Is the problem the solution or a recipe for confusion?

For every complex problem there is a solution which is clear, simple wrongHenry Louis Mencken, American journalist, satirist, cultural critic and scholar of American English.


In this story we continue looking at the principles of permaculture design started in Revising permaculture’s principles: a supportive response to Cecilia Macauley

The problem of unused goods cluttering the home provided the solution to the problem of their going to landfill in the form of community swap parties. Annette Loudon (right) of Community Exchange Systems Australia accepts trading tokens from a person exchanging them for someone elses’ unwanted goods. This gives them a new life and diverts them from the waste stream. Location: Randwick Sustainability Hub, Sydney.

THE PROBLEM IS THE SOLUTION’. So goes the much-quoted principle of permaculture design popularised by one of the founders of the permaculture desing system, Bill Mollison. It is a principle that bugs me.

It bugs me because it conflicts with logic, because it suggests a duality, two opposites existing simultaneously as one. Just as two physical objects cannot occupy the same space in four-dimensional spacetime, so something cannot be simultaneously a problem and a solution to itself at the same time.

Logically, if a problem is its own solution then it is not a problem in the first place. What it is, is something neutral, neither problem or solution. It never really existed as a problem because logic does not allow that. Is the problem a solution to some other problem but not to itself as a problem? If so, its problematic nature continues to exist as such.

We hear that the problem is the solution frequently in permaculture. What underlies the oft-quoted sentiment is the confusion we encounter when people think about what it means. With its Zen koan quality it comes across as paradoxical, as self-contradictory, because it contradicts logical reasoning. This can stimulate various interpretations of meaning although whether that is the best thing to do in stating a principle is questionable.

Like any other set of principles, those of the permaculture design system are fluid in their application, being selected from to suit the particular design or behavioural need at hand. They are not fixed and universally applicable like the laws of physics. The principles do not apply in all circumstances and may need tweaking to adapt them.

When a solution is its own problem

Can a solution become a problem? Yes, it can. Take the Munda Street Reserve in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. When the Reserve was opened it was classified as a no-dog park because of the adjoining bushland reserve, a patch of rare and endanegered bushland of the type once widespread in the region and of which very little remains. Dogs would harass bird and wildlife and the phosphorus and other materials in their scat and urine would leach into the bushland to alter the low-nutrient soils and trigger the growth of weeds.

This was a problem for local people who wanted to exercise their dogs in the Reserve. The council responded by reclassifying the Reserve as dogs-on-leash so locals could walk their animals there. That was their solution.

It was also the start of the slippery slope phenomena. The phonemena occurs when concessions are made that create pressure for further concessions until the original conditions are changed substantially. Locals started to let their dogs off-leash irregardless of the impact on the rare and remnant bushland, irregardless of people who wanted no-dog parks or only dogs on-leash. They also disregarded the health and safety of young children from the adjacent childcare centre who used the Reserve for play. The dog owners went on to pressure council to make the Reserve off-leash despite the existence of an off-leash park within 200 metres. As well as the slippery slope phenomenon the ‘solution’ also demonstrates the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Here we have a case of a solution, council’s concession in favour of on-leash dogs, becoming a problem with people wanting the Reserve made off-leash. It is hard to spin this situation as a problem offering its own acceptable solution.

A problem is not the solution to itself

The problem with Bill’s ‘the problem is the solution‘ comes when we take it to suggest that a problem is a solution to itself. I think that misinterprets what Bill was getting at. The confusion exists because as commonly stated and written, the principle is incomplete.

What Bill might have been saying is that a problem can be a solution to some other problem. Alternatively, a problem can suggest a solution that bypasses the problem.

Stating it like this avoids seeing his principle as self-contradictory, which is how some have seen it and become confused. Let’s look at an example.

The problem of dogs becomes a solution to another problem

There was a problem in the Permaculture Interpretive Garden where it borders the path that joins it to Munda Street Reserve. The problem was dogs leaving the path and rampaging and digging among the tree seedlings and vegetables in the garden.

A barrier was needed and council’s sustainability educator and the landscape architect contracted to do design, educational and horticultural work in the garden close-planted a row of stiff, perennial vetiver grass as a dog barrier. That worked. It was a solution.

The barrier also provided the solution to another problem. The site is subject to strong westerly winds year-round, and in winter when they are cold and blustery and damage vegetable crops and tree seedlings. Growing to a metre or so high and close-planted, the vetiver grass barrier formed an effective windbreak which sheltered wind-vulnerable plants on its lee side. The problem of dogs damaging the garden became the solution to reducing wind damage to plants. A problem in one area offered a solution to another problem.

This was like the problem of chooks (‘chickens’ to non-Australians) getting into gardens and damaging the plants there with their scratching. Scratching in the soil is a natural behaviour for chooks. The problem of their damaging gardens offered the solution to cultivating and fertilising gardens by letting them in when the garden was being prepared for replanting, after the previous crop had been harvested.

It offered a solution by adopting a different form of garden management rather than a solution to the original problem of chooks getting into a garden when they were not supposed to and causing damage. Their natural scratching behaviour became a solution to a different garden management regime.

The vetiver grass barrier at the Permaculture Interpretive Garden, showing some replanted clumps, sugar cane and a clumping bamboo that form a dog barrier and windbreak.

Making like water

An alternative interpretation of the principle is that a problem can suggest a solution that bypasses the problem. In doing this it does not confront and solve the problem. It avoids it.

This interpretation has a precedent outside of permaculture in the work of thinking expert and author, Edward de Bono. To overcome a powerful barrier, he wrote, you have to be more powerful than the barrier so as to shift it. Shifting it will require much expenditure of energy that could be better used elsewhere. This clash he called ‘rock logic’. It can be better, de Bono said, to use ‘water logic’ and go around the barrier, bypassing it and moving on. Doing this eventually renders the barrier irrelevant.

His terms come from the analogy of a big rock in a stream. On meeting the rock the water flows around it to move on towards its destination and, over time, erodes the rock away.

Who really originated the principle?

There is some confusion whether it was Bill Mollison or David Holmgren who first came up with “the problem is the solution”. I believe it was Bill as does a colleague knowledgeable of permaculture history and who is influential in the design system. He asked whether Bill actually originated the principle or was reiterating an existing statement. Intrigued, I came across this:

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

It is a statement attributed to Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and one of the founders of the school of philosophy known as Stoicism. To me, it says much the same thing as Bill’s statement although it could be interpreted as saying an impediment suggests a solution to the impediment or, perhaps, on meeting an impediment we can change course and that course then becomes the way. Seems Marcus Aurelius beat Bill to the principle by around… 2000 years.

Let’s restate it

I think we can risk restating Bill’s principle. Rather than the incomplete ‘the problem is the solution’ as it is commonly worded, let’s complete the principle to state something more nuanced:

The problem may be the solution to some other problem.

Yes, this can still leave us with the original problem. Maybe, though, there is another problem lurking nearby that will provide a solution to it.