What is Permaculture?
The word Permaculture was coined in 1978 by Bill Mollison, an Australian ecologist, and one of his students, David Holmgren. It is a contraction of “permanent agriculture”, or “permanent culture”.
According to Bill Mollison, the originator of the Permaculture design system, “Permaculture principles focus on thoughtful designs for small-scale intensive systems, which are labor efficient and which use biological resources instead of fossil fuels. Designs stress ecological connections and closed energy and material loops. The core of Permaculture is design and the working relationships and connections between all things. Each component in a system performs multiple functions, and each function is supported by many elements. Key to efficient design is observation and replication of natural ecosystems, where designers maximize diversity with polycultures, stress efficient energy planning for houses and settlement, using and accelerating natural plant succession, and increasing the highly productive edge-zones within the system.”
Permaculture is about designing ecological human habitats and food production systems. It is a land use and community building movement that strives for the harmonious integration of human dwellings, microclimate, annual and perennial plants, animals, soils, and water into stable, productive communities. The focus is not on these elements themselves, but rather on the relationships created among them by the way we place them in the landscape. This synergy is further enhanced by mimicking patterns found in nature.
A central theme in Permaculture is the design of ecological landscapes that produce food. Emphasis is placed on multi-use plants, cultural practices such as sheet mulching and trellising, and the integration of animals to recycle nutrients and graze weeds.
However, Permaculture entails much more than just food production. Energy-efficient buildings, waste water treatment, recycling, and land stewardship in general are other important components of Permaculture. More recently, Permaculture has expanded its purview to include economic and social structures that support the evolution and development of more permanent communities. As such, Permaculture design concepts are applicable to urban as well as rural settings, and are appropriate for single households as well as whole farms, villages, towns and cities.
The Three Epochs of Human Development
“Since our emergence as a species, humankind has gone through three great cultural epochs, each with its prototypical lifestyle forms and folkways. The first epoch was that of the pre‑agricultural tribe of hunter‑gatherers and primitive cultivators. Hunter‑gatherer societies sustained themselves by having an intimate and intuitive knowledge of their surroundings. They acted as “gardeners” in the natural world and walked the earth quietly leaving as little trace of their presence as possible.
The simultaneous development of agriculture ten thousand years ago in various regions of the world gave birth to the second cultural epoch. The ability to grow food year after year from seeds and cultivated plants selected for vigor and reliability gave the former hunter‑gatherer the opportunity to remain in one place and cultivate extensive food crops for sustenance for family, relatives and friends.
The third cultural epoch gave rise to an explosion of intellectual, artistic and scientific learning. The technological discoveries and inventions of this era (which is still with us) helped to disassemble nature into pieces and then reassemble them into mechanical entities.
We now stand at a time when the best of these three great epochs must come together to help create an ecologically sound environment for all. The ecological epoch will see a resacralization of the living world in which life forms are more than resources‑ they are also our relatives. The new epoch will not reject science or technology but bring them into a context where phenomena are understood as parts of a systemic whole that includes the spirit of the whole.”
As stated by Bill Mollison in Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, in order for the long-term consequences of our actions to promote sustainability for future generations, we need to use “species that are native to our area or those naturalized species known to be beneficial; plan for small‑scale, energy‑efficient intensive systems rather than large‑scale, energy‑consuming extensive systems; be diverse, poly-cultural; increase the sum of yields: look at the total yield of the system provided by annuals, perennials, crops, trees and animals, also regard energy saved as a yield; use low energy environmental (solar, wind and water) and biological (plant and animal) systems to conserve and generate energy; bring food‑growing back into the towns and cities; assist people to become self‑reliant and promote community responsibility; re-afforest the earth and restore fertility to the soil; use everything at its optimum level and recycle so‑called wastes of any kind; see solutions, not problem .”
