Monthly Archives: July 2014

Do we need a Lens or a Prism?

This question came up on twitter the other day, and I wondered what other metrics we might use to define success within the bounds of permaculture. Certainly reducing waste is a worthwhile effort, and keeping track of waste is a good way to measure how successful we are at living up to the goal of reducing waste. As a rule, though, I’m rarely comfortable with breaking any issue down into a strict true or false dichotomy. The world is more complicated than that, and there’s usually more than one side to every story. Permaculture especially is about understanding the complex relationships between various systems and disciplines, and I suggested that we might need to view our efforts through a number of different lenses in order to have some valuable metrics by which to evaluate those efforts.

As a point of illustration, I’d like to consider the common milkweed, or Monarch flower, as some would prefer it be known. Milkweed is becoming something of an internet sensation lately, and the attention is well deserved. The Monarch butterfly depends on milkweed for its survival. Monarch larvae feed exclusively on the plant in order to absorb its toxins and bitter taste. Monarch predators have learned to read the bold markings of both the caterpillar and butterfly as a warning sign, and they choose to steer clear of the insect. Thanks to our history with industrial agriculture, milkweed, once ubiquitous, is now scarcely present throughout much of North America. It’s no coincidence that the Monarch butterfly has experienced a precipitous decline in population. Permies, naturalists, and urban aggies are rallying around the Monarch flower and planting it everywhere, in hopes that we can stave off the extinction of the Monarch butterfly and perhaps even see a rebound in numbers.

That’s all very commendable, but what does it have to do with metrics? Allow me next to introduce a concept with which you may be unfamiliar. Floristic Quality Assessment was popularized by naturalists Floyd Swink and Gerould Wilhelm with their groundbreaking work Plants of the Chicago Region (3rd ed., 1979). They realized that a sound method was needed for assessing the natural quality of plant communities, so that efforts toward understanding and preserving these lands could be evaluated using a standardized and quantitative metric. Years of exhaustive surveys of the naturally occurring flora in the many counties surrounding Chicago had yielded a great volume of data, and this data was used to assign each vascular plant species a Coefficient of Conservatism (C) value. A taxonomic survey of a given parcel could then be undertaken, with each plant contributing its C value toward an average, in order to gauge the degree to which a natural area was likely to have been disturbed by humans.

Where do you suppose Asclepias syriaca, aka “common milkweed”, fits into this calculus? It has a C value of zero! Now, there are many species with the genus Asclepias, and some of them do rate a 10 on Swink and Wilhelm’s scale. How the different species within this genus were each given their rankings is just a bit much to explain right now, but as far as the Monarch butterfly is concerned, they’re all foodstuffs. A C value of zero doesn’t mean that Asclepias syriaca is worthless — nothing of the sort! When it comes to saving Monarch butterflies, A. syriaca could prove to be far more valuable than A. meadii, which scores a C value of 10. Mead’s milkweed (A. meadii) is one of the rarest plants in the Chicago Region. I might be interested in planting it for just that reason, but if my aim is to save the Monarch butterfly, I’m looking for a plant that can thrive anywhere. If I want to save Monarch butterflies, I’m going to plant lots of A. syriaca.

Permaculture flower

The Principles of Permaculture. Image via

So, where does this leave us in regards to permaculture? I’m still a big believer in FQA, and I’ll even contend that it ought to be part of every permie’s toolkit, but it isn’t the right lens to use in every situation. I’m a big fan of my Felcos, too, but sometimes I go for the chainsaw. If we’re going to evaluate whether or not we’ve been successful at anything, we first need to define what it is we’ve been trying to do. Permaculture itself is more of a toolkit than it is a particular effort. I suggested on twitter that we might want to consider how many mouths were fed, or look at quality of life, as indicators of “success”. Noah Patrick (@allthewebs) had some insightful comments regarding the nature of waste, and noted that “permacultures always give more than they take”. A look at the “permaculture flower”, often cited as a representation of the ideals of permaculture, reveals many avenues to understanding, each of which need to be considered in order to evaluate whether or not a given effort is truly “permaculture”.

This is all brand new to me. I hope to get my Permaculture Design Certification within the next year or two, but meanwhile I’m planting community gardens and mowing around milkweed. I’ve spent the last dozen years focusing on small scale urban efforts, but I’ve also spent a good chunk of time in the mountains or on the meadow. My approach is a little different in each context, but each is informed by the sum of my experience. Changing things up is one way I keep my values in check. I’m always eager to learn more, and I’d welcome the opportunity to continue this line of inquiry. What does permaculture mean to you? How do you define success within the boundaries of permaculture? What metrics can we apply to gauge whether our efforts have been successful? The lines are open! Leave your comments and let’s see what we might learn from one another.

Thanks to Cassi Saari, aka @BOUCUR, for some very helpful clarification regarding the history and application of Floristic Quality Assessment. When I someday figure out how to use footnotes within HTML I may go back and make the proper attributions.