7 Permaculture Design Memes

Discovering Wisdom in Living Systems Design

Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa (神奈川沖浪裏) adapted into a meme about pollution

For the minority of the global population who have encountered the term “permaculture”, many still hold a limited view of this design system, associating it (with historical accuracy) to farming — but only farming.

The truth is, although this term was coined by a couple of English-speaking post-agriculture revolutionaries, its fundamental power — rooted in its core ethics and twelve principles — is to guide people, no matter how grassroots or systemically influential, to interact with the systems we are dependent on in a way that increases the wellbeing and prosperity of ourselves, our earth, and all living creatures.

In short, it is a tao of interdependence with complex adaptive systems, inviting participation with complexity rather than the old paradigm relationship based on subject-object divide and domination of nature.

Integrated, regenerative farming is an extremely practical application of the permaculture philosophy, as one is directly interacting with the environment; however, it’s not the only practical application of permaculture, nor is practical application the only realm in which the ethics create value.

This short essay is rooted in a perspective I’ve gleaned over 4 years of participatory action learning about both permaculture design and the globally-spanning movement (for all its decentralization and inconsistency); particularly in the last year in which I’ve been an active contributor to the Permaculture CoLab’s Digital Circle.

People registering for permaculture courses as our old systems collapse

Permaculture has attracted me due to its whole-systems view on resilience and wellbeing, offering values-based wisdom to re-design culture in the direction of re-wilding or “re-indigenizing” after centuries of abuse inflicted on people, earth and creatures (ourselves and our relations).
I include quote marks around the term above (which is sometimes used within the movement) to indicate that this subject is complex and not to be brushed aside lightly; and while I’ll briefly revisit this further down, the thorough discussion which it deserves would go beyond the scope of this article.

For brevity, I’ll summarize my view with this statement:

The rush of “this makes so much sense” that I felt when I first learned about permaculture was heightened when I took a Permaculture Design Course two years later, and as I’m continuing to develop the field of social (specifically socio-digital) permaculture design, its values and principles continue to inspire me inside and outside of the garden.

While its integrity ought to be preserved by acknowledging the history of the radical design movement, that doesn’t mean it’s taboo to challenge aspects of its foundations. The genius of its incredibly simple core values means that details can be added, subtracted, distorted and improved so long as they stand the test of time. Such adaptability is an essential part of the wisdom of living systems.

This article won’t be such a thorough critique of the principles, but instead aims to make visible what is often esoteric about the design approach — cultural memes that the ‘uninitiated’ might not come across in your first dive into the principles of this living ‘knowledge commons’.

From “Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability”, David Holmgren (2002)

For beginners, I recommend the video below to get a run-down of the basics.
Otherwise, scroll down to begin the conversation!

What do I mean by Memes?

The branch of study called Memetics was introduced shortly after Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book “The Selfish Gene”, in which he coined the term to refer to a unit of cultural transmission. Similar to epigenetics, memes can be activated through certain conditions (such as exposure to knowledge, or a common cultural experience that a meme may refer to). Memes tend to represent larger themes like normalized attitudes and beliefs, and are made observable through semantic patterns such as slang or idioms (shout-out to Gaia University for the mnemonic, “Themes, Memes and Semes”).

I can’t speak to the academic development of memetics as a rigorous theory, but we know in 2020 that “meme” has itself become a meme — though maybe not in the way meant by Dawkins in his seminal work (the word is often used to describe exclusively visual memes).

Myy usage here isn’t troubled by the specific meaning of the word; essentially, a meme is a window into an aspect of a culture, a carrier of social osmosis which is short and catchy and may take the form of a joke, allegory, tru-ism, quote, symbol, etc. It’s somewhere between “popular culture” for niche communities, and “inside jokes” for large audiences.

The permaculture design community has developed quite a few!
These 7 memes focus more on design considerations than implementations such as herb spirals and hügelkultur mounds.
Locally produced resources are a big factor in the permaculture approach, but I want to demonstrate that you don’t need to have a green thumb in order to benefit from this design system.

The Ego/Eco meme: it’s a way of being, an attitude that’s reflected in all our choices, no matter what our job is.

A “Guild” of Principles

Many of these memes emerge from applying combinations of the basic principles. I’ll indicate with italics which ones I think are relevant.

1. It Depends

(1) Observe and interact, (4) Apply self-regulation and accept feedback, (7) Design from patterns to details, (10) Use and value diversity

“It depends” is your first response to any question, ever.
Well, actually, that depends.

