Patchwork Design Lab

June 3, 2010

Something of Value

What if we were to organize neighborhoods or even entire communities around food forests rather than thoroughfares and shopping malls? If you think about it, this would be more like a traditional village society, where people settle somewhere because the place has something of value. What would this type of neighborhood look like? Forests in the real world (that is, the world not as humans would have it, operating from some abstract set of arbitrary fantasies) tend toward what you might call incompletion. Ecologists have come up with the term climax to describe a sort of goal toward which biological succession “strives”, but there are very few examples in nature of climax ecosystems. Instead what you tend to see are patchwork mosaics of varying “stages” of succession. The designer of this mosaic is a collection of energetic events that you could collectively classify as patch disrupters. These include fires, cyclonic storms, and the influence of invading species from other areas. Humans, it turns out, evolved to be patch disrupters par excellence. What makes us so good at this disruptive behavior? It is our ability to say, “hmmm…..” That’s it. Repeat after me: hmmmm…..

You may have noticed that activity and productivity clusters around borders and edges. There is more going on at the boundary of a wood and a meadow than there is in either the wood or the meadow. Borders and seaports are hotbeds of economic activity, both licit and ill-. We can theorize about the causes, but why not just accept the fact and take it as a pattern that we can use? So one thing we are looking for in our neighborhoods is a sense of dynamic incompletion, a sort of wabi sabi aesthetic where tidiness is not the point. Tidiness at a very small scale is pleasing; tidiness as an organizing principle is antinomic. A monoculture is tidy. It is simple and uninteresting. It has very little of order, since there is very little to order. Contrary to popular agricultural theory (sheepthink), thousands of acres of corn or soy is not the way to get a maximum yield. To get any yield at all from such a system requires heavy (read toxic) petroleum and economic subsidies. The toxicity of these subsidies is not limited to the field itself. Consider the recent out-of-control oil hemorrhage in the Gulf of Mexico or the current global financial system, which, if we were honest, we would be calling the wreckage of a global financial system. The point here (just to complete this wild tangent) is that the truly toxic tends not to arise without the aid of human hmmmm….ing, or if it does, it tends to become properly sequestered by geological processes. At least until the next major geological upheaval.

But back to our little neighborhood. We look at the lay of the land. We plant marshy plants in the lowest areas where the water tends to collect – remembering to select plants that provide for our needs in numerous ways. Marshes are great natural water filters as well as a good place to grow many types of berries. We look at natural marshes to get an idea of the type and variety of plants we will need. We organize the land according to water availability in such a way that it includes marsh, meadow, and woodland, all devised to be functioning ecosystems with higher-than-typical concentrations of plants that provide food for humans. We site our houses and public buildings on the least productive patches, patches with the poorest soil, for example, so that our way of life interferes as little as possible with our ability to make a living. We try to design our communities in such a way that the need to indulge in trade for basic necessities is minimized.

There are still houses, shops, paths and roads sprinkled through and winding in and out of this pastoral landscape. They add to its variety and richness, though, increasing the aforementioned edge-effect and making the overall system more diverse, more balanced, and more productive.

May 2, 2010

Centering the Community

Long supply chains have been the bane of generals and emperors throughout history. The globalized flat-earth market (flat, of course, only to the movement of fiat capital) with its tangled webs of transport, where a single product’s components may be manufactured in 3or 4 different countries on 2 or 3 different continents, while the product is assembled in another and sold in yet another, depends in its entirety upon cheaply available energy. And while investment fraud may have played a pivotal role in the most recent economic downturn, fraud, as John Updike’s character Rabbit Angstrom observes early in his career, makes the world go ‘round. And it is just possible that the steep ascent of oil prices during the summer of 2008 to just under 25% of GWP may have made some contribution to the precipitous skid in stock prices. Given the vulnerability of the market to the vicissitudes of oil pricing and supply and the notorious fragility of long supply chains (especially those that share the global financial markets’ crippling dependence upon the oil supply), it would seem only prudent, from a risk-management perspective, for local communities to develop a certain degree of self-sufficiency with respect to the production and exchange of critical goods and services.

