Toby Hemenway – July 6, 2014
One of my pet projects is to clean up the ambiguities and logical inconsistencies that weaken permaculture terminology. Today I take aim at the term Zone 00, used to mean either the designer or user of a permaculture design, or their inner state. It’s a concept spawned by good intentions, but calling it a zone is logically inconsistent, redundant, and worst of all, has no design use. The designer’s mind is a crucial influence, but it’s not a zone. If it’s an influence on a design, that makes it a sector, right? (If you just slapped your forehead and said “Doh!” then you need read no further.) So let’s stop using the term zone 00.
First, a little review. Elements in a design are organized into zones according to how often they are visited. In Mollison’s original conception, Zone 1 included the house and the area around it that was visited every day. Zones 2 through 4 were areas of decreasing use and management, and zone 5 meant wilderness. In the late 1980s, some American and British permaculturists started calling the house zone 0. Doug Bullock tells me that this distinction arose because in the subtropical part of Australia where permaculture began, the boundary between indoors and the outdoor area near the house was often indistinct. Houses in those mild climates could be opened to the outdoors, and fostered an indoor-outdoor living style. But in colder climes, the tightly insulated, sealed-up houses were very distinct from the yard, hence a new term, zone 0, came to mean the building only.
Sometime in the early 1990s, various permaculturists noticed that another “space” in permaculture design had been left out: the designer and users, or more specifically, their psychological makeup. This was called zone 0 or zone 00 (I will call it “zone 00” to distinguish it from zone 0 as the house). I can only speculate why this happened, but I suspect it’s because we knew that the designer’s mind was important, and we wanted a permaculture-jargon term for it. Sectors have never been as well understood or mapped as zones have, and we had an orderly, labeled hierarchy in zones one through five. Given the centrality of the designer’s mind, it was easy to just add a new zone inside the other zones and call it zone 00. Easy, but not consistent with the other zones at all.
Obviously, the inner state of the people in a design is a crucial influence. But the term zone 00 was controversial from the start. Zone 00 is mentioned in many permaculture courses, but it has had only spotty integration into the curriculum and only partial acceptance by teachers. Opponents of the idea include Bill Mollison, David Holmgren, Rosemary Morrow, Scott Pittman, and myself, to name only a few.
One objection to calling the designer’s mental state a zone is that this use is utterly inconsistent with the other uses and properties of the zone concept. Zone 00 is based on a category error—that is, it shares no important properties with the other things called zones. Here’s what I mean by that. The zone system refers to physical areas or a set of conceptual spaces, in which we place elements by frequency of use. Even if a zone is conceptual, as in Bart Anderson’s urban zones, which are apportioned by the type of transportation he uses to reach them (foot, bike, bus, etc.), we can move elements in and out of zones. Zone 00 doesn’t fit that category. I can move design elements like ponds or greenhouses into the other zones, but not zone 00. The things I might conceivably move into zone 00—emotions, ideas, my lunch—aren’t used in the other zones. That reveals a disjuncture—a breach in logical types—between Zone 00 and all the other zones. Zone 00 doesn’t act like the other zones and it can’t be used in design the way a zone can.
Another break between zone 00 and true zones is that logically zone 00 should be the innermost zone, the way zone 0 is bounded by zone 1, which in turn is surrounded by zones 2 through 5. But zone 00 can be located in any other zone depending on where the designer goes. So when I am in zone 4, where is zone 00? When I leave my design site, what happens to zone 00? Does it disappear from the design while I am gone and then reappear when I return? No other zone moves around or leaves the design altogether like that. (Sectors do that.) And the qualities of zone 00 change constantly with the mood of the person, whereas the other zones have fairly fixed locations and properties. Also, what happens when there are multiple users on the site? Do we now have six zone 00s wandering around the site, all in various other zones? How do roaming zone 00s fit into the essential zone concept of location and frequency of use? They don’t. These are more breaches in category.
The user or designer also influences the design in ways that no zone does. The designer, as zone 00, creates the zones in a design and dictates what is in the zones. But a true zone does not design the other zones or specifically dictate the contents of the other zones. All of this shows the logical inconsistency in calling a mental state or a person a permaculture zone.
Zone 00 is also elitist: It privileges the human above all the other beings in the design. If zone 00 is the mental state of the user, then why aren’t we applying zone 00 to the livestock, wild creatures, and pets in the design? They use the design, and their states influence the design. Zone 00 is a species-ist term.
My biggest objection to the zone 00 concept is that it leads nowhere. It is barren. Though it reminds us, “We need to consider the state of the designer and users,” there is no way to use the zone 00 idea as a zone. You can’t arrange elements in it, you can’t locate it with respect to the other elements, you can’t move elements into it from other zones, you can’t do anything with it as a zone other than give it a name. Zone 00, as a zone, does not help make design decisions the way that the other zones do. It’s useless, beyond serving as a placeholder for the obvious idea that the state of the people in a design is important. If anyone has found a good way to actually design with zone 00—as a zone, not in some other way—please tell me. I’d love to hear it.
Do you see what a mess the term zone 00 creates? We’ve pinned a worthy sentiment into the wrong category. Let’s move it to the right category. Zone 00 is just unnecessary jargon for the word “designer” or “user,” and it’s erroneous jargon to boot.
So what are the designer’s person and mental state? They are primarily influences, which makes them most useful in design as sectors. Like any sector, the designer and her state of mind are energies affecting the design that we harvest, block, or otherwise use by placing elements in a beneficial relationship to them. Like other sectors, these are influences that we have little direct control over. (Perhaps a few ascended beings can control their mental state, but most of us can’t!) When we think of mental states as sectors, now we can design for them. We can do something with them, unlike when we think of them as a zone. And as with any sector, we ignore the designer’s mental state at our peril.
Zone 00, though a nice intention, is redundant jargon, a category mistake, and an unusable concept. I realize that the term has made its unfortunate way into the permaculture vocabulary and it may be hard to chase it out. But if you care about logic, clarity of thought, accurate use of language, and being consistent—or if you don’t want to be thought foolish by those who do—you’ll stop referring to zone 00 and instead use the term “person,” “designer,” or “me.” Let’s talk about our states of mind as sector energies instead, so that we can actually design with them.