Article by Joseph P. Kauffman
"Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted & thoughtful observation, rather than protracted & thoughtless labor; & of looking at plants & animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system."
— Bill Mollison, the founder of Permaculture
Originally, the word “Permaculture” was the combination of the two words “permanent” and “agriculture.” Two Australian men named Bill Mollison and David Holmgren coined the term in the 1970’s. Seeing that agriculture is inseparable from human culture, it has since evolved to encompass many facets of life, and is now referred to as being the combination of “permanent” and “culture.” It is a process of intelligent design that allows us to use the resources that we have around us to their fullest potential.
There are many definitions for Permaculture used by different permaculture designers. One common definition that offers a good description is: “the practice of designing sustainable human habitats by following nature’s patterns.” By observing and learning from our environment—seeing how nature replenishes its soil, how it protects and conserves its water resources, how it adapts to the specific climate of an area, etc.—we can learn how to imitate these natural processes in our daily living. The more closely that we can work with nature, the more likely we are to establish a balance which will provide us with the things that we need without hurting the environment.
One of the founding fathers of Permaculture, Bill Mollison, has defined Permaculture as “the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems, which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems.”
The ethics earth care, people care and fair share form the foundation for permaculture design and are also found in most traditional societies. Ethics are culturally evolved mechanisms that regulate self-interest, giving us a better understanding of good and bad outcomes. The greater the power of humans, the more critical ethics become for long-term cultural and biological survival.
Earth Care can be taken to mean caring for the living soil. The state of the soil is often the best measure for the health and well-being of society. There are many different techniques for looking after soil, but the easiest method to tell if soil is healthy is to see how much life exists there. Our forests and rivers are the lungs and veins of our planet, that help the Earth live and breathe, supporting many diverse life forms. All life forms have their own intrinsic value, and need to be respected for the functions that they perform – even if we don’t see them as useful to our needs. By reducing our consumption of ‘stuff’, we reduce our impact on the environment, which is the best way to care for all living things. Permaculture ethics are distilled from research into community ethics, learning from cultures that have existed in relative balance with their environment for much longer than more recent civilizations. This does not mean that we should ignore the great teachings of modern times, but in the transition to a sustainable future, we need to consider values and concepts outside the current social norm.
People Care begins with ourselves and expands to include our families, neighbors and wider communities. The challenge is to grow through self-reliance and personal responsibility. Self-reliance becomes more feasible when we focus on non-material well-being, taking care of ourselves and others without producing or consuming unnecessary material resources. By accepting personal responsibility for our situation as far as possible, rather than blaming others, we empower ourselves. If we can recognize that a greater wisdom lies within a group of people, we can work with others to bring about the best outcomes for all involved. The permaculture approach is to focus on the positives, the opportunities that exist rather than the obstacles, even in the most desperate situations.
Established fruiting trees are likely to produce more than one person can eat. It takes time to pick and preserve the harvest, and there are limits to how much fruit we can use. There are many ways that we benefit from giving a fair share of the bounty to others in our community. The growth in human consumption and the accelerating extinction of species make clear the impossibility of continuous growth. Sometimes we need to make hard decisions and consider what enough is. We need to focus on what is appropriate for us to do, rather than what others should do. By finding the right balance in our own lives we provide positive examples for others, so that they can find their own balance.
Central to permaculture are the three ethics—care for the earth, care for people, and fair share—as well as the permaculture design principles. The principles often vary depending on the teacher, but according to co-founder of Permaculture David Holmgren, the 12 principles of Permaculture Design are:
Observe and Interact – “Beauty is in the mind of the beholder”
By taking the time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.
Catch and Store Energy – “Make hay while the sun shines”
By developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need.
Obtain a yield – “You can’t work on an empty stomach”
Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the working you are doing.
Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback – “The sins of the fathers are visited on the children of the seventh generation”
We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well. Negative feedback is often slow to emerge.
Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services – “Let nature take its course”
Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.
Produce No Waste – “Waste not, want not” or “A stitch in time saves nine”
By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
Design From Patterns to Details – “Can’t see the forest for the trees”
By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.
Integrate Rather Than Segregate – “Many hands make light work”
By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.
Use Small and Slow Solutions – “Slow and steady wins the race” or “The bigger they are, the harder they fall”
Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and produce more sustainable outcomes.
Use and Value Diversity – “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”
Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.
Use Edges and Value the Marginal – “Don’t think you are on the right track just because it’s a well-beaten path”
The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
Creatively Use and Respond to Change – “Vision is not seeing things as they are but as they will be”
We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing and then intervening at the right time.
Essentially, Permaculture is a way of looking at the world in terms of its systems and relationships, as well as a design tool to help us consciously work with these systems for our benefit, yet in a way that is also beneficial for all life on earth. It applies to far more than just agriculture and food production. It is a methodology for seeing and working with the world as it actually is: one interconnected and interdependent living system.