Revising permaculture’s principles: a supportive response to Cecilia Macauley

Cecilia Macauley

AUSTRALIAN PERMACULTURE DESIGNER, illustrator and educator, Cecilia Macauley, has written an interesting critique of some of the principles of permaculture on her facebook

The authors of the piece she comments on, she mentions as “Ippei, Yuichi, Remi, Geoff”.

Here, I take up Cecilia’s invitation to “If you can do any further refinements, please do. If you can help me implement today, even better : )”.

Much recited, seldom examined

The principles of permaculture design are frequently recited by permaculture practitioners but too-seldom examined. They are often taken as applying to all circumstances when, in reality, principles are selected from for particular applications.

There are two main sets of permaculture principles. One was devised decades ago by permaculture co-originator, Bill Mollison. The other was articulated by the other co-founder, David Holmgren in his 2002 book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability. The two sets are compatible and it is common to hear permaculture practitioners mixing them. Some prefer one over the other and were I daring enough to second-guess Cecilia I would think that she prefers Bill Mollison’s principles.

Principles are selective. Laws are not. We might apply the permaculture principles of ‘small and slow solutions’ to developing a food forest, but it is self-defeating to apply it to finding urgent solutions to climate change. Laws, though, are universal. Newton’s Laws of Motion cannot be selected from to apply in particular applications. They apply everywhere.

I thought Cecilia’s a useful post and came away thinking of Cecilia as a bit of an inconoclast in daring to question principles that are recited catechism-like by many in permaculture.

My comments on what she writes follows her own.


Embrace Diversity? Really? Respond Creatively to Change?

Hmm, these ‘Seven Principles for Social Permaculture’ I just read need adjusting, or you might get lost.

  1. Embrace Diversity? Be careful with this one. Too much diversity dilutes the system.

Increase useful diversity, decrease useless diversity.

“Its the number of useful connections between each element that gives a system strength, not the number of different elements”… Bill Mollison.


Is Cecilia’s “useless diversity” another word for clutter? Clutter, as in things that are present but do not contribute to the functioning of a system?

Cecilia quotes a statement by Bill Mollison where he says that the number of useful connections between each element gives strength to a system, not the total number of elements. Bill’s statement hints at what in network theory is called the Network Principle. It says the value of a network is proportional to the number of active nodes.

Because of the way networks are structured, those nodes — people, organisations — are necessarily connected by channels of communications along which travel information, knowledge and know-how. That being so, we can see that a network with a large number of nodes, participants that is, that do not play an active role is of less value to participants than a network with a smaller number of active nodes. A small number of active nodes is likely to transmit more useful information that a larger number of inactive nodes.

This gets back to Cecilia’s comment about too much diversity diluting the system. Her ‘useful diversity’ are those active nodes.

How permaculture social media demonstrates network theory 
Relating this to the use of social media in permaculture, what we see are a relatively small number of active nodes — the same voices time and again, which are Cecilia’s ‘useful diversity’ — posting items and commenting on posts and starting or engaging in conversations, while most remain silent readers or non-readers of those conversations, what are sometimes called ‘lurkers’ to distinguish them from contributors.

In Cecilia’s terms, these active nodes are the useful diversity in the system that activates it and gives it the value the Networking Principle speaks of. This exemplifies a finding by social media researchers that only something like one in one hundred people who read a post will comment. These are the people who treat social media as what it was designed for, not as a place to post ads and information meant as one-way transmissions, but as a conversation space.

Cecilia’s useful diversity concept is how a comparatively few voices gain prominence. Network theory shows us that it is not because they are highly opinionated, excessively talkative or highly knowledgable, but because they are the diversity, the network nodes, that engage in conversation. It is less by speaking more, and more that others do not speak or speak too seldom, that people become prominent.

Network theory was a comparatively new science when permaculture made its start with the publication of Permaculture One 40 years ago this year. It remained largely relegated to academia for some time. Perhaps it was Stanley Millgram’s The Small World Problem, published in a 1967 edition of Psychology Today, that attracted greater attention and stimulated the study of networks. I don’t recall Bill Mollison talking about network theory, however his statement that Cecilia quotes demonstrates that he had a good understanding of it.

How Cecilia eradicates unwanted diversity
In her educator role as a guest educator in the Introduction of Permaculture courses at Randwick Sustainability Hub in Sydney, Cecilia applies permaculture principles to decluttering peoples’ homes and lives.

