Put on Your Systems Thinking Cap: What is Whole Systems Design?

This article is directed towards folks visiting our website or work that are unfamiliar with the concepts and frameworks that inform what we do and how we think. What is outlined is only a taste of the depth of systems theory and whole systems design, and hopefully inspires further exploration of the concepts outlined below.

We live in a world of systems. Complex systems. Systems nested within systems. You, me, and everything else can be thought of as systems or an element of a greater system. In the midst of such complexity, the interactions of all the elements of our world can become blurred and even invisible from our conscious observations and decision-making. Have you ever heard the saying, “See the forest for the trees”? This is a widely used idiom that discerns between the observations of each element/factor within a system (trees) as opposed to seeing the system (the forest). What are systems? How do they manifest in the real world? In what ways can we benefit from a “systems thinking” mentality? And most importantly, how do we use it in our work of ecological design? Let us explore.

What is a system?

A system is very simply described as an assembly of elements connected to form a greater whole. Below is a diagram that illustrates a very basic system we can all relate to: the human body. If you are reading this, you have a body, making this a choice example of a system to explore for a moment.

From afar, we see skin, hair, eyes, a nose, and so forth. These are complex systems in and of themselves, composed of billions of cells, nerves, and what have you. Beneath our skin live the systems that make up our skeleton, organs, muscles, veins, nerves and experiences of creativity, thoughts, and spirituality. Again, each of these systems are comprised of interconnected systems that can be observed in isolation but can only function properly when connected. We can observe the heart in great detail, but doing so will not reveal the complex mystery of how it controls the flow of blood or exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide through our lungs, nor how our thoughts, breath or muscles function in and of themselves. You may have become very frightened at one time or another. Your thoughts started to race, your breath became shallow, your heart started to beat rapidly, and your muscles tensed up. You may have then started taking in deep breaths, clearing your mind, and relaxing your muscles, after which your heart was able to slow down and regain equilibrium. This experience describes interconnected systems working in concert as a whole system. This is the only way that systems work — as wholes.

From beyond our skin come our necessary inputs and inherent characteristics or outputs. All of us need oxygen from the air, calories and nutrients from our food, clean water, friends, family, and community, and regular movement and exercise to stay fit. We also all expel carbon dioxide with each breath, go to the bathroom, sweat when it’s hot and shiver when it’s cold, and create things in myriads of manifestations. These inputs and outputs all either come from or exit into further systems. Our food generally comes from agriculture; our oxygen from a healthy, unpolluted, biosphere — the respiration of photosynthesizing organisms; water from a functioning hydrological cycle (or pumped and filtered using energy). Our excrement’s generally enter septic tanks, sewer systems, and eventually the greater ecosystem; plants consume carbon dioxide and deposit it in the form of organic matter or it is trapped in the atmosphere; our body heat warms our surroundings fractions of degrees; our creations of art, music, or science all flow into the cultural systems of human civilization.

This roughly describes the basic whole system of the human body. You may see that even a “simple” or “basic” system is very complex, and hopefully the description makes this clear. You are a system, filled with systems, embedded in systems — each affects the other and vice versa.

[jbox]As a short exercise, map on a piece of paper all the systems you see in your own life. What effects you directly — what do you need and where do those needs come from? Where do your outputs or waste go — what systems are effected, whether beneficially or negatively? I’d like you to visualize your own personal whole system and think about its interconnections.[/jbox]

 

Seeing Whole Systems and Thinking in Systems

After your short exercise, you will have a rough sketch of the many systems that support you personally and the effects of your personal habits and outputs on further systems. This very act of observation is the basis of what we call ecology. Ecology is the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. By mapping your own system, you have effectively mapped a glimpse, if not the entirety, of your ecology: the relations between you and the rest of the systems you rely on and effect. This simple exercise will hopefully bring greater clarity and comprehension of systems and contextualize them to show the connections between each seemingly isolated element with the rest of its surroundings.