This meme speaks beyond absolutes, inviting a search for ever more context.
We move past ‘best practice’ and into ‘feedback loops’ (more below).

Without details we remain fixed in the abstract world. Yet, we can’t know in advance what will emerge when we combine various factors, nor can we predict changes in weather patterns due to climate disruption.
Not everything can work everywhere.

A pro-living systems design consideration is to expect the unexpected, to listen to feedback, to run various experiments rather than investing into a single strategy, and to know where to look for indicators of wellbeing.

Patterns tell us that we can expect rain sometimes but not always.
When and where does the rain fall? We must pay attention to the details.
How will the rain affect our ecosystem? It depends; on soil type, biomass, wind direction, quantity of rainfall, etc.

Now replace ‘rain’ with ‘dissent’ and ‘ecosystem’ with ‘community’ and again the details change while the pattern — it depends — remains. Social systems are also complex adaptive systems with too many variables to predict or engineer, but that doesn’t make design obsolete, it simply requires a whole-systems approach in order to be effective.

2. Tight Feedback Loops

(1) Observe and interact, (4) Apply self-regulation and accept feedback, (6) Produce no waste, (7) Design from patterns to details, (9) Use small and slow solutions, (12) Creatively use and respond to change.

Here “tight” means high frequency.
In order to adapt to ever-changing conditions, decision makers need to be in constant conversation with the system; listening to indicators from various places.

Feedback isn’t random — it is a response to previous actions or conditions.
When we notice a common symptom showing up in many different places, it’s naive to register each one as an anomaly. Rather, we take a scientific approach; looking for similarities across the system and making minor adjustments, taking note of what we expect would happen, and after further observation we note if our expectations are validated or not.

The benefit of designing tight feedback loops is so that we don’t keep acting in unhealthy ways just because it takes too long to adjust course, or because the system is designed to be resistant to change. We don’t invest in certainty.

This makes it less likely that any waste will be produced, as environmental conditions can’t be externalized — instead we assume interdependence and are quick to change strategy, even when it means cutting our losses.

Progress in the wrong direction might feel productive, but it’s not.
A symbiotic organism measures the score through whole system feedback, which helps us to factor in the inevitability of blind spots and biases.

The role of the designer is to remind us where to look and listen, preparing to receive and decode this information through the development, removal or addition of habits, instruments and knowledge bases.

3. The Problem Is The Solution

(1) Observe and interact, (2) Catch and store energy, (3) Obtain a yield, (4) Apply self-regulation and accept feedback, (5) Use and value renewable resources & services, (6) Produce no waste, (7) Design from patterns to details, (8) Integrate rather than segregate, (9) Use small and slow solutions, (10) Use and value diversity, (11) Use edges and value the marginal, (12) Creatively use and respond to change.

A famous meme straight from Bill Mollison himself, this adage summarizes the approach of potentiality.

When we’re collecting a broad range of data from all our feedback loops, it’s likely that things will start to feel overwhelming.
What helps is to take a step back from the “issues” seeming to demand quick (and perhaps dirty) solutions from us, and instead seek ways to meet various needs through a redistribution, reorientation, introduction or migration between parts of the whole.

Permaculture is not a description of utopia, nor is it a panacea. It is simply very effective patterns of common sense for human beings who are connected to, and dependent on, any number of living systems.

Did you notice that all 12 principles apply to this meme? It’s at the heart of the permaculture approach because reframing problems as opportunities takes a whole-systems view. Diversity gives us options. Renewable resources and services are (genetically) designed for symbiosis with other parts of nature. Everything in a system has needs (inputs) and by-product (outputs). By matching these, we design for self-regulation.

As Bill also said, an output that isn’t met by the system is waste.
An input that isn’t met by the system is work (toil).
We don’t want much of either.

A well-known and brilliant example: A snail/slug problem is actually a duck deficiency.

4. Succession

As a system matures, and we begin matching more outputs with inputs, eventually we’ll see a reduction in external resources and services. This is great! However, if you’re particularly attached to that redundant part of the system, this might be a little sad to retire or even mourn the death of it.

This meme is especially useful (and challenging) in social ecosystems.
It’s common for us to form an identity around our roles, and feel that any threat to them is a threat to our existence, even when this role ceases to be relevant or useful.

Thus we commonly find that our systems are archaic, that certain people with concentrated power become bottlenecks, and thus a whole lot of bullshit jobs (unsatisfying, undignified) lead to a whole lot of wasted human talent.