Decluttering was included because the course is strong on permaculture’s ‘invisible systems’, as Bill Mollison called them, its soft systems. Invisible or soft systems include those topics that go by the name ‘social permaculture’ as well as others — the interpersonal, organisational, governance, problem solving, groupwork, sharing economy stuff that is too-neglected in permaculture yet is vitally necessary to the design system’s effective implementation.

The intention is that once exposed to Cecilia’s ideas and to other ideas in the course, people can start to effectively manage elements on their homes and lives, sweeping away the clutter that forms the barriers to doing what they would like to do and focusing more on what matters which, for many in the course, is working out how to live in a more sustainable, resilient manner.

All that clutter we accumulate in our homes over the years amounts to nothing more than unwanted diversity. Decluttering is Cecilia’s cure and it could be applied within our organisations, too, to rid them of dysfunctional old processes, assumptions and bureaucratic quagmire.


2. Respond Creatively to Change?

Be careful with this one. Its too late to ‘respond’ once change has already happened.

This is about setting yourself and your team up so that no matter what happens, you’ve got alternative routes, and can decide when the change arrives. #5 will help with this: fail fast, fail cheap, adjust as you go.


Cecilia’s “Its too late to ‘respond’ once change has already happened” implies it is wise to try to influence the cause of change before change starts, if that is possible. ‘Responding creatively’ deals with the consequences of change initiated by some other person, institution or organisation. It is reactive, not proactive.

Cecilia’s “alternative routes” is about what I call ‘contingency planning’. I reach back to my work in project management in international development to retrieve this. Contingency planning is a common project management practice that deals with the problem that we cannot predict the future and that projects are complex socio-economic-political constructs where small changes can have big results, often undesirable. ‘What could it be that we don’t know?’, is always a good question to ask because it leads to deeper questioning if not a direct answer.

Celilia’s “alternative routes” is a way of thinking and planning for the unforeseen, to deal with the consequences of change. Her idea indirectly relates to Bill Mollison’s principle of ‘ each element performs many functions’. As a rural example, a farm dam stores rainwater draining across a farm, might be stocked with edible fish as a food source and serves as habitat for waterfowl. An urban example might be a family’s food supply sourced from their membership of a community garden, membership of a community supported agriculture scheme, participation in a food swap and the local greengrocer. It is about planning redundancy into a system — Cecilia’s alternative routes. If one fails, there are others to take up the shortfall.

Responding creatively
Permaculture’s principle of ‘respond creatively to change’ proposes reacting to change started by someone or something that affects what we are working on.

Reaction is what the environment movement in Australia did in the past. It responded to change initiated by government and industry, such as dam construction and forestry, often with success. Permaculture people criticised it for this reactive stance, yet the movement boosted The Greens into state and federal parliaments where they could more directly deal with the causes of environmental destruction in a way limited only by their numbers and influence. In this case, reaction produced results, however it can sometimes be too little too late when change is established and has gained momentum.

Permaculture, as a social movement, distanced itself from the campaigning strategy of the environment movement in the 1990s while indirectly opposing environmentally-destructive works, yet it never moved into the electoral system. Instead, it proposed that its practitioners work on creating the things they preferred to see. That is a necessary part of the solution, however by distancing itself from campaigning strategies permaculture had no way of intervening to stop the destruction and sidelined itself from the big environmental campaigns of the day.

As Cecilia says, it can sometimes be too late respond to change once it has happened because we do not have the power to stop or deflect it.

By way of example
Let’s look briefly at a real example or responding creatively to change and Cecelia’s notion of building alternative routes through a challenge. The federal government was looking at tightening the DGR (Deductible Gift Recipients) provision that allows Permaculture Australia to offer tax deductability for donations to its Permafund small grants program. Tightening the provision could affect how Permafund operates and, perhaps, whether it could operate at all.

How does the ‘respond creatively to change’ principle work here? It could have been applied when the government raised the prospect of changes to DGR. Permaculture Australia, however, has little advocacy capacity and so had no voice in trying to influence the government when it raised the idea — to influence the change before it happened. Were changes to eventuate all Permaculture Australia would be left with is a reactive response to an initiative of government, to responding creatively to change, as the permaculture principle goes. If the organisation had lost DGR status it would have to look to Cecilia’s “alternative routes”, to some other means of fund-raising without offering tax-deductability, such as crowdfunding for specific projects.

Cecilia’s “fail fast, fail cheap, adjust as you go” carries a strong flavour of Lean Startup culture. I would not be surprised to find some connection there.


3. Devolve Control. Hmm. Maybe. I haven’t come across the concept of Devolving. I like it. I guess its the opposite of evolving, and I guess control might be something that grows and evolves, then you get stuck with, like a plant or weed.

