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Permaculture Principles - Self-regulation

I'm now up to the forth permaculture principle, so I think I should start by going back over the first three principles in case you've forgotten what I'm talking about, before I launch into "apply self-regulation and accept feedback".

I first wrote about discovering permaculture in this post, and even though I tried to define permaculture, its pretty difficult to explain, and probably makes more sense after you've thought about all the principles.  This is my favourite definition:

Permaculture is a design system based on ethics and design principles which can be used to guide efforts made by individuals, households and communities towards a sustainable future. (
Permaculture is based on three ethics: earth care (sustaining natural systems), people care (making the products of natural systems available to people) and fair share (governing our needs so that resources are available to all).

12 permaculture principles (and 3 ethics)
In his book  Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond SustainabilityDavid Holmgren, one of the founders of permaculture, has written about 12 design principles, which I am reviewing in detail month by month.  Reviewing the principles is helping with both my understanding of permaculture and showing me how to use permaculture to plan our new property.

In January I wrote about "Observe and Interact", which is applied both at the start and throughout a design process, observing and interacting with both the natural systems and landscapes where you intend to work/build and other systems that may give clues to a better design (including reading other blogs, I like getting ideas from what other people are doing).  One of the most important aspects is record keeping, and I did start a farm diary, which went great for about 2 months, I really need to keep that going.....

In February the principle was "Catch and Store Energy".  This principle is about building storages for longer term energy use, in particular, trees for food and timber, and water catchments such as dams and tanks.  It also includes passive solar design of buildings for heating and cooling.

March was dedicated to "Obtain a Yield", which is about immediate yield, whereas catch and store energy was more about planning for longer term returns.  Obtain a yield aims to maximise yield for optimum input of effort and money.  For example, this can be achieved by planting edible plants that require minimal maintenance, do well in your climate and produce a high yield, also by allowing plants to self-seed.  

The forth principle is "apply self-regulation and accept feedback".  The reason for this principle is that a system without regulation will be out of control.  An example is yeast used to brew beer.  The yeast produces alcohol as a waste product when it consumes the sugar in the brew, the yeast population increases and it produces more and more waste alcohol, but the yeast die when the brew reaches an alcohol content around 5-6% or when it runs out of sugar to eat.  If the yeast were able to self-regulate their population or the waste produced, they would survive and form a stable population.  Holmgren suggests that we must self-regulate because he believes that, for various reasons, its not possible for those at the top of our society to impose regulation.  We must initiate this change from the bottom up.  First by changing our own behaviour and then encouraging those around us.  Instead of saying "they" should change something (usually meaning the government) we need to recognise that its "we" who must begin to regulate our society staring by taking responsibility for our own actions.

self-regulation is about taking responsibility
The system that is getting out of control is the consumer society which thrives on the consumption of resources and the production of waste.  This system is unsustainable, but we each must recognise this as individuals and change our own lives first.  We must regulate our own actions to reduce consumption and waste, rather than waiting to be regulated by someone or something else.

Holmgren suggests a self-audit in which you consider each of your needs and wants and how you can change the way you consume.  I find it easier to just question each purchase, do I really need this item?  If yes, is there any way that I can grow, make, borrow, or use something I already own instead?  If no, what is the most ethical purchase decision?  Can I buy a local, organically-produced, chemical-free, or fair trade version or alternative?  By analysing the things as I buy them, I start to figure out things that I'd like to try to make or grow, such as making soap or growing more carrots, so that I don't have to buy as much, and so that I become more responsible for my own consumption and waste.

As we become self-sufficient in various resources, we start to regulate our own use.  For example our only water supply is from our rainwater tanks.  We could buy water if we got really desperate, but we prefer to frugally use what we get free from the sky.  Sometimes this means using very little water if we have dry times, but it is nice to know that we are responsible for regulating our own water consumption, rather than being dictated by a local council (if we were on town water).  Taking responsibility for providing your own resources, or at least understanding where they come from, and disposing of your own waste helps you to regulate your own consumption and waste.  

