Permaculture is a design philosophy which seeks to exploit and imitate naturally occurring patterns. The patterns observed by those studying ecological adaptive cycles and resilience are the foundation for design philosophies such as permaculture. Below, the twelve Permaculture design principles articulated by David Holmgren in his Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability are related to the patterns of adaptive cycles and ecological resilience.
Principle 1: Observe and interact: By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.
The concept of ecological resilience has arisen from observation of adaptive cycles in thousands of ecosystems. Ecological resilience is not resilience in the materials science sense, where a material bounces back to its original form. Ecological communities naturally encounter disturbances which seem to destroy them. The oak-hickory forest where I live can be destroyed when a beaver family comes in, downs trees, builds dam. Organic matter gradually accumulates in the pond, eventually becomes a bog. Then a meadow. Then invaded by shrubs. Then forest. Multiple climax communities are possible depending on external drivers. Destruction of the climax community always occurs now and then, permitting the expression and renewal of other communities contributing to the resilience of the system. The ubiquity of disturbance has led to the concept of adaptive cycles.
Ecological communities are always in resilience and transformation cycles with four stages: rapid growth (r), conservation (K), release (Ω) and reorganization (α). Observance of any ecosystem over time reveals a succession of communities following these stages.
Ecological resilience describes the change in our land as a series of adaptive cycles where a phase of rapid growth (designated as r) which gradually slows to the “climax” oak-hickory forest which maintains itself in the K phase until being disrupted by the family of beavers in the Ὡ phase. The pond left by the beavers immediately begins to reorganize itself in an α phase, accumulates organic matter, is invaded by various pond organisms and rapidly accumulates carbon and more and more complex structure in another r phase. Gradually the accumulation of organic matter results in a taking over of bog organisms and eventually a meadow and then a forest. After a few years the meadow emerges as it creates conditions they need r phase gradually becoming a K phase and eventually a gradual Ω phase as shrubs invade. These various landscape types each arise in succession through an r phase inducing an slow Ω phase in the previous stage. The Osage then induce an Ω phase for shrubs which permits brief r and K phases for grasses and forbs, again invasion by shrubs and Ω burning followed by an r and K and Ω phases.
Plowing is Ω for grasslands, enabling r and K phases for various successions of multitudes of crop and soil organisms. As soil is depleted by erosion, the system declines to a lower level of productivity, but still the inexorable r, K and Ω phases followed by α, r, K and Ω phases for the communities of organisms which become the subsequent stages of succession. Continued loss of soil resources–especially where other crucial systems (such as reliable hydrologic systems to provide water) are absent–eventually lead to desert or barren rock.
Observation of nature also shows that the most successful systems have a host of potential tools which are deployed exactly when needed. These are the propagules of a multitude of organisms.
Principle 2: Catch and store energy: By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need.
American Indians learned to use regular burning to maintain grassland and attract and increase buffalo and other ungulates. Manure from grazing animals helps soils deepen and become more fertile, capturing more carbon and nitrogen and building communities of microorganisms, and soil flora and fauna so grassland is even more productive. In the late 1900s some of these farmers began using electric fence and mob grazing to mimic natural systems. The Ω stage is where release of resources occurs. Management of the transition from Ω to α is crucial to capturing energy.
Principle 3: Obtain a yield: Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.
A resilient system gives positive feedback to all the complex adaptive systems which contribute to its resilience. If you are contributing to the resilience, the permanence, of your system, you will receive the positive feedback which is yield (a more benign synonym for profit). This profit is extracted from the system for the use of you, the manager. If it is invested in useful tools or skills for the manager or useful cultivars or other inputs, it can contribute to the resilience of the system. However, profit can be stealing. Stealing is extraction of yield without providing any contribution to improving the resilience of the system. Taxes and insurance are other types of stealing.
Principle 4: Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.
Prairie grasslands, maintained by burning and intensive grazing by ungulates kept in herds by predators, can be easily destroyed by overgrazing. Every tool (such as cattle) which builds up a system if used properly, can destroy the system when used improperly.
All living organisms adapt. Those who respond to feedback the best are the most resilient.
Principle 5: Use and value renewable resources and services: Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.
The most positive extraction of yield is a unique organization of renewable elements—such as herbal medicines. Valuable herbal medicines are organic compounds made primarily of nitrogen, carbon and oxygen from the air and minerals from local rock. If these are removed, they are replaced by natural processes and enable the purchase of new tools which can decrease need for future inputs from outside.
Principle 6: Produce no waste: By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
Viewed as an adaptive cycle, no living system has either resources or wastes. What some call resources, others might call wastes. Producing too much yield by extracting nutrients from the soil is wasteful. Often what we call resources is waste (or wasteful overproduction) from another system. All resources and wastes are inputs to other systems.