Going back to the historical difficulties of supply chains, we find Sun Tzu writing, “we may take it then, that an army without its baggage-train is lost; without provisions it is lost; without bases of supply it is lost.” Local communities, with their current, near total dependence upon supply chains whose complexity would make Rube Goldberg dizzy, are little more than high-cost encampments plopped down any old place with no knowledge of local resources and no infrastructure to develop them. Ask Napoleon, next time you see him, how that worked out for him in his Russian Campaign.

Yuichiro Miura, the subject of the 1970 documentary, The Man Who Skied Down Everest, had, at least, a parachute which enabled him to stop, just barely, before he sailed over the edge of a deep crevasse. Very few communities today have even that much of a safety plan.

Nothing will Come of Nothing

The great depression delivered a nasty rabbit punch to the US economy and caused widespread deprivation in the midst (and in spite) of vast natural wealth. The fundamental problem was not that there wasn’t enough good land and agricultural know-how to feed everyone or that there wasn’t enough work that actually needed doing to achieve full employment or that there were any shortages of the energy or material resources needed to fuel the economy. The problem arose from a failure of the prevailing system of money and credit. Vesting the power to extend credit, and thereby create money, in the banking system in a monopolistic fashion interferes with money’s ability to function as a pure information medium in the same way that ownership of an influential newspaper by a large corporation with a vested interest in a specific ideological perspective tends to skew editorial policy.

Inability to accurately valorize natural capital, be it human labor and know-how or material resources, makes it difficult or impossible for individuals, businesses, or governments, either local or national, to access investment capital to match it. Monopolistic money can only represent the values of its creators. When the financial system views natural resources as externalities, it becomes blind to their true value – both as already functioning contributors to the general economy and as potential contributors to the development of essential products. Conventionally, we tend to think that it is the entrepreneur’s job to bring this value into light by inventing creative ways to develop and market it. But even the most creative of entrepreneurs is constrained by the in-built myopia of the market within which he must operate.

Nothing will come of nothing. In many cases poverty in fact arises from poverty in fancy. Where there is lack of vision, wrote Lao Tzu, the people perish.

Success to the Successful

All activity arises from nature’s abhorrence of a gradient. Electrical current flows because of a charge difference that sets up an electrical field between two battery terminals. This field is nothing other than a charge gradient. The flow of electrons functions to neutralize this gradient. All forces in nature arise in a similar fashion. Speculators in a market, on the other hand, love a financial gradient. Any gap in information or assignation of value creates an opportunity for arbitrage. But the flow of money across this gap constitutes an exchange of information that tends over time to eliminate this difference in valuation of the product or service in question. In order to stay in business, the gap-speculator must either find a way to conceal either his profitability or his source. Or, he can invest in a congressman or two in an attempt to create a law that works to preserve his value gradient. In other words, like any good business, he must invest some of his profits toward maintaining the resource that produced them.

If he is successful, his profitability should improve over time, giving him even more disposable income to put to work toward increasing his future profitability. In this case, the wider the gap, the greater will be the profit margin of its exploiter. If you can buy a commodity for dollars-a-ton and sell it for dollars-a-pound you can ride the gravy train all the way to seats on numerous influential boards-of-directors. You can dine with senators, drink with celebrities, and spend quality time with the young and the beautiful while your spouse goes shopping somewhere fashionably (and conveniently) far away.

All this success requires that you constantly mind the gap. And this gap is good, you think. This gap creates jobs on both sides. But increasingly, the lion’s share goes to the speculator, and to the others, the employees, the small, third-world-country farmers or suppliers, the factory workers, goes the trickle. Because your wealth depends on a gap, the gap must be maintained. To paraphrase, to him that hath it shall be given, and from him who hath not it shall be taken even that which he hath. Or words to that effect.

Democratizing the Money

Is there a natural or universal law that says only banks can create money? Clearly there is not. In fact, as we have seen, sequestering this right within the confines of one business, organization, or institution actually works to create wealth for a very few and poverty for very many. It functions to actually undermine the health of an economy and the well-being of the general populace.