Changing our expectations may be difficult, but is absolutely critical when designing an intergenerational, resilient system. Instead of fearing the “end” of something, we can celebrate these moments of transition as the initiation into new life that they are.

This pattern shows up in many places, and indicates that perhaps our beliefs about the afterlife have something to do with it. Because permaculture is holistic in its approach, the movement has in many cases experimented with new spirituality. It’s easy to see why many early adopters have come from the new-age movement.
Unfortunately, many people raised in the post-industrial, reductionist world have lost our ancestral beliefs and traditions as well as our connection to the land. That means it’s even more challenging to unlearn the dominant paradigm, because we might not have a living history of any alternative.

In extreme cases, the inchoate movement of permaculture can develop all kinds of toxicity which only repeats the distress patterns of power-over rather than power-with. This might take the form of cults, cultural appropriation, ‘noble savage’ fetishization of indigenous cultures, and dangerous naivety.

Unless practitioners apply permaculture design to their own life choices, these cases are at risk of co-opting and corrupting what the movement stands for and everything it has to offer. In many areas it already has a bad name, since a land-based practice is automatically political and some farmers don’t acknowledge the relevance that decolonization has to their practice.

Nonetheless I think it’s necessary to be vigilant; to accept feedback, to value the marginal, to cultivate diversity and to get out of our own way.

Contextualize the wisdom that you value from other cultures and give them credit if you adopt it into your own work. Research and reclaim your own history. Let the more-than-human world in your own neighbourhood teach you about its gods and laws.

As Narsanna Koppula, co-host of the 13th IPC in India, has said:

5. Stacking Functions

(2) Catch and store energy, (3) Obtain a yield, (6) Produce no waste, (7) Design from patterns to details, (8) Integrate rather than segregate, (9) Use small and slow solutions, (10) Use and value diversity, (11) Use edges and value the marginal, (12) Creatively use and respond to change.

Another brilliant meme that makes the most of what you’ve got by selecting components of your system that just keeping giving.
We can knock out any number of challenges with the addition of adjustment of just one element.

On an individual human level, this speaks to the broad range of skills that a permaculture practitioner might involve themselves in. “Jack of all trades, master of none” becomes “Jem of whatever’s necessary, companion to all”.

Patterns to details is extremely helpful here.
You might develop a concern; for instance, your kids are now big enough to wander around and we’re worried about them wandering into the busy traffic on our street.
A non-renewable solution is to try and watch them 24/7. An inhumane solution is to lock them up. A compromise is to send them off to preschool. But if we stop to wonder what opportunities this challenge indicates, we don’t need to define ourselves so narrowly. We can be creative!

If the initial ‘problem’ was defined as ‘lack of caring attention’, we could turn this into ‘developing community’, a chance to connect beyond our bubbles.
What functions are stacked?
The child can develop relationships outside their age range, agency through emergent learning, the family gets to know their neighbours better, the elderly are kept company, and intergenerational wisdom is preserved.

Or we might have seen this day coming, and re-framed the problem ‘lack of fencing’ into ‘opportunity for a boundary’.
Therefore we planted a row of trees that act as a barrier between the kids and the road; those trees might offer habitats for wildlife, a wind break, produce firewood or food, bio-remediate the soil, capture and store water underground, reduce noise, clean the air, and shade the hot afternoon sun.

This kind of thinking can yield incredibly creative results when we apply it to economic design, accounting for various forms of capital other than simply financial capital.
Just as one square mile is really at least three once you factor in the vertical areas above and below the ground, one hour of work could be as good as ten if you structure your tasks to meet multiple needs.

As we become more deeply aware of what’s possible in one implementation, we free ourselves and our space up for more of what makes life worth living.

This water tank not only catches and stores water; it also provides area for plant growth, and the water regulates the temperature, creating a novel microclimate.

6. Boundary and Polarity Management

(1) Observe and interact, (4) Apply self-regulation and accept feedback, (7) Design from patterns to details, (8) Integrate rather than segregate, (10) Use and value diversity, (11) Use edges and value the marginal, (12) Creatively use and respond to change.

Embracing polarities takes us beyond our limited perception.
If and when you find yourself at odds with someone else’s experience, asking “in what scenario are we both right” is likely to yield profound insight.

An example is in the symbol for principle #4: the earth, in 2D.
The focus is on Australia, where Holmgren & Mollison are from.

