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 BLOG >> July 2015

On Pruning [Growth
Posted on July 31, 2015 @ 10:53:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In my last blog, I introduced you to D'Arcy Thompson's book "On Growth and Form".

Subconsciously, the reason I may have started reading and thinking about this book is that I am currently engaged in pruning some 3 yr old grape vines. The objective of this type of work is to manage vine growth and form in order to manage and harvest the vines effectively.

Pruning involves picking the best cane to become the main trunk and cutting all the rest of the bottom growth away. The pruning of these 3 year olds is not about fruit production this year, but about trying to get the vine to grow properly in preparation for fruit production next year.

Picking the best cane and figuring out everything that needs to be cut away and tied up feels like more of an art than a science. Each vine is an individual and has to be tackled uniquely.

So I just want to reiterate the dual concepts of growth and form which seem so abstract have relevance to determining the micro details of our actions. In managing horticultural plants that require alot of training, the concept of pruning becomes necessary as growth can be too uncontrolled and chaotic if left to its own devices. Prune back to create the main cane of your business. From that main cane you only want two main shoots, and a third for insurance that can be cut away the next year if not needed.

My brother is helping me and is weeding, pruning and tieing some vines in this photo.

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On Growth and Form [Growth
Posted on July 29, 2015 @ 07:50:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I am reading a classic in biology by D'Arcy Thompson called Growth & Form.

The "Introductory" chapter is the main chapter I have read so far. This is a philosophical chapter and D'Arcy made a few remarks on growth and form that I found thought providing and which I want to discuss in this blog.

For D'Arcy the form of an organism and its growth over time are the result of forces acting upon the organism.

The form, then of any portion of matter, whether it be living or dead, and the changes of form which are apparent in its movements and in its growth, may in all cases alike be described as due to the action of force. In short, the form of an object is a "diagram of forces".

Likewise, we might find it useful to think of a business as a diagram of forces and we might put our business in the center of such a diagram along with the principle forces that determine its present form. These forces, like physical forces, should have a magnitude (or size) and a direction so that we can think like an engineer about it's form and manner of growth.

To terms of magnitude, and of direction, must we refer all our conception of Form. For the form of an object is defined when we know its magnitude, actual or relative, in various directions; and Growth involves the same concepts of magnitude and direction, related to the further concept, or "dimension", of Time.

To understand growth and form, D'Arcy argues that we should think about them in terms of immediate causes (i.e., mechanical cause) and final causes (i.e., problem it solves or the teleological cause). Ideal understanding occurs when the mechanical causes explain the final causes and vice versa.

Still, all the while, like warp and woof, mechanism and teleology are interwoven together, and we must not cleave to the one nor despise the other; for their union is rooted in the very nature of totality. We may grow shy or weary of looking to a final cause for an explanation of our phenomenon; but after we have acccounted for these on the plainest principles of mechanical causation it may be useful and appropriate to see how the final cause would tally with the other, and lead towards the same conclusion.

So we might think that it is our mission statement, goals or objectives that explain our success, but it is also the low level mechanical stuff we do each day that explains that success.

The purpose of today's blog is to begin exploring the concepts of growth and form using D'Arcy Thompson as our guide. His success in finding mathematical and physical laws to understand the size, shape, and growth of organisms might be one reason to follow his approach to understanding growth and form in other contexts such as business. I'll conclude with a final quote from the introduction where he explains the book's title.

The terms Growth and Form, which make up the title of this book are to be understood, as I need hardly say, in their relation to the study of organisms. We want to see how, in some cases at least, the forms of living things, and of the parts of living things, can be explained by physical considerations, and to realise that in general no organic forms exist save such as are in conformity with physical and mathematical laws. And while growth is a somewhat vague word for a very complex matter, which may depend on various things, from simple imbibation of water to the complicated results of the chemistry of nutrition, it deserves to be studied in relation to form: whether it proceed by simple increase of size without obvious alteration of form, or whether it so proceed as to bring about a gradual change of form and the slow development of a more or less complicated structure.

So can the study of growth and form as it applies to organisms to used to understand growth and form as it applies to business? Seems to me that the concepts of growth and form apply in the first instance to plant and animal organisms and, by metaphorical extension, to business, love, and other areas of human concern. So my answer would be that studying growth and form in the natural world likely be a fruitful avenue to explore as a means to understanding the corresponding concepts in other domains of human experience.

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Seaside Nature Walk [Nature
Posted on July 27, 2015 @ 02:25:00 PM by Paul Meagher

Yesderday, I went for a pleasant walk at the Coal Mines Wharf area with family and extended family.

Here are some photos from the trip (starting at the wharf and returning to the wharf).