I think the hardest part of this principle is other people.  Living differently can be isolating and I often get silly questions about why we bother to do things like raising chickens for meat or knitting socks.  There is always that pressure to conform and to have the latest widgit, just because everyone else does.  Having a community of like-minded bloggers out there really helps me not feel like I'm a total weirdo.  And then, when you have established your new frugal way of life, how do you communicate the advantages to other people without offending them?  If this self-regulation is to work, we need lots of selfs to start regulating!  Its a real challenge to respectfully communicate to others that you have reduced your impact on the natural environment and perhaps they should too.  Sometimes I have to just cringe and bite my tongue because I can see that certain people are not ready to hear that their lifestyle is not sustainable.

Now, what do you think?  Do you self-regulate how you live in order to reduce your consumption and waste?  What steps have you taken so far and what are you planning?  How do you spread the message to others?

Each month in 2013 I reviewed a principle from David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability:


  1. It is pretty much via this principle that I discovered Permaculture. My life conspired to suddenly have us living on a lot less income. I didn't want to resort to welfare so I was researching everything I could on frugal living and Permaculture kept popping up. I was already into gardening and a bit of a counter culture lefty so it seemed a natural way to go. Not that frugal living and Permaculture always fit together, I find many of the financial gains I make are eaten up by the extra costs involved in buying what I still do ethically. Organic milk, flour and so on can be very expensive. This principle is probably the most challenging, it requires constant vigilance and some would even argue it is unnatural for humans to behave this way. Historically we have behaved more like the yeast :). For all of us to do this before we are forced to by a crashing environment will require a major change in human thinking, Billy Brag might call it The Great Leap Forward. Communicating it to others is very hard, I think that's why so many Pernies just end up talking about gardening, its common less confronting ground. I am heartened however to have found so many like minded people living near us when I didn't expect to find any. I for one am in awe of how you and Pete manage to raise your own animals for meat and knit socks while still working :)

  2. You are not a weirdo! Those very people who redicule or look bored when you are excited by a new found way of living will be the ones on your door step asking for advice in the future. If it is not them it will your children and friends that are a success in the future and not their children without life skills beyond shopping and consuming. I love blogs also, as your followers and readers are there because they are interested in what you have to say. You make each of the steps really easy to understand and apply to our simple lives. I've sat through some courses and just walked out confused. So keep on posting. In relation to the second principle of catch and store energy, i saw some really groovy home power stations at the Ballarat Farm Expo on the weekend which allow you to store your own generated solar power and keep in on site rather than selling it back at much reduced rebates. I gave details in my post on 6th. I had my electrician husband with me and its not that complicated to build. The commercial ones are new so pricey and lots of marketing hype. Funny how they are trying to brain wash into SPENDING lot on a frugal livestyle. Im new to this way of thinking and could have been tricked by it but i have lots of blog buddies to help me along. Like You.

  3. Like everything from the speed you drive to how much you recycle, everyone is on a different place on the spectrum. To anyone doing less, you're a radical lunatic. To anyone doing more, you're a complacent, wasteful fool. But that's okay. It's not really practical (or even a good use of your energy) to try to reach people too far to one side or the other of you. The gap in knowledge, experience, and ability to "get it" can be too great. We all do better and go farther when we take baby steps.

    Optimally, we learn from people who are a little further along than we are. We reach out to those above us for their knowledge, and we reach down to those a little below us to share our own. In this way, our energy and effort is spent on those most able to use it.

    That doesn't mean that those at the bottom won't learn anything. But they learn from someone who is a little further along than they are, rather than allll the way down the road. Someone they can relate to, whose life isn't entirely foreign to them. Someone who can relate to them and doesn't look down on them for being only at the start of their journey. (And even if someone further along *doesn't* look down on them, the new person may feel as if they do.)

    Think of it as the old chain letters. You send things to 10 of your closest friends, and they send to their friends, until it reaches around the world. You don't send to 10 total strangers and expect them to pass it along. The gap is too great to bridge that way.
    "And then, when you have established your new frugal way of life, how do you communicate the advantages to other people without offending them?"

