The permaculture chapter: principle 1 – observe and interact

See HERE for the provisional contents page of the study,

which gives you a proper chronology of sections.

Note: this is a first draft of a section of my research. It will change considerably during the time it takes for the study to be completed. I post now ‘for interest’s sake’. Click on the PhD tab if you would like to find sections referred to in this post.

  1. Observe and interact

The Permaculture Association[1] begins to elaborate on this principle as follows: “By observing natural and social patterns we are able to use them in our design work – this relates to Bill Mollison’s philosophy of ‘work with nature, not against’. We have to know how nature works if we want to be able to work with it.” This latter imperative – being “…able to work with nature” – is coterminous with the notion ‘interacting’ with nature, as the name of this principle suggests. It follows that observing and interacting is therefore part of working with nature, which is squarely in the realm of the Orphic agenda.

Furthermore, to cautiously employ a dichotomy here, one can argue that if interacting with and working with nature are Orphic qualities, then the Promethean counterparts would be a lack of such interaction with and working with natural systems, and instead a ‘one-dimensional’ mode of action (a deliberate reference to Marcuse’s one dimensionality explored in section 4.4). Indeed, the industries identified in Chapter 2 and their direct consequences listed in Chapter 1 do work against nature, with the vast destruction of nature by the relevant industries being testament to this point. One could easily argue that Promethean ideologies and industries do partake in observation, but as explored in Chapter 3, the observation process is at least heavily dominated by priorities such as growth of the debt-based monetary economy (measured by indices such as GDP), the domination of (and dominion over) the natural world, the exponentially-increasing processing of natural resources via the use of technology in consumer-capitalism, etc. (see Chapter 3 for details) – Mollison (1988: 1) uses an appropriate phrase for what has just been described: the “…madness of uncontrolled industrial growth”. These kinds of Promethean phenomena are surely actions as opposed to ‘interactions’ because, in the context of permaculture, the latter requires that natural systems at least remain intact and preferably have their domains expanded via the permaculture design process, while the former tends to ‘flatten’ natural environs in the characteristically Promethean trend of dominating nature.

So in the dominant ecocidal Promethean context re-touched upon above, a person, a group of people, an organisation, a local or regional municipality (etc.) can begin to apply permaculture principles by shifting from Promethean methods of observation (on indices such as monetary profit) and anthropocentric action, to observation of natural processes and a kind of human interaction with nature, a working-with-nature rather than against it. This means observing and identifying ecologically problematic actions; as Mollison (1988: 3) points out:

behaviours in the natural world which we thought appropriate at one time later prove to be damaging to our own society in the long-term (e.g. the effects of biocidal pest controls on soils and water)[,]

and once such observations are made, ecologically problematic actions become adapted or abandoned:

…we are led by information, reflection, and careful investigation to moderate, abandon, or forbid certain behaviours and substances that in the long-term threaten our survival; we act to survive. (Ibid)

Both of the above comments by Mollison are relevant considering the urgency to transition (as elaborated upon earlier in this chapter); both of them, along with this permaculture principle number 1, imply that an important starting point in permaculture is identifying what not to do, and it is clear in the wide context of this study that various Promethean actions need to be abandoned gradually if a sustainable world is to be achieved – prime candidates of Promethean action that should gradually be discarded are found in Chapter 2.

The author of this study, by way of having studied and practiced permaculture, can add the following practical points to the discussion of this principle in the light of what has so far been said about it, i.e. regarding some systemic components that can be abandoned as a result of observation:

Simple observation leads to the conclusion that people do not need most of the appliances and apparatuses that can be found in the average household, items that are almost exclusively produced in the Promethean manner and are part and parcel of the consumer model of living, items that require endless extraction of resources from the ‘standing reserve’ of nature as per the Promethean worldview. Nobody needs a television, a toaster, an electric geyser/boiler, a fridge, a washing machine, an electric clothing dryer, a dish-washing machine, several lights in every room, a dehumidifier, a humidifier, etc. – household items that for the vast duration of human history did not exist but that are now ubiquitous and inculcated in the consumerist lifestyles that partly underlie the eco-crisis. By similar logic, big houses, and cement houses, are not needed nor are they ecologically viable; full reliance on mono-cropping agriculture is not necessary; neither are two hot showers (in the verb form) – or even one shower – per day; the same in the cases of flush toilets, basins and sewer systems. And people certainly do not need to eat at restaurants nor indulge themselves in unsustainable entertainment industries associated with ‘shopping-mall culture’ and the competitive sporting industry.

