Permaculture research methodology

This is an excerpt from my research proposal for a Masters thesis on applying permaculture design to business. It is an initial, if inadequate, attempt to sketch out what a permaculture research methodology means:


Permaculture Systems Design (PSD) offers its own research methodology, which can help to inform the research design and interpretation of the results. In PSD, the starting point is always the ethics – earth care, people care, fair share (share the surplus). This becomes the ground from which a permacultural system is evaluated, somewhat akin to the Triple Bottom Line of environmental, social and economic sustainability. Following from this, the first part of the design process begins with a social and physical site analysis, to examine the larger context within which the system operates, the social and physical energy flows that intercept the system and the location and proximity of zones of activity within the system. Various social and physical indicators can inform this analysis, to gain a sense of the underlying conditions. Following a contextual analysis, the 12 design principles can be applied (after Holmgren, 2002):

1. Observe and interact
The beginning of good design is understanding. Permaculture supports a process of interaction as well as observation. “A process of continuous observation in order to recognise patterns and appreciate details is the foundation of all understanding… there is little value in continuous observation and interpretation unless we interaction with the subject of our observations. Interaction reveals new and dynamic aspects to our subject and draws attention to our own beliefs and behaviours as instrumental to understanding” (Holmgren, 2002, pp 13 – 14).

2. Catch and store energy
Energy is the driving force behind all natural and human systems, and tends to come periodically. If we understand the temporal and spacial patterns of different forms of physical and social energy, we can harvest and store it when it is abundant for use when it is scarce. Permaculture also has a strong focus on using existing wealth to build high value stores of natural, human and economic capital for the future, including future generations.

In a research context, data is the main form of energy in question. How it is gathered and stored is of critical importance, including efficient mechanisms for its retrieval. Obviously the very process of gathering information about how to successfully design sustainable organisations is building an asset for the future, but it also requires a focus on how that knowledge will be made available for others to use. Open source research and creative commons licensing of research results are considerations here.

3. Obtain a yield
We need to use captured energy to maintain the system before we can build stocks for the future, however we also need to think creatively about what kinds of yields are available to us. As mentioned above, rethinking value is a critical element of building sustainable systems. Evidence from agricultural studies suggests that some of the most productive systems are not necessarily the most profitable (Sial, Iqbal, & Sheikh, 2012) and so a consideration of the many different yields that can be obtained from the system and how those can be used to generate value of different kinds, apart from simple profit, is important

As a researcher, the question of yield is challenging. Support for research students is not generous, especially since the Government ended student support for postgraduate study. Financial yields as well as conceptual, family and community support are all important elements of a successful research project.

4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
It is important to develop feedback systems that discourage inappropriate behaviour within a system, as is common in natural systems. This principle speaks to the need for good supervision, constant self reflection and openness to feedback from the subjects of the research about the conduct and direction of the study. Indigenous and Kaupapa Maori methodologies have well developed thinking around placing the agency of the subjects of research at the centre of the research design (eg Smith, 2012; Murphy, 2013)

5. Use and value renewable resources and services
Permaculture places a priority on the use of renewable services (the non-consuming use of natural systems), as well as renewable products (sustainable consumption of products derived from regenerative living systems). As a sustainability researcher it is important to ‘walk the talk’, by critically examining my own resource consumption in order reduce the ecological impact of the research. In addition, it is worth bearing in mind that the social capital that research often relies on is a renewable resource in the sense that it regenerates and tends to grow with use, but which can be exploited in an unsustainable way.

6. Produce no waste
This principle relates to traditional notions of frugality, as well as the understanding that wastes are simply outputs that are not being used productively – and have the potential to become feedstocks for another process. As a research method, it speaks to the need for well considered survey and interview questions, maximising the use of the data generated (including multiple publications out of a single research project if possible), and thinking creatively about how to disseminate the research findings beyond the academic milieu.

