Friday, July 22, 2011

Permaculture Principles: Principle Four - Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback

Holmgren's Twelve Principles of Permaculture

Principle Four: Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback
Holmgren's Proverb for this Principle: The sins of the father are visited on the children to the seventh generation.

There are many biological systems that exhibit self regulation (similar concepts are autoregulation and homeostasis).  In the human body, the brain and heart are great examples of autoregulation.  Depending on what their needs are, these organs can alter the rest of the system to influence blood flow to themselves.  For instance, if the body starts to exercise, the heart will pump harder and faster to increase blood flow through the body and back to itself.  The brain is very sensitive to blood pressures, and it will influence the whole body to alter blood pressures to itself. 

Homeostasis is another term frequently used in Systems Theory.  It is the idea that a system will regulate itself to minimize change.  In general, living systems do not like change, and they will do what they can to prevent it.  Anybody who has tried to lose weight will know that it seems as if their own body is trying to sabatoge itself when attempting to drop some pounds.  This is the human body fighting change.

Remember that Permaculture Systems are models of biological systems.  We as the designers need to understand that if designed well our system will have many seen and unseen, planned and unplanned methods of self regulation all trying to minimize change. This is fantastic when the system is working well and some environmental influence tries to alter our system (e.g. drought, flooding, late frosts, etc.).  It is also important to keep this in mind when we are trying to establish a Permaculture System.  It can be hard work to get the new system put in place and working before a new homeostasis is achieved.  On a side note, this is really true of any system whether it is in buisiness or government or agriculture.

When designing a new Permaculture System, when we are thinking about Auto-Regulation, there are two related concepts we need to implement:
1) Each element must perform many functions.  This allows us to have multiple yields and support from one element.  If we can maintain three elements to perform three functions or maintain one element that performs those same three functions, then our work is minimized by chosing to maintain the element that performs many functions.
2) Each important function is supported by many elements.  This allows each function to have many elements that support it and sustain it if one element fails.  A net is much more efficient at catching fish than a single fishing line.  A net still maintains most of its efficiency when many of its individual lines are cut.  This is due to the network of support, and this should be the model of any system we design.

The second part of this priciple is to Accept Feedback.  This seems pretty straightforward, but it is so easy to let our pride get in the way of accepting feedback.  For instance, we really want to raise peaches, but the trees keep dying or we have another season with no fruit.  Maybe we need to accept feedback from our lack of results and do something different... or maybe not raise peaches at all.  But often we will just keep doing the same thing or wasting a lot of energy (too much?) to accomplish something, because we think we are smart enough to figure it out.  We may eventually figure it out, but at what cost?  Keep in mind what Albert Einstein said:  Insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Holmgren's proverb for this principle, "The sins of the father are visited on the children to the seventh generation" (a Biblical reference) reminds us that it is easy to waste energy overcoming natural self regulation and ignore feedback until some very negative consequenses of our actions are made evident.  A generation is considered to be between 30 and 40 years, so seven generations is 210-280 years.  How many things are we "paying" for now that were started, and mismanaged, over 200 years ago?  Deforestation.  Acid Rain.  Countless Extinction of Species.  Pollution of our Seas.  Depletion of our Fresh Water Aquifers.  All of these issues are a direct result of not accepting feedback (mostly not even looking for feedback).  All are, or were, preventable.

When designing Permaculture Systems, if we keep in mind Principle 9 (Use Small and Slow Solutions), we will be better able to Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback.

The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children.
- Bill Mollison

 We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.
- David Holmgren

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