If you have not familiarized yourself with permaculture ethics and principles, please do so here before reading on.
Closed-systems thinking is the idea that a system that minimizes external inputs and limits "waste" by recirculating output within the system is central to permaculture thinking. But few really delve into the details of what this means for them and even fewer actually apply it to real-world decisions and actions.
It takes discipline and practice to think this way, as we have all grown up in a linear world. We are encouraged to consume, then throw "away," then repurchase without ever questioning the fact that we have brought resources into our lives that were extracted from somewhere else, another system, and whose waste we will ship to yet another system (usually the landfill or the wider environment). The introduction of community-wide recycling projects and bins has done little more than assuage our feelings of guilt when we purchase a non-compostable, externally extracted item. Perhaps, these programs have even made the consumer culture more extreme. We have traded ethics for convenience.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Indeed, closed-systems thinking is not a new concept. We have adopted it from nature, where these interlocking systems are highly efficient and prove that they are worth their upstart effort.
The twelve principles developed by David Holmgren in conjunction with the work he and Bill Mollison did when they first developed the concept of permaculture, are a guide, a sort of worksheet or checklist we can utilize to create highly self-regulating, balanced, and efficient systems (aka designs).
These twelve principles help us plan, organize, implement, and correct any design process. These steps were developed with the production of food and the stewardship of land in mind. However, they can be applied to any decision-making process. All aspects of life function better as closed systems. And to prove it, I have put together the following guidelines for the application of permaculture thinking to graphic design.
Firstly, let's revisit the 3 basic ethics as they would be utilized by the designer, whether architect, gardener, farmer, business owner, or branding specialist.
Placing these ethics at the starting point of all decisions and designs allows the designer to prioritize strategies and ideas efficiently and ethically.
It follows that, using the 12 permaculture design principles to practice graphic design, we can:
1. Observe and Interact – developing an in-depth understanding of the client’s business objectives, obstacles, and culture is a respectful and vital part of a successful design process, engendering confidence in the client and producing more efficient campaigns.
2. Catch and Store Energy – identifying a client’s incoming energies and their ability or inability to capture and store that energy, whether that is a new customer base, a grant, or an ingenious and clever new employee, is paramount to how the client reacts to opportunities and crises.
3. Obtain a yield – providing a measurable way to track the design implementation gives the client a sense of control and the designer a bird’s eye view of the campaign.
4. Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback – accepting critical feedback from the client and being willing to implement changes is a vital characteristic in the designer that validates the client’s insight and concerns.
5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services – adopting this responsible attitude toward the resources the implementation our design activities use, models for the client a sustainable way to move toward the future.
6. Produce No Waste – investigating and planning for the waste that is produced by the implementation of a project, especially a print project, can allow the designer to help the client close the system, or transfer the excess waste to be productively used in other parts of their strategy or organization.
7. Design From Patterns to Details – acknowledging that nature is the perfect designer opens the designer’s eyes to possibilities that are not evident to others; modeling a campaign on natural patterns and closed systems helps the client to meet their goals in the most efficient manner possible.
8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate – establishing symbiotic relationships between the various components of a campaign can save time, energy, money, and confusion;
9. Use Small and Slow Solutions – factoring in incremental stages of implementation allows the designer and client to recognize and react to the feedback each stage creates.
10. Use and Value Diversity – recognizing that nature employs virtually unlimited diversity in every aspect of production, the designer is equipped to instruct the client on the immense value of diversifying every aspect of their strategy; from bringing on board a wide array of skills and personalities, to utilizing resources that can play multiple roles, to targeting a diverse range of customers.
11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal – whether it’s the fringe audience or the outdated methodology, understanding that the greatest effect is seen at the interchange between what’s going out and what’s coming in is pivotal to effective design management; new cell phone models sell when they are first released because customers inherently contrast the new with the old.
12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change – accepting that change is the status quo in nature, we can see value in transitions and help the client to capitalize on, not fear, the changes that they need to address and the changes that will inevitably be initiated by the campaign.
I encourage you to plug in responses to each of these principles for a design, decision or system you are planning to execute. You can use this worksheet to get started!
Please comment below with any epiphanies you may encounter, questions you have, clarifications you need, or even your own completed worksheet for all of us to admire!!
Through an economist's lens, I have seen the way the winds blow for a while now. One of the insights that got me into the field was that capitalism is a hungry beast that has prowled its way across the globe through predatory and destructive means for two centuries. This definitely was not taught at schools of economics across this country... quite the contrary, neoclassical economics (as ordained by J.P. Morgan himself) was conveniently put in place as the holy grail at the most lauded schools, especially in the northeast.
