Science, Technology and Permaculture – How much do you really need to know?
“The further one goes, the less one knows.”
– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Permaculture has been around for over thirty years, and is finally beginning to reach mainstream audiences as a result of decades of advocacy work by the global Permaculture community. It has yet to gain mainstream scientific acceptance, and some may find this troubling, but what’s a greater concern is that anytime people make the effort to undertake permaculture projects and share their results, there’s often a small group of cynical people who question the results with such inane comments such as “where’s the science? …”. The problem is talk that is cheap, and many people don’t know the difference between science and technology, and where permaculture fits into the whole scheme of things!
Permaculture = solutions = ACTION!
From my observations, there are two types of people in life; there are talkers and there are doers. To take action requires intent, initiative, conviction and most importantly, effort. To sit back and talk takes little effort and a few thoughtless utterances of opinion, more often than not in criticism of the doers. This is the realm of the lazy intellectual, the armchair coach or general, or their more modern counterpart, the ‘keyboard warrior’. The difference is that doers contribute to the world, while the talkers just stand in the way.
Permaculture is about implementing solutions rather than whingeing from the sidelines. Every permaculture project promotes the movement and the discipline, and every person that does something to improve the planet makes a difference, no matter how small. Every effort does not need to be a scientifically controlled experiment that will end up in peer reviewed journals – why should it? What other activities other than academic research have these expectations placed upon them?
I recall a particular instance on this site, and not a unique occurrence, where a group reported increases in yields as a result of adding large quantities of beneficial soil microbes produced using aerated compost teas or similar methods to the soil. The so called ‘sceptics’ reared their heads, spouting their fundamentalist views with all the necessary buzzwords of their dogmatic worldview – unscientific, peer reviewed journals, controlled experiment and so on.
As a gardener, I know firsthand what all other gardeners know all too well, that through constant contact with Nature, you develop an intimate knowledge of it, and become acutely aware of any changes, even the subtlest ones. No gardeners are climate change denialists for a good reason, they’ve been observing the effects of climate on their plants for decades. To imply that a gardener is mistaken about noticing a change in a system they nurture and care for day in and day out is ignorant, insulting and something that can only come from the mouth of those who have no such experience and possibly no education in science.
I value science deeply, I’m a scientist by training with a double-major in the biomedical sciences, and to me science is an excellent tool for describing and explaining the nature of the physical world, but when people misuse it through ignorance and use it as a tool to create personal worldviews that act as substitute quasi-religions in order to judge others, to me that is a straight-out perversion of what science is all about.
There’s always bound to be some smart alec in Permaculture forums wearing the mantle of ‘exalted sceptic’ and purporting to be the ‘voice of science’, most often without any formal training in the sciences, berating others about the alleged lack of science, in Permaculture in general, or in the reported results of their work. It’s high time to address this phenomenon in a logical and reasoned analysis, scientifically if you will.
A lot of confusion arises from people misunderstand the difference between science and technology and how they relate to Permaculture.
Show me the science!
Want to ‘see the science?’ Depends what you understand science to mean, right? First of all, let’s get some definitions out of the way so we’re all the same page in terms of meanings!
Science – The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. (Source: Oxford Dictionaries – Oxford University Press)
The term can also refer to the body of organized knowledge produced through scientific activity.
This type of science as defined above is more correctly termed Pure Science as it exists for the purpose of accurately describing and explaining the physical world to increase human knowledge and understanding.
Quite distinct in purpose from Pure Science is Applied Science, which is the application of scientific knowledge to human needs and to solve practical problems.
Permaculture itself is an applied science, and its definition describes the practical problems it seeks to solve. The definition I use on my own website is – Permaculture is a holistic design system that emulates systems that exist in Nature to create sustainable human settlements and food production systems which integrate harmoniously with the natural environment.
Permaculture has foundations in many sciences. As a quick illustrative example to mention a few, from the biological sciences it draws on the fields of ecology and botany, from the earth sciences it draws on the fields of environmental science, geography and hydrology. Then there are also the social sciences which it draws from but I won’t go into for the sake of brevity.
The ecological influences are quite prominent, ATTRA (The US National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service) defines Permaculture as “ecological engineering” or “cultivated ecology”.
The technology that defies definition
While science is about knowing, technology is concerned with doing.
There is a lot of confusion about technology, even the dictionary definitions don’t quite get it right, just look at the following example.
