Complexity and Connections in Permaculture

Permaculture Designers Manual



Section 2.8 –

Complexity and Connections in Permaculture

There are ecologies on very flat and somewhat invariant sites that in the end simplify, or are originally simple because that condition itself is not typical of the earth’s crust, just as a field, leveled, drained, and fertilized for a specific crop will not support the species that it once did when it varied in micro-elevation, drainage, and plant complexities.

Marshes, swamps, tidal flats, salt-pans, and level deserts support less diversity than adjoining hill and valley systems, but nevertheless in sum (If species are assembled from global environments or from similar climatic areas) are still very rich, and, in the case of mangrove and tidal marsh, extremely productive ecologies.

Other simple natural ecologies occur where rapid change can occur (sea coasts), or where we deliberately fire or plough on a regular basis, so that there is never enough time for a diverse system to establish.

It is not that a single stand of one mangrove species is itself so diverse, it is the mobile species working at different stages of decomposition of the mangrove leaf.

Each of these species in turn feeds others.



Thus, very simple plant associations may support very productive and complex animal associations.

Mobile species are capable of occupying a great variety of niches in one mangrove tree or swamp stand, from underground to canopy, and of schedules from low to high tide.

Time and space are needed for tree species to evolve a complex stand in such situations, and as they are often obliterated and established by a worldwide change due to a sea level fluctuation, relatively little time can be allowed for mangrove species to themselves develop and colonize the new, and potentially short-term shoreline.



Old deserts, like that of Central Australia, may exhibit some 3000 species of woody plants, while recently desertified areas, like those of southwest Asia, may have as few as 150 plants surviving the recent changes from forest.

We can, in these cases, act as the agents of constructive change, bringing species to assist local recolonization from the world ‘s arid lands.Such species will assist in pioneering natural reafforestation. This has not generally been our aim, and we annually destroy such invaluable species complexes to grow a single crop such as wheat, thus laying waste to the future.

The number of elements in an aggregate or system certainly affects its potential complexity, if complexity is taken to be the number of functional connections between elements.

In fact, as Waddington (1977) points out, in the case of a single interaction (a conversation) between elements, complexity goes up roughly as the square of the number of elements:


“Two’s company, three’s a crowd “…and five or six is getting to be a shambles!”


This is bad enough, but if we consider the number of possible connections to and from an element such as a chicken (Figure 3.1), we can that these potential connections depend on the information we have about the chicken, so that the complexity of a system depends on the information we have about its components, always providing that such information is used in design.



As we cannot know everything, or even know more than the approximate categories and quantity of things which are (for example) eaten by chickens, thus in Permaculture we always suppose that the chicken is busy making connections itself, about which we could not know and, of course, for which we could not design.

We must simply trust the chicken.

Thus, in common sense, we can design for what we believe to be essentials, and let the chicken attend to all the details, checking at later stages to see that yields (our ultimate products) are satisfactory, the chickens healthy and happy, and the system holding up fairly well.

It is important to concentrate on the nature or value of connections between elements. In nature, we can rarely connect components as easily as a wire or piece of pipe can be fixed into place.

We do not “connect” the legume to the orange tree, the chicken to the seed, or the hedgerow to the wind; we have to understand how they function, and then place them where we trust they will work. They then proceed to do additional tasks and to provide other connections themselves.

They do not confine their functions to our design concepts!


Evolving complex species assemblies in isolated sites, like the Galapagos Islands, may depend more on a species-swarm arising from pioneer or survivor species than on invaders adapting from borderlands.
Only when many niches are empty is a species able to differentiate and survive without competition; so the dodo and Darwin’s finches arose.
Having arisen, they may then well prove to be very useful to other systems.

Unique Island species often have functions not easily found in continental and crowded ecologies; frequently, hardy travelers like reptiles and crustaceans take up those niches that, on continents, are occupied by species of mammals and birds.

It is not enough to merely specify the number of connections, and not note their value in the system as a whole; it may be possible that complex social situations and cultivated or chance complexity may occur in natural systems by introductions or migrations.



These new events, although increasing complexity, may reduce stability with respect to a desirable local yield. Thus, where the benign complexity of cooperative organisms is useful, competitive or inharmonious complexity is potentially destructive.

Again, it is a question of matching needs with products, and of the values given to connections.