Principle 7: Design from patterns to details: By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.
We see the adaptive cycle, increasing and decreasing potential productivity.
We see that resilience and transformation is facilitated when connectivity, diversity, flexibility and redundancy are optimized.
Principle 8: Integrate rather than segregate: By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.
Optimizing connectivity (bonding between units, bridging to other units, but modular, not integrate so much that failure of one unit leads to failure of others) is crucial to resilience.
Integration means feedback is insured and all outputs are inputs for units within the system.
Principle 9: Use small and slow solutions: Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.
Anything which can be done quickly can be undone quickly. The most valuable changes just take a while.
The fast, efficient system can often be most vulnerable to disruptions, less resilient. A just-in-time supply chain can cause the downfall of a business system if it is interrupted. Continuous improvement is the goal of any successful enterprise but only looks at current drivers. Resilience assumes enterprises will do their best to compete with each other and those who commit all resources to maximizing efficiency and profits will often die when system drivers change and they can’t change quickly enough. Goal of adaptive governance for resilience is not to insure that all enterprises survive, only that their focus on efficiency does not include driving all other players out of the market.
Fast, unchecked coordination between units can speed a wave of failure throughout the system.
The slow variables, such as amount of soil organic matter, shape how a fast variable, such as crop production, responds to variation in an external driver, such as variation in rainfall during the growing season.
The fast-moving variables in the system fluctuate more in response to environmental and other shocks; and these shocks or directional change in the drivers can push the system across a threshold into an alternate stability regim.
“Fast” variables are typically those that are of primary concern to ecosystem users, for example a pest species or (often) ecosystem goods and services, such as crop production, clean water, and favored species. The dynamics of these fast variables are strongly shaped by other system variables that generally change much more slowly, and hence have been referred to as “slow”, or(because they are not always slow) “controlling” variables. They are not the same as the control variables used in other contexts, and to avoid confusion, ecosystem resilience researchers suggest it is best to simply refer to them as “slow” variables, recognizing that “fast” and “slow” are relative terms.
Resilient systems do respond quickly to minimize the impact of disturbance and to reassemble after disturbance. However, direct response to adversity is not the usual activity of any resilient systems. The usual focus is establishing a system which maximizes evolution, adaptive reorganization and the foundation for reassembly after adversity.
Principle 10: Use and value diversity: Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.
Resilient systems optimize diversity by making sure that diversity is complementary. Complementary units generate outputs which are needed inputs to other systems. Complementary units perform different functions and enable the system to respond to multitudes of exigencies.
If a unit is fulfilling the same function, producing the same outputs as other units, then it is not increasing Д (the resilience/adaptive transformation terms which incorporates the concept of diversity. IIf not needed to optimize redundancy, then it is not contributing to resilience.
Principle 11: Use edges and value the marginal: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
Adaptive cycles, with their r, K, Ω and α stages are most apparent on the edges of systems. On the edges, one system in transitioning from Ω into α and its successor is in α reassembling into r phase. The Ω is where resources are released and made available as profit (or taxes or other forms of stealing) or as inputs to the new system in α phase. Ω exists at margins where one system is dissolving and creating another system.
Principle 12: Creatively use and respond to change: We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.
Ecological resilience requires change. To improve and release resources for better uses, provision for radical and complete reassembly must be integral part of the system. Ω is not destruction and end, but a necessary part of reorganization to a more productive system. Ω is precursor to α, reassembly, reorganization creation of new system with emergent qualities.
Change and adaptation are at the foundation of ecological resilience, which views all living systems as complex adaptive systems (CAS) composed of other complex adaptive systems. Each CAS is composed of multiple CAS which must be connected, redundant, flexible, modular, diverse and prone toward reassembly. Each CAS is continuously changing in response to feedback from other CAS. An economy is composed of businesses which are composed of people which are all changing and adapting to each other. Society is composed of communities, composed of families, composed of individuals, composed of cells, composed of proteins and lipids, composed of molecules, composed of atoms, composed of quarks, etc.
Since each CAS is composed of CAS adapting to each other, every living system is constantly in flux. For example, the resilient person has multiple ways of dealing with the external environment and adversity. Sitting in school, actively playing sports, solitary study, socializing with friends, interacting in formal meetings with peers or formal meetings with bosses, with children, with elderly, are all useful responses demonstrating the flexibility needed for resilience.
When a CAS becomes less redundant, less flexible, less modular, less diverse, less ready for reassembly, it becomes more vulnerable to destruction when outside drivers change.
Permaculture is a philosophy. Ecological resilience provides empirical foundation for the philosophy and insures that the philosophy stays grounded in the natural patterns it seeks to emulate, manage, and improve.
 Paraphrased from Walker et al., 2012. Ecology and Society, 17(3):30.