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Successional Change [Permaculture
Posted on July 24, 2015 @ 06:35:00 AM by Paul Meagher

This blog goes into further detail on the 12th permaculture principle that advises us to "Creatively Use and Respond To Change". In my last blog on this principle, I mentioned that ecological succession was one model that permaculture uses to understand change and promised to address this topic in a future blog. The hope is that models of successional change might be useful for understanding change and therefore using and responding to it more creatively.

The topic of ecological succession is huge and I cannot hope to do it justice in this brief blog. My goal is to simply to highlight a few ideas from the ecological succession literature that might be used as a starting point for thinking about how change happens in natural ecosystems. These concepts might prove useful for thinking about how change happens in other contexts, such as business or life in general.

The first concept that I think is useful for thinking about change is the hump diagram below that depicts how forest succession works. This diagram comes from the Wikipedia page on ecological succession.

The diagram is fairly self-explanatory about how forest succession works. All I want to do is point out that the hump diagram at the top used to depict this change encapsulates alot of useful information in a succinct form. It shows that some species have their day in the sun but are eventually replaced or dominated by other species that thrive for awhile before they too are replaced or dominated. Eventually, in a mature ecosystem, one or more species comes to dominate the ecosystem. Note that some species don't completely disappear over time, they just become less dominant in the landscape. The end of this particular sequence has a couple of species dominating with a couple of other species doing quite well (one appearing to rebound a bit) and one just hanging on. So succession doesn't necessarily involve completely replacing one species with another. It mostly involves changes in which species become dominant over time.

So the diagram gives us a way to think about what succession looks like over time but it doesn't give us much in the way of tools for thinking about why succession has this form. So the second set of concepts I want to discuss are some of the mechanisms that drive this succession.

One mechanism is called faciliation which is the idea that some species prepare the ground for later species. For example, the early species that emerge after a distrubance, the pioneer species, are often nitrogen fixers that cover the ground and help to retain moisture in the ground. This moisture and nitrogen provides an environment for later species to enter and become dominant.

Another mechanism is inhibition which is the idea that some species become dominant by shading out or releasing alleopathic chemicals that cause existing species to become less dominant or die off.

Another mechanism is symbiosis where, for example, a nitrogen fixing tree helps another tree to grow while also benefitting from the moisture, wind protection, root exudates, or mycelial network associated with adjacent trees. One tree may appear dominant, but if the surrounding non-dominant trees were removed, the dominant tree might do less well or die off. This phenomenon is often observed in suburban developments where a few trees are spared but do less well as singular trees.

To conclude, this blog offers up some ideas for how to think about sucessional change in natural ecosystem - what it looks like when it is graphed, and some of the mechanisms that might be used to explain the humps in that graph over time. In permaculture we try to use this knowledge to accelerate successional change in our cultivated systems (e.g., gardens, orchards, forests). Perhaps these concepts might also be useful for thinking about how your products, services, or business might need to evolve over time to become dominant or co-exist successfully in a business ecosystem.

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Edge Removal [Permaculture
Posted on July 17, 2015 @ 07:13:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Today I want to discuss an aspect of edge design that is not discussed enough in Permaculture, namely, edge removal (you can read past blogs on edge design here and here). Generally we look at edges as offering benefits but sometimes they can just be a nuisance.

This is the case with fences on our farm property. The previous owners had sheep & alpacas and erected several pastures for them. We don't have any animals and don't intend to for awhile as we are not always around to take care of them. The fences have gone into disrepair and are both an eyesore and make the process of mowing the field for hay more difficult than it needs to be. So yesterday I decided to start the process of removing the fence, removing an edge that once served a purpose but which is now just an obstacle. This is what the edge of the hayfield looks like now without the fence.

Today I'll be removing more fencing so that an upper and lower field are no longer separated by a fence and can be mowed as one unit. This will mean less turning and I'll get more hay because I usually bush hog on either side of the fence before I mow it. I will no longer need to. Lots of benefits of not having fenced edges anymore.

We all inherit situations where edges were erected in the past and are no longer as useful to you. Perhaps before we start creating edges on a landscape we might consider doing some house cleaning and remove edges that might not be useful to our present situation.

Next week it will be time to make the hay for the year. I'll be getting my old mower-conditioner hooked up today to see how it works (notice the useless fencing in the background that will take awhile to fully remove).

When I drag this mower through the field it will be nice not to have to deal with fields uselessly subdivided by old fences. Less turning, more hay, and less chance of getting machinery caught up in old fencing.

Do you have any edges on your landscape or in your business that should be removed? What function did these edges serve in the past? Is it still performing that function? Do you still need that function? If the answers are no, then removal might be advised. Open things up and enjoy the benefits.

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Importance of Regular Maintenance [Management
Posted on July 14, 2015 @ 10:17:00 PM by Paul Meagher

On Monday I was working with my brother to replace some windows in a mobile trailer that is on a farm property me and my wife own.

This is what the replaced windows look like (notice the rot on the bottom of the window).