7. Design from patterns to details
Many permaculture principles take a bottom up approach, and so this principle reminds us to keep the big picture in view as we design. Permaculturalists such as Mollison (1992) have developed extensive teachings around the recognition, interpretation and emulation of natural and social patterns. In research methodology terms, this can be interpreted, among other things, as a reminder to understand the process of theory development and understand and design the individual research project to fit within that broader pattern (eg. Eisenhardt, 1989)

8. Integrate rather than segregate
Integration and building connections is a key component of PSD. A permaculture aphorism is that ‘each element of a design should support many system functions, and each important function should be supported by multiple elements’ and this built-in redundency is part of building system resilience. Within a research design this principle could be interpreted as, for example, the use of multiple methods to generate data, including the use of deliberative techniques that bring together research participants to build shared understanding and a deeper analysis of their practise, where feasible. It also speaks to a holistic rather than reductionist approach to data interpretation.

9. Use small and slow solutions
PSD encourages a nuanced, situation specific and responsive approach to problem solving. As such it tends to align with constructivist and inductive approaches. It warns against biting off more than one can chew in any individual research project and prematurely leaping to grand theories and assumptions that miss important details.

10. Use and value diversity
In developing an understanding of how PSD applies to business organisations, it is important to involve a diversity of business types in order to build a picture of both the commonalities and the differences in how the principles and general design approach can be interpreted. Similarly it is useful to involve a variety of participants at different locations within the organisations, where possible, as their different perspectives will offer different kinds of insights.

11. Use edges and value the marginal
In ecology, the margin between two systems is characterised by high productivity, as part of what is known as the ‘edge effect’ (Park & Allaby, 2013). This principle relates to the last to some degree – people in what might be considered marginal roles may have particularly interesting perceptions that more ‘central’ informants may not have. Certainly my own observations in doing strategic planning in an education context was that it was the ones who had been marginalised by the education system that had the most interesting observations and suggestions for improving it. A second insight around this principle relates to those on the boundaries between different social groups – the people who straddle social milieus and so provide access points and information channels between them, and can help both to recruit participants and offer deep insights of their own.

12. Creatively use and respond to change
This principle reminds us that change is a fact of life and that we need to remain flexible and responsive as researchers. By allowing the research to develop its own trajectory, we can creatively adapt to changing circumstances and make the most use of what we find rather than missing important insights in our attempts to force the research to meet our own assumptions and expectations. This again aligns with a constructivist approach to research.


Eisenhardt, K. M. (1989). Building Theories from Case Study Research. The Academy of Management Review, 14(4), 532–550.

Holmgren, D. (2002). Permaculture: principles and pathways beyond sustainability. Hepburn, Vic: Holmgren Design Services.

Murphy, N. (2013). Te Awa Atua =: Menstruation in the pre-colonial Māori world: an examination of stories, ceremonies and practices regarding menstruation in the pre-colonial Māori world: based on a Masters thesis. Ngaruawahia: He Puna Manawa Ltd.

Park, C. C., & Allaby, M. (2013). A dictionary of environment and conservation (Second edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sial, M. H., Iqbal, S., & Sheikh, A. D. (2012). “FARM SIZE – PRODUCTIVITY” RELATIONSHIP: Recent Evidence from Central Punjab. Pakistan Economic and Social Review, 50(2), 139–162.

Smith, L. T. (2012). Decolonizing methodologies: research and indigenous peoples (Second edition). London: Zed Books.

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Getting our flag off a weetbix box

I cannot believe that I am thinking about voting to keep our current flag. It is a flag that I have loathed for probably 30 years. Its similarity to the Australian flag reminds me of when New Zealand was ruled by New South Wales, and its imagery is redolent with smug colonial arrogance. It reinforces a constitutional fiction – that somehow the sovereignty of New Zealand resides in the Queen, and that she is a font of justice and honour.

But it is possible that the alternatives are worse.

Yesterday the Flag Consideration Panel released its shortlist of four possible options. The first round of voting will decide which of these is the favorite. The winner will then go up against the current flag in the second round of voting. Once you realise that the shortlist was approved by the Cabinet, it all starts to make sense. John Key’s personal favorite is represented twice, in slightly different colour combinations, to make sure that it has double the chance of being chosen. Actually, that design is the only one to have any colour at all. The other two are in monochrome, just in case you didn’t understand which was the right answer.

