What is Permaculture?
Permaculture is another one of those concepts that have no single definition, but I like the succinct definition offered by Geoff Lawton, one of the more well-known permaculture teachers and practitioners in the world when he stated that permaculture is "a system of design that provides all of the needs for humanity in a way that benefits the environment." Another way to describe it is "designing human systems to mimic natural systems" and "designing systems that work with nature instead of against it." No matter how you define it, it refers to a design system - it integrates concepts from a wide array of disciplines/topics (hydrology, soil science, biology, ecology, renewable energy, forestry, and more) - and utilizes them when designing systems, such as gardens, farms, houses, neighborhoods, and more. It is most commonly used to design food systems, though. Everything from a backyard garden to a large farm can be designed using these principles.
The concept and term "permaculture" was coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Australia in the 1970s. It was originally a concatenation of the terms "permanent agriculture" because it initially focused on food production systems, but came to be known as a shortened form of "permanent culture" because it can be used to address all aspects of human culture/settlements.
To Read Now
The Permaculture Research Institute provides an excellent one-page description of permaculture. Please read through it before continuing.
The following are some highlights from the reading:
- "Permaculture integrates land, resources, people and the environment through mutually beneficial synergies – imitating the no waste, closed loop systems seen in diverse natural systems." This should sound familiar! A well-designed permaculture system will have little/no waste, and may actually make the local natural environment better than it was before. As they indicate later on the page: "It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people — providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way."
- Permaculture "is a multidisciplinary toolbox." It integrates many disciplines, as indicated above.
- "The philosophy behind permaculture is one of working with, rather than against, nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation...and allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolutions." Observation of how existing natural systems work is a key component of permaculture.
- "Recycling of nutrients and energy in nature is a function of many species. In our gardens, it is our own responsibility to return wastes (via compost or mulch) to the soil and plants, "but we rely on nature to replenish natural resources such as clean water and air, so "even anthropocentric people would be well-advised to pay close attention to, and to assist in, conservation of existing forests and to assist in the conservation of all existing species and allow them a place to live."
I want you to consider one additional concept that is mentioned in this summary. They mention that permaculture helps establish resilience. Resilience can be thought of as the ability to return to an original state after encountering a shock to the system. This has become a major focus of sustainability efforts. People recognize that "bad" things such as climate change, oil price spikes, and economic collapse will happen, but we do not know when. Much effort in sustainability design, thought, and policy is focused on establishing resilient communities (and cities, states, and countries) that will be able to withstand such shocks in such a way that suffering and distress will be minimized.
From a climate change perspective, this is primarily a focus on adaptation, i.e., adapting our communities to thrive in an uncertain climate future. This usually involves things such as using renewable energy (and not relying entirely on the national grid, e.g.), producing food locally (instead of relying on world markets), mitigating and/or avoiding flooding in low-lying areas, using more low-carbon transportation methods (e.g., bike and pedestrian infrastructure) and in general becoming more self-sufficient. This is a major focus of the Transition Town movement, but cities, towns, and states/provinces all over the world have engaged in planning for resiliency. For example, the state of Colorado has its own Resiliency Resource Center, which is operated out of the Department of Local Affairs.
The video below summarizes a lot of these concepts and adds a few others. It also provides a few examples of permaculture.
Most of this reiterates much of what is written above, but there are a few more things I'd like to point out:
- First, I think the quote from Derrick Jensen provides important perspective: "If your food comes from the grocery store and your water from a tap you will defend to the death the system that brings these to you because your life depends on it...[but] If your food comes from a land base and if your water comes from a river you will defend to the death these systems." This speaks to one of the problems with our modern food (and consumer) system. Namely, that we are disconnected from the sources of our food (and other products). One negative impact of this is that it allows all of the hidden impacts that have been detailed throughout this course and EM SC 240N, such as water footprint, carbon footprint, ecological footprint, and social/environmental injustice to occur. If we were able to see the true negative impacts of these systems, it is more likely that we would address these problems. Permaculture is one way of many to reconnect us to the sources of our food and other products.
- He mentions that building "resilient cultures and communities" is at the core of permaculture. Again, resilience is a very important topic in sustainability.
- There are three ethics of permaculture, which you will see quoted a lot in permaculture literature. These are meant to underlie all permaculture systems:
- Earth care, which refers to attempting to eliminate negative impacts on the natural environment, or if possible, to actually helping regenerate natural systems.
- People care, which refers to doing everything we can to help as many people as possible.
- Fair share, which refers to always keeping in mind to "share the surplus," whether it be food, money, time, expertise, etc.
- He shows an example of a permaculture farm "where each natural system feeds off each other, thus creating both abundant food for the farmer and a healthier ecosystem." There are examples of this all over the world, but almost all of them share in common the idea that the whole farm/garden should work together as a system and actually improve the local ecosystem, for example by attracting beneficial insects, providing habitat for birds and other animals, and rebuilding soil.
- He also describes an example of more urban-focused permaculture "which applies permaculture principles to artistic and ecologically-minded projects that help reinvigorate local community relationships and the natural world." Permaculture principles will be described in more detail below.
- He notes that permaculture "brings to the table tangible and ethically based solutions for systemic change" and that it seeks to design systems that allow people not only to "survive" but to "thrive." Permaculture focuses on understanding the nature of many sustainability problems, but more importantly on ways to apply practical solutions to these problems. Permaculturalists are "doers" - it is a very solutions-focused, action-oriented concept. Permaculturalists like to discuss things, but they are usually more focused on doing things!
