How did we get here?
In a study of how we, as a species, have gotten to this point today where we have created these problems through the actions of our industrial and technological practices, it is important to note that it is actually a very simple story. Whether one is speaking of climate change, desertification, deforestation, pollution of the atmosphere, acidification of the oceans, there can be no doubt that today the Earth appears to be in great trouble, and that this is in great part due to human activities, industry, and habits.
Traditionally, our industries and practices have been built upon the industries and practices of the past, many of which come from a time where we did not have as big an impact on the natural world as we do now, because our technologies and abilities had not yet reached the scale and capabilities of that they have today. It is largely because of this inheritance of an originally correct belief, that the systems of nature are far stronger than our capabilities to harm them, that has allowed and caused our industries to continue to grow with little or no regard for the pollution and other consequences that have been caused by their enterprises.
Nearly all of the problems of pollution and waste and destruction of the natural world that our civilization is responsible for thus far can be attributed to the fact that most of our pursuits have been founded upon disconnected decisions and theories. These decisions and theories either could not, or did not, take into account, a full picture of the reality of what was involved in those practices, because they were not based on whole systems thinking, and this has contributed to or caused a vast majority of the problems we are facing today.
What is Whole Systems Thinking?
If you have ever studied nature, or the natural world, you may have noticed that nature, and the processes of the Earth itself, is actually one vast system of interconnected, interwoven, and interdependent elements and factors, all contributing and collaborating together to provide water, air, minerals, nutrients, plants, animals and finally people. It should also be recognized that nature, it we were to consider it as something that thinks, would undoubtedly be utilizing whole systems thinking in order to create and maintain all these processes of itself.
In order to fully understand whole systems thinking, it becomes important to first understand its opposite, and today, its more common opposite, which could be termed closed systems thinking, or single systems thinking. One example of the difference between closed systems and whole systems can be found in the way a large scale farm operates, such as, for example, a farm that grows corn for the consumer market.
In this closed system, the primary goal is to produce a crop of corn, and everything in the system is structured in ways that enable the most corn to be produced. Large expanses of flat land are provided water through irrigation equipment to allow the corn to grow, fertilizers prepare and supplement the soil with nutrients, crop dusting and pesticides are used to deter and destroy pests that would prevent the corn from growing, and great machines are used to collect, harvest and separate the cobs of corn for sale.
It is indeed an impressive system that produces great amounts of corn, but in turn requires an enormous amount of input into the system, from the water provided, the fertilizers added, the sprays and pesticides used, and the machinery employed. All of these inputs to the system must continue indefinitely in order to continue producing the same amount of corn. With a whole systems thinking approach to growing corn however, many or indeed all of these inputs can eventually be eliminated entirely, by careful consideration and planning, and the integration of new elements that are added to permanently exist within the system, and thus are not needed to added year after year, and season after season.
Through contour, terracing, swales and berms, and other methods of land design, much of the water needed to grow the corn can be provided without the need for irrigation equipment. With green manure crops, biochar, and the addition of other plants that assist the soil in providing and maintaining nutrient availability for the corn, continuous fertilization can be eliminated after only a few seasons. Through companion planting, the instituting of a biodiversity of types of corn grown, the addition of bat houses, bird houses and other habitats of specific types, beneficial insects and animals can be attracted, diseases targeting specific types of corn can be lessened or prevented, and the use of pesticides will become no longer required. With all of these factors in place, and after the whole system has been implemented and all these elements have been established, the only thing left to do will be to collect, harvest, and separate the cobs of corn for sale, and because of the lack of inputs required to maintain the growing capacity of the crop, this one remaining activity for humans can easily be achieved without the use of most or all of the machinery, and will still save time, energy and money.
Although this is a simplified example, it should still effectively illustrate the benefits of whole system thinking, and how it can be utilized to create and redesign many aspects of human activities. The same type of whole systems thinking and planning can be utilized when designing any industrial practices, technological endeavors, social planning, business enterprises, or other human activities. It is through this type of thinking, and through the utilization of a system of philosophy, such as permaculture, which embodies whole systems thinking as both a necessary and efficient way of planning and doing things, that we can help redesign our systems of human activity, to help the Earth, and to help correct our mistakes of the past.
How can Permaculture Help?
It seems to be evident that in order to start repairing, properly maintaining, and strengthening the living biosphere of the Earth that we all depend upon for our survival, our health, and our very lives, it would be helpful to start looking at the ways we do things with a different perspective, and this is why permaculture is of great value today.
Permaculture at its very core, is a whole systems thinking approach to understanding, designing, and redesigning, and strives always to take into account all the elements involved in a study or plan, whether it be for an industry, for a business enterprise, or of a study of nature itself. In such an approach there are no bi-products or side-effects, because these are considered to be part of the system in question itself. In this way, such factors can be accounted for, and planned for within the system, rather than accounted for as something that will simply exit the system for someone else to deal with.
In permaculture, there is no waste and no pollution, because waste itself is considered to be a resource, and is always designed into the system, either to be used, to be neutralized, to be transformed, or to be eliminated, through a whole systems thinking approach.