One of Bill Mollison’s original principles of Permaculture states, “The Problem is the Solution.” This concept has been embraced by Permaculturists around the world, but if you are new to Permaculture this may seem an absurd statement… akin to Zen master Hakuin Ekaku’s famous kōan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

In reality, this principle is a powerful design tool in Permaculture.

Maybe a more clear way to say it would be, “In the problem lies the solution.” To be honest, it is quicker and more fun to say, “The Problem is the Solution.” It makes us sound more philosophical and mysterious, but my goal is to demystify Permaculture. I want to promote the science of Permaculture. There is a place for philosophical musings, but let’s not confuse the science with the art.

It is hard to say where this saying originated. Preliminary research shows that this phrase has been around for a long time, and from what I can tell, I don’t think Bill Mollison created it. In reality, it doesn’t matter. Permaculture is not about claiming original ideas, it is about designing effectively and using what works, regardless of where it originated.

So how is “The Problem is the Solution” a design tool? Let’s review some examples of this principle in action…

Probably the most famous example is when Bill Mollison stated, “You don’t have a snail (or slug) problem, you have a duck deficiency!” The problem, one which I have personally battled, is one of snail or slug damage to our young or tender plants in wet weather. We can battle the slugs and snails directly with chemicals or traps or prevention. This can take a lot of time and energy. We can potentially cause damage to the land if we are reckless with chemical attacks. But if we look at the “problem” as a neutral element or even as a resource to be utilized, then we can start to ask ourselves what benefits the slugs or snails may provide. Ducks love to eat slugs and snails. If we incorporate ducks into our landscape, then our problem will be a solution, at least in part, to feeding our garden allies. Simple to see it in hindsight, but less simple until we open our minds to this principle.

Here are some more examples:

  • The problem of deer in the garden? Hunt them and you have a solution for your food bill!
  • The problem of occasional flooding of a river? We can plant trees to capture the silt the flood is carrying, and we have a solution to building good soil!
  • The problem of too many “weeds” on our land? Eat them and we have a solution to lowering our grocery bill and increasing our nutrition! Plus we can identify the type of weed to give us an answer (solution) to our soil condition.
  • The problem of a wet spot (poor drainage) on your land? You have the solution for where to place a pond!
  • My own problem of too many sticks from overgrown bush trimmings that were not good for our fire place and too woody for the compost pile? I laid them out over an area that may be a small sinkhole. This was the solution to keeping my children and dog away from that potentially dangerous area, and it provided a great habitat for the local population of lizards… right next to the vegetable garden, so they can come over and eat pests whenever they choose!
  • My own problem of a sudden population of caterpillars eating through my Kale patch? I did nothing, and ended up with two Kale plants that were not affected. I now had a possible new caterpillar-resistant Kale variety… solution! (I documented this incident in an article here)

“The Problem is the Solution” is an amazing tool that can be used in all areas of life, not just with land and food systems. It is key to recognize that very few things we call problems are negative or “evil” by their own merits. They are neutral. But they pose a problem to us and our ideas and ideals. If we try to see how that item or element or energy can be harnessed as a resource, then we will be more productive, more sustainable, and significantly less stressed in our day to day life.

So go out and become a Permaculture Zen Master!


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