Instead, time that would have been spent watching television, eating out at restaurants, and indulging in other forms of entertainment associated with ACID, can be spent making compost from the compost toilet system that replaces the flushing toilet system, thereby rebuilding soils destroyed by Promethean action; time can be spent designing the home and/or community garden and implementing the design for home and/or community food production, thereby reducing the ‘need’ to rely exclusively on the Promethean agricultural system; can be spent reusing the grey water from basins and baths and showers in the home/community garden[2]; can be spent doing clothes- and dish-washing by hand and returning the grey water into the system via natural water-purification methods, e.g. reed bed purification. Instead of taking two showers a day, one can take one shower a day, or one shower every two days, drastically reducing energy-use associated with boilers/geysers; going further here, one can abandon hot showers altogether and take cold showers, one every two days (more on this below in this sub-section); one can change their diet so that a fridge can be switched off entirely. Of course, abandoning various combinations of the ACID lifestyle that is the Promethean writ large is not initially easy, but it is possible – and doing so clearly drastically decreases the amount of money needed to accrue, maintain, replace, and power various appliances and apparatuses, which in turn decreases cyclical consumption, as well as the need for full-time work in the capitalist system, which in turn makes more time available to adapt to an Orphic lifestyle. Accordingly, making such lifestyle changes dramatically decreases the transport ‘necessary’ in the orthodox context of ACID, many aspects of which have been indirectly alluded to in this sub-section already, e.g. trips out to the shops for food and/or entertainment, and daily trips to the workplace in a full-time work context.

The researcher has none of the aforementioned appliances or apparatuses[3], and he does spend much time participating in the aforementioned alternatives to the Promethean status quo. Accordingly he does reap the benefit of working part-time in the capitalist world, while spending the other part of his time doing that which he recommends, as well as engaging in other pursuits such as this study. His home is a 12 square meter cabin made from reclaimed wood, as well as a semi-open outdoor kitchen area with woodchip floors, plus a tiny outhouse made similarly from reclaimed wood – the roofs of all structures are, however, corrugated iron, an appropriate use of metal because of the long-term durability and aptness for catching rainwater into storage tanks. His means of cooking food and heating water for hot drinks are threefold: first and mostly, a solar cooker; second, and second-most frequently used, a rocket stove that uses off-cuts of wood from a local saw-mill – this ordering is reversed for approximately 4 months of the year during the winter when sunlight is less consistent for the solar-cooking of food; and third, used when the solar cooker is not viable and the cooking job is too small to warrant a small rocket-stove fire, a gas ring cooker. Hot water for the most part of the year comes via a coil of piping on a sun-facing roof, providing hot water for a warm shower[4] if a warm shower is so desired (taken usually every second day, this frequency having proven to be more than sufficient for cleanliness), and for the water that is used in the dish-washing and clothes washing processes. All water gets returned into the gardens because ecologically-friendly soaps are used for the listed ‘water activities’. These are all interactions with nature – nature is not endangered by the human pursuits, but instead the human pursuits are made possible via the use of what can be sourced from nature (and returned to nature) sustainably.

What gradually occurs via the process of observation is that the proponent of such Orphic actions becomes aware that everything he does impacts on the world around him – his is an interaction rather than an action. He takes heed of information about ecological degradation and begins to observe what he does and the effects thereof. He sees that the ‘blind’, ‘default’ actions prescribed by ACID are almost exclusively unsustainable, and instead begins to interact with a living world of which he is only one small part, and not (delusionally) the centre thereof.

