EM SC 470
Applied Sustainability in Contemporary Culture



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.

Click here for a transcript of the What is Permaculture? video.

[ON SCREEN TEXT:] "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." - Derrick Jensen

If you happen to pick up a newspaper these days, you'll probably find a growing sense of despair regarding climate change and environmental degradation, but there's been an astounding effort from countless communities to cull the rising tide of environmentally irresponsible actions. And among the surge of modern nature related groups and philosophies lies the promising ideas of permaculture which, when unpacked, provides us with a solid toolkit for not only tackling the difficult environmental challenges ahead, but also for thriving in a transformed world.

Permaculture, a term coined by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in their 1978 book Permaculture One, was originally a contraction of permanent and agriculture, but has since blossomed into a more inclusive combination of permanent and culture. As Mollison readily admits, permaculture is nebulous. "It's a little difficult to define what the permaculture community is." But those two words permanent and culture hit at the philosophy behind permaculture in the sense that it gives people a set of tools to rethink and redesign their communities so that they can live seamlessly with the natural world. And by working with, rather than against, nature in order to grow food, for example, permaculture bolsters not only the health of the land but also its practitioners. In doing so, the concepts and practices of permaculture build communities that are adaptable to a changing climate.

Jono Neiger sums up these ideas in his book Permaculture Promise wherein he writes,“Permaculture is about rebuilding much needed relationships with the people, land and systems that support us.” Through these relationships and a positive approach to change, agriculture seeks to build resilient cultures and communities. At the core of permaculture teaching lies three ethics: earth care, people care, and fair share. While earth care and people care at their simplest forms are the concerted efforts to nurture natural environments and surrounding communities in your everyday actions, fair share is a bit less self-explanatory. The concept of fair share is essentially the synthesis of earth and people care. It acknowledges that there is one earth that we all need to live on. So surplus, whether that's food, money, or time should be shared with those who are otherwise languishing or be returned back to the earth. These three ethics ultimately intertwine to create an effective moral base on which permaculture practitioners can build and transform their local systems. They're essentially guideposts for tangible change.

In practice, permaculture can take a variety of shapes. For instance Jordan Osmond over at Happen films toured Purple Pear farm, an excellent example of permaculture at work wherein each natural system feeds off each other, thus creating both abundant food for the farmer and a healthier ecosystem. But permaculture can also mean projects like City Repair in Portland which applies permaculture principles to artistic and ecologically minded projects that help reinvigorate local community relationships and the natural world.

Now more than ever, permaculture is important because it brings to the table tangible and ethically based solutions for systemic change. It moves beyond sustainability and into resilience. Looking towards not only surviving, but thriving in a quickly changing natural world. Starting at a local and personal level, the concepts of permaculture work to wean people off an industrialized and consumption centric worldview and replace that materialistic perspective with a new outlook that emphasizes ethical interactions with nature and a community-oriented lifestyle.

Ultimately, this new worldview brings us closer to appreciating the source of our sustenance and our desire for interpersonal connection. And if we can rekindle this understanding that we need thriving natural systems to live, as Derrick Jensen said so perfectly at the beginning of this video, we will then defend those natural systems to the death.

This video is made possible in part by the wonderful people who support me on Patreon. If you're interested in helping me grow this channel, head on over to Patreon and pledge a small amount of money for every video I release. In return, I'll send you gifts like a handwritten thank you note or an Our Changing Climate sticker. As always if you like what you just saw share it around and subscribe. Thanks so much for watching and I'll see you next Friday.

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.

Click here for a transcript of The Permaculture Principles video.

We’re arrived at the final element of the Permaculture Decision Making Matrix, the Permaculture design principles. Here are my two favorite books, which are the source of the principles. Bill Mollison included a comprehensive list of principles in the Permaculture Designer’s Manual, and later on David Holmgren consolidated and repackaged the principles into 12 in his book, “Permaculture Principles and Pathways beyond sustainability.” So for simplicity’s sake, I’ll present to you Holmgren’s 12 principles.

Principle 1 is “Observe and Interact,” and this is essentially what we’ve been talking about for this entire course thus far. Where am I? What are the forces present on my site that I need to design for? Climate, topography, water, soils, vegetation, wildlife, wind, fire, people, these are some of the elements that are part of our observations.