Technology – the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry: “advances in computer technology”, “recycling technologies” (Source: Oxford Dictionaries – Oxford University Press)
This sounds exactly like the definition of applied science (the application of scientific knowledge to human needs and to solve practical problems). Is technology applied science? Yes and no. A lot of modern technology may be the result of applying scientific knowledge, but not necessarily. All ancient technologies existed before the existence of modern scientific explanations, so it would be more accurate to describe technology not as a subset of science, but a field that overlaps with it.
As we can see from the very existence of pre-scientific technologies, we can know how to do something and teach others to do so without understanding the detailed science behind it. We may not even need to understand the detailed science behind it, and doing so could be a pointless waste of time if your goal is to solve that problem right now, using a known workable solution!
The important point to understand here is this – We can know how to do something without knowing how it works exactly.
Technology without pointless science – an experiential exercise for readers
Fire lighting is one of the oldest human technologies that pre-dates any science by millennia. Our ancestors knew none of the science, but the technology employed got us here today, and many people still practice the skills of ancient fire-lighting for outdoor and survival purposes.
To all those smug ‘show me the science’ types, do you personally understand the science, the detailed physics and chemistry of our most primitive pre-scientific technologies, fire (the combustion of wood)? Bet you don’t! Our ancestors didn’t and it didn’t stop them from getting on with their lives! A little humility goes a long way.
Since the ‘show me the science’ types are fond of playing games, let’s play science games…
Step one – Don’t read any further. Take out a pen and paper, and if you can, explain the science of fire, give it your best shot, write it down. Saying it’s the combustion of organic matter in oxygen doesn’t cut it either, that’s lame primary school science. Show me the science!
Step Two – Now read the explanation below based on the “How Fire Works” article from the HowStuffWorks website  to see how your notes compare:
Typically, fire comes from a chemical reaction between oxygen in the atmosphere and some sort of fuel which is heated to its ignition temperature. Here’s the sequence of events in a typical wood fire:
First the wood needs to be heated to a very high temperature, from sources such as a match, focused light, friction, lightning, something else that is already burning. When the wood reaches about 300 degrees Fahrenheit (150 degrees Celsius), the heat decomposes some of the cellulose material that makes up the wood.
Some of the decomposed material is released as volatile gases (smoke) which are compounds of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen. The rest of the material forms char (nearly pure carbon), and ash (the non-combustible minerals in the wood such as calcium, potassium, etc.)
The actual burning of wood happens in two separate reactions:
1. When the volatile gases reach a sufficiently high temperature (about 500 degrees F (260 degrees C) for wood), the compounds in the wood break apart at the molecular level, and the atoms recombine with the oxygen to form water, carbon dioxide and other products – basically, the wood burns.
2. The carbon in the char also acts as a fuel and combines with oxygen in a much slower reaction (which is why charcoal in a BBQ burns for a very long time).
The chemical process of combustion is exothermic, so a lot of energy is released in the form of heat, which in the case of burning wood, raises new unburned material to ignition temperature, which sustains the fire. This is unlike many other fuels which burn in one step, such as gasoline (petrol) for example, where heat vaporizes it and it all burns as a volatile gas.
As carbon atoms (as well as atoms of other elements) in the burning material heat up and rise, they emit light. This “heat produces light” phenomenon is called incandescence. This is what causes the visible flame. It’s the same principle in operation in the older style incandescent light bulbs with tungsten filaments.
The colour of the flame depends on which chemical elements are burning (a principle used to great effect in fireworks displays) and how hot the flame is. The variations in colour within in a flame are caused by uneven temperature, where typically, the hottest part of a flame, the base, glows blue, and the cooler parts at the top glow orange or yellow. In addition to emitting light, the rising carbon particles may be deposited on surrounding surfaces as soot.
The chemical reactions in fire are self-perpetuating. The heat of the flame itself keeps the fuel at the ignition temperature, so it continues to burn as long as there is fuel and oxygen around it. The flame heats any surrounding fuel so it releases gases as well. When the flame ignites the gases, the fire spreads.
The shape of the flames are determined by the Earth’s gravity – the hot gases in the flame are much hotter (and less dense) than the surrounding air, so they move upward toward lower pressure. This is why fire typically spreads upward, and why flames are “pointed” at the top. In an environment with low gravity (on-board the space shuttle for example), fire would form a sphere!
Now that we’ve covered that, as intellectually interesting or boring as you may have found it, ask yourself two questions and answer them honestly:
How much of that did you really know?
How much value is knowing any of that when it comes to lighting a real fire?