The language of history is very revealing, and it will never fade from my mind that colonialism is the mechanism by which "the core feeds from the periphery." How very beastly. And indeed, colonialism (in service of capitalism) has and continues to do just that. As the decades marched on, however, and fewer and fewer civilizations remained at the "periphery," the appropriation continued in more insidious ways. Britain may no longer have military running India, the great Trail of Tears may no longer be marching in America, South Africa may no longer have official apartheid, but colonialism is alive and well. How can it not be, so long as free-market capitalism is alive and well?
A quick refresher. Neoclassical economics holds three assumptions:
So, as I am sure you can glean from just this cursory overview, there are some serious problems with these assumptions. But first, let's review how these came to be. Modeling, in any field, includes assumptions. We may wring our hands and cry foul, but in the end, any mathematical or logical model that is created to predict future outcomes MUST have constraints... otherwise, we'd be looking at thousands upon thousands of possible variables that would quickly bog us down in a quagmire.. in other words, we would just be re-creating the reality we are living. And if we could not figure things out living in actual reality, what good does it do us to try and figure things out in a model of virtual reality?
Secondly, these assumptions, which were barely refined over two centuries, were devised in a very different time and a very different world: a world without the telephone, radio, television, and now the internet. So the very idea that consumers have complete and relevant information is based on such a vastly different set of quantifiers that we have a hard time understanding the actual intended meaning of this statement.
Lastly, we must address the one industry that was created strictly to serve capitalists and that has arisen to conquer capitalism and the consumer in just the last 100 years: advertising. Informing, persuading, marketing, and, more recently, psychiatry (or social science) and big data, are all evolving outgrowths of an effort to ensure that the consumer has "complete and relevant" information. However, this spectrum that reaches through time and cultural shifts from informing back in the nineteenth century all the way through to data collection used today is broad and duplicitous.
What we must not lose sight of is that one of the founding principles of free-market economics, that people are self-serving, greedy, and inherently competitive, is still accepted today in many neoclassical economics schools, and, thus, in corporate boardrooms, on Wall Street, and in the political realm. This is not by coincidence. An adaptation of Darwin's survival of the fittest, this assumption looks to the idea that evolution is fueled by the elimination of those those too weak to "win" the procreation race. And so, the evolution of a product, service, business, or industry dictates that it's qualities compete with its rivals. Every advancement is an effort to survive, to win. Of course, this type of competitiveness engenders cut-throat tactics and savvy ingenuity. This used to result in innovation, but that has changed. No longer are production decisions made primarily to better the product or to "maximize its utility" to the consumer. Indeed, most producers no longer put the majority of their resources into improving their products.
No need. We have advertising.
Over the last 60-70 years, industry has moved from selling products that aim to maximize utility to the consumer, to simply maximizing satisfaction of the consumer. In other words, the ad industry has succeeded in shifting resources from producing the most competitive product to producing the most competitive illusion of satisfaction, contentment, happiness, self-perception... of dopamine. While products still need to deliver on the general expectations of utility, they no longer have to necessarily compete based on our “rational value preferences.” It is now simply a matter of providing us with a sense of self-worth. It is not about what the product does for the consumer, it is how the consumer feels when they buy it. This is true of every sector, every product, every service, every endeavor… even charitable activities meet their triumph or failure based on how donors feel, and not necessarily based on whether the work they do has value.
So what does any of this have to do with capitalism, social and economic collapse, and humanity’s downfall? Oh, were you under the impression this was an economics lesson? No, no… this is just background intelligence to prepare you for the reality check. This, ladies and gentlemen, is about how climate change is a direct result of environmental degradation, which is a direct result of hyper-consumerism. And why do we consume far beyond our needs? Why do we consume things that we throw out and replace almost immediately? Why do we consume things that can never be made to “go away?” You got it, because we were made to believe these equal happiness and self-worth.
We are talking about climate change so vast and precipitous, that it is poised to take down every institution, cultural norm, political structure, and sense of humanity with which we identify. Yet advertising and marketing strategies continue the push to sell products whose resources are irreplaceable and unethically sourced, whose distribution carries a vast carbon footprint, whose off-gassing is making us sick, and which will not biodegrade in thousands of years. Or, worse yet, which will bio-degrade into a form more invasive and deadly than we ever anticipated (like micro-plastics).
