What is Permaculture Design?

Permaculture design is a flexible framework that uses natural systems to inform our efforts to improve society. This post is the first in a 12-part series explaining how the principles of permaculture design can inform the work of nonprofits, social entrepreneurs and others working for social change. The content is adapted from “Change Here Now: Permaculture Solutions for Personal and Community Transformation,” the new book by Adam Brock, JVA’s director of social enterprise.

Principle One – “Observe and Interact”

Imagine, if you will, a fictional development nonprofit called CleanCook, whose mission is to reduce the debilitating health and environmental effects of wood cookstoves in India. CleanCook’s bright, compassionate engineers have developed a solar cooker design that can be constructed from local materials. Their development officers secure a USAID grant to take it to a hundred rural villages, and CleanCook’s aid workers spend a month in each village teaching locals how to make and repair the cookers themselves. Mission accomplished, right?

Well, not quite. As it turns out, CleanCook overlooked a small but crucial fact: the smoky flavor from the traditional stoves is an integral part of the local cuisine. Upon returning to the field a year later, they find the gleaming solar units sitting empty while the old, unhealthy woodstoves remain in use.

Every ecosystem, from the alpine tundra to the forest floor, is filled with dynamic and subtle patterns that may take years for us to perceive: interactions between seemingly disconnected species turn out to be critical to the whole system’s health, and populations might rise and fall on multi-decade intervals. Ecologists know that the only way to get a grasp on a natural environment is through countless hours of observation and engagement, which is why the very first principle of permaculture design is “observe and interact.”

How does this relate to human communities? 

As it happens, human communities are systems too – ones that are every bit as complicated and unique as the ecologies in which they’re embedded. What works in one neighborhood might be a total flop in the next one over. What worked five years ago might be irrelevant today. Simple, one-size-fits-all solutions might grab the headlines and capture our imaginations, but they can often backfire if they aren’t applied with a deep understanding of community. Backfires like these are particularly common in the field of social change, where individuals and organizations are often expected to develop solutions for communities that aren’t their own.

Which brings us back to our imaginary friends at CleanCook. While their story is fabricated, it represents an all-too-real pattern in the development world: A 2014 study of stove projects worldwide found similar comments from locals in Kenya, Nepal, and Peru.[1] It’s no wonder that social change organizations seek shortcuts for getting to scale: knowing a community inside and out takes lots of time and skillful engagement. By the time outsiders really understand everything they need to know to do their job, they probably wouldn’t be considered an outsider anymore.

But if we’re serious about solutions that last longer than a grant cycle, it’s our responsibility to roll up our sleeves and practice the principle of “observe and interact.” In the same way, a skilled landscape designer takes her time noting the cycles of the seasons, the textures of the soil, and the migration patterns of elk, the social designer aims to leave no stone unturned in her quest to understand a community.

Stay tuned for the remaining principles!

[1] Rhodes, Evelyn L. et al. “Behavioral Attitudes and Preferences in Cooking Practices with Traditional Open-Fire Stoves in Peru, Nepal, and Kenya: Implications for Improved Cookstove Interventions.” Ed. Paul Tchounwou.International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 11.10 (2014): 10310–10326.