Human 2.0 Project

Permanence * Adventure * Culture

Permaculture - the art of ecosystem hacking

2014-02-02 00:00:00 Erik Lee

Ecology is a complex and fascinating science. There is a lifetime of stuff to learn about even a simple functional ecosystem. Even if there's only one way for a pair of elements in a system to interact with each other, the number of interactions grows as the square of the number of elements. When you consider that there are innumerable ways in which things can interact with each other, you end up with infinity squared as the configuration space you're trying to figure out. Yet even with that, it's still possible to learn enough to make some amazing functional changes in a very short time. Permaculture is the study of how to do that, and in this post I'll outline its core ideas.

Living System Technology

I have a very loose definition of technology - matter organized into an unlikely configuration to make life easier for people. In that sense, designing an ecosystem is definitely a form of technology, and that's what permaculture is all about. More specifically, it's about designing an ecosystem in which humans are an important functional element. This is one of the places where permaculture diverges from a lot of other environmental movements - the goal here isn't to eliminate the impact of humanity on Earth. Instead, we're trying to tweak the living systems around us so that we can be supported comfortably while also boosting the vitality of the world around us.

The reason I think of permaculture as ecology hacking is that it's very much an exercise in applied Pareto theory. If you're hazy on what that might mean, it's basically the idea that you generally seem to get 80% of the benefits from 20% of the work you do. It's an idea that I think underlies the hacker/maker mindset in general, and permaculture is an attempt to apply it to the world of living systems for long-term human benefit.

It's really about connections

Ultimately, the study of permaculture (and ecosystem ecology as I understand it) is mostly about the connections between things rather than the things themselves. We work with plants, animals, people, and structures, and the whole trick to the design is how we place them with respect to each other. There are a number of techniques to be used here, but ultimately what we end up with is a big, robust, and mostly passive system that happens to be made up of things we have use for.

If you think of a forest, it gets along just fine by itself. The identity of the forest is not in the individual plants and animals present at any given time, because they are constantly sprouting, growing, and dying. The identity comes from the pattern of connections that leads to an overall behavior, which is what we call a forest. Millions of different living things coexist in the space, each making minute adjustments to the balance of nutrients, energy, and the flow of resources. In aggregate, they create something that is self-sustaining.

Yields and Needs

One of the best ways to understand permaculture is through understanding a little slogan: "Any input not provided by the system is work, and any output not used by the system is pollution." As permaculture designers, we therefore strive to avoid work and pollution, and to do it by designing functional systems.

When you get right down to it, systems are made up of components. Each component (e.g. tree, lizard, tractor) has things it needs and things it produces. The art of a good permaculture design is in buliding up a system where the needs of all of the components are met by other components, and all of the outputs are used up within the system. If you make sure to include yourself in this system, then you end up with a setup that meets your needs mostly automatically, which is pretty handy. That's the Pareto Principle applied to ecosystems: Put things next to each other so that they deal with their own inputs and outputs as much as possible, and let the system evolve to handle the details.

I'll have a lot more to say about the details of how this is done as time goes on in this project, but for now I just wanted to introduce the concept so that I can bandy the term about with impunity.

Permaculture's role in the future

Because of its elegance and the fact that it builds permanent, mostly passive support systems for people, I think that permaculture is a core part of the foundation of any viable future society we might dream up. It won't look like it looks today. Permaculture today is unfortunately in a similar stage of development to where computers were in the 80's - only uber geeks know about it and practice it, and they sometimes don't fit well in mainstream culture. However, just like computers were, permaculture is so deeply revolutionary that it'll be everywhere in the future after we work out how to integrate it into the world of non-early-adopters.

We don't have to worry about that right now though, because we are the early-adopters. We can build these passive support ecosystems all around ourselves, and permanently free ourselves and our descendants from the yoke of working just to stay in the same place. When you live in a garden of eden, you naturally have more time for the stuff that really matters, like tinkering, playing with your kids, and learning things. That's the lifestyle we're aimed at, and permaculture is a big step on the path.

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