- He also mentions that permaculture seeks to "replace that materialistic perspective with a new outlook that emphasizes ethical interactions with nature and a community-oriented lifestyle." Permaculture is a holistic philosophy that seeks systemic change. Like some of the other content you have seen (e.g., circular economy), they recognize that our systems are not designed properly. Permaculture is also very community-oriented, and in fact, interacting with diverse people and ideas is one of the core principles of permaculture.
Permaculture Design Principles
Hopefully, by now you have a solid understanding of what permaculture is, as well as its core ethics. Permaculture also has a set of 12 principles that should be used to guide all design decisions. The video below from Oregon State University provides a good overview of these principles, and examples of how they can be applied. You will not be expected to memorize them, but it will be helpful to have a general understanding of each.
Permacultureprinciples.com provides an excellent in-depth explanation of each of these principles and also provides a ton of examples of each principle. If you want to explore any of the principles more (this is optional but strongly suggested if/when you have some time), including examples of concrete applications, click on the links to each item below. They even have a song for each principle, which is a nice touch! All quotes are taken from the permacultureprinciples.com site.
- Observe and interact: "By taking the time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation." The most essential step before designing any system is to first observe. You should always seek to utilize immediate resources, e.g., when planning a garden, observe where the sunlight is at certain times, where the wet areas are, where the wind blows through, etc.
- Catch and store energy: "By developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need." Capturing rainwater and utilizing naturally produced fertilizer and mulch are some examples of this.
- Obtain a yield: "Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing." Permaculture systems should be productive, e.g., a garden that produces an abundance of food.
- Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: "We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well." This goes with observation, but after you have deployed a system, you should ALWAYS look for feedback from the local environment, and adjust accordingly to optimize the system, e.g., if you design a park in a city, but find that people are not using it because it is difficult to get to, think about finding ways to get people there (e.g., a bike path or bus route) or repurpose it (e.g., an urban farm). An important corollary of this is turning problems into solutions, e.g., if you are designing a garden and there is a wet area, grow plants that like a lot of water or divert the water to a drier area.
- Use and value renewable resources and services: "Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behaviour and dependence on non-renewable resources." Use renewable resources at a sustainable rate!
- Produce no waste: "By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste." Remember, we should design systems like nature does. There is no waste in nature! Waste should be used as a resource, e.g., in a food system you should reintegrate unused organic material into the soil through composting. This goes along with turning problems into solutions.
- Design from patterns to details: "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." Permaculturalists use a lot of natural designs as the basis for intentional design, e.g., by using natural materials and shapes when designing buildings.
- Integrate rather than segregate: "By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between them and they support each other." Permaculture focuses on relationships and connections, always looking at the system as a whole. An important corollary of this is to have single things serve multiple functions, e.g., permaculture gardens often use chickens because they provide food, they aerate the soil by scratching it, they eat pests that can destroy crops, and they provide natural fertilizer through manure. Bicycling is another example - it provides exercise, reduces emissions, and allows for more personal connections with the local community.
- Use small and slow solutions: "Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes." Think in terms of years and decades when making designs, not weeks or months.
- Use and value diversity: "Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides." Diverse systems are more resilient, e.g., if you have a biodiverse field or farm and one crop/plant is destroyed by a pest, there are other species remaining to provide resources.
- Use edges and value the marginal: "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." This goes hand-in-hand with the previous principle. Diverse systems are more innovative, e.g., a group of people with a diverse set of skills is more creative, and can more easily adapt to a variety of problems.
- Creatively use and respond to change: "We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time." Again, you should constantly observe and adjust.
One other thing that I'd like to note before moving on is that while remembering and applying these principles takes a lot of effort, a properly designed permaculture system significantly minimizes effort once it is established! For example, a well-designed permaculture garden will require almost no active watering (it should be rain-fed), does not require the constant addition of fertilizers (it should be mostly self-sufficient), does not need pesticides (most pests should be eliminated by beneficial insects, chickens, or other natural biological solutions, and things like proper air flow and sunlight), and it minimizes replanting (true permaculture uses mostly perennials, not annual plants). A properly designed urban environment will optimize the use of local resources such as renewable energy, local food sources, and low-impact transportation. Such an urban system should also provide resources to help all people thrive, thus minimizing the need for social services.
Please note that people spend their whole lives researching and applying permaculture - we are only scratching the surface! But hopefully, you have a reasonably good understanding of what permaculture is and how it can be applied. The following is a brief summary of some key points:
- Permaculture can be thought of as "a system of design that provides all of the needs for humanity in a way that benefits the environment." Another way to describe it is "designing human systems to mimic natural systems" and "designing systems that work with nature instead of against it."
- Permaculture integrates a number of disciplines together to apply practical solutions to sustainability problems. It effectively integrates all of the sustainability concepts that we've encountered in this course and EM SC 240N.
- Resiliency is the ability to maintain one's essential identity/character when encountering a shock to the system. It is a major focus of permaculture, and modern sustainability studies, in particular with regards to climate change. Transition towns focus on resilience and have been established all over the world.
- Permaculture focuses mostly on practical, local solutions and seeks to establish self-sufficiency. It is community- and action-oriented.
- Permaculture seeks to reconnect humans with the natural environment and to integrate human systems with natural environments in such a way that it not only minimizes negative impacts but enhances local natural resources to the extent possible.
- The three core ethics of permaculture are earth care, people care, and fair share. They should be considered when making all decisions.
- Permaculture is most often applied to food systems of every scale, but can also be used to design neighborhoods and towns/cities, and even human relationships.
- A properly designed permaculture system will allow humans and nature to not only survive but thrive.
- There are 12 design principles in permaculture, and each should be considered when designing any human system of any scale.