Principle 2 is “Catch and Store Energy.” Energy is not just electricity, but stored water represents potential energy in the form of irrigation water for future crops. The biomass of a forest represents a living storage of building materials, fuel, nutrients and water. Alternative energy systems can turn wind, sun, and flowing water into electrical energy. So this principle gives us the directive to capture and grow surpluses in our system.

Principle 3 is “Obtain a Yield.” This principle promotes self-reliance and gives us the directive to reap a harvest from our Permaculture system, because you can’t work on an empty stomach. This principle is relevant when making a choice about which tree to plant in a location. Always choose the one with greater and more diverse yields over an ornamental plant. Yields are not just food. Yields can be building materials, fuel wood, nectar for honey. But plenty of food growing all around you is true security.

Principle 4 is “Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback.” This principle directs us to live simply and consciously, limit our own consumption, because no one else is going to do that for us. We need to keep our own consumption and emissions in check because that is our responsibility when we care for Earth and care for people. Accepting feedback means that learning from our successes and mistakes is an imperative, and should lead to better choices as we learn what works and what doesn’t.

Principle 5 is “Use and Value Renewable Resources.” Renewable resources are those which replenish with modest use. This could be sustainable forestry or fishing practices. This could mean planting an orchard downslope from a forest to take advantage of the nutrient and water drift that continually moves down the hill. This is the wind. This is the fact that plants and animals breed, and if we are responsible and careful, many of these resources can provide in perpetuity.

Principle 6 is “Produce No Waste.” This is where we make the waste of one part of our system the food for another. This means we compost, clean and recycle greywater, repair and repurpose broken tools and equipment. Reduce, reuse, repair, recycle. This also means we don’t waste people by having them do hazardous and meaningless work.

Principle 7 is “Design From Patterns to Details.” This is one of my personal favorites. It means that first we study the climate, topography, watershed, ecology, and we get a big picture vision of how we can interact with the land and community in a regenerative way, and then our design decisions are based on that. So this road I just drew in is placed in a way where it harvests the water for this pond. The detail of road placement was based on the overall pattern of water flow in the landscape.

Principle 8 is “Integrate Rather Than Segregate.” This principle says that the more relationships between parts of your systems, the stronger, more productive and more resilient your system becomes. This has to do with community as well. I drew a cluster of dwellings where a cooperative community can get much more done than an individual. Many hands make light work.

Principle 9 is “Use Small and Slow Solutions.” I’ve gone ahead and harvested some of the trees on the forest edge to use for fence posts and replaced them with nut trees that will start bearing in about 10-12 years, and will then live for hundreds of years. I’ve planted new trees over here, which will be new fence posts when these ones rot. I’ve also inoculated edible mushrooms into the stumps of the trees I cut, which will produce for years and then spread to others with the fallen wood. These are all examples of playing the long game, using the small and slow design principle.

Principle 10 is “Use and Value Diversity.” You can see we’ve got housing, gardens, wind power, water storage, composting, greywater, forestry, orchards, and now I’ve added in rotational grazing of animals, both here and in the orchard. I’ve also added more trees and gardens around the homestead, and fish to the pond. Diversity is one of the key aspects of Permaculture. We want to conserve diverse native habitats, and make our human habitats rich with an abundance of many productive elements. Diversity is also resilience: if one part of our system fails, there are others that will thrive.

Principle 11 is “Use Edges and Value the Marginal.” I’ve added edible hedgerows around the animal paddocks, and along the road. I’ve also added bamboo down below the pond, which will be sub-irrigated by water that seeps down. The edges and margins are great locations to add more productive species or habitat zones. And I can use them to create further layers of productivity.

Principle 12 is “Creatively Use and Respond to Change.” I noticed that with the orchards and hedgerows growing in, the forest soils growing spongier from mushroom inoculation, and the soils building from the animal rotation, water has begun to move much more slowly down the hillside. So much so, that this area at the bottom of the hill is becoming somewhat of a marsh. Well, that wasn’t what I planned, but I’m going to creatively use that change, and I’m going to carve out some low areas that’ll stay really wet, which I can use to grow edible wetland plants, and then simultaneously build up these peninsulas, full of edge to grow productive trees which will get their roots down in this water table. Wow, I didn’t even see that yield coming, but there you have it. The Permaculture principles in action!

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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!
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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. 

Permaculture Summary

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.