The prospect of ending up with a flag that looks like it was cut out of a weetbix box seems to have burned off a fair chunk of the dwindling support for a flag change. I have to admit to being highly confused about the Government’s motives in this whole debacle. For people who claim to want to change the flag, they seem to have pretty much destroyed most of the majority support that once existed for doing that. A lot of that would have been on the left and green spectrums I suppose, but I’m sure they must have also irritated a fair chunk of conservative National voters in the process, by even suggesting a change. Amusingly, the process has been so badly designed that they now look likely to lose the vote. Is it too conspiritorial to think they did it to destroy any prospect of a flag change for the next few decades?

I guess so.

Not of course as conspiritorial as the bizarre theory being spread around Facebook, claiming that removing the union jack from our flag will destroy the DUE AUTHORITY of the Crown (I know, I know, its a made-up term) and nullify the Treaty of Waitangi. Apparently this is all necessary so we can sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. Why New Zealand would be the only country that needs a flag change to sign a trade deal is beyond me, never mind how the authority of the British Crown or the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi could rely on a flag adopted in 1902.

So what then is the Prime Minister’s motivation? I suspect that its a bit of an ego thing. New Zealand has been orienting away from Europe and towards Asia ever since Britain joined the Eureopean Community and basically told us to get lost, economically speaking. Sooner or later we are going to become an republic and change the flag, not necessarily in that order. It must be a bit of a buzz to be the guy to do it, and I am sure Key holds no great affection for Britain, the Royals or tradition, except where it provides an opportunity for a good selfie.

Actually the best argument against changing the flag that I have read is because it SHOULD be in that order. Removing the symbol of British sovereignty, the argument goes, before we have actually brought our sovereignty home is just shallow tokenism. We should change the flag when we do something constitutionally significant enough to warrant it. I have some sympathy with that idea.

But more than that, I am deeply irritated by not having the chance to vote for anything even close to something I’d want to see fly as New Zealand’s flag. I can happily accept losing a vote to the preferences of my fellow citizens. I do not accept being denied a decent choice by a panel of Government cronies. I am reluctantly thinking that I will vote for the koru in the first round and then vote to keep the current flag in the second round, in the hope that we get another crack at it in a few decades. That’s when I am hoping that we finally start getting serious about ditching the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha family.

Ultimately the whole affair, like the flag choices we have been allowed to choose between, lacks imagination. It should all have been done with on-line voting. Every registered voter could have been provided a log-in to an STV voting website, and allowed to rank as many of the flags on the long-list of 40 (plus the current flag) as they wanted. Voting through public access terminals in libraries and through smart phones at wi-fi hotspots could be made available for those without internet access at home. This would have been highly democratic and also considerably cheaper. It would have given us a flag with majority support. It would have been quick and easy. Finally it would have been a great opportunity to pilot some digital democracy, and start to bring our voting systems into the 21st century.

But then going by past events, I guess that enhancing democracy is not something that interests this Government.

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14 August 2015, Christchurch

(This is the speech I wrote for a panel on new economics organised by ‘It’s Our Future’ as part of a week of action against the TPPA. As usual, it changed a bit on the night)

I am going to begin by talking about a word I came across when reading a book called “The Way” by Edward Goldsmith. Goldsmith was the founder of The Ecologist magazine and a great thinker. In “The Way” he describes the characteristics of natural ecosystems, which he describes as highly purposive. Healthy natural systems are, he says, homeotelic. It is a word he created to describe something he could find no word for. It comes from the Greek – homeo (the same) and tellus (a goal). In a healthy natural system all parts have the same ultimate purpose, which is to maintain and enhance the integrity of the whole. The default behaviour of any healthy part of the system serves to maintain and enhance the integrity of the whole. So the default behaviour of a single cell serves to maintain and enhance the integrity of the organ of which it is part. And the behaviour of an organ serves to maintain and enhance the integrity of the organism of which it is part. And the organism – let’s say it is a tiger – acts to maintain the integrity of the bioregion that it is part of, perhaps a jungle. The behaviour of the jungle maintains the integrity of the region, and so on until we get to the planetary whole. And the same applies in reverse.

Natural human culture, what Goldsmith calls ‘vernacular culture’, is also homeotelic. Industrial culture, and in my view most, but perhaps not all, civilisation is the opposite. It is heterotelic – that is the default behaviour of human individuals in our system serves to undermine and degrade the integrity of the ecological whole. That is why in our system it takes more effort and cost, in general, to act in a responsible way.