The point of this exercise was not to bore you to death with irrelevant science, it was to illustrate a point through first-hand experience – how much science is too much science?
Scientific reductionism – how low do you want to go to get the job done?
What many people don’t realise is that science is reductionist, each question raises a new one and the process almost never ends. You can keep drilling down almost indefinitely with scientific knowledge and you ultimately have to draw the line at the point where you have the necessary information to solve your problem.
The ignorant misunderstand science to be a binary thing, you either can explain something or you can’t. That’s the opinion of scientifically illiterate people who pretend to be the voice of science on forums. The truth is science is reductionist, it can explain things at many levels, as you saw in the example of burning wood.
We could have gone even further and deeper, that was by no means an exhaustive explanation of wood combustion. For instance, we could have drilled down deeper into the phenomenon of incandescence as a conversion of thermal energy into electromagnetic energy, because thermal radiation (such as the light from the fire) is the emission of electromagnetic waves that occurs in all matter that has a temperature greater than absolute zero. The explanations never really end.
The Daoists have a thing about keeping life simple for peace of mind, that’s not to promote ignorance, but to avoid cluttering the mind with “the ten thousand things” as they call it, an endless amount of irrelevant mental clutter.
For example, consider the question – how far away is the moon? For the majority of people on the planet for the majority of their lives, the answer “far away” is sufficient. Does knowing the following help in any way?
“The moon’s orbit around Earth is elliptical. At perigee — its closest approach — the moon comes as close as 225,623 miles (363,104 kilometers). At apogee — the farthest away it gets — the moon is 252,088 miles (405,696 km) from Earth. On average, the distance from Earth to the moon is about 238,855 miles (384,400 km). However, the moon is moving away from Earth at a rate of about 1.5 inches (4 cm) per year.” 
Okay, so you’re not travelling to the moon or sending a rocket there, but growing food. If you’re teaching starving African villagers to prune their fruit trees for increased productivity, (a horticulture technique) do you really need to teach them the details of the research oriented plant science (botany) about the plant hormone auxin and its role in maintaining apical dominance, or do you teach them enough so they understand what they’re doing? The answer should be obvious.
When science becomes something else
We’ve seen that technology has existed and does exist without scientific explanations. We’ve also looked at how scientific explanations only need to be sufficient for the purposes of developing and implementing solutions without creating unnecessary complexity (unless you’re a research scientist!)
So why do self-proclaimed ‘mouthpieces of science’ go around accusing people of not having enough science in Permaculture forums and other places, when it may if fact not be necessary? It often has nothing to do with sufficiently objective observations and explanations, but more to do with pushing unstated personal subjective world views in public forums.
Humans are complex creatures psychologically and their behaviour may be driven by hidden agendas. No news here! When it sounds like someone is proselytising science, I advise scratching a little deeper below the surface to find out what’s really there. Just because someone proclaims something to be science doesn’t make it so! When is science not science? When it becomes a worldview!
True science is a tool for investigating and understanding the material world, it is not a personal worldview any more than engineering can be. Many of those trying to shove what they term ‘science’ down other people’s throats by trying to prove themselves more ‘scientific’ than others and claiming that others have ‘insufficient science’ are playing a very deceitful game.
What they’re actually doing is promoting their misguided personal worldview where they believe their subjective opinion of the world is right because they believe it is based on science. In their mind this makes everyone else who disagrees with them wrong, supposedly because others are ignorant, stupid or liars.
As the bearers of ‘absolute objective truth’ they see it as their rightful duty to go around calling out or allegedly ‘debunking’ those who fall short of their perceived intellectual virtue The subjective worldview they never state outright that drives such behaviour is the philosophy of materialism, the belief that science is the only way of knowing reality because the material world is the only reality that exists. This is the central tenet of the belief system of scientism, which is different to real science. Real science is silent about matters beyond its scope of investigation.
I enjoy finding patterns in things, and it’s quite amusing to find parallels in behaviours of certain groups and those who they see as their opponents and whom they criticize for the very same behaviours! Oh, humans… Ironically, these scientism types have a problem with religious folk and their beliefs, yet they mirror the worst aspects of such groups. I’m all for people respecting others beliefs, this is Permaculture, sorry we don’t do ‘monocultures of the mind’ here! What I have no time for is people trying to force their worldviews on others by claiming it’s supposedly ‘science’, which it is nothing of the sort.
For some humour, let’s compare some ‘parallels’. A favourite activity of the congregation of the church of scientism is to run around decrying that things are ‘unscientific’, they see their role as to identify all forms of ‘heresy’ and complain loudly.