    Like sharing a religion (since this is one, in a way). You don't harass people who aren't interested, and hope to change their minds - that only create defensiveness and puts up barriers. You speak instead to people who have expressed any interest or curiosity. And let everyone see your good example in action. You neither apologize for the choices you make, nor try to force others into them.
    "Why do you make your own socks?" "Because when I think about the process that goes into producing the socks at the store, I feel I'd rather spend the time making my own. Are you interested in hearing what goes into each process?"
    "Why do you raise your own chickens?" "They taste a lot better, they are much healthier for me and my family, they don't produce the mountains of improperly dealt with waste that I have discovered are so bad for the planet, it's much kinder to the chickens themselves, and I like feeling capable of providing the food for my family."

    Notice how none of those accuse anyone or make them defensive? But they all leave the door open for someone to ask questions if they're interested? If they *aren't* interested, trying to force the information at them doesn't convert them, it just makes you seem annoying and radical and weird.

    And sometimes, even if someone isn't ready to ask questions right now, your words stick in their mind and make them start thinking about it. Even if just a little. And maybe, down the road, they'll be ready to look into it some more.

  4. Hi Liz, Well written. I think if everyone followed the ethics, this principle and the principle of produce no waste, we would be living sustainably. I see those two principles as being two of the most important with many of the other principles more as How To's to be followed as a way of achieving self-regulation and producing no waste.

    As for communicating my beliefs without offending, I think I probably do step on people's toes quite often. I certainly don't want to offend but tact is not my strong point! I think there are more and more 'selfs' every day and that if we keep at it from the ground up AND by applying pressure to authorities we will get there in the end.

  5. You are certainly not a weirdo,just a intelligent,forward thinking individual,if their were more people like you the world would be in a much better state.I think in different ways people are becoming more aware of things,certainly waste and energy wise.Not everyone will choose to conform but all those that do will be doing their little bit.I also knit socks and my 17 year old son gets me orders(although I have enough knitting without his help)from all his friends-how can you say no when they are the next generation ?-other than starting knitting classes!!!

  6. Self regulation isn't the hard part - it's living with others who regulate on a different wavelength, lol.

    Which ties into how do you communicate this self-regulation to others? I find casual persistence is the best approach. When they run into trouble (which always happens when people don't self-regulate) you mention what works for you. They may reject it a hundred times until they finally run out of answers and try your approach.

    I don't consider it "winning" when they cross over, because frankly life is hard and everyone comes into it with a different back story. What works for me, may not work for someone else. If they can try it though, only they will know for sure. I tend to share ideas and the reasons behind them, which can be rejected quite a lot. I've had distant relatives and a few close ones, do some really nasty stuff to snap me out of their idea of harming my family. They think they're helping, but they're actually not allowing me to self-regulate where I see a need, and making matters worse.

    The way I look at it, no matter what you believe is right, if it takes negative energy to make it happen in others, then it's only going to produce a negative effect. Keep the positive energy going by creating with positive energy though, and the effect will be positive. There will always be nay-sayers but I guess that's called living with diversity too. Developing resilience in those environments can only make you stronger. Or at least I try to look at it that way.

    There are a couple of blogs I read which are popular with copious amounts of followers. They are actually into simple living and reducing unnecessary consumption. I agree with a lot of what they share, but the one thing I don't really support is the notion if we all don't do "x" the planet is in danger or we are in danger of becoming mindless consumers. It's this perception if we all don't follow what they deem suitable behaviour, we must be in cahoots with fools and mass murderers instead.

    These people tend to be a generation or two older than mine - the generation which had the luxury to change the future when they were out busy consuming at my age, but now feel it's their obligation to ask this generation to account for it. Which is a reasonable request, I just don't appreciate the labels of fools and murderers which tend to come with those that don't aspire exactly how they transcribe. I tend to question them openly, and get rejected there too. So you can also be rejected by like minded people. I think it comes down to "compassion" which can probably also be found in the permaculture principles - under care for the earth and care for people.

    If you don't have compassion, then it doesn't matter what you do - it will all relate back into negative outputs in the end.

  7. It's quite freeing to think I shouldn't expect the government to fix world problems, since I have very little impact over what my government actually does. Much better to be able to self regulate and just do what I can do. Thanks for sharing this. I can't wait for next month's principle.

  8. thanks for the wonderful discussion everyone, I'm really enjoying reading your interpretation of these principles :)


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