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Permaculture Principle 4: Apply self-regulation & accept feedback

By Tim Sonder, Education Chair

This principle requires us to be open, to see and accept both the reality of the result of our actions (or inactions) and listen to and consider criticism from others.

It requires us to go back to Principle 1— and once again really observe and interact.

Self-regulation is something natural systems do without “thinking.” They must change to match the reality around them, and we can model our behavior on that natural feedback loop.

Also, the first word is “apply,” so it’s not just a matter or observing or listening, it’s taking action. Small and slow solutions are encouraged, of course! We might accept feedback, but if we don’t do anything about it, what does it matter?

Self-regulation requires us to see what is in front of us and not what we wish for: e.g. We sprayed a preventative compost tea, but we actually have a fungal disease. Perhaps a bit off subject, but Dave Jacke, author of Edible Forest Gardens, is quoted as saying this principle also applies to our espoused values versus governing values. Do we say we want something, but then do the opposite? Do you find yourself saying “I want to rid the world of plastic,” and then observe how much plastic you yourself might use? I think self-regulation guides us that to either moderate our stance or to moderate our behavior, or both. Perhaps, as a result of this feedback, we might change our stance to “Everyone should limit their plastics use and reuse or recycle anything that they do use”— changing the stance in such a way as to allow one to change one’s own behavior to match. This allows each of us to see reality and accept the feedback of where one may have been falling short.

David Holmgren, one of the founders of Permaculture, writes:

This principle deals with self-regulatory aspects of permaculture design that limit or discourage inappropriate growth or behavior. With better understanding of how positive and negative feedbacks work in nature, we can design systems that are more self-regulating, thus reducing the work involved in repeated and harsh corrective management.

Self-maintaining and regulating systems might be said to be the 'Holy Grail' of permaculture: an ideal that we strive for but might never fully achieve. Much of this is achieved by application of the Integration and Diversity (Permaculture design principles 8 & 10), but it is also fostered by making each element within a system as self-reliant as it is energy efficient. A system composed of self-reliant elements is more robust to disturbance. Use of tough, semi-wild and self-reproducing crop varieties and livestock breeds, instead of highly bred and dependent ones is a classic permaculture strategy that exemplifies this principle. On a larger scale, self-reliant farmers were once recognized as the basis of a strong and independent country. Today's globalized economies make for greater instability where effects cascade around the world. Rebuilding self-reliance at both the element and system level increases resilience.

Before there was Holmgren, there was Bill Mollison with 35 principles. Don’t worry, we’re not going in depth with those, but they do relate and might illuminate our thinking:

12. Succession: Recognize that certain elements prepare the way for systems to support other elements in the future, i.e.: succession planting.

31. Observation: Protracted & thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor.