A Scale of Interventions

<<  slide 41 of this class

How do we respond when we have a problem in our system?  

For example a pest or invasive species threatens to destroy our crop, 
or we get an illness, etc.    

To help us in this, permaculture designers have devised what we call a Scale of Interventions 

and use it always trying the first step, 
      then second if that doesn't work, 
            going on to the third only if that doesn't work, 

1. Do nothing

Use the Observe and Work With Not Against Nature principles and give the system time to balance naturally.   
Pests are usually TRYING to balance a system anyhow (killing of weak or diseased plants for example, recycling the nutrients into higher emergy systems, etc.) and they are always food for somoene else ... so before we run to the pesticides we watch and see what happens when there is , for example, what we might consider a surplus of aphids.   Will more ladybirds enter our system to eat them?

In terms of illness, if we have a fever for example, it can be a very good idea to do nothing since fevers are part of our natural defense system, and simply a sign that our body is busy fighting an infection.    Getting some rest and letting the body do its work is often all that is needed in these instances.

2. Mechanical Intervention

The next intervention up the scale is to physically remove (or add) whatever will alleviate the problem.    
For example, way before spraying our weeds we would simply remove them physically - whilst we design to make sure less weeds come up in future.

If our larder is infested with mice we might try adding a predator (eg. our cat) to the room to see if that solves the problem.

If we are sick, an ancient remedy worth trying (and something that we can see animals do naturally) is to stop eating (fast) and move to a soothing dark place, to further help our body's natural self-healing mechanisms to do the work.

3. Biological Intervention

The next step, & only if the two above haven't worked, would be to try some biological deterrent or pesticide - like the various organic sprays that can be used for killing aphids.   

Although these are 'biological methods' we try to avoid them if possible (by using the first two kinds of intervention) because they can change the chemical balance in unpredictable ways and are very likely to also discourage natural predators - which would make us have to keep spraying in the future to keep the aphids population down ourselves = more work = bad design.

In terms of health, if we've tried the above steps with some illness and we observe that things just get worse (or we can't take time out for whatever reason), we can move on to herbal remedies or change of diet, either to alleviate the symptoms (eg. soothing teas for headaches) or change our internal chemistry to promote healing (eg. eating lots of fermented vegetables to try to restore our intestinal gut flora, if we have digestive or toxicity problems, and fasting alone either isn't appropriate or didn't work)

4. Chemical Intervention 

Equating permaculture design with no-chemicals is erroneous because we are interested in doing effective design, not purity... which can prove very expensive and debilitating in other ways.

Of course the time we wait to see results (from the first 3 steps in this interventions scale) will depend on the severity of the problem.   

So for example, if you have a farm in transition (from chemical to organic growing) and your livelyhood depends on a huge crop of carrots, you might have to go to step 4 very quickly, because financial ruin is very bad design.

Likewise, sometimes we can't (or simply don't want to) wait for a bad migraine to go away (do nothing), or we can't do an enema to quickly get rid of any toxic gut build up that might be causing it (mechanical intervention), or herbal remedies don't work or take too long to have effect (biological intervention), taking a few paracetamols to get rid of the pain quickly is the best thing we can do at the time. 

But ... if we ever get to this stage of having to 'nuke' a problem, then we would look to re-design the whole system because resorting to this means it is so out of balance that it is clearly not sustainable.   

We don't want to have to do this again and again in the future, it is very bad use of resources, not only because these chemicals are expensive, but especially because they introduce toxins cause cascade problems down the line, and can even cause ecosystem collapse.

Hence intervention n. 5 ...

5. Re-design!

Given that our job as permaculture designers is to create systems that self-regulate (in increasing their fertility & health over time), if we ever have to resort to chemical intervention we know that we also have to re-design.

So for example after spraying your field of carrots with toxic chemicals (& hopefully successfully selling the crop on the conventional market) you would re-plant the area with a polyculture and find ways of making sure it the soil is fed enough biomass (good compost) to make any future diseases unlikely.

And in the case of migraines (and any other severe & painful physical symptom), they are clearly a sign of something not working in our overall health, so the root causes need to be investigated and our whole lifestyle re-designed accordingly.

This is also sometimes referred to as the Minimum Intervention guideline, or Spiral of Intervention or Range of Intervention.   And some people call it Common Sense ... 

There's a dialogue related to this page in the Integral Permaculture FB group (click icon to go there)

There's a dialogue in our FB group about this subject (click icon to go there)