Scientism is just a substitute religion – it has its high priests, the fundamentalist atheist scientists who do a really bad job of dabbling in undergraduate level philosophy which is out of their field and in which they are out of their league. Their high priesthood write corny badly reasoned emotive and unscientific populist books, which scientists denounce as unacademic. These exalted ones actually claim to have answers to problems that have vexed philosophers from all camps since the Greeks invented philosophy itself, so much so that they even declare that philosophy is no longer needed because they have all the answers – that’s called omniscience, something attributed to divine beings in philosophy or religion, wow!
They also have their faith-based statements in miracles. You’ve all heard them before, but somehow they make these lofty declarations publicly without question – one day science will cure all diseases and solve world poverty, feed the hungry, etc. That’s usually the justification they use for GMOs too. Yeah, and one day a room full of monkeys typing randomly will produce the collected works of William Shakespeare too… No thinking person would see these claims as evidence-based!
Then there’s the holy writ, the peer-reviewed journal, if it’s not written there, it can’t be true (despite the fact that science operates on the basis of constantly revising what it accepted to be true, so what is understood to be a valid explanation today may be changed and revised tomorrow).
I’ve already mentioned the acts of hunting and accusing heretics. A pseudo-religion wouldn’t be complete without labelling the heretics who don’t believe the dogma dispensed by these exalted ones with their superior intellects.
Let’s not forget the original sin, the curse of the masses, the stupidity of non-believers which prevents them from recognizing and bowing down to the superior intellects of scientism’s high priesthood like they rightfully should.
Amongst the scientism crowd, their biggest objections to religion which they ironically strongly criticize and are extremely intolerant of, are not any of the things others might complain about. They don’t have a problem with the human hierarchies, structures of power and authority or obedient belief in dogma that many employ Their biggest issue is simply that they sincerely believe that they should be up there, as grand authorities, telling people what to believe unquestioningly, not the other guys, and everyone should revere them instead. So much for objectivity…
It is high hypocrisy to act out the very actions that one would accuse another of and deride another for. Often those complaining loudly about a lack of science are not scientifically trained individuals reasoning about a matter analytically, but rather the faithful flock of scientism zealots, fundamentalist thinkers emotively pushing their personal belief system in scientism down people’s throats under the guise of promoting science. That’s often what you’re really dealing with. It is the height of illogic and a failure in reasoning to assume unstated premises in arguments as being a priori correct, and arguing from there.
These zealot’s commitment to the integrity of true science is questionable though, despite their fundamentalist fervour about the primacy of science, they are all unusually very silent when corporate marketing departments start spouting junk science to sell products and pervert scientific research to hide the harm caused by their products to human health and the environment. It baffles the mind to reason why for them it’s more important to focus solely on inconsequential speculative matters such as cosmogenesis (the creation of the universe) rather than address any real issues in matters that affect the health and well-being of all living things on the planet!
I’m not telling people what to believe here, I’m just pointing out those that go around pretending be something they’re not, who are pushing their personal belief system under the pretence of promoting science, so people can recognise them for what they are when they encounter them and choose how to respond. All things are not necessarily what they appear to be. Like I said earlier, this is one element we need to be aware of which muddies the waters and causes confusion when people discuss matters of a scientific or technological nature. Enough of this aberrant human psychology, let’s take a holistic view on the topic and see what we find when we take a step back to observe the big picture.
A reality check
Those that know anything about science are clear about the fact that there’s a lot that we still don’t fully understand about one of the most complicated ecosystems, the soil. This doesn’t stop us or anyone else of from working with the soil – growing food, regenerating natural ecosystems or gardening for pleasure.
How would the pre-Columbian Indians have explained the “Terra Preta de Indio” (Amazonian Dark Earths) they created in the Brazilian Amazon region from 500 to 2500 years BC? Would it diminish the technology if they explained how it worked in spiritual or metaphoric terms as long as the method was repeatable and reproducible? Do Rudolph Steiner’s mystical explanations diminish the success of biodynamic farmers worldwide?
A common criticism raised is that many findings or results from non-scientists in non-laboratory conditions are at best circumstantial evidence – evidence that relies on an inference to connect it to a conclusion of fact. The other is the charge of anecdotal evidence – non-scientific casual observations or indications rather than rigorous or scientific analysis.