If I have something that I value, whether it is an old guitar or a well-honed skill, all I have to do to profit from it is to find someone else who value’s it and has something else that I value. Generalize this idea to the notion that everyone has something of value to someone else and you have the makings of a small-scale, independent credit exchange system. The goal of such a system would be to provide its members with an alternative to monopolized bank money by empowering them to create their own exchange medium in the form of trade credit. Such a system can cast a much finer net over the distribution of resources within a local community. It can focus a community’s economic vision on developing these local resources and local talent rather than relying, in the fashion of the western Pacific cargo cults, on outside capital and investment whose lenders are guaranteed to take more of value away than they will bring in. They have to make a profit to stay in business, after all. Learn to see and value what’s all around you and create your own system of exchange and distribution, and you can begin to free your community from its dependence on the long and fragile supply chain that ties it to the interests of people who, let’s face it, apart from your value to them as cheap producers of what they want to buy and consumers of what they have to sell, have no reason to care whether you live or die.

In order to establish a truly local economy, you will need to put effort into developing the local infrastructure and resource basis, as well. You will need to establish farms using good soil management practices so that your yields continue to grow year after year because of soil improvement. There are ways to do this. It’s not rocket science. Likewise, other industries will have to be developed. Again, none of this is new or difficult to understand. The function of a localized trade, currency, or credit system is to facilitate investment on a scale that is small enough to succeed, rather than too big to fail.


Lets Systems: The Home Page

Interlinking Mutual Exchange Systems

Cooperative Principles and Complementary Currency

A successful Swiss Economic Circle Cooperative

Local Currencies:

E. F. Schumacher Society: List of local currencies…

April 20, 2010

Dreaming a Post-Industrial World


Do a search on the phrase post industrial society and very likely the first hit will be Wikipedia’s definition – a post industrial society is a society in which an economic transition has occurred from an manufacturing based economy to a service based economy, a diffusion of national and global capital, and mass privatization. The prerequisites to this economic shift are the processes of industrialization and liberalization. This economic transition spurs a restructuring in society as a whole.

This, emphatically, is not what I mean when I talk about a post industrial world. Nothing, said King Lear, will come of nothing; speak again. There is no such thing as a service economy. Imagine sending an army of hair dressers and personal trainers, baristas, barristers, and mortgage brokers someplace like Detroit or Braddock, PA to get their economies back on track. This is nothing against baristas, for whom I have nothing but the greatest respect and affection. Service economy is nuance-speak for manufacturing has been shifted to countries where labor is cheap. Then, back home in the service sector, people get to hold down two or three part-time service jobs so they can buy stuff from the off-shore manufacturing sector, whose workers aspire to nothing so much as joining the ranks of the privileged uber-consumers back here in the service sector.

Nothing will come of nothing. People gotta eat and drive and live someplace, and the parts and pieces that go into those things have to be farmed or manufactured somewhere. There is no such thing as an economy built only on service jobs.

Do Something Basic Right

An argument is only as good as its premises. A building is only as good as its foundation. An economy is only as good as its resource base. People who write about sustainability in the mainstream media almost always focus on energy, when they are not obsessing about how to deal with global warming without rocking the status quo. Energy is basic. And it comes in many forms, but not all these forms are of equal quality. Nor are they interchangeable at a low cost.

Your college physics text defines energy as the ability to do work. Then it goes on to treat energy and work as interchangeable terms. Actually, the ability to do work always stems from a difference in potential. There is always a slope or gradient involved. A battery’s charge is equal to the potential difference between its “positive” and “negative” terminals. A furnace can heat a room because its internal temperature is higher than the room’s. You-know-what flows downhill because whatever is at the top is farther from the Earth’s center than what’s at the bottom, a difference in elevation. Project any such difference onto a system of spacial coordinates and you have a gradient. Funny thing about gradients – nature, contrary to popular wisdom, doesn’t have a problem with a vacuum, but nature abhors a gradient. No wonder uneasy rests the head that bears the crown.

Nature expresses this abhorrence in a forceful manner. Anything that is concentrated tends to disperse. A slope tends to erode. Temperature gradients produce heat flow to equalize the disparity. Structures fall apart, and what sticks out gets worn smooth. If the world were indeed flat, as one popular pundit would have it, then nothing at all would happen, ever. The forces that drive these flows do all the work and produce all the transformations in the entire universe. Heat flow can drive mechanical motion can generate electrical charge can motivate motors, and so on. But there is always a loss. And what is it that bears this loss? The structure that supports the difference that set up the gradient that caused the flow suffers some decrease in definition, sharpness, or integrity. Structures that tend to persist tend to divert some of the energy flow to processes that restore their definition, sharpness, or integrity. Or they may spend their capital making copies of themselves.