Anyway, “We control nothing, but can influence everything” is a highly useful attitude and might be true.

Control is an extremely costly use of energy, as the party being controlled is also fighting back. This includes attempts to control yourself.

Inspiration is the no-cost alternative.


Control is a costly use of energy because the controller must maintain constant watch over what they control and engage in remedial action when their control is challenged. Control can become a burden.

Control is why China employs what some report as two million people to operate its Great Firewall that monitors social media, websites and that blocks critical comment in that country. Employing that number is costly. Control of knowledge limits citizen ability to fight back against government and as well cuts people off from solutions developed elsewhere. If you control what the people know and can learn from an open internet, you control the people.

Look at the old-model organisations of the past and how they persist in the present. They are based on command and control by a few in which knowledge, information and power is closely guarded. They are closed and leader-driven rather than open and peer-driven.

To “devolve control” we institute democratic processes to share it. How do we devolve control in permaculture? By adopting the ‘open organisations’ model where organisations explain their decisions and how they make them and make visible how they are run, rather than hide behind bureaucratic shields like ‘confidentiality’ when it is inappropriate.

In theory but not necessarily in fact, permaculture organisations should be open and participatory entities that distribute information through peer-driven networks rather than hoarding it. They should actively engage with members by frequently seeking their opinion and their ideas rather than leaving it to a management committee or board of directors to solely determine the direction the organisation takes and how it takes it. This is the ‘new power’ the subject of Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timm’s book of the same name, an analysis of how power works in a hyperconnected world and “how to make it work for you”.


4. Cooperation?

Nice in theory.

How you make it happen is ‘Cultivate an ecosystem of self-interested supporters to make each project work out.’


‘Cooperation not competition’ was one of the permaculture principles Bill Mollison devised. Like Cecilia says, it is nice in theory and is much bandied around by permaculture practitioners.

Cooperation is a necessary component of ‘social permaculture’, of permaculture’s soft systems.

Sometimes we encounter confusion between ‘cooperation’ and ‘collaboration’. Although the words are used interchangeably, they are not the same thing.

Cooperation means assisting someone do something. It does not necessarily mean helping them to actually do it. It can mean indirect support in supplying information and resources. I can cooperate to help you grow tomatoes by sending you links to horticultural information online or by offering advice based on my experience.

Collaboration means working alongside someone to achieve some end. It implies adopting the role of a co-worker in whatever is being collaborated on. I can collaborate with you in growing tomatoes by coming to your garden and assisting with soil preparation and by helping you plant-out.

Oft-recited, cooperation is one of those principles that too-often fail. Its enemy is the go-it-along approach found among some in permaculture. This sidelines people wanting to cooperate and can alienate them from permaculture. As more than a few experienced permaculture practitioners have said, permaculture’s big fail is its second ethic of ‘peoplecare’, and that includes cooperation.


5. Take it Slow ?

Be careful with this one. Sometimes swift action is required, or you miss opportunities. Plan to do things at the best speed.

Iterate. That is, when doing unprecedented work, make the smallest, cheapest possible change, then evaluate, improve, and do a bit more change.

“Permaculture is an iterative Process”… Bill Mollison. (I had to use the dictionary when I first read that. Our culture doesn’t use the word much, let alone the concept)


Cecilia hints at David Holmgren’s much-recited permaculture principle of ‘small and slow solutions’.

As she appears to suggest, small and slow can be too small and too slow. Take climate change. It is now accelerating and its impact is huge. Small and slow solutions are no longer sufficient to address it even though we should still make them where they are appropriate. It requires larger-scale rapid solutions.

Rather than only small and slow solutions or big and fast, let’s adopt the idea from geopolitics of proportional response. That proposes a response proportional in form and scale to a threat. We apply it to the trend or unwanted change we are addressing.

So, here’s a new principle for permaculture…

Respond proportionally to the scale and speed of change’.

Cecilia writes: “make the smallest, cheapest possible change, then evaluate, improve, and do a bit more change.”

Cecilia’s dictum reminds me of the iterative process of Agile Planning in which a minimally operational solution is created after which monitoring and ongoing evaluation leads to changes to improve it and, eventually, to the development of new versions.

Her idea has affinity to what we did when working in food security in the south-west Pacific. Our philosophy was to start new agricultural ideas in a limited area such as the corner of a farmer’s field, consolidate what was done (that includes Celilia’s “evaluate, improve”), then move on from the edge into another limited area, consolidate what we have done… repeat.

It would have been a better approach than I witnessed when visiting a new community garden being developed by permaculture practitioners new to the design system. Rather than start small and grow in additional small, consolidated, manageable steps from the edge of the consolidated area, the components of their garden were scattered across the entire space. This made unnecessary work and a lack of constructive linkages between components.

