Against Design

Humans are the thinking ape, self defined as being the only species to ponder deeply and create novel thoughts and behaviours. Western human experience is deeply immersed in worship of intellect and the power of decision making. More recently many of us have been influenced by the narrative power of computer games and fiction where problems are always designed to be solved as long as the correct decisions are made, and usually fairly obvious ones at that. We are continuously taught by the artificial world we inhabit that success awaits us so long as we make the correct decisions.

Yet the world around us is usually not the product of deliberate human thought. Cities and landscapes grow and evolve as a million unconscious acts unfold. In places where humans dominate landscape design the results are often deeply unsettling. Anyone who has spent much time in Canberra can tell you how off-putting the lived experience is, in contrast to the beautiful sweeping curves on the designers maps. Other designed cities like Brasilia and Naypyidaw in Burma suffer similar disturbing atmospheres. Humans have great difficulty escaping the tendency for order and simplicity, projecting simplified Platonic ideals on a messy reality. When asked to make up a string of random numbers we can’t do it. Gardeners planting bulbs tend to produce a bland smeared arrangement compared to natural distribution with all sorts of exciting clumps and drifts. We claim to love simplicity as elegance but in reality it is all we are capable of producing.

The principles of permaculture, which is at its heart a design philosophy, are similarly vulnerable to the inescapable limitations of the human mind. For example one common design tool is the swale- consisting of contour lines sketched across the topography that is relatively simple to conceive, communicate and implement. This also contrasts with their brittleness in practice: a single break in their design can end up concentrating water flows in a way that significantly worsens erosion relative to doing nothing, potentially damaging more swales below them and creating a cascading failure. Swales are similar to an electric fence that is designed to function with the most efficient use of materials, but a single faulty insulator renders the whole structure useless.

By contrast a real landscape that has self evolved to utilise water will consist of a complex three dimensional fractal network that goes beyond the ability of language and art to communicate. Designs only based on surface contour ignore variations in soil composition across the landscape. Places that concentrate water flow experience more growth, allowing the system to slow the water and silt where it is flowing the most, making the system self maintaining, unlike simple swales that require perpetual human intervention. Human tendencies to design for efficiency and elegance often lead to systems that are brittle. Even the visual image fails to communicate meaningful complexity, instead favouring a sweeping line in the landscape, a cute animal face or a succulent looking fruit. A photograph of a tangle of weeds or a shovel full of soil says nothing, even though these are the foundations of fertility.

Another design aspect in permaculture is the use of layers to increase total photosynthetic efficiency. Different species in these layers interact with each other in different ways, including factors of shade patterns, seasonality of leaf cover and the production of allelopathic chemicals that hinder the growth of other plants. As a simple example designing a food forest with seven layers with a mere three possible species to consider in each layer gives a possible 3 to the power of 7, or 2187 different combinations of species, each with a different total photosynthetic efficiency and food output potential. For humans planting one plant at a time this level of complexity is beyond anything manageable by deliberate design. The optimum combination would also vary across the geology and topography of the landscape to add further complexity. As a result any human design will be suboptimal almost by definition.

Similarly talk about designing guilds from scratch, as if each species is a piece of furniture to be arranged in a room, shows a lack of understanding of the depth of individual species and their interactions. Even established guilds such as the three sisters system of maize, beans and squash cannot be rapidly reconstructed from scratch since each species contains enormous genetic diversity and needs to be optimised individually for local conditions and again for their interrelationships to create a truly functional guild.

Even the simple concepts of edges and zones are an illusion. In a truly complex and self determining system the species form complex overlapping distributions that defy simple maps and definitions. If dominant species such as trees are used to classify each location then the other components of the ecosystem will still be found to vary somewhat independently. Analysis of forest composition over time has shown what are conceived to be well defined biomes today with combinations of dominant plant species are in fact of relatively recent origin, with wildly varying combinations appearing and disappearing throughout evolutionary history. In these complex patchworks of species edges also do not exist in any form that can be grasped and communicated by the human mind. Only by massive intervention, such as by cutting down a section of forest, do we create something approximating a simple edge that humans can understand.

Natural systems incorporate and tolerate more experimentation and “waste” than human systems where human labor and decisions greatly limit activity. Each plant makes many seeds that are dispersed across the landscape and they grow where they can, but the vast majority do not grow. A human designed system either would not tolerate wasting all the seeds if they were a product for human use, or would lack the labor to disperse and nurture the seeds. The seeds that don’t grow in natural systems are not a waste as such. They are the price the plant pays to find the optimum locations for its growth in the complex ecosystem. By contrast in human designed systems each location ends up with a suboptimal species as they are established and protected from competition by human intervention. In natural systems the plants that photosynthesise best win the day, to the betterment of the total ecosystem as more energy becomes available. The dream of the “edible landscape” reveals humans true priorities in managing the landscape. We happily chose to lower total productivity in return for increasing resources for human use.

All this allows humans to maintain the illusion and myth of being in control, while simultaneously convincing themselves they are the saviours of the planet. Simply making the correct series of landscape design choices will not allow us to solve our bigger cultural and ecological problems (though I acknowledge permaculture did originally include this aspect, but it is rarely emphasised alongside the landscape design aspects).

There are several alternatives strategies and heuristics to avoid the mental traps of design. Fukuoka’s principle of “do nothing” and embracing the power of non-intervention deserves greater appreciation. Human instinct is to do, only to find out later that the effort was ineffective or actively harmful. Machinery and technology give us the power to do more and faster, but also allow us to magnify our mistakes before we realise them, often generations later. Mimicking the willingness of nature to experiment by using the power of minimal interventions is also important in the context of limited human resources. For example with vegetation establishment the use of direct seeding, self seeding and minimal sized transplants allows a greater number of experiments to be undertaken compared to planting a small number of larger trees. Producing your own seed and propagating small seedlings also makes more experimentation possible, especially if coupled with a willingness to let plants fail when they are put in the wrong place. This last part is much easier to do if the time, energy and money invested in each plant or seed is minimised as much as possible. Allowing a high species diversity is also key, including leaving room for species with no obvious utility, plus considering that those species labeled as having negative impact may not be as bad as supposed. When dealing with undesirable species focus on management or better yet utilisation rather than elimination. A personal example of this is the camphor laurel trees on our property. A few large trees were removed with great effort based on their reputation, only to find their shade, fodder for goats and fruits for geese were of immense value while their local rate of self seeding was minimal. Pasture quality down hill from these majestic trees is also greatly improved, probably due to their mineral cycling lacking in pastures without large trees. They are now seen as a valuable resource and no more mature trees will be killed.

Permaculture and its principles and philosophies contain enormous value in this rapidly changing world but these things do not stop us suffering human limitations and biases. Being aware of these limitations can help us become better stewards by accepting our important but far from central role in the ecosystem.

An artist ideal of a space planned by the human mind

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