What is permaculture?
Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in natural ecologies.
Permaculture is sustainable land use design. This is based on ecological and biological principles, often using patterns that occur in nature to maximise effect and minimise work. Permaculture aims to create stable, productive systems that provide for human needs, harmoniously integrating the land with its inhabitants. The ecological processes of plants, animals, their nutrient cycles, climatic factors and weather cycles are all part of the picture. Inhabitants’ needs are provided for using proven technologies for food, energy, shelter and infrastructure.
Elements in a system are viewed in relationship to other elements, where the outputs of one element become the inputs of another.
Within a Permaculture system, work is minimised, “wastes” become resources, productivity and yields increase, and environments are restored.
Permaculture principles can be applied to any environment, at any scale from dense urban settlements to individual homes, from farms to entire regions.
The origins of permaculture
Franklin Hiram King coined the term permanent agriculture in his classic book from 1911, Farmers of Forty Centuries: Or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan. In this context, permanent agriculture is understood as agriculture that can be sustained indefinitely.
In 1929, Joseph Russell Smith took up the term as the subtitle for Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, a book in which he summed up his long experience experimenting with fruits and nuts as crops for human food and animal feed. A revised and updated edition was published in 1950. Smith observed, "Forest -- field -- plow -- desert -- that is the cycle of the hills under most plow agricultures... When we develop an agriculture that fits this land, it will become an almost endless vista of green, crop-yielding trees.". Smith saw the world as an inter-related whole and suggested mixed systems of trees and crops underneath.
The work of Howard T. Odum was also an early influence on Permaculture, especially for Holmgren. Odum focused on system ecology, in particular the maximum power principle, which claims that natural systems tend to maximize the energy embodied in a system. For example, the total calorific value of woodland is very high with its multitude of plants and animals. It is an efficient converter of sunlight into biomass. A wheat field, on the other hand, has much less total energy and often requires a large energy input in terms of fertilizer if the wheat and straw are harvested and removed from the field.
The definition of permanent agriculture as that which can be sustained indefinitely was supported by Australian P. A. Yeomans in the 1973 book "Water for Every Farm." who introduced an observation-based approach to land use in Australia in the 1940s, based partially on his understanding of geology. Yeomans introduced Keyline Design as a way of managing water supply and distribution. Holmgren based his EcoVillage design on the keyline principle, Other early influences were the work of Esther Deans, who pioneered No-Dig Gardening methods, and Masanobu Fukuoka who, in the late 1930s in Japan, began advocating no-till orchards, gardens and natural philosophy.
Other recent influences include the Vegetable Aquaculture and Animal enClosures (VAC) system in Vietnam which is a government-supported system to recycle resources.
In the mid 1970s, Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren started to develop ideas about stable agricultural systems. This was a result of rapid growth of destructive industrial-agricultural methods. They saw that these methods were poisoning the land and water, reducing biodiversity, and removing billions of tons of topsoil from previously fertile landscapes. They announced their permaculture approach with the publication of Permaculture One in 1978.
The term permaculture initially meant "permanent agriculture" but was quickly expanded to also stand for "permanent culture" as it was seen that social aspects were integral to a truly sustainable system.
After Permaculture One, Mollison further refined and developed the ideas by designing hundreds of permaculture sites and organizing this information into more detailed books. Mollison lectured in over 80 countries and taught his two-week Design Course to many hundreds of students. By the early 1980s, the concept had broadened from agricultural systems design towards complete, sustainable human habitats.
By the mid 1980s, many of the students had become successful practitioners and had themselves begun teaching the techniques they had learned. In a short period of time permaculture groups, projects, associations, and institutes were established in over one hundred countries. In 1991 a four-part Television documentary by ABC productions called "The Global Gardener" showed permaculture applied to a range of worldwide situations, bringing the concept to a much broader public..
The first recorded modern practice of permaculture as a systematic method was by Austrian farmer Sepp Holzer in the 1960s, but the method was scientifically developed by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren and their associates during the 1970s in a series of publications.
The word permaculture is described by Mollison as a portmanteau of permanent agriculture, and permanent culture.
Both the mentor (Mollison) and the student (Holmgren) developed concepts that can help humans to create enduring agriculture systems. Since then it has been constantly developed by a huge range of people in many different countries and it is now a worldwide phenomenon with a multitude of different strands and approaches.
The intent is that, by training individuals in a core set of design principles, those individuals can design their own environments and build increasingly self-sufficient human settlements — ones that reduce society's reliance on industrial systems of production and distribution that Mollison identified as fundamentally and systematically destroying Earth's ecosystems.
While originating as an agro-ecological design theory, permaculture has developed a large international following. This "permaculture community" continues to expand on the original ideas, integrating a range of ideas of alternative culture, through a network of publications, permaculture gardens, intentional communities, training programs, and internet forums. In this way, permaculture has become a form of architecture of nature and ecology as well as an informal institution of alternative social ideals.
The principles encompass those stated in Introduction to Permaculture, by Bill Mollison & Reny Mia Slay:
- Relative location.
- Each element performs many functions.
- Each important function is supported by many elements.
- Efficient energy planning: zone, sector and slope.
- Using biological resources.
- Cycling of energy, nutrients, resources.
- Small-scale intensive systems; including plant stacking and time stacking.
- Accelerating succession and evolution.
- Diversity; including guilds.
- Edge effects.