[jbox]Take the previous exercise further: name and roughly map two whole systems you interact with on a daily basis — think of your transportation system, community system, or school system, for example. What elements are needed for it to work? Where do the inputs for the system come from and where do the outputs go? Go one step further and illustrate how these systems connect to your previously mapped personal ecology.[/jbox]

A simple systems ecology map of the carbon dioxide ecosystem.

Ecosystems are the root of whole systems design and systems thinking. If you’ve heeded my advice and done the exercises to the best of your ability, you will have just now mapped parts of your personal ecosystem. An ecosystem is a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment. When we start to see whole systems, we start thinking in systems — our vision moves beyond a fixation on isolated elements or problems and we experience an ecosystem-centric point of view. Let’s take a short glimpse at a whole system that is often only seen through isolated elements and problems.

Agriculture. I mentioned it earlier when describing the system of the human body, namely how the main source of our calories and nutrients come from this system. We often hear of many isolated elements or problems plaguing agriculture. Yields. Pesticides. Prices. For the most part, each of these elements or problems are viewed and/or addressed in isolation. For example: When yields are poor, farmers are informed that they need to grow a new high-yielding variety or to apply more nitrogen during peak growth periods. If pests decimate a crop, the farmer looks for ways to eliminate the pest — they’ll plant Genetically Engineered (GE) crops that excrete their own pesticide or spray chemicals to harm or kill the pest. If it costs more to produce a crop than it can fetch on the commodities market, the farmer reaches out for government subsidies.

If we view these problems from a whole systems view, and put on our newly acquired systems thinking caps, we can see that these problems are in fact not isolated and that the “solutions”, in the long run, exacerbate problems as opposed to alleviating them.

Above: Typical monoculture field in the midwest, where one species is grown across many acres of land, soil is exposed for most of the year, and erosion & runoff are high. Below: A polyculture where many species are grown in symbiosis, increasing the net yield of this small parcel, and holding soil in place with perennial roots — and much more!

The farmer with low yields lives in an ecosystem with high rainfall – so high that if she quit farming, her farm would eventually climax as a forest — allowing her to grow mostly anything relatively simply. Let’s say she grows vast monocultures of one or two varieties of corn and soybeans on rotation like many midwestern farmers. Instead of spraying more nitrogen on her crops, which destroys soil carbon & humus, or switching to the latest, greatest hybrid or GE variety, she decides to diversify her cropping system. Over the next 10 years she transitions her system to include polycultures of both annual and perennial crops — planting 100 species and types of plants and turning a good portion of cropland to rotating pasture. She plants nitrogen-fixing plants and nutrient accumulators, and starts cropping in ways that increase soil fertility over time. She starts to spread yields across so many varieties and types that, even if one yields poorly, the system, as a whole, yields well enough that she doesn’t have to sell any land or get another job. Say it was this same farmer whose crop was decimated. She takes the loss in stride and doesn’t spray any chemicals. Instead, she sprays biologically active compost teas that boost plant immune systems, enhancing their inherent pest fighting abilities. While diversifying her farm, she gets a little crop damage here and there, but it’s no longer from just one pest, and she sees so many other insects, she begins to believe that insect diversity is high enough to largely regulate itself. And because she expanded her cropping system beyond just corn and soybeans, her polycultures yield a net income from more specialized crops that is not only sufficient to cover her production costs, she affords the right to accept less and less subsidy money each year until she receives it no longer.

Had she kept growing vast monocultures of the latest greatest variety, applying more nitrogen fertilizer, reactively spraying pesticides and continued the addictive cycle of subsidy check after subsidy check, this farmer would find her system needing more and more inputs over time, with yields, crop loss, and the need for subsidies likely increasing. In short, this farmer would probably live in a perpetual state of agricultural welfare or go out of business. Such is the story of agriculture over the past 60 years…

Examples of Whole Systems Design

It is possible that without you realizing, I’ve taken you through a very hypothetical and rudimentary process of whole systems design. By looking at our imaginary farmer friend’s situation with the Industrial Agriculture Complex — where instead of viewing agriculture as an ecosystem of highly interconnected elements and organisms in relation to their environment, it is viewed as a machine whose parts simply need constant replacing or upgrading and whose elements are only related so long as they achieve desired outcomes — we’ve dipped our feet into the shallow end of the world of whole systems design. Think of whole systems design as an ecosystem framework for sustainably meeting human needs. Consider the following four examples as relatively distinct “organisms” within the ecology of whole systems design.

