Overstory #18 - Designing Resource Systems
This Overstory is about a shift in thinking that will enable us to transform our management practices from resource exploitation to resource renewal. This issue focuses on the philosophical foundation that underlies all the practical information you normally see in The Overstory. We see two key transformations in thinking. One is a shift from looking at strictly as one yield or function, to seeing a system as a whole. The other is a shift from approaching resources with an exploitative agenda, to actively designing and re-creating entire resource systems in a way that can benefit all life.
The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. -- Albert Einstein
Up until a few decades ago, most agriculture and resource management focused on manipulating, mining, and harvesting the vast bounty of nature, using resources that had built up naturally over thousands of years. Our task now is to do more than to stop the degradation. We have got to actually reverse the damage, restore natural processes, and manage in a way that resources are not only conserved and but built up over time. To accomplish this will require a fundamental shift in the way we think and work with nature and agriculture. It is a shift from from exploiting resources to actively designing and re-creating resource systems that can mimic nature in form and function.
This shift is affecting people working with agriculture and resource management worldwide, from small growers to massive public works projects. For example, slash-and-burn or shifting subsistence farmers used to be able to count on natural processes to restore fertility to their farms over time. Now they must find ways to maintain and even improve fertility using their own management practices. On the other extreme, soil conservation experts and engineers now recognize that we'll never have enough resources to control flooding with expensive earthworks, and that instead we must conserve and re-create forest watersheds to prevent flood disasters at their source. In both cases, the conclusion is the same: resource systems must be actively re-created.
We are entering a new era in agriculture and resource management, one in which we actively design and create agro-ecosystems, forests, and watersheds, instead of depleting them. In the process of learning how to design, create and manage these new resource systems, we learn more and more about how to work with nature rather than against it.
I always wanted to be somebody, but I should have been more specific. -- Lily Tomlin
Back in the age of exploitative resource management, most land managers primarily reacted to what nature dished out--harvesting when there was abundance and moving on when resources became low. Decisions were also made reactively, and the vision was focused on short-term gains. In this new era that we live in, we become partners with nature, considering the system as a whole, asking what we can contribute to natural processes while still providing for our own needs. We take a long view focused on adding to the health, diversity, and abundance of the system. In essence, we become designers of ecosystems. The design process is essential in creating viable resource systems that are in harmony with nature.
For example, designing an agroforestry system is more than simply adding trees to what you already have. The key is to maximize the number of beneficial connections formed between trees and other elements. As an example, alley cropping is an agroforestry technique that integrates trees with crops to provide fertilizer and mulch. With careful design, this technique can also provide erosion control, windbreak, and animal fodder. In other words, a systems approach enables the trees to work together with other elements to provide many more benefits than the elements could provide independently.
A good design with a systems approach will enable you to maximize connections between elements, increasing stability, diversity and total yield of a planting. The initial investment in the planning process will also pay off by allowing you to make the most efficient use of resources and work with nature to create a true resource system, where many elements interact to benefit all life.
Bill Mollison's Permaculture: A Practical Guide for a Sustainable Future, is the premiere guide to designing resource systems in harmony with natural processes, published by Ten Speed Press and available from many bookstores.
Ian McHarg's Design with Nature, is the first book to describe an ecologically sound approach to the planning and design of communities.
Information Resources for Pacific Island Agroforestry provides an introduction to agroforestry, followed by descriptions and contact information for books, guides, periodicals, organizations, and web sites useful to practitioners of agroforestry.
About the Authors
Kim M. Wilkinson is the Education Director for Permanent Agriculture Resources and editor of The Overstory. She has B.A. degrees in Anthropology and Ecology from Emory University.
Craig R. Elevitch is an agroforestry specialist with more than ten years of public and private sector experience in tropical agroforest and forest management. He has a M.S. degree in Electrical Engineering (Dynamical Systems) from Cornell University.
Related Editions to The Overstory
- The Overstory #75--Agroforestry Glossary
- The Overstory #57--The Agroforester's Library, Part Three--Organizations and Periodicals
- The Overstory #54--The Agroforester's Library Part Two--Species References
- The Overstory #52--The Agroforester's Library Part Two--Books
- The Overstory #44--Integrated Systems Approach
- The Overstory #39--Agroforestry Resources for the Practitioner
- The Overstory #7--Agroforestry Systems
- The Overstory #2--Permaculture Principles
Tags: Designing with nature