Why has this incredibly fast and exhilarating ride been so impossible to slow down, much less stop? Many environmentalists and activists shake their heads, confounded by the sheer political and social “UNwill.” The push back when activists point out the huge environmental catastrophe that factory farming has become, the election of a president who can get away with rolling back climate initiatives, the blasé reporting of red algae blooms along hundreds of miles of the Florida coast that killed everything in the water and made people sick… these are all indicative of a nearsightedness that seems incomprehensible to some of us.
And yet, it is all rather predictable when the veil of free-market capitalism is cast aside and the inner workings of industry, corporations, and financial institutions are examined. When the revolving door between pharmaceuticals and government spins perpetually, when banks are bailed out for their crimes only to repeat them, when wages stagnate below poverty levels while the top 1% accumulates an exponentially increasing amount of wealth, this is when bubbles burst. And the collapse of financial markets is only the first step in the total collapse of humanity, according to Dmitry Orlov, author of The Five Stages of Collapse.
I recently read a social media post of an encounter a mother of a sick toddler had with a healthy grown man in a Walmart the day a “boil your water” warning was issued in Austin this past October. There was no shortage of water, there was electricity, the roads were open, emergency services were up and running, public transportation was functioning, there was food on the shelves of every store. The ONLY thing that was going on was this “boil your water” notice. The man had piled up his shopping cart with excessive bottled waters, while the mother of the sick toddler had none… the shelves were bare. She politely asked the man if he would share a case with her. His response: “f**k off”. This same man might have opened the door for her the day before, might have donated $5 to charity at checkout the day after. But at that moment, all sense of community was severed. Commercial, political, social, and cultural collapse had just occurred between these two humans. Their faith in the market, their faith in government, their faith in neighborliness, and their faith in humanity had been shaken. All five stages of collapse occurred between these two people on a day when a “boil your water” notice was issued. Can you imagine what will occur nationwide when there is an actual collapse of any of these sectors?
The question I therefore lay before you is not, “how do we prevent these sectors from failing?” because, as has been established, there are no breaks on this ride. But rather, I pose this question: “when these fail, what are the most important things to know and do?” Because it is now no longer a matter of “if” but “when” and “how.”
This is not an essay on prepping. This is not an essay on bugging out. This is not an appeal to eat less meat. This is an invitation to enter the first stage of grief. Grief over the impending doom of human culture as we know it. Because, only once we get to the last phase of grief, acceptance, can the real work begin. The work of Deep Adaptation.
The next essay: The Work of Deep Adaptation.
After months of hemming and hawing back and forth about whether to take the plunge and get chickens, I finally obtained two birds and a small coop. The first was an old chicken that was the sole survivor of the flock my next door neighbors once had. The chickens were a project that the semi-retired husband was passionate about, but after he passed on, his wife was not keen on the upkeep. I started taking care of the 3-4 birds and rooster whenever she was out of town, and they all died off one by one. I benefited from the manured bedding for my compost and the occasional egg.
Once only Holly was left and my neighbor sold her property, I adopted the elderly chicken and brought her to our place. I then purchased a 4 month old, Doily, and the coop she came with. I was extremely stressed out when we first set them up because I felt I was not protecting them well enough and was not prepared to house them. But very quickly, I relaxed and found that they have amazing inborn survival instincts and will flutter up to a low branch or railing when ground predators are near (we spotted a fox scoping out the front yard from the meadow), and they would run into their coop or under the bushes when a hawk circled overhead!
This does not mean that nothing can or might get them... but I feel better about giving them the freedom to free range, which provides a high quality of life, than I would over-protecting them by caging them, which is the life old Holly had before I got her. Now, they forage for the seeds I scatter every morning and peck apart the kitchen scraps I throw over their fence daily. And in the process, they are turning the woodchip covered soil into luscious, rich, manured compost. Although Miss Holly has stopped producing eggs, she is wonderful company for Doily, who, at 8 months old now, is producing a reliable egg every day!
I feel that their social contentment is evident when I muse how bitchy Holly used to be and how shy and nervous Doily was when we first got her. Now both allow me to pet them, they come when I call, and they talk back when I chirrup or purr at them. It is a great pleasure to have raised Holly's happiness and health quotient so dramatically in her final months/years. She has great value to me and to Doily, even though she does not produce eggs. She has taught Doily the social rules of chickenness and the skills to forage and survive predators. She is a source of friendship and companionship for Doily and is always the first and loudest to sound the alarm when a predator is near. She seems to even have "trained" the border collie to alert us in the house when she hears Holly's warning cackle!
I am planning to purchase a slightly larger and sturdier coop this weekend and add one or two hens to the family to increase our egg production. Let's hope that these two will be able to accept them graciously.
