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Permaculture and managing holistically

timTim is a qualified diesel fitter who has been learning and experimenting with permaculture  and holistic management for over 30 years. He tutors at both the Koanga Institute in New Zealand and the Permaculture Research Institute in Australia. Over the years he has run a farm, environmental adventure tourism businesses, and contracted for the Environmental Protection Agency on large projects, all the while continuing to create his own projects from a hovercraft to a home aquaponics system. His current big project is designing and building a rammed earth home for his family in Morten Bay.

I’ve been wanting to write this article for some time, but, have been hiding behind the excuse of “I just don’t have the time”. I suspect though, it has been because what I want to talk about is probably a contentious issue for some and I’m generally a placid soul who doesn’t like to ruffle feathers.

Why then write now, some will ask? Well, I love teaching and more particularly, I love teaching Permaculture Design Courses (PDC). When someone turns up at a PDC they are there because they realize that there is a bigger picture at play in the world and they want to be part of it. They are ripe for change and if you do your job right, you can literally alter their lives. What school teacher could hope to have such an incredible dynamic going on in the classroom where everyone is buzzing with excitement for their new-found knowledge? It’s heady stuff but it also means there is a huge responsibility to do the best possible job you can.

Anyway, I’m always looking for ways to improve or better integrate the information in a PDC so that students can get some leverage on the Permaculture design process and really make it work for them. I, like most other PDC teachers, I’m sure, am always considering different exercises to better illustrate points, or on the hunt for the latest information to bring into the teaching room.

Over the last year or so, there has been much discussion between the practitioners of Permaculture and those that manage holistically, with both sides talking past each other and failing to even recognize they are making fundamental errors in defining what the other actually is. A comprehensive look at what Permaculture and Holistic Management are and are not, is a subject for another time — what I want to discuss now is that each side, in pointing out their differences, has failed to consider the similarities, synergies and complementary nature of Permaculture and Holistic Management.

Leaving aside all other considerations, at its core Permaculture is a design process which uses ethics, principles, patterns, strategies and techniques to achieve certain design goals.

Holistic Management is also a process, but in this case, it is a decision making process whereby we use a very similar set of ethics, principles, patterns, strategies and techniques to help us make complex management decisions while addressing environmental, social and economic outcomes.

It’s about now, someone usually insists Permaculture is about growing food and someone else insists Holistic Management is about grazing cattle. While it’s true these are common techniques of the respective processes, they do not define those processes and we do ourselves a disservice if we insist on limiting our view simply to strategies and techniques.

Regardless, we need to step back for a moment and consider that here we have a process for design and a process for management that are in no way contradictory. In fact PC and HM offer very valuable insights and perspectives into each other.

…Just as it’s a permaculture principle to value edge as often the most fertile and productive areas between two ecotones, so we should value the fertile edge between these two processes and embrace that which comes from it.

There has always been somewhat of an unspoken assumption in some circles that Permaculture doesn’t work. Now whether or not this criticism is valid and I fully believe it isn’t, it can be argued that for every functioning project there seems to be at least as many dysfunctional ones.

I’m sure this will bring howls of outrage from some, but bear with me — I am not criticising the Permaculture process, I am merely pointing out that there are quite a few examples where for one reason or another, the act of turning the process into reality fails or is poorly carried out.

The reasons for this are many and varied and directly correlate with the many and varied people practicing permaculture. More than a few will assert this is mainly through lack of practical experience or knowledge and I won’t disagree. However, I also believe that lack of experience and specific knowledge aren’t necessarily impediments to good design. Experience and knowledge can be gained — we all start from zero at some point. The important thing is to recognise this.

I believe the problem lies with the fact we all have different strengths and weaknesses and various biases and blind spots and it is these factors that ultimately influence how we make decisions. It’s these biases and blind spots that give us definition and make us who we are, so I’m not arguing against these things, simply stressing that we need to be well aware of them when we make decisions that have potentially large consequences. It’s also why I think that those people who have designed and managed highly functional permaculture systems would very likely do well regardless, as they tend to be good observers and as we should all recognize:

-a good observer tries to neutralize all cognitive biases and prejudgment so they have the greatest pallet of possibilities to work with.

David Holmgren always emphasises the trap of starting to design before we have simply observed, free of any value judgments. Another trait of a good designer is the joy and fascination in the learning opportunity of a good mistake.

While most of us downplay our mistakes, a good PC designer relishes them as true learning.

