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 – 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.

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.

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.

Moving from patterns to details – things that make you go hmmm…


In trying to illustrate the part 1 article, I tried to find a system diagram for a balanced natural system online to illustrate my duck/ corn example. I couldn’t. I could find many versions of the  dysfunctional human organizational systems presented in the book, The Fifth Discipline but not a natural (functional) one.

I had to draw it myself.

Moving from Pattern to Details

Well I’ve been on this permaculture home study journey for about 2 months and am about to start my overall design.  I’ve got tons of ideas from my various readings which so far have included:

  • Earth Users Guide to Permaculture, Rosemary Morrow
  • Edible Front Yard, Ivette Solier (from local library) – reviewed in earlier post
  • Perennial Vegetables, Eric Toensmeir (from local library)
  • The Resilient Garden, Carol Deppe
  • about half of Little House on a Small Planet, Shay Salomon & Nigel Valdez
  • and the echo follows – reviewed in earlier post
  • Polyculture Handouts – reviewed in earlier post
  • Gaia’s Garden, Toby Hemenway (from local library)
  • A Forest Garden Pattern Language – excellent resource available from Regenerative Designs.
  • Re localizing Your Urban Lifestyle – excellent resource available here from Joanne Poyourow. I hope to talk more about zones in a later post.
  • How not to play the game – another interesting online article from John Micheal Greer, the author of The Long Descent
  • Online PDC Course – Right now I’m up to the lesson on Soil Ecology

I’ve got a pretty good idea of the various parts of my site analysis, I just haven’t drawn it up yet.

© Copyright Oast House Archive and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.

Before moving forward though, I needed to synthesize all of these learning to better find my process of design. To do this, I looked permaculture design using a systems approach. A simple way of looking at a single natural population would be as a renewable stock (the population of say ducks–since I’m reading the Resilient Gardener) constrained by a renewable stock (food, i.e. corn).  On a given amount of land with the goals of raising ducks and growing corn,the main system components I notice are :

  • the amounts of ducks on the land,
  • the number of  corn plants you have,
  • the rate that the duck population increases and decreases over time,
  • the rate that food supply grows  and is harvested over time,
  • the way that the amount of corn available for harvest constrains the duck population,
  • the way that the carrying capacity of the land constrains the amount of corn available,
  • the way that the corn travels to the population i.e. the place where the transfer between ducks and food takes place.

In permaculture terms we call the amount of food harvested (per amount of land),  the yield.  while we call the place where the transfer of nutrients between the ducks and food occurs, the edge.

I can restate the permaculture principles this way:

  • Produce a yield – Be able to generate a harvest of food for the ducks.
  • Store energy – Since energy is stored in biomass, create a stock or storage of both ducks and available corn.
  • Leverage feedback – A person managing this system would not increase the duck reproduction rate, or number of ducks too sharply, they would eat more corn than could be grown over time  and slowly (or quickly)  both populations would collapse. They would need to watch this carefully.
  • Use renewable resources – If  I fed the ducks from a 50 gallon drum (or whatever volume drum) of store-bought dried corn, the duck population would crash when I ran out of food.  If I grow the food, I can support some level of a  sustainable duck population  based on the amount of corn harvested basically forever.
  • No waste – If you consider the duck poop as an ingredient of the compost pile, the poop would make the land more fertile and increase the corn yield.  The system that  consisted of 2 stocks before, would grow to three stocks: ducks, corn plants and compost.
  • Patterns – for this analysis I’m analyzing this duck/food system  using the pattern of a renewable stock constrained by a separate renewable stock.
  • Reciprocity /integration – As this simple 2  function/2 stock system becomes more complex  and integrated (by adding the composting function), it becomes more productive.
  • Diversity – If  I add different types of ducks (or even chickens) or  different types of duck foods,( corn, duck chow, and squash)  to the system, it becomes more stable. If insects destroy one type of food , the others would still remain and be able to feed the ducks.
  • Small and slow – Sharp changes to the growth rate of the ducks or decreases to the harvest rate  for the corn will cause the system to crash. Small and slow changes are preferable. Systems especially living systems can produce some unintended consequences particularly when time delays hide consequences.
  • Embrace change – Over time, natural systems change, growing more and more complex. As more integration occurs, more populations can be added to the overall system increasing the overall yield.