How do you provide natural care for your flock? Share some pictures of your setup!
I find it absolutely staggering, how western culture, specifically, the “consumer culture,” has groomed several generations of farmers and gardeners to ignore mother nature completely in favor of gaining “complete control” over her. There is a misconception out there, perpetrated by consumerism, that in order to have growth in the production of food and GDP, we must take over nature’s job, burdening our economic and physical limitations with work that nature would willingly do for free. Not only that, but the assumption that we need this growth, a basic tenet of capitalism, is erroneous.
Coming from a background of economics and statistics, teaching and researching, I am aware that much of our food production techniques and paradigms, whether crop or animal farming, grew out of a devastating doctrine in capitalism that we must feed from the periphery in order to sustain ourselves and a ceaseless growth. This has led to endless suffering as capitalist enterprises, be it corporations or nations or missionaries, flooded into unexplored areas of the globe and colonized peoples and their resources.
Now, I realize this topic is nothing new. But linking it to today’s issues of food and water scarcity and inequity has not been explored enough. I propose that western civilization, and I use the term loosely, is much like a heroin addict: we just cannot get enough of the products and services that spring from the syringe of capitalism and will do anything to get more or at least maintain the stream of supply. We go through “withdrawal” when the media announces that we are decreasing or leveling off (gasp!) in the production sectors, we blame anyone but ourselves for depressions in economic performance, and we turn our backs on friends who provide no direct, material benefit to us or our national financial and economic growth.
And like the addict, we need more every year to sustain the same high.
What IS that high? What drives Wall Street? What drives the suburbanite? What drives the kids of today? What drives consumption?
The answers used to include things like “needs” and “better quality of life” and “providing for our kids’ future.” However, all these have morphed in the last century from “needs” to “wants,” from “better quality of life” to “faster and more convenient,” and from “providing for our kids’ future” to “recklessly destroying the planet’s ability to provide for our kids’ survival,” to say nothing of a thriving future!
How did this happen?
It is an endless and futile exercise in philosophy to try and find the initial root cause. Needless to say, there are many; most of which can be clumped into categories like colonialism or consumerism or capitalism or a war mentality… whatever. These analyses do not produce solutions in most cases.
Having morphed from an economics professor and researcher, to a full-time parent, to a caretaker for my mother, to a fine artist, to a fine art print maker, to a graphic designer, and finally, to a permaculture designer and practitioner (deep breath here), I am shocked to discover that at the root of everything I know, everything I yearn for, everything that is important to my survival and happiness, lies nature. Yes, nature. Not doctrine, not dogma, not financial abundance, not psychological stability, NOT. THE. EGO.
… you will find something rooted in nature that has been severed …
Yes, it all sounds a bit hippy-ish… but I assure you, that if you drill down to any of your concerns and worries, your stresses, your anxieties, your problems… you will find something rooted in nature that has been severed. This is the result of a pervasive manifestation of a consumerist brainwashing that has happened for decades. And this does not just affect the west anymore, but has been exported and is also a plague in “developing” countries.
Why am I using quotes around developing?
Because the use of the word "developing" illustrates precisely the extractive and condescending mentality with which we view progress. The idea of progress piggy-backs on each of those addictive behaviors and perceptions of wants instead of needs I talked about. Why do you want that ATV? Because it will tow that tree trunk you cut down to provide firewood for the winter? I doubt it. More likely, it’s so your can say you “provided” for your kids’ entertainment “needs.” Are they having more fun on the ATV than on a bicycle? Are they safer on an ATV than on foot? Are they gaining physical prowess on an ATV they would not get running through the woods, climbing trees? Are they learning more? Are they benefiting in ANY way, shape, or form?
Most likely, your answer to all these inquiries will be no.
So why do we make these purchases? Because we have been taught to equate accumulation with progress. And we have been taught to believe a narrow and erroneous definition of progress. Progress for progress’s sake? Progress as the epitome of betterment? Progress as a surrogate for fulfillment? Progress as an immunity to oppression?
I suggest that we redefine progress.
To do that, we need to identify the role capitalism has played in history and in our own lives. How has our perception of “progress” been molded by culture, society, and economics?
And finally, we need to question whether progress is even desirable in its current form.
I propose that we redefine progress in terms of our own well-being. And our well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of the earth. It is not tied to whether we make it to Mars. It is not tied to our earning potential. It is not tied to competition or a “competitive edge.” It is not tied to accumulation of material objects or “likes” or how big a bullhorn we possess.
It is tied to making amends with Earth… only then will everything else will fall into place.
How will you make amends?