David Holmgren talks about the importance of maintence in the context of the Produce No Waste principle. He provides this useful diagram to show how function decays over time as a result of no maintenance, regular maintenance, or delayed maintenance.

I've been negligent in doing regular maintenance work on the mobile trailer property and am now paying the price. Problems that would have been smaller had I been doing regular maintenance (e.g., paint windows) are now bigger problems (e.g., replace windows). A door that was not replaced in time meant I had to rip up some flooring around the door and replace it as well. So you can maintain the function of building parts longer through regular maintenance and prevent problems from becoming bigger problems. Regular maintenance is also an important strategy for reducing waste and can save you some money in the long run.

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Creatively Use & Respond To Change [Permaculture
Posted on July 9, 2015 @ 08:50:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Today I want to start discussing the 12th and final Permaculture principle which advises us to "Creatively Use & Respond To Change" (you can read my discussion of the 11 other principles here).

To introduce this principle I'll let it's author, David Holmgren, explain:

This principle has two threads: designing to make use of change in a deliberate and co-operative way and creatively responding or adapting to large-scale system change that is beyond our control or influence. The acceleration of ecological succession within cultivated systems is the most common expression of this principle in permaculture literature and practice.

So change comes in two main forms - change that we have some ability to control and change which we must adapt to. The principle advises to to be creative in our use of change when we have that option, or in our response to change when the change is trust upon us. If we are looking for models in nature of the creative use and response to change then a primary model we might use are cultivated systems like gardens and forests, particularly the successional processes that happen in gardens and forests and which we try to accelerate through our cultivation efforts.

David Holmgrem comments on another aspect of change that is worth noting:

Permaculture is about the durability of natural systems and human culture, but this durability paradoxically depends in large measure on flexibility and change.

The stability of a bicycle is dynamic and is achieved by making lots of adjustments to the bike and our bodies to maintain stability. Likewise, our present circumstance will not persist or improve unless we make ongoing adjustments to try to maintain or improve our circumstance.

In a later blog I'll discuss using ecological succession as a model for creatively using and responding to change, but today I want to end by discussing Dennis Meadow's white water rafting analogy for using and responding to change:

White water rafting provides a useful analogy here. When you are going down the river, most of the time it is placid, but every once in a while, you hit the rapids. When it is placid, you can sit back and think where you want to be, how you should time your journey, where you want to stop for lunch, etc. When you are in the rapids, you focus on the moment, desperately trying to keep your boat upright until you return to quiet waters. During the placid moments, it is very useful to have a discussion about where you want to be tomorrow or the day after. When you are in the rapids, you don’t have the luxury of that kind of discussion. You are trying to survive.

There are a couple of interesting aspects of this way of looking at change. One aspect is the pulsing nature of change. You have periods where the water is calm and you can reflect on all the things you want to do but then you encounter white water and the way you have to operate changes significantly. You might navigate your way through the water and continue on with your plan, you might just make it out of the rapids alive and decide to change your plan, or you might in fact die as a result (due to poor planning, lack of skill - probably both). Sort of like a business plan when it encounters the rapids of the real world. But, keep in mind that change is often of a pulsing nature - you might think it never ends but it may only persist for awhile until the situation becomes more manageable again. Weather pulses daily according to the rising and setting of the sun and seasonally according to the position of the sun with respect to your patch of earth. The change you might need to encourage or adapt to might be a pulse of change symbolized by white water rapids, however, more dangerous rapids can occupy larger stretches of a river - constant change that requires more skill and creativity to navigate.

In permaculture we often say "the problem is the solution". Part of the reason we say this is because that is simply the fact of the matter. Your starting point for solving a problem is the problem itself. The problem has to be part of the solution. In white water rafting the rapids are the problem but we also have to use them as the solution to moving the raft onwards to our destination. The role of creativity is both in formulating a good business plan (using change, the calm part) and being able to react appropriately when you get into the rapids (responding to change, the crazy part).

The rapids can be the fun and exhilarating part of the journey:

a fun time navigating the rapids

Or the not-so-fun part:

Change cannot always be used or responded to creatively and gracefully but life is generally better when this happens :-)

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Goal Of The Economy [Economics
Posted on July 7, 2015 @ 02:46:00 PM by Paul Meagher

I'm spending more time thinking about Herman Daly's article, Economics in a Full World, and decided to devote another blog to it (see previous blog). In this blog I want to explore one of his ideas in some more detail, namely, the idea that the economy should have a goal. I was inspired to write this blog when I read this "goal of the economy" passage:

The goal of the economy is to minimize the low-entropy used up to attain a sufficient standard of living—by sifting it slowly and carefully through efficient technologies aimed at important purposes. The economy should not be viewed as an idiot machine dedicated to maximizing waste. Its ultimate purpose is the maintenance and enjoyment of life for a long time (not forever) at a sufficient level of wealth for a good (not luxurious) life.

