Permaculture was originally a word made up of the two words ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’. But now the scope is broader, and permaculture is more often defined as ‘permanent culture’.
Permaculture (the word, coined by Bill Mollison, is a portmanteau of permanent agriculture and permanent culture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. 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. Without permanent agriculture, there is no possibility of a stable social order.
Permaculture design is a system of assembling conceptual, material, and strategic components in a pattern which functions to benefit life in all its forms.
The philosophy behind permaculture is one of working with, rather than against, nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action; of looking at systems in all their functions, rather than asking only one yield of them; and allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolutions.
Permaculture is not exclusive; its principles and practice can be used by anyone, anywhere:
- City flats, yards and window boxes
- Suburban and country houses/garden
- Allotments and smallholdings
- Community spaces
- Farms and estates
- Countryside and conservation areas
- Commercial and industrial premises
- Educational establishments
- Waste ground
Permaculture encourages us to be resourceful and self-reliant. It is not a dogma or a religion but an ecological design system that helps us find solutions to the many problems facing us both locally and globally.
The Twelve Principles of Permaculture –
Permaculture gives us a range of practical solutions for a better world. These principles are most commonly used in relation to food growing systems, but can also be used to guide us in all parts of our lives.
Twelve Permaculture design principles articulated by David Holmgren in his Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability:
Observe and Interact – Being observant and responding to what we see is really important in moving towards a more ethical and sustainable way of life.
We can learn from nature, and from other people, observing how others have moved to a greener and more ethical approach, and working with the world around us to succeed in our goals.
Catch and Store Energy – Energy is abundant on our planet. Learning how to catch and store that energy in plants, with renewable energy infrastructure, or in other ways, is key to living a sustainable way of life.
Growing our own food at home is a great way to catch and store energy from our sun. The passive solar design also offers opportunities for architects, engineers, and designers to make further use of this abundant energy source.
Obtain a Yield – Taking the three core ethics of permaculture into account, we can work with nature to get all the things we need. Obtaining a yield can be as simple as using organic gardening techniques to provide food for our families but it can also be about obtaining a non-tangible yield: happiness, health or mental well-being.
Living a sustainable lifestyle that sticks to permaculture principles can allow us to obtain all sorts of more intangible yields as well as the obvious tangible ones.
Apply Self-Regulation and Feedback – Understanding where we’ve succeeded and where we’ve gone wrong is vitally important to creating real and lasting change. For example, by analyzing and evaluating all the things that we bring into our homes, we can make better purchasing decisions moving forwards: reducing, reusing, recycling, and regulating our worst consumerist tendencies.
Use and value renewable resources and services – By using the power of the sun, the wind, or the water, we can power our homes, grow our food, and regenerate our environments.
Rather than relying on finite and polluting fossil fuels, we should make full use of renewable sources of energy: for example, switching to a green energy supplier or even generating our own power with solar panels or other renewable infrastructure at home is something many of us can do to move to a more sustainable way of life.
Produce no waste – Moving towards a zero-waste lifestyle means looking at all the trash we chuck out and trying to eliminate it. We can do this by reducing the amount we buy, by buying wisely, by reusing or recycling where possible, by composting, and by working with ethical companies who look at waste throughout the entire life-cycle of their products.
Design from Patterns to Details – Whether designing a new vegetable garden or an entirely new sustainable way of life, we have to look at the big picture before we get bogged down in the little things.
Thinking wholistically, about all areas of our lives, can help us move forwards in a positive direction.
Integrate Don’t Segregate – Plants work well in diverse systems the same is true of people too. Planting polycultures (guilds of plants that work together) is just one example of how this principle works in the real world.
And as well as applying this in the garden, we can also apply it to communities, groups or organizations. Sustainability is something we achieve together through collaboration and co-operation it’s not something we do alone.
Use small and slow solutions – Every journey begins with a single step. Whenever we try to do too much too soon, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and though big changes can bring big benefits, they bring bigger risks too. Making small, incremental changes is the best way to move towards sustainable change.
For example – don’t start a farm, try a small windowsill garden. Don’t overhaul your entire shopping philosophy change things one ethical purchase at a time.
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. Just as ecosystems work best when filled with a greater variety of different plants and animals, so human society functions best when a variety of different people are represented.
In our garden, home, and our life in general, it’s a good idea to promote and value diversity in all its forms.
Use Edges and Value the Marginal – Sustainability is about making use of all the resources that we have at our disposal. Whether we’re talking about land use, workplaces, homes or society in general, making use of all we have involves valuing fringes and fringe elements.
This might be as simple as using a neglected corner of our outside space to grow more food, or something more abstract, like thinking outside the box.
Creatively Use and Respond to Change – Finally, change is an inevitable part of life. It’s important to remember that permaculture isn’t just about now, but about the future. We design for change, understanding that things will alter over time. The changing seasons, changing attitudes, our changing climate… how we respond to these changes will shape sustainable progress in the years to come.
These principles are a starting point for an understanding of permaculture and can begin to give us an idea of how we can translate thought to action, and transition to a more ethical and truly sustainable way of life.
Each principle can be thought of as a door that opens into whole systems thinking, providing a different perspective that can be understood at varying levels of depth and application.
People and Permaculture –
Permaculture uses observation of nature to create regenerative systems, and the place where this has been most visible has been on the landscape. There has been a growing awareness though that firstly, there is the need to pay more attention to the people care ethic, as it is often the dynamics of people that can interfere with projects, and secondly that the principles of permaculture can be used as effectively to create vibrant, healthy and productive people and communities as they have been in landscapes.
Besides permaculture practitioners who study and learn about permaculture and consciously use permaculture to live in a more sustainable way, there are many people who practice permaculture without realizing it concerned environmentalists, organic gardeners, conservationists, land-use planners, urban activists, recyclers, indigenous peoples and anyone working toward creating a sustainable human civilization. The reason for this is that the philosophy of permaculture draws on a lot of ideas and practices that have been around for a long time.
The terms ecological design, sustainable design, applied ecology or green design are other terms that describe the basic philosophy of using nature as a model to foster sustainability. The difference between these approaches and permaculture is their scope and focus. Permaculture draws on these systems and incorporates them into a broader framework. Permaculture is a comprehensive system that can be applied to all aspects of one’s life although food production remains an important focus. As mentioned earlier, it is a dynamic, living philosophy that is continuing to evolve.