Ecological Design

In ecological design, we can utilize the processes nature has evolved — such as this wetland system that intercepts & filters runoff and recharges aquifers — in the design of human systems.

This term and practice emerged in the 1970′s at the tail end of the era’s energy crisis. Ecological Design has been defined as “any form of design that minimizes environmentally destructive impacts by integrating itself with living processes.” Examples of this form of design have existed long before the previous definition. Cultures all across the earth and throughout time have integrated their infrastructure and lifestyles with the environment, mostly for the simple fact that before the advent and dispersion of modern agriculture and fossil energy use, there was no other option. Examples range from the ancient agricultural practices in Asia to the thousand year old rainwater cisterns of the Middle East. The practice of ecological design brings all disciplines together — agriculture, architecture, engineering, and so forth — to design human systems that live and work in harmony with ecological principles. Many thinkers have developed and taught distinct principles, and living examples such as pioneer John Todd’s living machine and The New Alchemy Institute exist across the map. Ecological Design is a broad study and practice and has applications in nearly all aspects of human existence. The key to remember is that all humans are designers by nature and everything we create, whether it be in our mind or with our hands and machines, is designed. Meshing our abilities as designers with the principles evolved by nature herself brings us the realm of Ecological Design.

Permaculture Design

A planning technique from Permaculture Designs toolbox, Zones of Use, allows for the conscious placement of elements in accordance to management and harvesting patterns as well as environmental conditions.

Permaculture Design developed from the observations and thoughts of philosopher, scientist, teacher, and renegade statesman Bill Mollison. He developed the theory with his student David Holmgren and exposed it to the world with their first publication of Permaculture One in the late 1970′s. The basis of Permaculture Design originated from the idea that human existence cannot become sustainable without an agriculture that mimics ecological patterns — relying largely on the assembly of perennial crops and plants in agroecosystems. From this idea came the further thinking that human settlement and culture in general could not exist sustainably without the “permanent” ability to adapt using resilient systems in economy, building, water management and so on. Some define permaculture as “permanent agriculture” or “permanent culture” — to describe systems that can exist into the indefinite future by mimicking the processes of ecological succession, where communities proceed through various stages of structure and complexity over time.

I see Permaculture as a design system which aims to connect the realms of economy, ecology, agriculture, government and so on, in such a way as to mimic and replicate the resiliency of natural systems and apply the principles observed and found throughout the natural world. Bill and David, and many since them, have developed useful principles and design tools to make these ideas more easily attained realities — to create home, farm, and community ecosystems that have flows and cycles that function very much like those nature has evolved over time. Design approaches central to this focus are relative location of elements (Zone and Sector Analysis & Planning), single elements with multiple functions, the overlapping of yields and functions throughout space and time, and a myriad of other very useful tools and insights for planning in agriculture, homesteading, and beyond.

Regenerative Design

Nature has evolved resource flows that continually regenerate the entire system. Regenerative Design seeks to utilize these same flows in human designs.

This design methodology and practice also saw its development and definition stem from the era after America’s first energy crisis of the late 1970′s (please notice that energy consumption is a recurring theme in whole systems design). It has seen widespread exposure in recent history with the book Cradle to Cradle, but is still a relatively unknown and unheard term. In Regenerative Design, the overarching aim is to develop systems that renew, revitalize or restore their own sources of energy and raw materials. This expands on the systems ecology we explored earlier when we first learned about what systems are and how they function. To build on the example of the system of the human body — imagine the inputs or needs being met by a system that upcycles the outputs released from the human system. Plants & trees fertilized with composted human waste that take in co2 released from our lungs and respire oxygen, and produce food, medicine and fire wood to keep our bodies satiated, healthy, and warm. That’s quite simple, and a very old practice. Another example looks again to agriculture. Imagine a system that produces economical yields, raw materials for soil fertility and means of reproduction within the limits of the system: nitrogen-fixing plants, coppiced biomass crops for mulch, salable tree crop yields and the seeds to grow more trees. Take these steps further and grow oil crops next to this system – the byproducts of which could power machinery for harvest, processing or storage. Regenerative Design seeks to re-route the inputs and outputs of any systems — to make the outputs on one end the inputs on another, and so forth.