And what are these structures, you may ask, of which I speak? They are the containers that embody and concentrate the energy. They are the embodied, concentrated energy. They are the geological formations, the trees and lakes, the fruit and leaves, the mineral deposits, the very elements that compose all material objects. They are the resource base.

This is your planet; this is your body. Your resources are finite, as is your time. There is no operating manual. Good luck. Do something basic right.

You Can Never Do Just One Thing

The consequences of our doings always branch and multiply. The physical, chemical, geological, and biological processes that make up the biosphere are inextricably interconnected and interdependent. They convert solar energy into chemical energy and store it as plant structure. They circulate and recycle water, volatile gases, minerals and metabolic wastes. They maintain themselves and their integrity over vast reaches of geological time. They create structure and embody energy using the very processes by which nature attempts to degrade structure and release embodied energy. We have no technology that comes close to any of this in terms of genius, complexity, efficiency, or reliability.

Perhaps instead of fighting with nature we should be trying to learn from her. Given that anything we do produces multiple and largely unforeseen sets of consequences, it follows that if you do something basic right you are likely to get a cascade of benefits beyond what you might foresee. And if you do something basic wrong? Well, read the papers.

Taking all this into consideration, let’s see if we can begin to write our own operating manual, starting with some general guidelines. (Eventually, I plan to get down to specifics; I swear.)

Work With Nature Rather Than Against Her

This is one of the fundamental principles taught in the Permaculture Design Course. What does it mean? First of all, I’d say don’t replicate work, at considerable economic and energetic expense, that nature is already doing or at least quite willing to do for you. Why spend money and nonrenewable resources to fertilize your soil and manage pests when a properly designed agricultural system will continually improve the soil and balance the deprivations of “pests” in the same manner as any other ecosystem? Unnecessary work creates unnecessary waste. There is a reason that a forest doesn’t require fertilizers, weed killers, and pesticides. Don’t fight biological succession, and you won’t need to poison the soil, air, and groundwater in order to eat food that is contaminated with the poisons you used to produce it. Figure out how to plant in such a way that succession works for you.

To see a couple of examples of this type of agriculture, check out these two videos at you tube:

There are multitudes of natural processes that we can harness or situate to our benefit. People who live downstream of nasty, sweaty, snake infested swamps are drinking some of the cleanest water on the planet. Draining wetlands so we can grow McMansions with two and three-car garages destroys natural, embodied wealth in this and uncountable other forms. Constructing wetlands enables nature to create natural capital in multitudinous forms. Work in a stepwise manner. Do one thing right; then observe what happens next. Use your observations to guide further actions.

Use Nonrenewable Fuels to Invest in Lasting Infrastructure

A friend of mine maintains that we should never build anything that we don’t want to have around (and didn’t design to last) for at least 200 years. A lot of embodied energy goes into the design and construction of a building, particularly a public building, much of it in the form of the fossil fuels that are converted into work energy, heat, and “pollutants” in the process. Yet we’re lucky if much of what we build these days lasts a decade. There was a TV ad for a new housing development here in Albuquerque recently that offered a seven-year guarantee, promising, I suppose, that the houses wouldn’t fall down or leak or engage in other structural misbehaviors for seven whole years.

When you spend money you have in savings, you want it to count. You don’t want to spend your savings going to the movies or driving around town. We should use nonrenewable resources only to create the kind of durable infrastructure that lasts for centuries, collects natural capital passively, and doesn’t require constant additional nonrenewable inputs.

Salvage Before You Mine

The Earth’s crust contains a finite amount of mineral wealth, particularly close enough to the surface for us to mine. Iron and copper, among other metallic ores, are becoming noticeably scarce. Meanwhile tons of metal lie baking in the sun in salvage and scrap yards all over the world.

Nuff said: more tomorrow.