This word was a bit of a revelation for me, because it showed me really clearly what our mission is in the world today. To recreate our society and culture as a homeotelic culture. Most importantly to recreate our economic system, which is the biggest driver of this heterotelic impulse, as a homeotelic system. It is interesting that China has now started talking about becoming an ecological civilisation. I’m not sure how serious they are, but that is in fact what needs to happen. Industrial civilisation must become an ecological civilisation.

The real question, though, is how do we do that?

This is why I think permaculture is so important. Permaculture systems design is the only approach I have come across that provides real and practical design tools for doing just that, for designing systems that homeotelic. Systems that are sustainable, resilient and regenerative.

Sustainable, meaning systems that are capable of lasting indefinitely – or to put that another way, where harvests do not exceed regeneration rates or wastes exceed natural assimilation rates of the ecosystems they are based on.

Resilient. Many people, even so called experts, confuse resilience and robustness. Robust comes from the Latin robus for oak, strength. It is the ability to shrug off threats. Resilience is from the Latin resilīre to spring back, rebound. It is like grass in the wind, that gets blown over but springs back up. Robust systems tend to be highly efficient and specialised. Resilient systems tend to include strategic redundancy.

And regenerative because it is not enough to simply sustain our highly degraded environment as it is now. We have done so much damage to the intricate web of life that we need to actually start to stitch it back together. Not ripping it further is no longer enough.

Permaculture takes natural systems as the best model of how to do this. It looks at the characteristics of natural systems and asks how we can design those kinds of characteristics into a human centred system? Permaculture design is most usually applied to land management systems, but has also been the organising philosophy behind things like the Transition Towns movement. There is a growing interest in applying permaculture design to business and economic development and you can see it’s influence in things like the 8 principles of Regenerative Capitalism developed by John Fullerton and Hunter Lovins.

Permaculture begins with three ethics – Earth care, people care, fair share (or share the surplus). In contrast, capitalism is fundamentally based around the accumulation of capital, and the pursuit of self-interest and greed as the highest value. A permaculture economics is not about accumulation and the self but is based on cooperation, reciprocity and sharing.

A permaculture designer takes many things into account in producing a design and I don’t have time to do a complete survey of how those ideas would apply in developing permacultural economics, but I wanted to touch on a couple of brief illustrations of how that might look. I thought I’d start by playing with two or three of David Holmgrem’s 12 design principles of permaculture.

The first of those is Observe and Interact. Holmgren says “By taking the time to engage with nature and society we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.” In contrast, neo-liberalism offers a ‘one size fits all’ solution to any problem – less regulation and more private property. The only observation required is the rate of growth.

A permaculture economy would begin with the specifics of a place and a people. It would look at a range of indicators before proposing any solutions – a property designer would look at a range of soils tests, but also make a careful observation of indicator plants, energy flows on site, potential micro-climates. Ideally this observation would be over a full time cycle so as to understand temporal patterns and changes. Similarly an economic design would look at a range of social indicators, to understand the local economic possibilities that a place holds. Kind of the opposite to the Christchurch rebuild it would seem.

If we take the dairy industry as an example, milk prices are the only things that people seem to talk about very much, but an observation of farm ownership patterns, debt levels, declining profitability, social and psychological stress among farmers, changing rural demographics and loss of community would suggest that even when there are high milk prices, something in the system is wrong.

Another principle is to Catch and Store Energy. Holmgren says that by developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need. The saying “make hay while the sun shines” reminds us that we have a limited time to catch and store energy, for later use.

Permaculture systems are not designed to maximise efficiency or profit. The are designed to find a balance that values all kinds of yields from the system, including profit but also relationships, quality of life, ecological diversity and such. During times of plenty, as the dairy industry has recently experienced until this year, a permacultural approach would be to catch and store financial energy, by using high returns to invest in sustainability and resilience. This might mean reducing debt, improving land management, up-skilling workers or a myriad of other on and off farm investments. Under the leadership of Fonterra, the Government and the banks, however, many farmers were encouraged to take on debt to expand and grow their operations – an approach that values efficiency but to the detriment of system resilience.

