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Feibleman's Theory of Integrative Levels  RSS feed

 
Paul Cereghino
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I wrote up a quick summary of some systems science theory from 1954... I had been runing into it for years, but never read the original source.

http://ecosystemstewardship.blogspot.com/2011/09/theory-of-integrative-levels.html
 
Paul Cereghino
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So my proposition is that this 1954 article that influenced the ecologists and systems thinkers that influenced Mollison and all analysts emerging from the scientific method is part of a line of reasoning which Permaculture just a part.  Self evident... no takers?  What exactly makes Permaculture so special?!

Here's a paraphrase of Feibleman's Laws:

Each scale of organization organizes the smaller scales, but also has unique emergent properties. While the forest affects what trees grow where, the forest itself has properties that are uniquely provided only when trees grow in groups.

Complexity increases as you try to understand larger and larger scales of organization. The forest is more complicated that a single tree, as forest is made of hundreds of individual trees interacting over time. So far so good.

The larger scales of organization depend on the smaller scales. So in order to have a forest you need trees, if you cut down all the trees you don't have a forest. Check.

However the smaller scales of organization are controlled by larger scale patterns. So where and how a tree grows is strongly affected by the structure created by the collective of trees known as a forest. Kind of the inverse of three.

Thus for any particular scale of organization, its purpose is defined by larger scale systems, but its mechanisms are defined by smaller scale systems. Just as Brubaker instructed me, to understand what the forest is responding to (its purpose) you need to understand a landscape of microclimates and disturbances. To understand how it responds you must understand the physiology and life history of individual trees. That wraps together three and four.

A disturbance at a particular scale reverberates through all other scales, though Feibleman himself suggests that some organizations are more tightly integrated than others.

At higher and higher levels of organization, the ability to change the organization itself can occur with increasing speed. What?! So, the cell of a tree may take millennia to alter its form through genetic selection. The structure of a forest can change with a single wind storm. Big complicated things are fragile.

There are greater numbers of small organizations than large organizations. Good easy again, there are more trees than forests.

You cannot fully explain the larger organization by examining its smaller constituents. There are properties unique to the configuration and composition of trees within a stand that are not explainable by looking at a single tree, pointing to the fundamental risk of reductionism.

The properties of a level of organization distort the structure of smaller levels. He's getting a little weird again. The climate created by a forest can affect the growth, form and survival of individual trees.

An event at any scale of an organization affects all other levels. A perhaps excessively nuanced extension of rule six.

Whenever an organization is affected it in turn has an effect. Creating the potential for feedbacks, and cycles.


 
Tyler Ludens
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Paul Cereghino wrote:
What exactly makes Permaculture so special?!


It's a system for designing human habitation to emulate natural ecosystems?  And that's what makes it special?

Not sure if there's any other discipline which fits that description.....
 
                            
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There's not a lot new in Permaculture, but it put together a lot of pieces under one umbrella.  It also made it out of academia to where people really use it in everyday life.  Have the rules posted above done that? 

Sometimes it's not who said it first, but who managed to get somebody else to listen.
 
Paul Cereghino
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I wonder if there is a sort of competition between some proponents of permaculture and other people doing other things related to ecosystem function?

I can point to hundreds of projects involving thousands of people all around Puget Sound to improve farm stewardship of creeks and streams based on these kinds of ecosystem-based understandings.  They are ignorant of permaculture.  Much of my understanding of 'minimum input, maximum effect' comes from working on projects like that.  Some of the Permaculture sites I know are enabled by state and federal easement programs that reimburse private land owners for protecting the public trust, based on ecosystem-based understandings.  Those wealth transfers are ignorant of permaculture, but are trying to achieve a similar effect.

"[Permaculture] also made it out of academia"  -- Sort of... I wonder if some elements of the permaculture movement has in some ways made its own parallel academia.  Isolating itself from interaction with the mainstream for fear of ethical contamination, but in doing so making a 'type one' error -- disconnecting from the flow and resources of the dominant social networks.

"One of the great rules of design is do something basic right. Then everything gets much more right of itself. But if you do something basic wrong - if you make what I call a Type 1 Error - you can get nothing else right." - Mollison

And people move back and forth from academia to field practice all the time.  I'd propose this idea of an 'academia disconnected from reality' is true and false at the same time, depending on what exactly you are talking about.

Another example: 'Low impact development' has the goal of modifying the hydrology of human development to mimic the hydrology of natural forest, and has found that dispursed earthworks are the most effective approach, and that it is really hard to do without lots of standing biomass and that is now incrementally becoming the law of the land accross Washington state (one law suit at a time)... And that community is as far as I can detect, ignorant of permaculture.  I'm not saying LID may not single handedly overcome the momentum of the collective deathmarch, but it certainly has escaped academia, and there are more people actually practicing low-impact development than Permaculture.

I am saying all this to try to sharpen the point of Permaculture (at least in my own mind).  What exactly is it about the "system of permaculture" that makes it different?

Based on Feibleman's First Law... what is the emergent quality that makes it more than the sum of its parts?

Ludi says "designing human habitation" - I wonder if it more like 'designing your personal relationship to land', using your immediate landscape as the crucible.  And its unique quality is that it is so personal... when you combine a piece of land and a human in action you change both.

Reminds me of...

"I soon got to know my [human] animal fairly well - and I found out that it didn't matter what they were saying. What they were doing was very interesting, but it had no relation whatsoever to either what they were saying, or what questions they could answer about what they were doing. No relationship. Anyone who ever studied mankind by listening to them was self-deluded. The first thing they should have done was to answer the question, "Can they report to you correctly on their behavior?" And the answer is, "No, the poor bastards cannot." - Mollison
 
Eric Thompson
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Nice summary Paul - thanks for the interpretation!!

It seems to pound home a few realizations about complex systems:
- You have the most control (to do good or evil!) from higher levels of the system (the weather)
- Lower orders of the system contribute to the overall system but are inherently more scattered, less observable, and harder to control (the soil biodynamics)
- Most of your input and outputs will be at or near the same level, and there will always be higher and lower system levels working on and through these (our garden and crop design, both ingredients and timing)
- We also measure and control at the same level as the inputs and outputs (observe conditions, and adjust as needed)  We can often measure at higher and lower levels, but have difficulty to control directly at those levels (speeding up the sun or directing fungal growth areas..)

A lot to think about how the universe is interconnected while hand sigging a swale





 
I agree. Here's the link: http://stoves2.com
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