April 19, 2010

Creating a Place on Earth

Taos Pueblo in Winter - Bruce Gomez

Are you concerned about how economic growth will affect your home town? Are you worried that too-rapid growth will kill any trace of your town’s individuality but that a lack of growth will simply kill it? For the first of these concerns there is a simple solution. I can give it to you in a phrase. You’re not going to like it. Limit your town’s size. Don’t allow growth to proceed beyond an optimum. For the second of these concerns I have another strategy, which I can also give in a single line. I doubt you’ll like it any better. Roll up your sleeves and work with what you have. Let me explain.

Just Say No to Cargo-Cult Economics

There was a reason that your town appeared where it did, assuming that it was founded before the sprawling growth of throughway suburbia, with its attendant, cancerous proliferation of McTowns with their centerless, boundariless, soul deadening sameness. Either the location was favorable for farming, ranching, mining or some other economic activity, or it was situated at crossroad of some sort that made it a strategic choice for a market or trade center. Maybe it originated as a resort catering to people drawn by the site’s hot springs or natural beauty. Whatever the reason, your town is imbued with natural capital of some kind or else no one would have settled there to begin with.

The point is that your don’t need a Walmart or a Hewlett Packard phone center, an Intel or a Toyota plant to bring jobs to your town; you can create them for yourselves using the natural capital that’s all around you. I’m not saying that there is absolutely no place for large corporations to participate in a local economy, only that you should not allow them to replace your local economy. Don’t allow your city council to turn your town into a cargo-cult. Don’t send tax-incentive-perfumed prayers to the corporate gods hoping that they will look upon your community with favor and reward you with a couple hundred low-paying jobs.

Overshoot – Wile E. Coyote Was Here

Okay, why limit growth intentionally? Well there’s the obvious reason, the one that I usually rant about. There are physical limits to growth. You can’t continue to grow forever, whether you want to or not. Eventually you overshoot the carrying capacity of your economic base and find yourself walking into thin air over an abyss. And that is never pretty. Carrying capacity is an ecological term used to describe the population that a given eco-region can support without sustaining significant damage. By significant damage I mean reducing the natural wealth that made your city viable to begin with, stealing from the future. Reduced carrying capacity is called draw down. Historically, many civilizations have overshot the carrying capacity of their homelands and destroyed their natural capital through agricultural practices that tended to destroy rather than to build topsoil. Pastoral cultures have achieved similar victories over nature through overgrazing. These patterns were a major driving force for all the wars, conquests, and migrations we found so fascinating in World History class. Who’s your favorite general? Genghis Khan for tea, anyone?

There is an escape clause, here, it’s called trade. Trade allows you to exceed your local carrying capacity by exporting goods that you have or can produce beyond your needs and importing those which are in shorter supply. Ecologists call this process scope enlargement. The interesting thing about scope enlargement is that it may sometimes enable two regions joined by trade to support a larger combined population than the sum of what both regions could support separately. Of course this kind of heightened prosperity makes larger families more viable, and eventually either the new, enlarged-scope carrying capacity is exceeded or else other limiting factors come into play. If your wastewater and sewage stream exceeds the ability of your local wetland (assuming you have one) to filter and clean, then you begin to degrade the quality of the soil and water downstream. You can leap this hurdle by building a water treatment facility, but that requires additional materials and energy and investment which may lock you into further dependency on imported goods and services. If you’ve never had to do this sort of thing before, it’s likely that the skills you need will have to be brought in as well. The town will grow to accommodate the influx of people coming to answer the demand for these new skills. The thing can snowball, as you can see. Growth begets more growth.

More is Not Better?

But let’s forget about that for now. The common view these days is that growth is a good thing. So what tangible benefit can you gain by limiting your town’s size and population on purpose? What you have to gain is a sense of place, to begin with. Secondly you have a shot at creating a sustainable community with a substantially self sufficient, local economy. You can establish a degree of economic security that no number of troops and weapons purchased with your tax dollars and sent overseas will ever provide. Let’s start with a sense of place.

You have a head start in this regard, because every place-on-earth is naturally unique, provided it hasn’t already been paved and polluted beyond redemption. Either way, there are some guidelines. People have given this problem quite a bit of thought. Architect Christopher Alexander, has written two great books about this problem: The Timeless Way of Building, and A Pattern Language. David Seamon, of the Architecture Department of Kansas State University, describes these works as an implicit phenomenology of designable situations contributing to a sense of place.