So observation can be about ‘what not to do’, and what to do instead, as elaborated upon above; in terms of permaculture design, observation is of systems, processes, and phenomena in general, with the aim of adjusting the human response towards interaction with them versus mere action. For example, one might observe that organic material cut from trees and bushes left on the ground results in soils remaining moister under the organic materials than uncovered ground, and that plants and trees with such organic matter (known as mulch) at their bases need less watering. One then might then collect mulch material (such as grass-cuttings, leaves, newspapers, etc.) from the local area and spread these throughout a home garden. In turn, one might then notice an increase in the amount of worms in the soil, which accordingly attracts birds to the garden, thereby strengthening biodiversity of the system. This is an excellent example of an Orphic interaction that arises from observation, because loss of biodiversity (e.g. few birds) is such a serious phenomenon that partly constitutes the ecological crisis, and here it has been seen that simple observation and the adjustment of action towards interaction can help in offering a response to the phenomenon.

One might also observe that a specific plant planted next to a different plant ‘behaves’ or ‘performs’ differently in relation to having been planted next to yet a different plant. This kind of observational process has resulted in designers identifying ‘companion plants’, for example the ‘three sisters’ – corn, squash, and beans. The Corn provides the tall stems up which the beans grow; the beans fix nitrogen into the soil, which is used by the ‘heavy-feeding’ squash plants. Similarly, one might observe that certain plants make very bad companions and avoid planting them close to one another, for example squash and tomatoes, both of which are ‘heavy feeders’ and will compete against one another for nutrients. This kind of observational process is one that permaculture practitioners attempt to nurture in all spheres of living, at all times, thereby ensuring that complacency does not arise and create systemic inefficiencies. By interacting rather than merely acting, designers are more open to feedback from the system and therefore cooperate with the system based on systemic feedback – more on this point in the sub-section ‘apply regulation and accept feedback’ below.

Finally, there are several instances where the Orphic ‘offerings’ explored in Chapter 5 resonate with that which has been explored in this sub-section about observation and interaction. Older cultures, as a first example here, interacted in what was seen by them to be a living world of which they are only a part. Then, the ‘unnamed movement’ of Blessed Unrest is constituted by millions of organisations, groups, and individuals who have observed socio-political, economic and/or ecological injustice and who participate to create a ‘horizontal platform’ where harmonious interaction between people and ecology can take place. Both Hancock and Sheldrake propose alternative ways of looking at history and science respectively based on observational processes that differ from dogmatic and orthodox institutionalised methods of observation; Sheldrake’s morphic resonance furthermore posits fields as an important means by which all people and indeed all species (and objects) interact with the other members of their species. Finally here, Eisenstein’s sacred economy clearly arises after the observation of the hefty shortcomings and destructive inbuilt tendencies of the economy of ACID, and among his suggested alternatives he describes the concept of ‘the commons’, quite clearly constituted by interacting components, including “the surface of the earth, the minerals under the earth, the water on and under the ground, the richness of the soil, the electromagnetic spectrum, the planetary genome, the biota of local and global ecosystems, the atmosphere, the centuries-long accumulation of human knowledge and technology, and the artistic, musical, and literary treasures of our ancestors”. (Eisenstein .pdf pg. 132)

[1] accessed 29 January 2016

[2] As a general rule, The use of grey water in gardens requires that biodegradable soaps and detergents are used for domestic washing purposes.

[3] The exception is that he has access to the corner of a friend’s freezer, wherein a small quantity of venison meat is stored, which the researcher eats sparingly. Venison (specifically and exclusively buck and other free-roaming game) has been decided by the researcher to be ethically acceptable in the context of where he lives in South Africa because the animals roam free and the venison industry is free of the issues described in the ‘meat and fish industries’ scrutinised in Chapter 2. Of course, if everyone were to eat venison, then it almost certainly could not be a sustainable source of food. This issue is beyond the scope of this study to discuss further.

[4] The researcher prefers cold showers, even in winter – see an example of a google search ( accessed 31 January 2016) for an indication of the benefits of taking cold showers.

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