In two dimensions we might say “there is no America” and according to this image of the world, that’s accurate. It takes the addition of a third dimension to realize the earth isn’t a circle but a sphere, and that there is something on the other side of our ‘view’ which is equally valid.

Embracing polarities also helps us to balance the tension between extremes. The Core Quadrant model reminds us that all our value-preferences have unhealthy versions, and we are more likely to manifest these ‘shadow sides’ when we don’t recognize the positive qualities that provide counterbalance (often due to our very reasonable allergy to this opposite-quality’s own shadow side).

Embracing paradox is necessary in a complex system to go beyond right and wrong, good and bad and into the field of “it depends”.

And because of the world between poles being so large, it’s increasingly necessary to understand the value of a well-drawn boundary and the fertile qualities of these edge spaces. In the biological world, riparian zones are nature’s great example of the increased productivity of liminal spaces. Where worlds meet, great exchange and creativity is possible.

One social equivalent is what we call our ‘comfort zone’.
Positive change mostly takes place when we step outside out limits and into situations which demand creative response. Yet if we extend too far beyond this ‘growth zone’, we enter the ‘danger zone’; this takes us toward burnout, abuse, collapse and other experiences which lead to trauma.

To get the most out of where we place our edges, we want to remember the meme of feedback loops and enter a dance with life based on consent.
If any part of the system abuses another part, the whole system is weakened.

Indigenous cultures commonly had memes for managing which animals could be hunted at what time, so as not to exhaust the supply.
Hunting and tracking requires intimate knowing of the animal’s patterns, in other words feedback loops, whereas domesticity often ignores various environmental externalities by optimizing for predictability.
In this system, consent is not requested from the natural world.
Outbreaks of diseases are not read as symptoms, but as problems to engineer our way out of, and business continues as usual.

We can’t take our relationships for granted and expect a boundary to stay where it is, always. We must maintain active dialogue with that which meets us at the edge of our own being, honouring its agency and continuing to live in a way in which our presence creates value for the other.

Because boundaries are so dynamic, they are our key to diversity.
If we continue moving with changes in a creative and playful way, we can increase our sense of spaciousness, our productivity, and our system’s wellbeing with just a bit of imagination.

Creative design increases the edge space, opening new possibilities

7. Guilds

What’s common with all these memes is the integration of various principles into an emergent sum, where the brilliant patterns are greater than their parts.

Guilds use the same concept; bringing together various characteristics into a symbiotic group where inputs are met by outputs and edges create further niches for new life to grow within.

By systematically grouping different plants and resources together, you can create entirely new conditions (a microclimate) and grow things that usually don’t grow in your region.

The Guild meme used to be common in social systems (e.g. the market), and is still found in some workplaces (teams of variously skilled workers) and in online multiplayer games. However, on the whole, our societies tend to segregate different people from each other rather than seeking ways to create value for each person and the whole.

The over-emphasis on specialist skills and expert advisors can give us the impression that we don’t know very much and that we don’t have much to offer. If we believe this our whole lives, then our agency erodes along with our community resilience.

What we might do instead is to acknowledge each others diverse leadership styles and qualities, remembering that at different stages of a project, different leadership is needed. Then, instead of looking to fill specialist roles, we can assemble guilds of people with different character strengths and distribute responsibility in a way that increases fun and inclusion while reducing stress.

Thanks to Alanna Irving for bringing this life cycle pattern into a project-team context!

Permaculture design can regenerate our landscapes, something urgently needed on a global scale right now — however it’s equally vital for regenerating our communities and designing holistic digital systems.

These memes teach us a new way of being in relationship (to earth and each other, ourselves and all living beings) where we establish partnership and symbiosis rather than dominance and destruction.

What’s more, it’s also incredibly intuitive — because you, yourself, are a complex living system comprised of millions of tiny living things, and you’re a part of the complex living system of our biosphere too.

Thanks for reading! Let me know if my perspective inspires or concerns you.
I welcome your improvements, and remember
if you like this piece lots you can clap up to 50 times! That will help other readers to come across these ideas.

If you’re enthusiastic about permaculture (whether you’re a designer, farmer, healer, activist, human or more-than-human) and you’d like to join an international community of experimentation and development in the theory and praxis of permaculture, come join the Permaculture CoLab’s slack workspace. We want your memes!

No need to repackage your home experiments for a greedy globalized economy. We value local-first solutions! CoLab is where we develop the banana circle memes; your village is where you grow the bananas.

Your relative,
Naomi Joy Smith
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Make a contribution to Permaculture CoLab’s Digital Circle here!