Creating a sense of place goes hand in hand with another key consideration. Biologist, anthropologist, and systems thinker Gregory Bateson once remarked that there are no monotone values in biology… items of diet, conditions of life, temperature, entertainment, sex, and so forth – are never such that more of the something is always better than less of the something. Rather, for all objects and experiences, there is a quantity that has optimum value. Above that quantity, the variable becomes toxic. To fall below that value is to be deprived. This is quite relevant to my argument because, as Bateson goes on to point out, this anti-monotony principle does not apply to money; more money is supposedly always better than less money. Thinking in these terms, we tend to extend this monotony of value to the things that money can buy, thereby going against biological reality and undermining our own well-being. We are deceived into thinking that greed is good and that growth is prosperity.

Quality is a Pattern?

I would like to resurrect the tired, old, clichéd distinction between quantity and quality – clean it up and buy it a new suit of clothes. Give it a job and put it to work.

This distinction is important to grasp if we want to understand the rationale for limiting economic growth and rooting the global economy in local, relatively independent markets and enterprises. It is the distinction between standard of living and quality of life. We tend to measure standard of living quantitatively: GDP, annual income, the number and cost of our toys and the quantity of goods and services we consume. Quality of life is something else entirely. Quality refers to beauty, durability, good health, well being, vitality, and life. Living in an ugly building or town, no matter how exclusive or expensive, can undermines a person’s health and well-being. Much of this is a matter of perception and taste, it’s true, but there is a commonality to our preferences and perceptions which makes it feasible to identify some general patterns and implement them to suit our individual tastes. We are all drawn to experiences that manifest certain qualities despite the wide variation in how we may define or describe them.

Why, for example, do people working in corporate cubicle farms the world over aspire to the corner office? It is because within the dehumanizing context of such a space a corner office is the only place that fulfills two basic and universal human needs: a room of one’s own, and contact with the natural world in the form of adequate lighting, which a corner office provides by having a window on two of its sides. These two needs are explicitly recognized in two patterns in Christopher Alexander’s book, A Pattern Language:

A Room of One’s Own: No one can be close to others without frequent opportunities to be alone. A person in a household (or office) without a room of his own will always be confronted with a problem. He wants to participate in the [group] life and to be recognized as an important member of that group; but he cannot individualize himself because no part of the house (or office) is totally in his control…

Light on Two Sides of Every Room: When they have a choice, people will always gravitate to those rooms which have light on two sides, and leave the rooms which are only lit from one side unused and empty…

Of course, there is a third need that applies in particular to the workplace and which neither of these patterns addresses – the need to be connected, to belong. People cannot work effectively if their workplace is too enclosed or too exposed. A good workplace strikes the balance.

Christopher Alexander’s solutions never involve new or energy intensive technologies. They are purely geometric in concept, purely architectural, the essence of pattern – the arrangement of forms in space. You have a set of design criteria, backed by research and experience, which you try to fulfill by the felicity of your design. You are looking for the Goldilocks effect, balancing opposing influences or effects until you get a result that is just right. In this case Alexander and his colleagues chose 13 variables to experiment with and came to the following conclusions:
  1. You tend to feel more comfortable with a wall behind you. If your back is exposed you feel vulnerable.
  2. You feel more comfortable in a workplace if there is a wall to one side.
  3. There should be no blank wall closer than 8 feet in front of you. As you work, particularly if you work with a computer, you need to look up occasionally to rest your eyes by focusing them on something farther away.
  4. Workspaces where you spend most of your day should be at least 60 square feet in area. A smaller space will make you feel cramped and claustrophobic.
  5. Each workspace should be 50% to 75% enclosed by walls or windows.
  6. Every workspace should have a view to the outside.
  7. No other person should work closer than 8 feet to your workspace.
  8. It is uncomfortable if you are not aware of at least two other persons while you work. Too much exposure to others makes you feel like a cog in a machine; too little makes you feel isolated and alone.
  9. You should not be able to hear noises any different from the noises you make.
  10. No one should be sitting directly opposite and facing you.
  11. Workspaces should allow you to adjust your chair to face in different directions.
  12. You should be able to see at least two other people, but no more than four.
  13. There should be at least one other person close enough to talk to without raising your voice.