Holistic Management

Alan Savory developed this framework to manage wholes in order to guide them in a direction that increases the ecological, social, and economic functions of the system.

Alan Savory grew up in the Zimbabwean bush in the years before World War II, where he was enthralled by the wild “bush” on the one hand, and puzzled and challenged by the increasing land degradation he witnessed, on the other hand. He spent most of his adult life addressing this puzzle so that future generations could enjoy the bush as much as he had. This journey took him for a whirl as a farmer, game ranch operator, soldier, and politician. He wanted to know why land degradation occurred, what decisions exacerbated the problem, and in what way the problems could not only be addressed, but proactively reversed. Through this he developed Holistic Management: a decision-making framework centered around a holistic goal to test decisions against and feedback loops which make sure that land use decisions continually improve the state of the land managed and bring the holistic goal into fruition, over time. It’s seen huge success in ranching and farming applications using animal impact and grazing, but also for businesses and individuals of all walks and practices. The simple fact is that humans everywhere affect the health of the land through the decisions they make day-to-day; in life, business, as communities and beyond. Designed into this ecosystem centered framework are monitoring benchmarks to make sure that the use of energy, time, and money proceed in a holistic manner — to improve human quality of life (health and happiness) and reverse the ever-increasing degradation of land under management, and perhaps, across the globe.

Closing the Loop

These four examples are only specifics of ways whole systems design have been communicated and replicated throughout our era. Generations past had different methods. Future generations will likely form their own. Keep in mind that the very basic knowledge of what systems are and how they interact – and the subsequent ability to map and see them visually or mentally – is the key to systems thinking and whole systems design. Just as most of us are able to analyze isolated events, problems, or elements, we are also able to “zoom out” to a systems level to see the connections between events, problems, or elements, and how when these things overlap we get the complex interactions we call systems. When we see this, we can start to design from a system’s perspective and bring whole systems into the working order we envision.

How do we use it in our work of Ecological Design? Roots to Fruits utilizes systems thinking and whole systems design applied to the design of agricultural systems, land planning (of which agriculture could be considered a subset), and the multi-disciplinary approaches of Ecological Design — rainwater harvesting, waste management, bioremediation, and so on. We aim to create regenerative systems in these contexts. We work with the tools developed within Permaculture Design in our work of land planning and the frameworks for decision-making developed under Holistic Management in the behind-the-scenes realm of our business operation & management and in our goal setting and feedback loop checking in project work. Overall, we seek to put on our systems thinking cap to meet the mounting challenges created by the predicaments of peak oil, global weirding, and global financial economic tomfoolery.

There is much more on the topics of systems thinking and whole systems design than can possibly be covered in one article. Please refer to the linked material throughout this article for more information.

Comments

12 Responses to “Put on Your Systems Thinking Cap: What is Whole Systems Design?”
  1. Killian says:

    This is an excellent overview! I really have but two quibbles, but they are important ones. The section on permaculture misconstrues the name into an aspect of permaculture that does not actually exist. You state, “These descriptions revolve mainly around a movement-oriented vision of
    permaculture, with a sometimes distracting fixation on a permanence that
    does not exist.” Yet, that fixation does not exist within the principles of permaculture. One of the more important concepts for a permaculturist to come away with in their exploration of regenerative design is that a design is never done.

    The permanence found in this approach to creating systems is that the community – of whatever type, e.g., a pond, a park, a garden, a town – can exist indefinitely. It has nothing to do with any element of the design being permanent. Permaculture stresses resilience for this very reason. In applying the twin principles of multiple inputs to support each element, and each element having more than one output, resilience and efficiency are maximized, as in nature. And it is this way because of impermanence and the need to be resilient, yet adaptable.

