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Thinking Systemically: Achieving Sustainability
A Look at Permaculture as the Application of Systems Science to Sustainable Living

Professor: George Mobus Phone: 692-5894
email: gmobus@u.washington.edu
Office: Cherry Parkes (CP) 227
Hours: MW 10:00-11:55am, or by appoint.
Class: Time: MW 1:00-3:30 pm 
Location: BB107
Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT.
The Essence of Permaculture, http://www.holmgren.com.au/DLFiles/PDFs/Essence_of_PC_eBook.pdf
Meadows, Donella
Holmgren, David


There is an increasing awareness that true sustainability in our living arrangements cannot be achieved by the so-called business-as-usual (BAU) approaches to community design and industrial agriculture (food security). Permaculture (permanent culture) was developed in the 1970s as an alternative approach to living arrangements based on principles from systems ecology. Today it is gaining acknowledgement as a viable alternative, at least in principle, that goes well beyond the buzzword “green” in providing a principled approach to community and living standard maintenance that is in tune with the environment.

This seminar will explore the concepts provided by permaculture as pertains to the application of systems science to daily life. We will gain a better understanding of what systems science and systems thinking are through studying how permaculture applies these to the most practical of all problems — how to arrange our living situation for the long term.

Systems science goes beyond the design of an ecologically sound living community. It is applicable to virtually everything we do. It can be used in the analysis and design of organizations as well as guiding our basic understanding of social and natural systems. In this seminar we will take a close look at the principles of systems science from a qualitative perspective and see how they are applied in permaculture, specifically, and other kinds of systems in general.

Students completing this seminar will be prepared to look at the world in a different, more holistic manner when they understand the nature of systemness. The principles of systems science are universally applicable to all endeavors. Students of systems science have found they are able to comprehend the basic ideas in fields far from their majors by seeing the commonality of systems principles. The transference of skills and knowledge between jobs and even careers is facilitated by grasping the systems nature of various domains of knowledge.

We will focus on the qualitative aspects of systems science and only discuss the relationship of mathematics and computer modeling with pursuing systems science. Students should have completed the basic algebra courses and have had at least one laboratory-based natural science course to best understand the discussions. All science terminology will be explained sufficiently that everyone should be able to follow the discussions.

The learning outcomes (given below in detail) will be two-fold. First the student will gain a broad and useful understanding of systems science and its applications. Second the student will gain deeper appreciation of a critical application of systems science in the form of permaculture. Both of these areas of knowledge can be immediately useful in helping the student toward achieving a sustainable future.

The course will involve a considerable amount of reading and writing each week. There will be a material preview presentation by the coordinator at the beginning of each week with the rest of the time being used to discuss the readings and exploring how the principles interrelate.


Basic math skills (algebra) and a lab-based science.

Student Learning Goals

With this course students will:

  • Understand the nature of systems in the world
  • Understand the basic principles of systems science and systems thinking
  • Understand the application of systems science and systems thinking to achieve sustainable living designs - permaculture

Student Learning Outcomes

After completion of this course, students will be able to apply systems thinking in multiple domains of interest, including the ability to:

  • Identify systemic components and their interactions in a problem domain
  • Construct a conceptual model and a computer model of a mildly complex system
  • Apply systems principles to identify the dynamics of systems
  • Consider how dysfunctions within systems produce problems
  • Consider and propose policy actions that would resolve problems
  • Show how many different problem domains can be attacked with systems thinking
  • Demonstrate the relationships between the principles of permaculture and those of systems science

Topics Covered

  • The Nature of Systems and Sustainability
  • The Principles of Permaculture Ethics and Design
  • The Principles of Systemness
    • Wholeness
    • Systems and Environments, Subsystems, Components
    • Network Structures & Complexity
    • Dynamics — Processes, Functions, Behavior
    • Communications, Information, and Knowledge
    • Change Over Time
  • Applications of Systems Thinking
    • Analyzing a permaculture community
    • Building a model of the community — play “what-if” games
    • Identifying potential problems in the systems and considering potential solutions
    • Design approaches
  • Permaculture communities in the larger world
  • 21st Century challenges that a more global integration of permaculture might help

Activities and Assesment

Grades will be based on the below activities and their assessment for quality. Participation counts for 150 points or 30% of the grade. I will be keeping tabs on each person's participation in discussions and give special consideration to the raising of questions that generate good discussion. If you do not show up it will be hard to accumulate points.