These are not hard and fast rules, but rather patterns, rules of thumb whose flexible application can have a profound effect on one’s quality of life in the workplace. They will also have an impact on other design decisions involving the shapes of individual rooms, the placement of windows and what one sees when one looks out of them, the lighting scheme, the shape of indoor space, etc. You may even disagree with some or many of them. That’s alright. They are only a starting place. What is important is the process of thinking and design that produced them.

Balancing all these variables is a job of work, as they say. But thoughtful work is part of what fulfills us, part of what enhances the quality of life and makes for a rich and meaningful place on earth. For now, though, it is enough to consider the possibility that an economy based on maximizing quality, the quality of life, the quality in terms of usefulness and durability of the products we produce, the quality of the soil, air, and water where we live, is possible and practical and not at all utopian. On the contrary, the utopian delusion is thinking that we can continue to multiply and consume more and more in perpetuity. And I would like also to suggest that a healthy local economy does not have to be purchased at the price of our sense of place or identity. Nor does a reasonable quality of life call for a standard of living that would make any reasonable person feel deprived.

April 5, 2010

Design for Sustainability

Filed under: Design for Sustainability — Lonnie @ 1:08 pm

One of my chief interests is the study and practice of permaculture. Permaculture is a methodology and a toolkit that you can use to design sustainable human habitations and settlements. Such systems are inevitably based on sustainable agriculture. The emphasis here is on design rather than technology, at least in the sense in which we usually think of technology today. Actually the permaculture toolkit is loaded with techniques based on the physical and biological sciences, but none of these is in any sense new. Also, though we permacultists, if you like, have a great deal of respect for the scientific method and its revelations, we are not inclined to wait for peer-review consensus from the scientific community before putting simple observations to good use. So, for example, no one who has ever walked barefoot on one of kona’s black-sand beaches on a hot day will seriously question the feasibility of baking a fish fillet by wrapping it in some banana leaves and burying it there for a while.

I guess I should talk some about the perspective that seems most sensible when thinking about designing for sustainability. The popular notion that some discrete technology related to energy or bioengineering will render all our economic and environmental problems, not to mention the problems of persistent war, disease, and poverty, obsolete is, to me, the stuff of infantile fantasy. Such a notion flies in the face of the laws of thermodynamics and the realities of how systems of elements in mutual interaction actually behave. Put another way, the idea doesn’t stand up in the light of the most fundamental physical laws disclosed by analytically reductive science, which laws are themselves insufficient to shed much light on the complex behaviors of systems composed of many elements whose actions affect one another and thereby feedback on themselves. To borrow a phrase from Isaac Asimov, such an idea is not even wrong. It is so far off-base that it is difficult if not impossible coming from that perspective even to have a reasonable discussion about what a sustainable human settlement might look like.

So what is a system? To quote Donella Meadows, leader of the team at MIT that produced The Limits to Growth back in the 70’s, “A system is a set of things–people, cells, molecules, or whatever–interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time. The system may be buffeted, constricted, triggered, or driven by outside forces. But the system’s response to these forces is characteristic of itself, and that response is seldom simple in the real world.” The important point here is that the behavior of the overall system arises from the arrangement of the components and their patterns of interaction more than it does from the individual properties of each component. The system’s behavior is not a summation of the actions of individual elements. In more formal terms, superposition does not apply–the system’s behavior is nonlinear.

The arrangement of components is the essence of design. Place any plant near a good-sized rock and you create a microclimate that effectively moves the plant a few degrees latitude closer to the equator. This could be desirable or not, depending on the plant and its particular needs. If the plant doesn’t like the warmer microclimate you could either rent some equipment heavy enough to move the rock, or you could plant something next to it that likes the warmer climate. Put another way, you could use a lot of money and energy to attempt to change the environment or you could design your system, your choice of plant, to fit the existing regime. Alternatively, you could plant a number of plants less adapted to the heat near the rock and select for propogation those individuals which seem to do better, thereby creating over the course of a few seasons a new cultivar of the original plant better adapted to the warmer climate.

Permaculture design is a process of negotiation, if you will, a process of mutual adaptation in which you begin with the premise that you are a part of the system that you are designing. You are not just rearranging your habitat, you are being rearranged.

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