    You see limits that do not exist and perhaps are missing commonalities that do exist? The passage on Regenerative Design, for example, is a perfect description of permaculture. And the only real differences between permaculture and Holistic Management is that Savory bothered to get very specific about decision-making where Holmgren and Mollison left the individual to apply the principles as dictated by their circumstances. Savory chooses to say, “This is how you make decisions” where Holmgren and Mollison say, “apply these principles to what you do, for each space is unique and can’t be dictated based on any other space, to achieve sustainability.” (I am paraphrasing both Savory and H&/M.) The reality is, some people need and want a very structured process, and some hate it. It’s not necessarily a case of HM being better for one part of designing and permaculture another; it’s a case of each person or group choosing the tools that fit for them. Personally, I find myself almost automatically rejecting any process that suggests everyone can use the same method to achieve their goals. Life simply isn’t like that. Your essay, as I read it, apportions qualitative usefulness to each, which I think may be an arbitrary choice rather than an inherent reality.

    There is another difference which we have discussed previously. If I have a significant critique of HM, thus far, it is using what we want our lives to be like as a key to goal setting. I prefer permaculture’s approach of determining what the system can provide and designing to that. Some may read this as a distinction without a difference, but I see it as a huge difference. The human tendency to discounting the future and shaping nature to our wills is too strong to give leave unconstrained. The danger is that our culturally inherited need to meet our wants at the expense of the whole and the expense of the future will be given too much reign in the design process if we begin with self-satisfaction. Yes, the emphasis on sustainability is an obvious brake on this in Savory’s process, but why face that little monster at all?

    By beginning with ecosystem services and designing within them, or a
    combination of those limits sustainably enhanced, we avoid the inner
    conflict of meeting wants at the expense of sustainable outcomes. 
    However, I am still studying this aspect of HM and may yet find there is
    no conflict on this point.

    Of course, a fair critique of peramculture might be that a more definitive decision-making process might have been laid out. My view? Thanks to Savory for doing it! Now let’s align these two processes just slightly and we might have a tool kit that not only gives a person or community the freedom to  act locally regardless of any supposed exemplars, but also provides the security and clear pathway afforded by a specific process.

    Non-stupidity,  to twist Mollison’s words into an ungodly mess, is the ability to celebrate the differences and use them creatively.

    I’ll try to get through HM and let you know if I need to eat my words or not. I look forward to further comments and welcome critiques of my own observations.

    An excellent essay!

    • Sharron says:

      HM is a useful process for getting multiple decision makers aligned on a “holisticgoal” via a process that emphasizes quality of life values –  “principles” – vs. wants. I like that HM meets people where they are, transforming wants into values that are refined by the testing questions into a whole system approach. HM decision-making process provides the training wheels for holistic thinking. I agree with your remarks about the attraction/aversion to structure aspects. HM seems to attract extension agents, conventional farmers and other left-brainers in ways that permaculture does not. I think it’s             progress.

      • Killian says:

        I guess I’m having trouble understanding how sustainable systems isn’t the “holisticgoal.” Still reading…

        • Themayfarm says:

          Yes, but sometimes it is a process of unravelling old ways of thinking. That tends to occur in situations where you feel safe, which tends to occur in situations where you are met ‘where you are’ and gently brought along.  The leap to Permaculture is too big for some. 

          • Killian says:

            How is the leap to a more complex process, HM, easier than the leap to permaculture, which is astoundingly simple? Many confuse permaculture with the stuff people heap on top of permaculture that comes from their misunderstandings of it or their own stuff. This strange confusion seems especially prevalent in the US. I don’t notice such comments coming from, say, Australians, where they teach it as part of the school curriculum.

            Thus far, HM is much more difficult to understand. I’ve read all of Savory’s papers and am still not clear on what it is he’s trying to do. Whereas, with permaculture, a couple paragraphs and a perusal of the list of ethics and principles and it was clear as a bell. I didn’t need to read a single book to understand permaculture, per se.

