Evaluation & Costings

Zone 0 Energy Efficiency

“The process of increasing the knowledge and understanding of permaculture systems, such as their effectiveness and overall cost.”


 "In physical science the first essential step in the direction of learning any subject is to find principles of numerical reckoning and practicable methods for measuring some quality connected with it. I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the state of Science, whatever the matter may be"

 (Sir William Thompson, Lord Kelvin Lecture on "Electrical Units of Measurement" (3 May 1883), published in Popular Lectures and Addresses Vol. I, p. 73)

"...not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted"

( William Bruce Cameron Informal Sociology: A Casual Introduction to Sociological Thinking (1963) [Not Einstein! See here for provenance])

I take this criteria to be a form of cost-benefit analysis (CBA), helpfully described by Wikipedia as 'a systematic process for calculating and comparing benefits and costs of a project, decision or... project'. A CBA of options would normally be undertaken before deciding on a course of action, and therefore fall clearly into an Analysis phase of a design process. An 'Evaluation' is clearly a latter phase however, a post-decision analysis of how well an elected approach went - being based on the  actual balance of  benefits and costs rather than an expected estimate.

With this mindset, and given the monetary orientation of CBA, it would be easy to read that opening line from the permaculture Diploma Handbook and understand the phrase 'overall cost' to refer to a financial evaluation of permaculture systems. I don't think that would be an entirely wrong interpretation: without some grounding in whether the systems we design are cost effective, it's impossible to know whether we have actually obtained a yield or just massively subsidised something we like the feel of, at person cost, in a way that is not sustainable and should probably not be replicated or scaled.

A wheel version of Manfred Max-Neef's matrix of human needs developed by Verene Nicolas & Alastair Mclntosh.
Neither all costs, nor all yields are financial however and I would contend that the evaluation of a permaculture system requires practicable methods for measuring qualities connected with it, beyond those that can be expressed in financial units. I believe that those qualities might sometimes be quantifiable and sometimes not, so that in order to find practicable reckoning for yields that are not countable we need other forms of evaluation. I also think that some qualities are quantifiable yet not numerically reckonable - I may feel happier today than I did yesterday (I have a greater quantity of happiness today) yet be unable to distinguish a numeric difference - to try and capture this in abstract artithemetic, to say that yesterday I felt 6/10, and today I feel 7/10 is more 'meagre and unsatisfactory' than the statement that I feel happier. The diagram above by Nicolas and McIntosh, posits elements from Manfred Max-Neef's matrix of fundamental human needs in a wheel formation to be used for evaluation of how well each of the needs are being satisfied. An individual is invited to shade each sector according to how well that need is being satisfied, the more satisfied the individual feels in an area - the further towards the outer ring they shade. When each sector has been shaded, the wheel provides a simple visual representation that clearly indicates which needs are being met and which not. It is a snapshot in time which may be repeated again at later dates, to review change over time. As the diagram suggests, the exercise may also be used on levels beyond the personal: at the family level, that of the wider community, the bioregion or nation - although these might better be represented by overlays of individual responses.


The diagram above by Radical Compassion offers an alternate model, close to Nicolas and McIntosh's in which words that point towards human needs are grouped based on an integration of the work of Marshall Rosenberg, Spiral Dynamics, and Manfred Max-Neef.



On the costs side beyond financial measurement, I think there is some validity and utility in the use of personal impact calculators for carbon and eco footprints, I have made personal assessments using these here.  They are blunt instruments however, generally not readily applicable at an individual design level. A form of eMergy accounting could be useful for measuring the embodied energy costs of various options but I've not found an opportunity where I could usefully apply this yet (see Howard T. Odum and Elisabeth C. Odum's book  Energy Basis for Man and Nature (McGraw-Hill: 1976) and Howard T.Odum's Environmental Accounting: Emergy and Environmental Decision Making (Wiley: 1995) for more on eMergy accounting).

There are some useful more-than-financial tools for considering yields that attempt to reflect a greater holism. The capital asset pentagon above, goes beyond the financial to describe 5 forms of capital which might be evaluated as yields from a design. It has its origin in Sustainable Rural Livelihoods by Diana Carney (DFID: 1998), and Ben Law describes his use of it in The Woodland Way; A Permaculture Approach to Woodland Management (Permanent Publications: 2001).
A similar, and expanded, multiple capital model has been described by Ethan Roland in his article '8 Forms of Capital' Permaculture Magazine #68 (available online here), which seeks to map out all the valuable resources we might consider as capital.

Roland and Gregory Landua expand on this work in their inspiring book Regenerative Enterprise; Optimizing for Multi-capital Abundance.  I think that an evaluation of costs and benefits across all these forms of capital forms a better observed account of yield than a simple financial cost analysis might provide - the question then becomes, how do we account for the other forms of capital?

1 comment:

  1. Hi James,
    I really appreciated reading this page. Thank you! I find it rare and valuable to have a perspective that interweaves needs (from Nonviolent Communication and values from Spiral Dynamics), various forms of capital, and energy accounting. (I also appreciate Jim, Jori and Ethan's work, and am learning more about Odum.) My background and work includes permaculture, NVC and Integral theory.
    I love the name and explanation of "Praxis: Bold as Love".
    Glad to cross paths with you :)
    Thanks and warmly,
    Bonita Ford
    www.eonpermaculture.ca

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