Seriously, common sense should prevail here. For example, we don’t need double-blind controlled trials with specific sample sizes to realise that companion planting works when we underplant our crops and we see the appearance of beneficial predatory insects and a corresponding reduction of pests. Science tells us which ecosystems beneficial predatory insects favour and about predator-pest ecology.
Observation of a cause-effect chain that results once the change is made is ample proof for anyone who has eyes to see and is looking for a natural pest control solution rather than publishing research papers. Logic would tell us that the system of natural pest control obviously already exists and works in Nature somehow, otherwise the pests would have eaten everything millions of years before humans appeared! Pragmatism anyone? People wanting to grow more food for their community in remote villages to fend off starvation or malnutrition in third wold countries wouldn’t care for fanciful explanations either if the solutions work.
The question to ask is how much details or explanations do we need to implement a working solution? Permaculture is an applied science, it is concerned with using technologies, explained or unexplained but proven to work by human experience (from different cultures all around the world), to solve specific problems in a sustainable way. The pure sciences have a different goal, they use academic research to further human knowledge and understanding. Why mix the two up?
Most so-called sceptics forget that scepticism works both ways, and should be applied in equal measure to their preferred subjective beliefs too! It would be equally viable and logically necessary to ask the scientific question – why would natural pest control not work if I’m recreating an ecosystem that attracts a specific species? A basic principle in logic is that ‘absence of proof is not proof of absence’! Electricity was just as real before humans were aware of it! Just because something hasn’t been discovered or explained doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or doesn’t work. Sometimes the most scientific thing to say is “I don’t know” but intellectual pride and vanity along with an inflated ego do much to prevent acts of honest humility in many people in modern western societies.
Complaining about needing ‘more science’ in respect to basic technologies that people use successfully, or methods that are based on fundamental scientific or ecological principles simply shows a lack of perspective and a view that is not congruent with how things work in real life.
Let’s have a look at a real-life example of a specific technology and how this erroneous line of thinking falls apart immediately in such a case. We’ve all seen the instructions for building a frog pond – recreate their habitat and the frogs will come (assuming you are near an existing frog population). In Australia it’s illegal to take tadpoles or frogs from their natural habitat and relocate them to a new home you’ve built them, so it’s done this way as a matter of practice, and it works.
By all rights, this practice should be subject to the same irrational complaints – “where’s the science?” as there aren’t any peer-reviewed journals on controlled experiments that I’m aware of that place random objects and structures outdoors to prove that frogs are attracted to something that resembles their ecological niche and not random objects. Yet we ‘know’ or accept that people prefer to inhabit houses rather than cardboard boxes and never question that.
It really is a matter of perspective. The question is simple. Are we publishing scientific journals or are we solving a problem? Are we practising a pure science or an applied science?
Permaculture, as an applied science, solves problems, that’s what applied sciences do!
Science is a tool to explain why things happen so we can further human understanding or use that knowledge to develop better solutions. Technology can tell us how to solve problems, how to do something, with or without scientific explanations. We can know how to do something without knowing how it works exactly.
If the first humans who discovered fire and invented the technology to make it waited for explanations, they would have waited for 400,000 year or longer, in which time they would have probably frozen to death and become extinct.
It is said that the control of fire by early humans was a cultural turning point in human evolution. Fire gave humans the ability to change their environment and provided an engineering tool to create further technologies. Fire provided warmth, protection, the ability to cook food and extend human activity into the night. These advancements allowed humans to spread far and wide and to evolve culturally and technologically in ways they never could beforehand.
So, if we know how to do something that makes our lives more sustainable, leaves the planet in a better state than the one we found it and encourages people to reconnect with Nature, then why not use it? Why not teach others to do so too? We all know this is what happens in the real world, it’s what ‘s always happened, and will continue to. This is the modus operandi of humanity as a technological creature.
Permaculture doesn’t believe in waiting around for governments, authorities or organisations to implement solutions, it’s all about going out there and making it happen ourselves. Look what happened with climate change entrusted to those in power, a true case of too little, too late. Despite the protestations of those who are talkers rather than doers, Permaculture will continue to draw solutions from all cultures and use them rather than wait around for explanations, if we did otherwise, civilization would surely end well before the explanations ever arrive.
1. Oregon State University, Department of Geosciences Volcano World article – “Obsidian Is Hot Stuff” by Jim Miller – https://volcano.oregonstate.edu/book/export/html/205
2. Space.com article “How Far is the Moon?” By Tim Sharp, June 21, 2013 – https://www.space.com/18145-how-far-is-the-moon.html