Knowing all of this, how do you grow  a more stable population over time? Well, it follows you can (not in any particular order):

  1. Make changes to the system to increase the production rate (of the food).
  2. Make changes to the system to reduce decreases in yield due to losses (like the loss of corn due to spoilage).
  3. Increase the number of functions provided (from raising food and raising ducks to doing these two things plus creating compost)
  4. Increase the number of elements you have in the system producing a yield (from just corn to corn, slugs and rainwater from the roof– all of these would support  the food/duck system)
  5. Substitute local producers for non local ones (to conserve energy)
  6. Substitute renewable producers for non-renewable ones
  7. Increase the  diversity of elements included and products (stocks) created
  8. Introduce small and slow changes to reduce oscillations
  9. Increase stocks over time through succession
  10. Re-consider wastes as “foods” for  other  system elements (View problems as unfilled niches.)
  11. Monitor and reconfigure  edges so that transfers can happen more easily and efficiently
  12. Create and check new feedback loops.

I can use all of these methods to change my suburban property to one based on permaculture principles.  On a given amount of land (my property) with the primary functions of heating, cooling, creating electricity, raising food, recycling and capturing water, for my property I’ll look at:

  • my desired stocks of money, energy, skills, biodiversity and recyclable materials and the yields of these stocks
  • the  elements I’ll use to generate these yields , (like the number of ducks and corn plants)
  • the rates that these stocks are created and degraded
  • the factors that constrain my use  of these stocks (like  the amount of corn available for harvest constrains the duck population).
  • the key locations of the transfers

More about this in Moving from Patterns to Details part 2.

Musings on Polyculture — Part 2

Anyway, here are the musings. For some reason the book The Elephant and the Flea by Charles Hardy came to mind. Hardy talks about the decline in conventional full-time jobs and the  shift to what he calls “portfolio work”, a collection of different bits and pieces of self-employed, part-time, temp paid work and volunteer work.  Hardy says:

“Already, by 1996, in Britain 67 percent o f British businesses had only one employee, the owner and in 1994 so-called micro-enterprises employing less than five people made up 89 percent of all businesses.”

Hardy suggests that we are moving from an economy dominated by large corporations (elephants) to one where portfolio work predominates (fleas). Though Hardy doesn’t say this, the elephants aspire to  a global scope of activities while the fleas tend to focus more locally.

I’ve certainly moved for working for an elephant for the life of a flea. Right now my portfolio of activities include:

  • paid work as non-profit consultant
  • contract work for a specific non-profit
  • volunteer work for a program that one day may turn into a paid position
  • unpaid work on this blog
  • networking
  • creating a permaculture homestead

All of these positions revolve around the interest areas of sustainability and permaculture.

When I worked for the corporation I did one thing, paid work for the corporation.

What’s my point?

  • Elephants are dependent on both peak oil and global capital to survive. They are more likely to collapse should these “petroleum-based fertilizers” no longer be available. They are more susceptible to such diseases as credit default swaps and stock price drops due to global currency fluctuations.   We see that today. As the stock market crashes or Italy (or Greece or whoever) defaults on their debt, the elephants fall.  Main street is only affected to the extent that they have bought into a parasitic reliance on the elephant or the resource systems supporting the elephant. (Rapidly rising oil prices affect us only to the extent that we haven’t invested in renewable energy sources.)
  • Portfolio life requires a different view of networking.  In the corporation, you as the individual tie into the network established by the corporation. This network is basically the energy circulation system of the elephant; the network that keeps the animal functioning. To the extent there is networking outside of the corporation, it is with other elephants – suppliers, regulators, distributors. As a flea, you are part of a  networking ecosystem on your own.  Networking is critical but the network tends to be more multipurpose. Fleas who attend at networking sessions with a lot of representatives of elephants, tend to be undervalued.

Fleas need to create out a local ecosystem composed of a variety of “plants” of various sizes and types: an internet community,meetup groups, traditional non profits and small businesses. Fleas need to seek out enterprises that are either physically local or “conceptually local”, online all revolving around the common theme. These enterprises will offer a nourishing environment with minimal energy expenditure.

  • Portfolio life is less secure, at least initially. Hardy says:

“Many will choose to live all their lives as fleas, valuing the freedom of independence over the dubious security of employment.”

I’ve found this to be true at least initially. But once you set up the network ( like once the mixed vegetable garden takes hold), it should require less energy to maintain, be more resistant to the shocks of rising oil prices and produce a greater yield.  This portfolio life is another strategy of the finance and economic petal of the permaculture flower.

Musings on Polyculture — Part 1