Now, if you are struggling somewhat with the concept of your making poor decisions, then it is highly likely you’re right in the middle of a cognitive bias. We tend to be blind to our own faults but find it much easier to see those faults in others. Those that find this hard to agree with, I simply direct to any search of Cognitive Bias on the internet which will bring up a huge number of biases that have been consistently and replicably shown to exist in humans. There are probably a large number of readers now vehemently denying this, but I would like to throw the challenge out there, that true intellectual honesty comes not from just questioning others, but yourself also.


Holistic context

This is where Holistic Management can be of great benefit. As stated earlier, to a large degree HM is a decision making process. However, before we start making decisions, we have to work out what we are making decisions about and what those decisions are for. Without this, we are like a ship without a compass. Very, very briefly, a HM practitioner first creates a holistic context, (previously, this was referred to as a holistic goal but context is a much more apt description). As my trainer, Brian Wehlburg of Inside Outside Management, puts it “Think of context as the umbrella under which want to operate”. Ultimately creating a holistic context is a clarifying and empowering process that helps us articulate our heart’s true desires and this is the engine that drives the whole process.

Define the whole

The first step in creating our context is to define the ‘whole’ under management. This is simply a recognition that nothing works in isolation and everything is connected. No one element can be truly understood as individual components, but rather only in how it operates within a functioning system. Interestingly, the systems thinking which undergirds Permaculture was itself derived from holism.

So in defining our ‘whole’ under management we look at the system we want to manage. It might be a business, a farm, a government department, a town or your life and your family’s life.

The decision-makers

We then list our decision-makers. These are simply all the people who from day-to-day make decisions in the ‘whole’ as defined, from the most mundane to the most far-reaching. So for a business, it’s everyone from the CEO to the person serving in the cafeteria. For your family it will be you, your partner and the kids. In this category, we also include anyone who has the power of veto or can alter your decisions.

The resource base

Next, we list all the physical resources available to us to help us achieve our context. Though we don’t yet have the context formed, we should have a good idea of our resources. So it may be a car, machinery, land, a house or in fact any physical thing we have access to or use of. We don’t even have to own whatever it is, merely have the use of it, so it can also include things like other people, the internet, libraries etc. Be creative here because the more you list the more potential resources you have to help you achieve your context.


You may be tempted to list money in your resource base, but we tend to list it separately. Again don’t limit yourself to what you actually have, but also potential sources of money. Here is where you put down savings, precious metals, stocks, bonds, etc., but also money that can be obtained from bank loans, grant money, social security and even money that can be generated by things in your resource base.

Statement of purpose

Depending on the ‘whole’ you are managing, you can have a statement of purpose. This is a preface to setting your holistic context and serves to focus you on what you are actually trying to achieve. It should be only a sentence or two. You could almost call it your mission statement.

Quality of life statement

Here we are attempting to express what we really want out of life — what excites us and motivates us. This statement has to reflect the desires and aspirations of all the decision-makers as listed earlier. If your holistic context is the engine which drives the process then your QoL is the fuel. It’s what gets you up in the morning, eager to move yourself closer to your context. Here it’s important to drill down to the root of what motivates us, so instead of saying things like “I want lots of money”, we would ask why do we want lots of money? We very often find that words like security, prosperity or stability pop up, so it’s really important to get right down to it. We also find what most people really want, tends to be universal, regardless of race, gender or creed.

Areas to consider are:

Economic well-being
Challenge and growth
Purpose and contribution

We all want freedom from financial woes, we all want to love and be loved. We also know with challenge comes growth and we all seek purpose and the possibility to contribute and have meaning in our lives. So approaching writing your QoL statement by using the above categories can be very helpful.

You want to be using short simple phrases — it doesn’t have to be long and beautifully written  – indeed this can block the process somewhat. Try to express these things using emotions and try to express them as you want them to be, not how they are now. An example might be “I have loving relationships with my family”, “I feel secure and prosperous”, “I am well respected” “I enjoy challenge and the growth that comes from it”, “I am happy and healthy”. Don’t get too specific, it should be about how you want to feel, not how you are going to achieve it. That part comes next.

Forms of production

This is where we look at the various parts of our Quality of Life statement and match it with a means of producing the listed desirable outcomes. Again, we don’t want to be too specific but we want to address those things that will either block or assist us in achieving our quality of life. Remember we are talking holism here, so there is always going to be some overlap, with with some forms of production addressing multiple areas of our quality of life statements. For instance, the form of production for “loving relationships” might be more open communication or better time management or work/life balance, which might also be forms of production for “being respected by and involved in my community”. -If I had put down “More time” instead of “Better time management” I wouldn’t have been addressing the real issue, as we all have the same amount of time — some just manage it better than others.
The forms of production for “feel secure and prosperous” might be “sound financial planning” or “Community involvement”, remembering that to prosper doesn’t necessarily mean to profit.