            I think part of the problem people have is they confuse all the techniques and such in the 600+ page Designers Manual with permaculture, itself. If you follow the ethics and principles with some knowledge and commitment, you will design sustainably. This is where the complexity of Savory’s process confuses me as it seems unnecessary.

            Savory says start with a holistic goal. That’s sustainability in my mind. He seems to layer over that a self-centered (not meaning selfish, but literally centered on the self) step of an arbitrary level of consumption wished for. How this is different from the current paradigm, I fail to understand.

            Permaculture deals with this simply as needs analysis. What you need = what lifestyle is important to you. However, I find the focus on need rather than on want an important distinction. Savory’s framing might easily lead one to design to the self rather than nature, regardless of later bringing in sustainability as a limit to be dealt with. Humans discount the future as a default mode. (See Nate Hagen’s posts on the Oil Drum.)

            A permaculture design, by contrast, starts with defining what can be supported via a resource inventory and designs within those parameters except to the extent those parameters can be expanded by speeding succession and creating regenerative systems, in order to satisfy the needs analysis, that become more healthy and productive over time. You end up at abundance without the possible detour into designing to self, thus perhaps overtaxing the system.

            Still in Savory’s book, so take my comments with a grain of salt.

    • Hi Kilian,

      I am glad that this essay got you thinking. That was my intent — to stimulate thought!

      “The section on permaculture misconstrues the name into an aspect of
      permaculture that does not actually exist. You state, “These
      descriptions revolve mainly around a movement-oriented vision of
      permaculture, with a sometimes distracting fixation on a permanence that
      does not exist.” Yet, that fixation does not exist within the
      principles of permaculture. One of the more important concepts for a
      permaculturist to come away with in their exploration of regenerative
      design is that a design is never done.”

      Hopefully it is clear in my description that I am referring to the movement-oriented aspect of Permaculture, which is very real and something I have had a good deal of experience in. I see Permaculture, as a movement, as a separate entity from Permaculture Design. The former can be most accurately described as a revitalization movement. The latter, is outlined by many designers and is comprised of useful tools and principles that are applied to design processes. The movement is more of an assembly of humans using charisma and consensus building to attempt to redirect culture, sometimes a little too messianic-ly for my personal taste. Remember: these are my observations, experiences, and opinions. I’m not concerned with what Bill or David outlined Permaculture to become — as a system of design or a movement. It has taken on a life of its own. Whether they defined it too loosely or not might be their own misgiving.

      “The permanence found in this approach to creating systems is that the community – of whatever type, e.g., a pond, a park, a garden, a town – can exist indefinitely. It has nothing to do with any element of the design being permanent. Permaculture stresses resilience for this very reason. In applying the twin principles of multiple inputs to support each element, and each element having more than one output, resilience and efficiency are maximized, as in nature. And it is this way because of impermanence and the need to be resilient, yet adaptable.”

      I don’t see any disagreement between this understanding and my own. I feel my description outlined this sufficiently.

      Again, you will need to dig deeper into the Holistic Management framework and practice it before you will see its true structure. I’m still trying to find clarity in your message. Are you implying that Permaculture Design is some how the ultimate design system and that HM either needs to be incorporated as a subset, or forgotten altogether?

      “Personally, I find myself almost automatically rejecting any process
      that suggests everyone can use the same method to achieve their goals. Life simply isn’t like that.”

      I agree with you. Precisely why I don’t feel a need or necessity to align fully with any one.

      “Your essay, as I read it, apportions qualitative usefulness to each, which I think may be an arbitrary choice rather than an inherent reality.”

      I do apportion qualitative usefulness to each of these described/defined frameworks of whole systems design.

      I want it to be made clear that there are many whole systems design frameworks, each with pros and cons, and that I personally, and we as Roots to Fruits, hold no allegiance or importance to any ONE, but find usefulness in all, so draw from them all to carry out our work. I don’t find our observations to be arbitrary.