Consolidation of an area is important before moving beyond it to minimise the need to revisit it for correction and maintenance.

“Permaculture is an iterative Process”, Cecilia quotes Bill Mollison as saying. I couldn’t agree more. So here’s another new permaculture principle:

Start small and work from the edge. Make a minimally-operational first version > consolidate by bringing the area under management and add additional small improvements > repeat from the edge of the consolidated area.


6. Uses Edges? Be careful with this one. Understand how edges generate or leak value in your system. Too much surface area, and you get cold, for example.

Create edge where it benefits you, limit edges where it exhausts you.


More words of wisdom from Cecilia. Here’s an real example.

When people new to permaculture started a community garden they decided to build a large circular garden bed as a shared gardening space. A circle has a lot of edge compared to, say, a rectangle (which is more-easily maintained). The gardeners’ thinking was that a lot of edge equaled a more productive perimeter to their garden.

Yes, it did offer that. It was a productive perimeter less for herbs and vegetables and more for the kikuyu grass that grew outside the circle and was so attracted to the composted, mulched, moisture-retaining soils of the garden that it had to get to those nutrients by invading the garden. It became what Cecilia describes as an “edge that exhausts you” because so much of the gardeners’ time and effort went into preventing kikuyu invasion of their soil-enriched garden. That was Cecilia’s “leak value in your system” in action.
Instead of vegetables and herbs occupying the extra growing space of the edge, the gardeners planted a double row of comfrey to form a dense barrier to the kikuyu, only partially successful that it was. The extensive edge was given to defensive rather than productive plantings.
Permaculture started on the social edge of Australian society of the late 1970s. That, then as now, was where the resourceful and innovative were found. Now, some say, in its drive to become socially mainstream permaculture has left that edge and entered the more conservative core of society where it has eked out a niche. It has found its comfort zone and the edge is now populated by a new, more technology-related coterie of social, environmental and economic innovators.


7. Self Regulate?

Nice if we could. We come with built-in delusions, to help us get up every morning, its better to have a team you trust and love, who love you to help with your regulating. See #4


The principle of David Holmgren is about self-regulating and accepting feedback. It is another of those soft system characteristics that is acknowledged as much in non-compliance as in compliance.

Having a team that you can trust, as Cecilia says, is good. It is necessary to getting things done. So is accepting feedback, however that sometimes runs into strong personalities that do not know what they do not know, that fail to learn from feedback and destroy trust, resulting in ruction and the destruction of teams. I have been part of successful teams and I have seen teams fail in permaculture because the principle was not observed.


David Holmgren’s “Everything Works Both Ways’ is the final reality check for every principle.

You many not know this about me, but everything I hear or see, my first reaction is ‘is this true? Is it always true?’ and ‘What would be always true’.

Of course I hide that I’m thinking it, or I would be too annoying, and it takes years for my ‘rules of thumb’ to get reality tested. Do that for long enough though, and you start getting magical. Anyway, here is my refinement of these principles someone wrote.

If you can do any further refinements, please do. If you can help me implement today, even better : )


Cecilia’s statement: “my first reaction is, ‘is this true?’”, hints at something that should be at the core of permaculture, that should be a principle of the design system and taught in courses. It is this: asking for evidence.

We call it skepticism. It is a means of navigating the misunderstandings and misinformation we encounter whether coming from outside or from inside permaculture. Without skepticism there is only faith and belief, conjecture and assumption.

American journalist and TV presenter, Dan Rather, advised participants in a course on joujrnalism and media literacy to take a skeptical attitude and question everything. That applies to far more than government, politicians and the powerful that he had in mind. He also distinguished between skepticism and cynicism, which is a disinclination to believe that doing something is worthwhile. If we want to follow Bill Mollison’s scientific approach, skepticism is a necessity. In the form of analysis and questioning, Cecilia’s “is it true” could be applied to cherished beliefs, attitudes and practices in permaculture including its various principles.

Let’s now adopt it as an additional principle of the permaculture design system:

Be skeptical and look for evidence’.


Context is lovely: I’m writing this from Summer Kamakura, where I’m doing declutters all over town, staying with the amazing Fuji Remi, producer of Kai Sawyers Urban Permaculture guide. Last night. Michelin starred messy chef came and helped us cook dinner. His house won’t be messy for long, now we are his team.


You, Cecilia Macauley, are an iconoclast, a creative reformer, a declutter of places and mindsets.

Thank you for reforming the principles of permaculture.