Future resource base

The final step in setting your Context is to describe your future resource base. Here, you describe how your resource base has to be to support the forms of production that in turn will give you the quality of life you desire. Again, use the present tense as though you have already achieved what you are describing. Describe the people around you, your land, the infrastructure, the ecosystem health, your community. Terms like “supportive community”, “rich black soil”, “high biodiversity” are what you’re looking for. Describing and imagining things thus is incredibly motivating.

So, that in a nutshell, is the Holistic Context forming process. As I’m sure you can appreciate, this is just barely skimming what is at times a challenging but ultimately incredibly empowering process. To imagine and then describe those things we most desire and in terms that imply that we have them, is truly uplifting.

Testing decisions

To run through the whole HM process is simply beyond the scope of this article, but I would like to quickly highlight that once we have our context, which greatly clarifies what we truely want in life, we can start to test decisions to see whether they align or are in conflict with our context. As discussed earlier, we all have numerous cognitive biases and that’s okay as it makes us who we are. However, having poured our hearts into describing what we want out of life, we don’t want to sabotage ourselves by making decisions that seem right but are distorted by those various biases. To do this testing, we have a series of questions which we run our potential decision through. Using this process we can make complex decisions while always taking into account and balancing social, economic and environmental imperatives. In case there are those inclined to see this as being all Spock-like and hyper-logical, relax, there is even a question that basically asks us “how do you feel about this decision?” Ultimately it’s to achieve our heart’s desire, so surely a little structured thought isn’t a bad thing. What this process does, is allow us to see past the clutter of complexity and personal biases and make long term decisions that continually move us towards our context.

Finally having made a decision: we implement it and assume it’s wrong. That’s right — assume it’s wrong! When dealing with complex systems, especially natural ones, we have to assume we got it wrong. This stops us falling into the trap (bias) of looking for evidence supporting our decision when often the quickest way to the truth of something is to look for evidence of being off track. It is far better to make small, early, corrections to our course than to assume we are heading in the right direction, only to find much later we are far from our goal and have to cover a lot of extra ground to get there.

Now, the best way to do this is to work out what would be some early indicators of problems and monitor for them consistently and regularly. If we are starting to drift we then implement controls and continue to monitor. Then if we find we are still not getting the results we want, we can re-plan and continue to monitor. The take-home from this is the minute you have a plan it’s useless unless you are constantly monitoring, controlling and replanning. In managing holistically, ‘plan’ is a 24 letter word. Plan, Monitor, Control, Re-plan.

Now as I’ve stressed already, this is skimming over a lot of ground quickly, and just like a few thousand words does not a PDC course make, neither does a short article highlighting a small part of the HM process make one a Holistic Manager. There is much more to the process than meets the eye and I certainly encourage interested people, particularly permaculturists to get themselves on a HM training course or a PDC that incorporates it.

So far I have written quite heavily from the perspective of what HM can do for permaculture because most of the audience reading this will be reasonably well acquainted with permaculture. Having said that, there is a lot that permaculture can offer HM, particularly in the area of understanding and using ecological principles to design supportive ecosystems.

While HM does, in fact, talk about various ecological principles and has some great tools for insight, like the Four Ecosystem Processes Model (a topic for another time) it is not as wide-ranging or as comprehensive in this area, instead directing us to look for those answers using our ingenuity. I have written about this before, but one of Permaculture’s great strengths and often one of its great weaknesses (especially when trying to describe it to someone in a nice concise sound bite) is that it’s not so much about specific information as it is about how to arrange and use that information. So if new information comes to light or old information is found to be incorrect, we can delete the old and plug in the new, but the organizing framework remains. So for a permaculturist, HM is just new information to plug into and for a holistic manager Permaculture is human ingenuity distilled.

I often feel when discussing HM with Permaculturists and Permaculture with HM practitioners that there is altogether too much interest in the idea that one system is subordinate to the other in terms of relevance and it is somehow important that one is the bigger idea. While certainly a large part of this has to do with prior personal investment in either idea, I believe it is very much a human tendency to try and categorise or rank things. Me, I’m just grateful I have more information to work with, fresh perspectives and a strengthening through integration of two vitally important bodies of knowledge.


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