How to Learn What to Learn: The Pareto Principle

If we want to grow food, heal ecosystems, get healthy, or interact in pretty much any biological system (which includes human communities) probably the single most useful thing we can understand is the 80/20 principle, or the Pareto curve.

Simply put, we get 80% of the results (change) for the first 20% of our work (inputs.) This has been a key in Agricultural science for pretty much as long as there has been Agricultural science, and it’s the theoretical basis for Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and new alternative approaches like Holistic Management and yes, Permaculture.

Research shows we get an 80% reduction in pest damage from our first 20% of pest control efforts, and after that we get “diminishing returns” for the same level of pest control. We get 80% of our water savings from 20% of our efforts. 80% of the benefit of weed control from the first 20% of our weeding efforts, and so on.

We’re biological systems so gym bros talk about “noob gains” and unless somebody is a genetic freak or takes steroids, 80% of the muscle we can build in the gym is built in the first year or so.

So, the process of REAL, VALUABLE education for most of us is to learn enough to know what that 20% of truly transformative information is. This was part of the thinking and design of the original Permaculture Design Certificate Course, to give “regular people“ a selection of 20% powerfuel info on a variety of topics necessary for designing a human settlement, including food, passive solar, community organizing, money, etc. That remains the prominent theme in our Transformative Adventures PDC Curriculum.

But in academia people are rewarded for mining deeper and deeper truths well past the point where there’s any practicality, so it’s easy for us to fall into the same trap! That level of knowledge is useful for pure knowledge, but I don’t personally need to know the maximum air speed of an African swallow to enjoy watching birds.

For example, in Permaculture it’s easy to fetishize the minutia of soil science, and for hundreds of years BS students have been peddling “scientific agriculture“ products like rock dust, designer microbial tea concoctions, humus (which later are found to not even exist!…/Nature%20528,%2060-68…)

But none of these refined, often expensive products appear to give much if any improvement at all over what French Intensive gardeners were achieving 150 years ago with composted manure and their 20% info of scientifically optimized plant spacings, minimal pest control, and scientific watering procedures.

One could spend YEARS understandng soil carbon cycles and analyzing microbes under a microscope and still not improve one iota on the yields documented by John Jeavon’s decades ago using compost, mulch, deep digging and scientific plant spacings.

When it comes to sustainable high productivity that also stewards biodiversity and ecosystem health, it would be difficult to improve a whole lot on the self-maintaining traditional forest garden systems, slash mulch systems, and so on that indigenous people’s evolved around the world, and from what I understand they accomplished all that without too many University PhDs and microscopes.

If you want to become a great, knowledgable practical gardener, here’s my advice as someone who’s been at it for decades now: follow the Pareto curve in your studies, find the things that will have the biggest Return on your Investment (ROI.)

This means study “patterns” and systems of application. A good Permaculture Design Certificate Course will be organized around showing you good “patterns,” not trying to tell you what you “should” do.

Know that general principle that soil microbial diversity and abundance improves plant health and productivity. Then, let PhD’s fuss over identifying the various 10,000 organisms in a teaspoon of soil while you learn which SYSTEMS will most encourage microbial diversity and abundance in your garden. Focus on the 20% that will get you 80% of the benefit. And for the least possible cost. Hint: most of the time research has sown that’s probably just using polyculture, perennials and organic mulches, which works better than fancy teas and inoculations. Done. So the thing to really study is systems for growing with deep mulches and polyculture, not memorizing the names of 28 microbes in somebody’s signature tea.

If you want a good return out of your garden, then stack 20% approaches: do the 20% most impactful actions on pests, the 20% for water, the 20% for weeds, the 20% for fertility, and so on. That probably looks like our Transformative Adventures ”Holistic Intensive Gardening” management system.

If you want a good return on life, IMO, it’s probably good to stack 20% efforts there, too, do the 20% you need for a healthy body, the 20% you need for a healthy environment, the 20% for stable finances, the 20% for a vibrant community, 20% for an optimized diet, the 20% for a healthy mind…. That’s Holistic Life Management I suppose.

And that’s the topic of these Transformative Adventures, adventures that help us create real change in our lives by focusing on these proven leverage points.

This also makes us naturally more self reliant and resistant to scams selling us corporate junk and expensive designer garden minerals, microbe mixes and fitness drinks and so on.

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