      Surely folks learn about whole systems design because they entered through the Permaculture door, but that doesn’t limit the comprehension, study, practice, or evolution of whole systems design to the limits of Permaculture, whether as a system of design or as a revitalization movement. I hope this is clear. Humans did and will do fine without brand named design systems and movements — that’s our take. While Permaculture is useful, both as a system of design and as a movement, it is ultimately a brand name for a certain type of whole systems design. Perhaps that is why it has been rather poorly defined and represented (by folks other than BIll, as you may remind me.)? Besides, what makes what a “Permaculturists” can do any different from what a person studied or practiced in organic gardening/ag. & ecology/systems theory can do? Nothing, as far as I know, in my experience. I see no usefulness in considering Permaculutre a “higher” framework.

      Thanks for joining the dialogue.

      • Killian says:

        “Hopefully
        it is clear in my description that I am referring to the

        movement-oriented aspect of Permaculture, which is very real and

        something I have had a good deal of experience in. I see Permaculture,

        as a movement, as a separate entity from Permaculture Design. The former

        can be most accurately described as a revitalization movement. The

        latter, is outlined by many designers and is comprised of useful tools

        and principles that are applied to design processes. The movement is

        more of an assembly of humans using charisma and consensus building to

        attempt to redirect culture, sometimes a little too messianic-ly for my

        personal taste.”

        That is a useful clarification, but is unfair and misleading. Conflating the misuse of a process and the process itself does service to none and disservice to all. It is no different than, say, equating far right evangelicals with Christianity or watercolors with art. How does reinforcing the misconception or misapplication of a fundamentally useful and effective approach to sustainability help anyone? The principels and ethics effectively define what sustainability is. Is that not useful, and if so, why toss the baby out with the bathwater?

        “The movement is more of an assembly of humans using charisma and consensus building to
        attempt to redirect culture, sometimes a little too messianic-ly for my
        personal taste.”

        Consensus building is not a permaculture tenet. The opposite, if memory serves. Also, try not to equate the largely Americanization of permaculture, not something seen much outside the US, with the great body of people applying permaculture.

        You say above “I don’t see any disagreement between this understanding and my own. I feel my description outlined this sufficiently” yet said earlier “”with a sometimes distracting fixation on a permanence that does not exist.”

        If you agree with what I say above, then you msut disagree with what you said originally, quoted immediately above, for there is no “distracting fixation on permanence.” What does that phrase mean to imply?

        “I agree with you. Precisely why I don’t feel a need or necessity to align fully with any one.”

        But that is not what I suggested. I suggested that, to the extent that sustainability is something we can define and encourage others to, some codification is actually useful, but too much makes it to rigid. And, your essay above finds fault, essentially, with all but HM. HM is “hugely successful” but permaculture is messianic and focused on a false permanence. Just a tad of bias showing through, no?

        What I am trying to suggest, essentially, is that there is no conflict between the two that I can see so far. I think you are setting up a false conflict in reaction to pressure from others reacting negatively to permaculture. For now, I see the focus on the holistic goal as a flaw, but am not set on that. I need to explore further, first. What I am certain of is that the “holisticgoal” and needs and resource analyses achieve the same thing so I see no intrinsic value that HM holds over permaculture.

        And, yes, I do believe that any system we develop to achieve sustainability must begin with ecosystem services. HM does not do that, permaculture does. That said, I see great value in having tests and processes that are specific for decision-making. There are many models of decision-making out there. I don’t have an opinion on HM’s process except for the very top level focus on the holistic goal over ecosystem services.

        “I want it to be made clear that there are many whole systems design
        frameworks, each with pros and cons, and that I personally, and we as
        Roots to Fruits, hold no allegiance or importance to any ONE, but find
        usefulness in all”

        Yes, your comments in your original made that clear. Obviously I have no argument at all with your personal choices for design or business. I am pursuing this as an opportunity to do some side-by-side analysis of two approaches, not as an attack on you in any way. That said, some of your comments about permaculture I find to be in error. To the extent permaculture offers a road to sustainability, I prefer not to have misconceptions attached to it that may discourage others from exploring a simple and effective approach to developing their own sustainable habitats. The same goes for HM, which is why I am bothering to read the book even though Savory’s papers are not clear and thus far lead me to believe the decision-making process he outlines has a very basic flaw based in human behavior. (See comments elsewhere here.)

