Permaculture Designers Manual


Section 2.2 –

Science and the Thousand Names of God


Although we can observe nature, living systems do not lend themselves to strict scientific definition for two reasons. Firstly, life is always in process of change, and secondly, life systems react to investigation or experiments. We must always accept, therefore, that there will never be “laws” in the area of biology.

Hard “science, such as we apply to material systems (physics, mathematics , inorganic chemistry), studiously avoids life systems, regarding as not quite respectable those sciences (botany, zoology. psychology) which try to deal with life.

Rigorous scientific method deals with the necessity of rigorous control of variables, and in a life system (or indeed any system), this presumes two things that are impossible:

1.    That you know all variables (in order to control some of them and measure others) before you start; or
2.    That you can in fact control ail or indeed any variables without creating disorder in the life system.


Every experiment is carried out by people, and the results are imparted to people. Thus living things conduct and impart knowledge.

To ignore life in the system studied, one has to ignore oneself. Life exists in conditions of flux, not imposed control, and responds to any form of control in a new fashion.

Living things respond to strict control (either by removal of stimuli or by constant input of stimuli) by becoming uncontrolled, or (in the case of people and rats at least) by dysfunction, or by going mad.

Experiments, therefore, are not decisive, rigid, or true Findings but an eternal search for the variables that have not been accounted for previously. This is the equivalent of true believers, in their empirical approach to the knowledge e of God’s name. They simply keep chanting variables of all possible names until (perhaps) they hit on the right one.

Thus does science proceed in biological experiments?



Scientists who “know” and observe, don’t usually apply their knowledge in the world. Those who “act“, often don’t know or observe. This has resulted in several tragic conditions, where productive natural ecosystems have been destroyed to create unproductive cultivated systems, breaking every sane environmental principle to do so.

Energy-efficient animals (deer, kangaroo, fish) have been displaced by inefficient animal systems (sheep, cattle). Every widespread modern agricultural system needs great energy inputs; most agriculture destroys basic resources and denies future yields.

Beef Feedlot Waste Runoff


As Edward  Goldsmith makes clear (“Thermodynamics or Ecodynamics”, The Economist, 1981), many scientists refuse to consider the function of life in such systems.
Natural systems disintegrate and decay, producing more and more helpless plants, animals, and people, and the State or the farmer takes over the function of natural processes. (The Stale becomes the father of the orphaned child, the farmer the father of the orphaned chicken.) It is only by returning self-regulating function and responsibility to living things (such as people) that a stable life system can evolve.

Scientific method is one of the ways 10 know about the real world, the world we are part of and live in. Observation and contemplative understanding is another.

We can find out about many things, both living and inorganic, by timing, measuring, and observing them; enough to make calendars, computers, clocks, meters, and rulers, but not ever enough to understand the complex action even in a simple living system.

You can hit a nail on the head, or cause a machine to do so, and get a fairly predictable result. Hit a dog on the head, and it will either dodge, bite back, or die, but it will never again react in the same way. We can predict only those things we set up to be predictable, not what we encounter in the real world of living and reactive processes.

Ecologists and “whole systems” people struggle to understand open and complex systems, even though they realize that they too are a part of the system they study. In fact, given enough limnologists (those who study freshwater lakes and lake organisms), these become the most important factor in the spread of lake organisms via their boats, boots, and nets!
Overseas aid is perilously close to being a very good reason for overseas aid to be necessary, as spies need counterspies. I shudder to think that if we train more brain surgeons, they must cut open more brains in order to support themselves… Imagine!

I think it fair to say that if you submit to poverty, you equip yourself to know about poverty, and the same goes for lobotomy.


There are several ways not to face life:  by taking drugs, watching television, becoming a fakir in a cave, or reading in pure science. All are an abdication of personal responsibility for life on earth (including, of course, one’s own life).


Value- and ethic-free lifestyles are aberrant in science as in society.”


It is the quantlfiability of many … scientific concepts that have led to their adoption by scientists often regardless of the fact that. as they are defined. They correspond to nothing whatsoever , in the world of living things.
(E. Goldsmith. 1981 “Thermodynamics or Ecodynamics”, The Ecologist .)


Perverse planning is everywhere obvious: houses face not the sun, but rather the road, lawns replace gardens, and trees are planted  to be pruned and tended. Make-work is the rule, and I suspect that most theoretical scientists inhabit demented domestic environments, just as many psychiatrists are inhabitants of mental institutions.

Scientific (and non-scientific) groups or individuals can make progress in finding solutions to specific problems. The following approaches do very well (designers please note):

1.  IMPROVING Tools, or inventing new tools for specific jobs.

2.  COLLECTING A LARGE SET OF OBSERV­ATIONS on occurrences, or samples of a set  of phenomena ,and sorting them on the basis of likeness­ unlikeness (by establishing systems and system boundaries, categories, and keys to systems).This process often reveals common characteristics or diverse elements, and leads to an understanding of common traits, suggesting (by analogy) strategies in design.

3.  INSIGHT: the “Aha !” or “Eureka!” response to observation. This, as is well recorded, comes to the individual as though by special gift or providence. In fact, it is quite probably the end point of 2.

4. TRIALS: “give it a try and see if it works“. This empirical approach simply eliminates those things that don’t work. It does not necessarily establish how or why something works, or even if it works in the long run .

5. GUESSING : the best guesses are based on trials that are already known to work.

6. OBSERVING UNIQUE EVENTS and taking note of  them (the “discovery” of penicillin).

7. ACCIDENT: trials set up for one reason work in a way not predicted or foreseen; compounds made for one purpose are applied to another.

8. IMITATION: by testing already-known effects (discovered by others).

9. PATTERNING: by seeing a pattern to events of often very different natures, and thus producing insights into the underlying effects. Often proceeded by 2 above, but rare in science.

10.  COMMONSENSE: often called “management” in business and natural systems control. This consists of staying with and steering a system or enterprise through constant  adjustment to a  successful conclusion or result . It also suits evolving systems, and is the basis of continuous change and adjustment.