The permaculture chapter: principle 9 – use small and slow solutions

See HERE for the provisional contents page of the study,

which gives you a proper chronology of sections.

Note: the content below is all in first draft format. It will change considerably during the time it takes for the study to be completed (especially by way of more academic support, generally). I post now ‘for interest’s sake’.

  1. Use small and slow solutions

The Permaculture Association[1] begins its commentary on this principle by pointing out that “systems should be designed to function at the smallest scale that is practical and energy efficient (rather than the biggest). In some ways this is a value judgement. Permaculture favours small scale and local, over big scale and global. Usually.” Issues with ‘one-size-fits-all’, large-scale industrial agriculture were explored in Chapter 1; Mollison (1988: 11) alludes to some of those issues when he says that every “widespread modern agricultural system needs great energy inputs; most agriculture destroys basic resources and denies future yields.” By localising food production into gardens, communities, neighbourhoods, and settlements in general, numerous small organic gardens that are free from the ‘need’ for industrial chemicals can replace the ecologically-damaging large monocrops that now constitute the vast majority of the world’s food supply.

Slowing down in the context of permaculture allows time for various principles already commented upon to be implemented. For example, a slow approach to the establishment of a homestead, food garden, or settlement, will allow one to spend time observing (principle one) the given area, its fauna and flora, its interdependencies, the flow of energy through the area, etc.; will allow one gradually to integrate different means of catching and storing energy (principle two); will allow for ‘by products’ (i.e. wastes) to be processed (principle six) and gradually incorporated as fertility into the system; etc. This slow approach is one that stands in sharp contrast to the ‘slash-and-burn’ approach employed in industrial agriculture, which involves clearing a natural area of trees and life immediately for large monocrop output and maximum financial profit in a minimum of time. This Promethean approach is one that quickly destroys ecosystems by immediately wiping out all that previously lived in the area and by applying fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to the land, while the permaculture approach that values smallness and slowness gradually strengthens ecosystems by increasing biodiversity, optimising moisture retention, creating organic fertility, etc. Mollison (1988: 53) provides some simple practical guidance on how to keep the implementation of such a permaculture system small and slow: the “golden rule is to develop the nearest area first, get it under control, and expand the perimeter. A single perimeter will then enclose all your needs.” Each permaculture action within the perimeter can also be chosen wisely for the optimisation of the components of the permaculture system: “Make the least change for the greatest possible effect” (Mollison 1988: 35).

An important feature of small and slow solutions is that, being small and slow, they are within the reach of the average person. The average person is generally dependant on ACID’s large-scale systems, systems that via numerous means are perpetuated whether the average person likes them or not – see Chapter 4 for information pertaining to selected perpetuation mechanisms. If one is caught up in consumer lifestyle where s/he has very few realistic options but to compete in the job market to pay for the necessities of life, it is unlikely that s/he can make big and quick changes to her or his life due to constraints of time, money, energy, etc. However, the small and slow implementation of changes to people’s lives allows them gradually to make steps towards a compost system, a food garden, water catchment and storage systems, grey water systems, alternative energy sources, etc. These small changes that are made gradually eventually add up, and eventually some level of self-sufficiency will be attained, which is a solution (albeit one that comes about slowly) to the problem of settlements where each household has water and energy piped in, sewage and grey water piped out, and no local sources of sustenance – all of which comes at immense ecological expense as seen in Chapters 1 and 2. It must also be mentioned here that this small and slow approach to implementing solutions to ecological problems can be applied not only in the individualistic context of ‘the average person’, but the average neighbourhood, city, region, and country – the methodology remains much the same.

A brief comment must also be made here in support of small and slow solutions characteristic of permaculture endeavours, as opposed to large and fast approaches common in ACID. If a proposed ‘solution’ turns out to be inappropriate for a specific context, then due to it being small and slow it would not have caused too much damage in an existing system. An example of this in permaculture is introducing a plant that at first grows quickly and provides shade in an overly sunny area, which may seem like an asset in a hot and dry climate. But later the plant may prove to be invasive, to reduce the growth rate of other plants, and to starve other plants of water – this is not a beneficial relationship between plant species and should be avoided in a permaculture system. Having slowly introduced a small number of such an invasive plant into the system, it is relatively easy to eliminate it from the system, allowing for different shade-providing plants to be incorporated instead; nothing much would have been lost in this endeavour. On the other, large and fast ‘solutions’ in ACID – for example, a massive fish farm in the bay of a city – appear at massive financial and energy costs, so there is incentive to keep them running even when massive ecological problems occur, in this instance problems like an increase in shark attacks at local beaches, as well as algae issues from the unnaturally high levels of fish-food substances (monocropped grains) and fish manure concentrated to the fish farm area.

The researcher and his partner did not initially take heed of this principle, and suffered greatly for their rash action. They had perceived a two-fold problem, first in their own lives when they worked ‘thankless’ full-time jobs that required increasing amounts of time and energy, leaving little of either for anything else, and second in the broader context where their lifestyles were totally reliant on ACID’s systems and therefore ‘by default’ perpetuated practices that cause massive ecological harm. The researcher and his partner chose to quit their jobs and instead move onto an empty piece of a friend’s land. Not having a roof over-head, no kitchen, no toilet facilities, etc. (really nothing – they lived in a camping-tent to begin with), they had to quickly construct a functional living environment from scratch, which was very stressful and resulted in decisions being made too quickly. The garden areas were also made too big, and even at the time of typing (three and a half years after moving to the land) there are garden beds that cannot be tended because two people can only ‘do so much’. They would have been far better off had they acquired a small cabin immediately upon arriving at the land, and finalised all aspects of their homestead before getting too carried away with big food gardens etc. The small and slow approach would have allowed the researcher and his partner to take heed of other important principles, as has already been discussed in this sub-section as being the case when a small and slow approach is taken. The researcher and his partner, as mentioned already in this chapter, have become custodians of their own acre of land, and they are slowly considering what the best course of action is for the land; at the time of writing, a small cabin has been partially constructed and it will soon be placed on the acre, with the intention being to create a small perimeter around the cabin to begin with, and then to develop the permaculture system within that perimeter – as suggested by Mollison.

Finally here, to link this principle to content from Chapter 5: the ‘unnamed movement’ written about by Hawken in Blessed Unrest is constituted by millions of small organisations that slowly have for decades been challenging oppressive Promethean endeavours. Hawken (2007: 141-142) likened these organisations as parts of an interconnected immune system: “the shared activity of hundreds of thousands of nonprofit organizations can be seen as humanity’s immune response to toxins like political corruption, economic disease, and ecological degradation”. Considering that permaculture is a universal but adaptable and context-bound[2] approach that works to affect small and slow systemic solutions that strengthen and spread over time, it plays an important role as a systemic platform from which the kind of Orphic endeavours spoken about by Hawken can take place.

[1] accessed 24 February 2016

[2] What is meant by ‘universal, adaptable and context-bound’ is that it can be practiced anywhere, but every manifestation of a permaculture system will be different depending on the unique ‘contextual’ factors of an area, factors such as climate, slope of land, main purpose for which the system will be put to use, specific conservation concerns, budgets, etc.