Exploring Systems

Exploring systems…

Whatever the starting point, it should become clear that the most important application of permaculture ethics and principles is to the self, through a process of self audit of our needs, wants, dependencies, creative and productive outputs and byproducts of our very existence.” ~ David Holmgren

In Permaculture, we see the world as a system of systems: each process, object or being is in itself a system and part of a bigger system.

What we do affects others because all systems are interconnected…also systems have inputs and outputs: if we manage systems as they are in nature (inputs usually come from within the elements of the system and outputs are used and cycled in the same system), then systems become more resilient.

We can’t impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.” ~ Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer

When we do an audit through exploration and observation of systems, we stop our lives for a while to “put our house in order” and ask questions about the main systems supporting us:


  • What creates the air you breathe each day? What is made of?
  • What impacts the quality of the air you breathe?
  • What is around your household, workplace/business, school and community that currently impacts or may impact the air you breathe?
  • What is your currently relationship with this system and the factors impacting it? (for example, if there are coal export trains or cargo ships coming on passing through, this may impact the quality of your air…are you aware of their existence? Are you passively accepting or actively opposing them? Is there a carbon sink/lung such as a big forest, bog, etc close by? Is it being threatened? What is your relationship to it?

And the two most important questions about this system:

  • What can you do to improve the quality of this system
  • What can you do to improve your relationship with it?



  • Where does the water you use each day for drinking, washing/sanitizing, bathing, etc come from?
  • What impacts the quality of this water? What is around you or around the source of this water that may have an impact (i.e. pipeline, manufacturing, spills and leaks, drainage, etc)?
  • Where is the water you are using go after being flushed? What happens to it and who or what does this?
  • How does the water you drink/use and the water you flush away interact with ecosystems around you or around its sources?
  • How about the water used to “feed” what you consume? What about the stuff you consume, eat, use requires water for its mining, manufacturing, raising/growing, functioning or disposal?

And here are your two additional questions:

  • What can you do to reduce your water usage and pollution and “close the loop” as much as possible?
  • What can you do to become more “water resilient” (less dependent on the grid by having alternative sources and systems in place)?
  • What can you do to improve the resiliency of this system for all around you (communities and ecosystems)?


  • Where does the food you eat come from? How was it grown/raised and by whom?
  • How does the food you eat interact with the environment and other systems (i.e. what happens during its growing/collecting/processing/transportation and finally, what happens with its “waste”?
  • How does the food you eat interact with your body and your health and behaviours?
  • What happens with the food in your pantry and kitchen?


  • How can you improve your relationship with food?
  • How can you have more food sovereignty (i.e. control over what, where, when, how and by whom your food is “made”, consumed and recycled by the system)


  • What type of energies your life depends on? (think all the things you do and consume every day)
  • Where does each one of these energies come from? Who produces then, where and how?
  • What is the life-cycle of every object or process you use in your life in terms of energy? (for example: if you have a coffee maker, energy was used to manufacture and transport it, it uses energy for “X” amount of years to run and it will use energy once its life is over and requires recycling)
  • How much energy do you use when you take a shower? Use your laptop? Preserve your food?

And the most important questions:

  • Do you have a back-up for each important energy you consume?
  • What can of changes can you make to your life so you consume less energy?
  • What can you do to get natural and renewable backups for every process/object that requires energy in your life?


There are many other systems in place in our life, I suggest you write your own questions to explore, observe and understand your current dependency and relationship for each of them:

  • Shelter
  • Clothing
  • Climate
  • Ecosystems
  • “Resources”
  • Communication
  • Relationships
  • Community
  • Transportation
  • Any other?

In all the cases, the goal is to:

  1. Reduce global and unsustainable dependency and increase local, sustainable inter-dependency
  2. Close the loops so much of what you need is produced by you, your family, friends and neighbours (and vice-versa)
  3. Reduce your waste products (and processes) so your ecological footprint is closest to zero.
  4. Increase the resilience of the systems in your life
  5. Regenerate more than what you destroy (all life destroy other elements and processes but this can be done in a sustainable, responsible and ethical way so the sum of the acts is regeneration and not destruction, pollution and depletion)

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