(Perma)Culture and Sanity


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Problems, Resources and Perceptions in Permaculture

Question 'Reality!'

A great deal of permacultural problem solving rests on simply seeing old problems with fresh eyes. If we look at our surroundings from different viewpoints, we often find that so-called 'problems' are based on unacknowledged assumptions and self-imposed mental restrictions rather than on external realities.

"When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change."

Max Planck, Nobel Prize-winning physicist

Sticks and Stones Break Bones—Words Even Moreso

We take for granted unimaginative, restrictive or dysfunctional definitions for many powerful yet inconspicuous words ('useful,' 'normal,' 'different,' etc.). The word 'normal,' for instance, began as a harmless mathematical concept but has since expanded to represent our culture's self-conscious conviction that being different is somehow not 'ok.'

When we use narrow, vague, mechanistic, exploitative and/or prejudicial definitions for words, this does not take away from their power—it just misplaces it, to the disadvantage of ourselves and the systems around us.

Humility and Sanity

We live in a world where—despite all our technological wizardry—our very existence still relies on complex ecosystems that we never completely comprehend. Though we do not begin to understand the ecosystems that feed us, clean and recycle our water, and create the very air we breathe, we continue to invade and alter them.

Be careful what you ask for—you might get it!


We remove all the trees from our grazing lands, for instance, because of our idea that trees use water that we covet for growing grass. These same grasslands then become much drier, however, because water lost to the air from tree leaves is responsible for the great majority of inland rain—grasses do not begin to return enough groundwater to the air to maintain the rain cycle. The result is gradual desertification… because of our shortsighted grasping for 'more' we inevitably end up with less.

A Culture of Addiction

We seem to have adopted Albert Einstein's definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results) as our collective mantra. To counter agricultural weed pests' quickly developing resistance to Roundup, we don't pursue more holistic approaches to how we plant and manage crops—instead our EPA triples allowable Roundup residue levels. Our collective mind has abandoned prudence and thoughtfulness in support of our addictions to immediate gratification and the bottom line.

"The foolish believe what they think, not what they see.

The wise believe what they see, not what they think."

Huang Po

Stop, Look—Listen

Before jumping blindly into 'dealing with' perceived problems, then, we would do well to make sure that the ideas and contexts through which we view and manipulate our surroundings are sophisticated and flexible enough to deal with what is really there instead of what we'd like to see.

Without consciously remembering to look more deeply, unfortunately, our tendency seems to be to treat symptoms instead of their underlying causes. Thus we often find (typically much later) that we've temporarily alleviated symptoms at the expense of causing their underlying causes to become more entrenched.

A common gardening example would be sterilizing greenhouse soil to 'prevent' damping-off fungus—thereby creating the very conditions (sterile soil lacking a balanced microbial community) that encourage damping off.

'Reality Check'

Permaculture therefore asks that we remember to perform a 'reality check' before acting, to determine whether a particular problem is real or simply a figment of prejudicial ways of seeing and thinking.

A large quantity of manure in a house or animal pen, for instance, is a pollutant—but the same manure spread in a thin layer over a garden is a resource. An infestation of grasshoppers or snails in the garden is a problem—yet if we allow chickens or turkeys to reach the pests they become a resource.

The 'problem' in these cases is not the existence of manure or insects themselves. Rather, the problem is how we have chosen to view our world, with the result of allowing resources to accumulate without also allowing access by the animals or systems that could use them productively. As Marcel Proust observed, "The real journey of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in seeing with new eyes."

Gift From Heaven

Electricity From the Wind!

Water, Wind and Sun Are Your Friends

Just as organic materials tend to act as pollutants when we allow them to accumulate without being productively used, water, sunlight and even wind can be either problems or resources depending on how they are perceived and managed.

Rainwater soaking into the soil around the foundation of your home can be a problem, but the same water diverted into storage for later use in a garden or orchard is a welcome resource.

Too much afternoon sunlight streaming into large west-facing windows can be a problem, but sunlight allowed into our homes in smaller, absorbable amounts throughout the day can warm our houses for free and lower the need for less-attractive artificial lighting.

Wind, too, can be either a problem or resource. Unblocked wind harasses people, animals and crops, and causes a majority of heat loss from heated buildings. Wind blocked by wind generators, on the other hand, is turned to valuable electrical power.

On a low-tech level, wind blocked by windbreaks of useful trees and shrubs can be turned into firewood, posts and lumber, fruits and nuts, animal forages, refuge for wildlife and nature-loving humans, and so on. In fact, both crops and animals get such a boost from the protection provided by windbreaks that more than 10% of cropping areas can be planted to windbreak with no drop in total production of the original crop—thus providing 'for free' the land for the diversified crops of the windbreak itself.


Amazingly, the only differences in these cases between problem and resource are our own mindsets. The moment we begin to question our assumptions, the most intractable part of the transformation from pollution to bounty is already completed… often all that remains is carrying out careful stewardship of our 'new' resources.

This focus on changing our perceptual bias from seeing 'problems' to be dealt with to instead seeing resources to be collected and used productively is a major tool of permacultural management.

In these times of deep, pressing need for change on every societal level—cultural, technological, political, agricultural, etc.—reviewing our definitions is a powerful tool we would do well to apply to every part of our experience. Otherwise, our myriad imaginary 'problems' may well be our downfall.

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Reprinted from (Perma) Culture and Sanity Website