Integrate rather than Segregate

"Many hands make light work."

In every aspect of nature, from the internal workings of organisms to whole ecosystems, we find the connections between things are as important as the things themselves. Thus "the purpose of a functional and self-regulating design is to place elements in such a way that each serves the needs and accepts the products of other elements.”

Our cultural bias toward focus on the complexity of details tends to ignore the complexity of relationships. We tend to opt for segregation of elements as a default design strategy for reducing relationship complexity. These solutions arise partly from our reductionist scientific method that separates elements to study them in isolation. Any consideration of how they work as parts of an integrated system is based on their nature in isolation.

This principle focuses more closely on the different types of relationships that draw elements together in more closely integrated systems, and on improved methods of designing communities of plants, animals and people to gain benefits from these relationships.

The ability of the designer to create systems that are closely integrated depends on a broad view of the range of jigsaw-like lock-and-key relationships that characterise ecological and social communities. As well as deliberate design, we need to foresee, and allow for, effective ecological and social relationships that develop from self-organisation and growth.

The icon of this principle can be seen as a top-down view of a circle of people or elements forming an integrated system. The apparently empty hole represents the abstract whole system that both arises from the organisation of the elements and also gives them form and character.

In developing an awareness of the importance of relationships in the design of self-reliant systems, two statements in permaculture literature and teaching have been central:

  • each element performs many functions
  • each important function is supported by many elements

The connections or relationships between elements of an integrated system can vary greatly. Some may be predatory or competitive; others are co-operative, or even symbiotic. All these types of relationships can be beneficial in building a strong integrated system or community, but permaculture strongly emphasises building mutually beneficial and symbiotic relationships. This is based on two beliefs:

  • we have a cultural disposition to see and believe in predatory and competitive relationships, and discount co-operative and symbiotic relationships, in nature and culture
  • Co-operative and symbiotic relationships will be more adaptive in a future of declining energy.

Permaculture can be seen as part of a long tradition of concepts that emphasise mutualistic and symbiotic relationships over competitive and predatory ones. Declining energy availability will shift the general perception of these concepts from romantic idealism to practical necessity.