When most people think about technology for the future, they tend to follow the current trend of technology: seeing how many bells and whistles can be fit into an increasingly smaller design.
There are those, however, who recognize that this trend has led to some serious problems with sustainability. Resource consumption and waste production is through the roof, the amount of labor involved in producing technology leads to unfair labor practices, and we end up with ‘superconvenience’ issues such as smartphone addiction running rampant.
When it comes to building our homes, many people tend to think in the same terms: more, better, faster. However, a different group of people is more interested in developing – or rediscovering – technologies and design practices that allow us to live in a healthy, sustainable way without consuming more resources that we create.
Permaculture, Whole Systems Design, and Sustainability
You may have heard the term ‘permaculture’ lately. The word gets thrown around a lot, but a good portion of people don’t actually know what it means.
Permaculture basically means ‘agricultural whole systems design’ or ‘whole systems thinking.’ If you know what systems thinking is, then you might already see some potential applications here.
Systems thinking is emerging as a new scientific paradigm that reduces, or entirely eliminates, waste. It does this by ensuring that each element of a system performs multiple functions, and focuses more on the relationships between different system components than the components themselves.
This is much different than linear thinking, which is basically ‘assembly line’ thinking. Factory production, for example, is very linear: for example, materials are mined, then shipped to a facility, then processed, then shipped to a store, then sold.
At each part of that chain, waste is produced, and nowhere else is that waste re-used by the same system. Permaculture acknowledges that waste is only a byproduct of a system that hasn’t been designed properly, and as such views waste as simply an unused resource.
Permaculture is most often associated with agricultural properties like farms, small communities and houses. This is because it’s relatively easy to design a functional ecosystem that eliminates waste in an agricultural environment, reducing waste such as compost by introducing it to a garden or livestock.
However, permaculture design could even be used in the previous example of the manufacturing chain by finding out a way that wastes – such as mining byproducts, recyclables, or used plastics – could be used further down the assembly line.
Instead of consuming more resources by shipping these ‘wastes’ off to toxic dumps or energy-sucking recycling centres, identifying a way in which these resources can benefit the supply chain itself would reduce environmental impact and improve the function of the whole chain. Repurposing waste paper at the manufacturing facility for use at the retail outlet for printing or packaging, for example, would cut paper costs and resource expenditure.
A Resilient Future
Systems thinking allows for much great resilience in any system that it’s applied to.
Look again at the supply chain example. If anyone element from that chain ceases to function, the whole assembly line falls apart.
A whole systems design, on the other hand, is more resilient because each component is related to each other component in multiple ways. One component may fail, and the others will ‘pick up its slack’ until it can return to function.
For example, in a whole systems farming system, a rain harvesting tank may fail. However, that wouldn’t break the system because there would likely be other water harvesting sources (a ditch, an irrigation system built to harvest runoff from the roof, etc). at other points in the system.
Systems thinking allows us to approach not just agriculture, but our whole society in a radically different way. By repurposing waste as a resource, we can eliminate the rapid filling of landfills, the pollution of the oceans and air, and the millions of hungry people.
Written by Nigel Ford