- Attitudinal principles: everything works both ways, and permaculture is information and imagination-intensive.
and those in Permaculture, a Designers' Manual, by Bill Mollison:
- Work with nature rather than against.
- The problem is the solution.
- Make the least change for the greatest possible effect.
- The yield of a system is theoretically unlimited (or only limited by the imagination and information of the designer).
- Everything gardens (or modifies its environment).
The Ethics of Permaculture
The ethics that underpin permaculture are:
- Earth care
- People care
- Fair shares
These ethics specifically maintain that we can develop systems where the planet and its inhabitants achieve and develop a state of well-being through using resources in a balanced way. In particular, resources should not be simply frittered away in the name of personal gain and individual profit which ultimately results in the depletion and destruction of our natural eco systems.
Modern permaculture is a system design tool. It is a way of:
1. looking at a whole system or problem
2. observing how the parts relate
3. planning to mend sick systems by applying ideas learned from long-term sustainable working systems
4. seeing connections between key parts
Why Use Permaculture?
A key question in the development of a Permanent Culture is why permaculture should be central to its development and proliferation?
The answer to this is simple, modern agricultural methods and methods of taking resources from the natural world are very destructive and completely unsustainable in the long term. They are detrimental towards the survival of the land, the people, and flora and fauna that make the land their habitat. The Permaculture way of doing things still provides us with our basic needs, only without all of the profiteering, exploitation and ecological degradation that is part and parcel of Capitalism and its control of abuse of resources
Not only will permaculture and its tools help us to create sustainable agricultural systems whilst enhancing the fertility of the locale eco systems, but it is also capable of improving how we build our homes in terms of ecological architecture and building design. There are many examples of eco-build houses that work on the principles of permaculture, indeed, as permaculture has flourished and gathered momentum over the last 3 decades so too has sustainable low impact houses. There are currently communities all over the UK living in low impact homes, including the Lammas Project in Pembrokeshire, Land Matters in Devon, Tinkers Bubble in Dorset, to name but a few.
Permaculture Creates Independence
When you have no control over the basic resources that you need to survive, you are effectively a slave reliant on others to meet these needs. Often these ‘others’ are large corporations driven by money and profit and not by human needs and compassion for people. This can be plainly seen with the recent speculative trading on food that caused food riots by increasing the cost of food, thereby making it inaccessible to many. Ironically, it is often these very areas that produce large quantities of food for the rest of the world, but then cannot afford to buy the food they produce.
Having a sound grasp of permaculture can help us extricate ourselves from these issues and practices, as it provides a way to meet your needs outside of the capitalist system whilst living an ecologically sound existence. Permaculture has the ability to give us complete thus reducing reliance on those organisations whose operations we have no control over. Permaculture principles are not only about food: they can also be applied to many aspects of life.
Permaculture in Action
There are many examples of why permaculture is a sustainable alternative to the current system which has an underlying assumption of there being an unlimited pool of natural resources.
One particular project that shows precisely why permaculture should replace the capitalist model is the Greening of the Desert project that is taking place in Jordan under the guidance of Australian permaculture pioneer Geoff Lawton. This project has reclaimed an area of extremely arid desert and converted it back into fertile productive land. This land now provides members of the local community with a new and sustainable supply of resources in an area of land previously written off. The Greening of the desert project really shows that permaculture can achieve results from the most extreme landforms in terms of their usability both now and in the future.
Rising to the challenge: From built in obsolescence to a permanent culture
The temporary Culture of built-in obsolescence that is at the core of consumer capitalism puts the profit motive of a few individuals before planet and people, it takes no account of, and has no interest in the extremely negative effects it has on the ecology of the planet, and the well being of any of its inhabitants. The future cannot be a Capitalist Neoliberal one, the continual and insatiable economic growth demanded to maintain it’s economically would destroy the planet as the Banks and global financiers ask us to pay off their Debts, these debts are three times the size of our planets usable resources in terms of putting a cost to them.
In order to move away from this very serious mess that Capitalism and individual human greed has created we need ideas and practices that are the exact opposite to that which now enslaves us.
Built in obsolescence needs to be ‘Built to last’ local food groups and collectives need to flourish and shove supermarkets out of their respective areas, instead of being consumers, we should be looking at we can stop consuming. Workers need to run and manage their places of work and be valued for the experts that they are within their given field. There are a lot of issues to address in terms of bringing about a Permanent Culture, but these issues are pulled together and solutions found within permacultures ever developing storehouse of knowledge and practices.
In permaculture systems the fertility and health of a particular system is not only maintained but it is also enhanced, this is the exact opposite of agriculture where the soil loses its own fertility every year and has to feed with oil based fertilizers.
Permaculture is able to replicate natural eco systems, within a food growing context this means less work for us as each part of the eco system works together to maintain itself, less work means less energy use which equates to food production without the need of fossil fuels.
Permaculture applications are not quick-fix solutions. Its design principles insist on a slow and gradual integration as a means of developing a sustainable and resilient Permanent Culture. This makes the adoption of these models crucial as the sooner people begin to utilise permaculture principles, the more likely a smooth transition to a new way of living will occur. Within the ethics and principles of permaculture there is a possible future that is ours to mould, a future where division, exploitation and control are things of the past. Any system of ideas that has the care of the earth and people and the limitation of resources at its heart has the ability transform societies and ways of thinking that are quite literally evolutionary as opposed to the knuckle dragging savagery of Capitalism.