In contrast, Margaret’s talk tonight about savings pools demonstrates one way that we can proactively create systems to catch and store financial energy within our local communities rather than allow it to drain away as dividends to shareholders in overseas banks.

The principle of applying self-regulation and accepting feedback tells us that we need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well. We note that negative feedback is often slow to emerge.

A permaculture economy would self consciously build in feedback loops and pay attention to those already existing. One of the feedback loops that has been systematically removed from the current economic model is the true cost of doing business. I recall coming to Christchurch in 2005 to campaign against Graeme Hart and Meadowfresh ending the reuse of glass milk bottle in Christchurch. It is a small example of the way that a cost of doing business that had previously been internalised by the company – that is, the after-use processing of the container – was externalised to the community. By getting rid of the process of collecting, washing and reusing milk bottles, Meadowfresh saved money. By moving to disposable containers which are thrown in the rubbish, they transferred those cost to the community. The price of the milk no longer reflects the cost of dealing with the container.

This externalising costs has always been a failing of the market system. People talk about corporate capitalism privatising profits and externalising costs. So petrol prices do not reflect the costs of climate change, ecological devastation in the Niger Delta or the costs of treating respiratory diseases. The price of food rarely reflects the true costs of production in terms of soil loss, habitat loss, chemical inputs into the environment or, in the case of pastoral farming, declining water quality and impact on climate change. In general, corporations have been aggressively externalising costs as quickly as they can in a bid to improve profitability.

One way of internalising costs, and so adding in a price related feedback loop to customers, is by the use of Pigovian taxes. These are taxes added to products on the basis of their externalised costs. If products carry the true cost of production, price will favour the least ecologically and socially destructive product. To be most beneficial, these taxes need to be revenue neutral, that is any increased tax take should be given back to the community by cutting tax on the first $10,000 or so of income. These kinds of measures are strongly resisted in the current framework – for example pricing carbon as a bid to internalise those costs is enormously unpopular from those industries that most need to receive those feedback loops, such as dairy farming.

These are just a few introductory thoughts about how permacultural systems design thinking can be applied to economics. It is an area that has hardly been explored and one that I feel has huge potential for us as we collectively try to turn our society from a hetereotelic to a homeotelic one.

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Lobbying for the Environment – Kaipatiki EcoFest

Last weekend I ran a one day workshop up north on understanding and influencing the political system. The session was part of the Kaipatiki EcoFest and was held at the Matakana Hall. A big thanks to Trish Allen for getting me up there and organising everything. We had about 12 people there on the day, as a few had to drop out at the last minute for various reasons. The great thing for me was that the people who came were the kinds of people who will really make use of what they learned. Many were local community and environmental activists and it was a real joy to work with them. As usual, I learned a great deal from the discussions. Perhaps the best feedback I got was from one participant who said, as she left at the end of the day, that she had come along with a bunch of excuses in mind as she had intended to leave at lunchtime! So much for making plans I guess. Since the weekend I have had some really positive feedback in emails from people who were there and some offers to help to get the workshop into High Schools – which is something I would really like to do, especially given the low rates of participation in the last elections. I need to do more work to fit the workshop into school timetabling and link the learnings to the curriculum but I think there is a lot of potential in the idea. On my way home I managed to catch up with Graeme North, one of the founders of modern earth-building in Aotearoa. It is always a pleasure to talk with someone so knowledgeable about their subject and still so passionate about creating accessible, non-toxic buildings that arise out of local materials and the local community. Graeme has a great built-in bullshit detector so it is always interesting to ask his opinion about various things going on around the place! All in all a great trip, and worth it despite the long drive from the Eastern Bay of Plenty.

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I just found this link to a documentary made in 1985 about the Stonehenge trashing (they got the year wrong on the title). I was about 18 at the time and appear in the video a couple of times. Big love and respect to all the Convoy Crew, those still with us and those who have passed over

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Kama Burwell on Designing from Patterns to Details

I am starting a project to record short video clips of experienced permaculturalists critically reflecting on some element of permaculture design or practise. This is my first attempt – shaky camera, sloppy editing and all – but Kama says some interesting things and I hope it will be the start of something useful for the permaculture movement.


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