Sustainable Thinking

Many things on earth, maybe even everything, have a cyclical nature. For example the seasons, the water cycle of evaporation to rain, the oxygen we breathe and convert to CO2 which plants convert back to oxygen while taking the carbon out to grow. A cyclical process can in theory continue forever.

In our modern society however, many activities proceed rather linear. Our thinking often is in a simple cause and effect way. We do know that somehow when we say that ‘every story has two sides’, but even with 2 instead of 1 viewpoint it’s still a very simple way of looking at things. Because complex matters are difficult to understand we often get confronted by the ‘law of unintended consequences‘ (or worse: the perverse effect, when an action has the opposite effect of what was intended). Many climatic problems and rising pollution are unintended consequences of how our society functions. Because we tend to view things in a linear, simplistic way we are not or insufficiently aware of this.


By definition in Permaculture we approach the world as complex without claiming we understand everything. Many things on our planet are relatively unknown. Scientists try to increase our understanding but it remains a slow process. We could use a way of thinking that recognizes complexity without the need to know every detail. Only then can we develop an approach that works without constantly running into problems. That’s why in Permaculture we consider nature our ultimate teacher. Nature is always ‘right’ and offers ‘solutions’ to every problem, although she might take a long time to demonstrate them. To function on earth we don’t need to know everything, but we do need an open mind to observe what happens around us.

To apply this in Permaculture we use directives, like:

  • Every life form has a function, even though we might not understand it or perceive the function as unimportant to humans, even then it functions inside the whole of all things on earth. Any disruptions of a balance will have unintended consequences.
  • Define at minimum 3 functions for an element before placing it. Place several different elements that have the same function. This will add resilience to your system.
  • Experiment and observe, accept the feedback your system gives you. Try to gain the biggest effect with the least amount of change.
  • Let nature complicate your system by developing connections between elements. It is not the number of species present in a system but the amount of beneficial connections between them that determine a good system.

Ecosystem stability follows from the ability to self regulate the system. The more we humans interfere by forcing changes, the less this self regulating ability functions. Within society, companies or groups of people it is similar: the more interference by orders or force from above the less things function.

An important aspect within thinking about complex systems is a cyclical approach. An ecosystem can only function when energy and nutrients cycle within it. When energy or other necessities have to be continuously brought in from outside it is not a durable system. Understanding these principles is essential for finding better methods to live on our planet.

Our planet and all life on it, including us humans, is a huge and very complex ecosystem that is in continuous motion and development. If we go on extracting non renewable resources to the point where they get scarce while polluting other resources we need to survive, we will reach limits to our own chances of survival. Instead we can have a positive effect when we focus our efforts on renewable (living) resources and respecting and promoting complexity. Recognizing complexity opens our mind to identify unintended consequences and respond to them. Experiment, observe, adjust, allow feedback in every process. Think cyclical!


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One Response to Sustainable Thinking

  1. Pingback: Sustainable Thinking | Permaculture San Joaquin – Colombia – WORLD ORGANIC NEWS

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