Later, Daly argues against the idea that the goal of the economy should be growth:

The empty world has rapidly turned into a "full" world thanks to growth, the number one goal of all countries—capitalist, communist, or in-between. Since the mid-twentieth century, the world population has more than tripled—from two billion to over seven billion. The populations of cattle, chickens, pigs, and soybean plants and corn stalks have as well. The non-living populations of cars, buildings, refrigerators, and cell phones have grown even more rapidly. All these populations, both living and non-living, are what physicists call "dissipative structures" — that is, their maintenance and reproduction require a metabolic flow, a throughput that begins with depletion of low-entropy resources from the ecosphere and ends with the return of polluting, high-entropy waste back to the ecosphere. This disrupts the ecosphere at both ends, an unavoidable cost necessary for the production, maintenance, and reproduction of the stock of both people and wealth. Until recently, standard economic theory ignored the concept of metabolic throughput, and, even now, its importance is greatly downplayed.

If growth is not to be the ultimate goal of the economy, then what is? To think about this question, Daly suggests we use an "ends-mean pyramid" that looks like this:

The pyramid works like this:

At the base of the pyramid are our ultimate means (low-entropy matter-energy)—that which we require to satisfy our wants, but which we cannot make, only use up. We use these ultimate means directly, guided by technology, to produce intermediate means (e.g., artifacts, commodities, services) that directly satisfy our needs. These intermediate means are allocated by political economy to serve our intermediate ends (e.g., health, comfort, education), ethically ranked by how strongly they contribute to the Ultimate End under existing circumstances. We can perceive the Ultimate End only vaguely, but in order to ethically rank our intermediate ends, we must compare them to some ultimate criterion. We cannot avoid philosophical and theological inquiry into the Ultimate End just because it is difficult. To prioritize requires that something go in first place.

So what is the Ultimate End of the economy? I would argue that resilience is a leading candidate. In Dennis Meadow's accompanying viewpoint article, Growing, Growing, Gone: Reaching the Limits, he argues for the importance of resilience this way:

In my own work, I have shifted from a preoccupation with sustainable development, which is somewhat of an oxymoron, toward the concept of resilience. I think that is the future: to understand how different scales—the household, the community, the school––can structure themselves in a way to become more resilient in the face of the shocks that are inevitable regardless what our goals might be.

You see the climate debate evolving this way. Talk about prevention is on the wane, giving way to talk of adaptation. Adaptation really means resilience. It is about designing actions for dealing with New York City the next time superstorms threaten to paralyze the city or for figuring out what California can do if the current drought continues for many more years, or even decades.

Aspirations and good fortune will get us only so far. Human survival cannot risk reliance on them alone

Resilience is one idea for the Summum Bonum of economics. Governments are actually very active in this area and it may be the private sector that will have to start catching up to meet their vision. The private sector does not always lead the way.

Permaculture has also been critical of growth culture and offers many practical ideas for increasing resilience at different scales. In this video, Permaculture co-founder David Holmgren discusses the future and the ways we might adapt our thinking and actions to accommodate it.

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Full World Economics [Economics
Posted on July 3, 2015 @ 11:34:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I'm a fan of Herman Daly's economic writings. Herman Daly wrote an excellent textbook, Ecological Economics, and the book has helped define the field. Others who have been inspired by his writing contribute to The Daly News and it is a blog that I regularly monitor. Finally, Herman Daly is well known for his writing on the need for a steady-state economy instead of one that always tries to grow GDP year-over-year (is persistent GDP growth sustainable or does it eventually become uneconomic?).

In 2014 Dr. Daly received the Blue Planet Prize in Tokoyo. He took the opportunity to revisit his work on Full World Economics and you can find his recent article Economics for a Full World at the The Great Transition website. I believe Daly is revisiting this work because he regards it as one of his more important contributions to economic thought and because he had some refinements to add.

One refinement is the suggestion that there are different types of limits that economists could differentiate and indentify more precisely when discussing a particular "limit". What type of limit is it?

  1. A Futility Limit
  2. An Ecological Catastrophe Limit
  3. An Economic Limit

Another refinement is his identification of 10 policies for a steady state economy.

  1. Developing Cap-Auction-Trade systems for Basic Resources
  2. Tax Shifting
  3. Limiting Inequality
  4. Reforming the Banking Sector
  5. Managing Trade for the Public Good
  6. Expanding Leisure Time
  7. Stabilizing Population
  8. Reforming National Accounts
  9. Restoring Full Employment
  10. Advancing Just Global Governance

I encourage you to read his Economics in a Full World if you want to examine these limit and policy ideas in more detail along along with many other ideas that Dr. Daly has worked on under the rubric of "Full World Economics".

As we come into election season, perhaps some of Dr. Daly's policies and ideas will be discussed as options for managing our own governance.

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