        “I see no usefulness in considering Permaculutre a “higher” framework.”

        Your paragraph above and this comment may represent a misunderstanding. I do not mean “higher” qualitatively, but structurally. IF my reading of the holisticgoal proves accurate, then I see itas a flaw. To that extent, starting with the principles and ethics then proceeding to finer grained decision making via Savory would seem a logical marrying of the two. IF my reading of the holisitcgoal is incorrect, then HM and permaculture will liekly be more accurately seen as co-equal.

        Since we have a wholeworld to change, I think these distinctions may be vital.

        And, please, let’s dispense with the “movement” stuff. It is a misrepresentation of permaculture.If you want to dismiss or criticize on that score, focus that on those who are doing that, not permaculture. (I shouldclarify: that some people inculcate their practice of permaculture with elements not originally intended does not invalidate their experience, but the awareness that their work is, in fact, their practice and not permaculture as promulgated is important so that others, as noted above, are not put off by permaculture and thus possibly lose an entry into the world of sustainable design..)

        • Killian, for the sake of keeping this dialogue open and useful to all viewers, I am going to ask that we continue this dialogue off list. You have persuaded me to keep my description of permaculture free of anything that can be misconstrued as judgment — I will be re-wording that sentence as to not make mention of the movement aspect. I’m not finding these exchanges productive in relation to the purpose of this essay. I will be writing further on my distinctions of the very real “movement” stuff at a later date on my personal blog. Let’s continue the dialogue when I get around to that. 

          • Killian says:

            I’m interested in the comparison of HM and PC, not the froo-froo debate. Some people are into that whole thing, I am not, so understand your comments in that regard. Since we have the same view of that, there is nothing to discuss, I don’t think.

            Just spent the day getting through the HM book, so a little frustrated at you turning away from the conversation now. I’m seeing less distinction between HM and PC at this point. The seven tests are all contained in the ethics or principles, but are more explicit than in the Designer’s Manual.

            The key difference is one is focused on design and biological systems and the other is focused on design and decision-making. The other key difference is as I suspected, that sustainability is treated more directly in PC and more as a test in HM. The key insight for me re: HM is that sustainability has a higher profile than it seemed. Still, my basic observation is intact: using the ethics and principles in the same way Savory applies the tests will get you to sustainability but with less backtracking from flawed premises than in Savory’s model.

            Savory’s great strength is that he has consciously focused on the decision making process, even getting into theory and psychology, which many people will find useful comforting. PC leaves that to flow out of application of the ethics and principles, which is more holistic and intuitive – though I need to review the DM to be sure on that score.

            Anywho, my primary trepidation with Savory is greatly relieved, but still a valid one in my own mind, and, my intuition that the two could be very successfully used in an integrated manner appears to have been accurate. I find the two exceedingly complimentary and little reason to see them as anything more than two approaches to the same task.

            I have a couple other things I found interesting as I read, perhaps to be discussed later..

            Frankly, I’ve found this very productive.

  2. Davide Tocchetto says:

    fantastic overwiev and good web site. I’m a treatment wetland designer and I currently use constructed wetland to treat a lot of different wastewaters. From municipal to agricultural, from winery to highway runoff treatment wetlands are used os an efficient alternative to traditional treatment systems and they work very well in different environments, in different climates (from Nepal to Caribbean, from North to South). more infos could be found on my blog http://www.treatmentwetlands.blogspot.com. 
    Treated waters could be used for watering, washing floors or cars, and other different purpose. 

  3. Tonvanrheenen says:

    Mark: 
    If you change the phrase”You, me, and everything else are either systems or an element of a greater system”
    in “You, me, and everything else can be thought of as systems or element of a greater system”, what changes?

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