.

PDC Learnings – site assessment

Well, I’m just about done with my PDC.  There’s one more session to go.  We will complete our designs and  present them when we next meet in March.

What if you haven’t been able to attend a PDC? I’ve tried to present several online resources I’ve found for folks who can’t afford to go or can’t find a class that they can attend nearby.  The posts from this series hopefully will give you some useful information for continued home study.

Looking at the mass of information provided during class in retrospect we have covered four major areas of study. We looked at:

  1. the permaculture design goals and principles (which have already been discussed in this blog),
  2. the design process,
  3. aspects of site assessment and,
  4. some of the elements that incorporate the strategies described by the principles that can be introduced into a site.

I wanted to talk about item 3, site assessment in this post, item 4 elements and element selection, next week and leave item 2 until I finish my design.

We learned to assess the site one level at a time using the levels of permanence. Here are a a good link on site assessments from another blog:

A fairly simple reflection that I had during the January session was that each area of permanence could be considered as a separate area of study.  The levels of permanence presented in our session were:

  • climate
  • landform
  • water and erosion
  • zoning and legal systems
  • buildings and infrastructure
  • access and circulation
  • zones of use
  • wildlife and Vegetation
  • quality of soil
  • microclimates
  • aesthetics

(Compare this to my earlier posts on leveraging solutions based on systems design criteria and you’ll see I was not too far off. )

During the PDC we spent about 2 hours on each of these topics (except for aesthetics, zoning and legal requirements). In college I had studied what we covered during the topic “water” for at least 2 semesters.  Here’s some other ideas for more learning in these areas:

  • create  your own self-study course in any of areas using resource text books, permaculture websites or other online materials.
  • Audit or take online free college courses in any of these areas.
  • If you are in college, you could create a permaculture program of study using these topic areas as prerequisite courses.

Can you come up with other ideas?  The PDC material is just a taste.  You can easily spend whatever amount of time you chose to devote to learning about each of these areas.

P.S. A picture of my site assessment is forthcoming as an addition to this post. I’m working through some camera difficulties.

Widening My Circle

I know I’ve been really quiet since starting the PDC.  One reason I think is became I’m synthesizing so much of my earlier permaculture learning with that provided in the class. Through my previously study, I had a great deal of information. I did a lot of study on my own. The way it is coming together in the PDC (particularly through the order in which the instructors present the information  in the PDC)  is giving me new insights into permaculture beyond the garden.   I think I’m waiting for the new learning from the PDC to catch up with the study I had done.

Secondly over the past month, I’ve determined that this blog needs to have a broader focus; that ultimately I have a broader area of  interest than what I’ve been talking about so far.

My original about me/about the blog statement says:

I am interested in investigating permaculture’s relevance to household renovation, municipal water and waste water system design and the transition economy in an urban/suburban context.

Really I am interested in learning about ways and systems to shift our minds not only toward a transition economy but to a more self-determined economy and consciousness. Permaculture as it is typically defined is a subset of this discussion.

Widening the Circle from Resurrection Fern

One of my earlier and most popular posts talked about the book … and the echo followsThis post  focused on  the way that rural poor people in India, Africa Central and  South America were using “permaculture solutions” to make decisions about and gain greater control over the factors that effect their lives. My focus in this blog thus far has been a focus on permaculture to the urban/suburban context because that’s where I live. Nevertheless the solutions of these so-called “third world” people are of interest because we in  the so-called “developed world” who are interested in permaculture are engaging the same forces as we attempt to make this shift to a transition economy.

Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.  

Albert Einstein

Right now I’m struggling a little to articulate the concepts in my mind fully but know from here on out this blog will be covering a little broader territory. I’m sure I will get clearer as I continue to post.

Upcoming Permaculture Design Courses

A number of Permaculture Design Courses are starting up in the fall in Georgia. I’m signed up for the one in Atlanta!! I’ll move this post into the sidebar next week so its always visible.

Shades of Green PDC:  The PDC will be held in the Atlanta area on the first weekend of each month (Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday morning), October 2011 through March 2012. For more information see Shades of Green website.

Koinonia Farm PDC: Oct. 15-22, 2011 in Americus GA with Wayne Weisman of the Permaculture Project LLC .  See Koinonia Event Schedule for details.

For ongoing classes related to permaculture check out:

Athen’s Permaculture Meetup happens regularly at Ben’s Bikes (670 W. Broad St, Athens, GA). Contact athenspermaculture(at) for more information!

Oakhurst Community Gardens always has a class ongoing  that will help with you permaculture efforts (bee keeping, soil amending, fall planting etc.) See their website for their class list.