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Use Small and Slow Solutions [Permaculture
Posted on June 3, 2015 @ 03:32:00 AM by Paul Meagher

The 9th principle of Permaculture which advises us to "Use Small & Slow Solutions" (see discussion of the first 8 principles here).

To tell an entrepreneur to "use small and slow solutions" is a tough sell. On Dragon's Den and Shark Tanks the investors are looking for the opposite characteristics - companies that will grow quick and big with their help. We should, however, be mindful of the many successful companies that arise from a slow evolutionary process that can take a decade or more.

For example, Jean-Martin Fortier has been evolving his market gardening business for over a decade now using a variety of small (staying smaller than an acre) and slow solutions (no large machinery). He has become a trusted brand in market gardening with many people seeking his produce and advice. The fact that he has achieved success in his operation by purposefully staying small is a non-intuitive lesson that might apply beyond market gardening. His focus is to increase the quality of his product and efficiency of his work to become more profitable on the same acre of land.

What is a small and slow solution? Most examples of appropriate technology are small and slow technologies compared to their industrial counterparts for performing the same function. A small scale machine that allows a household or village to thresh grain is an example of a small scale and slower solution for processing grain than a combine harvester for example.

Many technologies that are small and slower than their industrial counterparts are also easier to afford, typically involves more physical effort to operate, and are appropriate to a smaller scale of production.

Nature uses small and slow solutions to keep soil fertile. The solution is small and slow in the sense that fertility is added in small amounts each season though leaf fall, tree death, animal death, and droppings from animals. The large and fast solution for improving soil fertility is to fertilize with nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K) - NPK. While this can increase and maintain yields, it is often not building up humus in the soil so the fertility of the soil is artificially maintained which is ok as long as fertilizer is available and accessible. A smaller and slower solution involves cover cropping and green manuring of plots along with adding what compost is available. This mimics natures process a more faithfully.

Not all companies burst into success like high-tech startups sometimes do. Instead many successful companies evolve over a decade to become established, profitable, and poised for further growth. Permaculture Voices interviewed a Sustainablity Education center in Costa Rica that embodied the idea of small and slow growth and how, over time, it might position you better than if you opted for the rapid/large scale growth option. Using small and slow solutions is not a barrier to growth over a longer term.

The way I use this principle is as a reminder that there might be other ways to approach or think about a problem if you adopt a longer term perspective where small things I do today might lead, over the longer term, to achieving some goals I might have. Doing things slower and/or at a smaller scale is a good way to learn how to grow a vegetable rather than scaling up and trying to grow 5000 of them in your first year. Your failure won't be as epic. A smaller scale will allow you to experiment and optimize before scaling. Even then you will only want to scale enough to meet demand which could become your limiting factor.

I've been busy over the last week planting 35 apple, 6 pear, and 21 hazelnut trees and weeding 2 yr old grape vines. If feels like a series of small and slow solutions to food production. Small and slow solutions aren't always enjoyable or immediately profitable, but over time there is the hope that something worthwhile will come from the effort. In the case of grape vine weeding, the quick solution is to apply a herbicide to all the rows before the buds emerge (pre-emergence spraying) and be done with it. Because I'm still small, the slow solution of hand weeding with my brother is still workable and allows the farm to remain organic. Perhaps it is the best design option given the goals.

There are many other aspects of our lives that benefit from a design that is small in scope and slow in nature. The solution to large systemic problems is often not an epic assault on the problem (war on ".....") but designs that incorporate smallness and slowness in them. Relationships with children are not based on epic vacations but the small and slow things we do for each other over a lifetime. Consider the small and slow design option to solve your problems instead of looking for the magic bullet that might only serve to create other problems.

The principle does not tell us to avoid large and fast solutions, only that we should consider using small and slow solutions in our design toolkit. Many designs for catching rainwater off a roof, for example, are inadequate to capture the volume that is available and would benefit from being larger. If we balance large and fast with small and slow in our design toolkit we can perhaps do better than defaulting to large and fast as the preferred solution to our problems.




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