In addition to the readings and classroom activities, we will try to schedule a visit to a nearby permaculture academy/farm for a tour.

The class will also participate collectively in a plant growing experiment as a mini-lab exercise. Details to be determined.

Each week students will have two kinds of assignments. One will require you to write a short (3 — 5 page, double spaced, 12pt. Times Roman font) essay on the topics as given in the schedule below (deliverables). The titles may change, but the ones shown are representative. The essays should wrap up what the week’s topics were about and relate those to personal experiences of the students. Each essay will be 10 points and will be judged on quality of content and writing form. These will be turned in electronically.

The other assignment (not shown in the schedule since this is due every week) will be to develop three questions from the readings or prior discussions, type them (with name and week number at the top), and bring them to class each Monday. We will have discussion times when these questions should be posed. The questions will be judged on the basis of how much discussion they generate. Each question set will be worth 5 points.

The Final Essay topic will be student selected, in consultation with the coordinator. It is intended that these essays will be suitable for submission to The Tahoma annual literary journal. The topic should involve some aspect of permaculture as a sustainable process and emphasize what was learned about systems thinking. The final essay and presentation is worth 200 points.


[This schedule reflects the sequence of topics taught in a standard 10 week quarter. It will need adapting to fit in the two-term summer quarter.] The essay titles given in the deliverables section are tentative, mostly acting as place holders. The actual essay titles will be refined as we explore the subject.

Week Subject Readings Deliverables
1 Sustainable Living and the Nature of Systems Thinking
Meadows: Chapter 1
Holmgren: Preface & Ethics, pages 1 - 11
Short Essay: My Current Understanding of What a System Is
2 Overview of Systems Principles: How Systems Arise, Introduction to Permaculture Principles
Meadows: Chapter 2
Holmgren: Principle 1
Short Essay: How is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?
3 Systems are Processes Material, Energy, and Information Flow Inputs and Outputs
Supplied readings
Meadows: Chapter 3
Holmgren: Principles 2 & 3
Short Essay: My Household is a System
4 How Systems Can Be Self-Managing and Self-Sustaining The Principle of Feedback and Regulation
Supplied readings
Meadows: Chapter 4
Holmgren: Principles 4 & 5
Short Essay: My System for Managing My Education (Or, How I Really Learn)
5 The Principle of Recycling, Patterns and Models
Supplied readings
Holmgren: Principles 6 & 7
[Revised assignment: Was -Research Paper: A Conceptual Model of My Household
Now - Re-do My System for Managing My Education.
6 How Systems Evolve and Adapt to Change
Holmgren: Principles 8 & 9
Read the rest of Meadows' book over next two weeks.
Short Essay: How Has My Understanding of the Way the World Works Changed as a Result of My College Education?
Describe briefly some aspect of the world that you thought you understood before going to college that has changed since (e.g. how computers worked, before and after TCSS371!). Describe briefly what you believed previously and what you now believe. Describe how you think your education experience caused the change to occur. This can be any aspect of the world, politics, economics, religion, technical, social, etc. But make sure that you focus on the aspect of the subject that your understanding of has changed.
7 When Systems Do Not Work or Fail to Adapt
& Boundaries and Interfaces
Meadows: Chapter 5
Holmgren: Principles 10
Meadows: Chapter 6
Holmgren: Principle 11
Small Research Article: Why are Tuitions So High? A Systems Analysis of the Costs of College
8 Adapting and Learning Systems Finding Leverage Points and Designing Policies
Meadows: Chapter 7
Holmgren: Principle 12
Final Essay & Presentation
Essay to be about 10 pages, same style as the weekly versions.
Presentation to be a 10-15 minute talk in front of the class. You may do a PowerPoint slide presentation if you want.

Textbooks and Readings:

Meadows, Donella (2008). Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT.

Holmgren, David (2007). The Essence of Permaculture, http://www.holmgren.com.au/frameset.html?http://www.holmgren.com.au/html/Publications/Principles.html

Class Notes:


Penn State Earth Systems Science Center, http://www.essc.psu.edu/

Wikipedia: Permaculture, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permaculture