Principles of Permaculture
Care of People: promotes self-reliance and community responsibility and access to resources necessary for existence
Setting Limits to Population and Consumption, Benevolent Distribution of Goods and Resources
System yield is the sum total of surplus energy produced by, stored, conserved, reused, or converted by the design. Energy is in surplus once the system itself has available all its needs for growth, reproduction and maintenance. Unused surplus results in pollution and more work.
Ethics: The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children. Cooperation, not competition, is the very basis of future survival and of existing life systems.
Relative Location: Components placed in a system are viewed relatively, not in isolation.
Everything is connected to everything else: Recognize functional relationships between elements.
Every function is supported by many elements (redundancy): Good design ensures that all important functions can withstand the failure of one or more element.
Every element is supported by many functions: Each element we include is a system, chosen and placed so that it performs as many functions as possible.
Local Focus: “Think globally-act locally”. Grown your own food, cooperate with neighbors. Community efficiency, not self-sufficiency.
Diversity: As a general rule, as sustainable systems mature they become increasingly diverse in both space and time. What is important is the complexity of the functional relationships that exist between elements, not the number of elements.
Biological Resources: We know living things reproduce and build up their availability over time, assisted by their interaction with other compatible elements. Use and reserve biological intelligence.
One calorie in/one calorie out: Do not consume or export more biomass than carbon fixed by the solar budget.
Stocking: Finding the balance of various elements to keep one from overpowering another over time. How much of an element needs to be produced in order to fulfill the needs of the whole system?
Stacking: Multi-level functions for single element. Multi-level garden design, i.e., trellising, forest garden, vines, groundcovers, etc.
Succession: Recognize that certain elements prepare the way for the system to support other elements in the future, i.e., succession planting.
Use onsite resources: Determine what resources are available and entering the system on their own. Maximize their use.
Edge effect: Ecotones are the most diverse and fertile area in a system. Two ecosystems come together to form a third which has more diversity than either of the other two, i.e., edges of ponds, forests, meadows, currents, etc.
Energy recycling: Yields form system designed to supply onsite needs and/or needs of local region.
Small scale: Intensive systems start small and create a system that is manageable and produces a high yield.
Make least change for the greatest effect: The less change that is generated, the less embedded energy is used to endow the system.
Planting strategy: 1st-natives, 2nd-proven exotics, 3rd-unproven exotics- carefully on small scale with lots of observation.
Work within nature: Aiding the natural cycles results in higher yield and less work. A little support goes a long way.
Appropriate technology: The same principles apply to cooking, lighting, transportation, heating, sewage treatment, water and other utilities.
Law of return: Whatever we take, we must return. Every object must responsibly provide for its replacement.
Stress and harmony: Stress here may be defined as either prevention of natural function, or of forced function. Harmony may be defined as the integration of chosen and natural functions, and the easy supply of essential needs.
The problem is the solution: We are the problem, we are the solution. Turn constraints into resources.
Mistakes are tools for learning
The yield of a system is theoretically unlimited: The only limit on the number of uses of a resource possible is the limit of information and imagination of the designer.
Dispersal of yield over time: Principle of seven generations. We can use energy to construct these systems providing that in their lifetime they store or conserve more energy that we use to construct them or to maintain them.
A policy of responsibility (to relinquish power): The role of successful design is to create a self-managed system.
Principle of disorder: Order and harmony produce energy for other uses. Disorder consumes energy to no useful end. Tidiness is maintained disorder.
Chaos has form but is not predictable. The amplification of small fluctuations.
Entropy: In complex systems disorder is an increasing result. Entropy and life-force is a stable pair that maintains the universe to infinity.
Metastability: For a complex system to remain stable there must be small pockets of disorder.
Entelechy: Principle of genetic intelligence, i.e., the rose has thorns to protect itself.
Observation: Protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor.
We are surrounded by insurmountable opportunities.
Wait one year.
Hold water and fertility as high (in elevation) on the landscape as possible.
David Holmgren, co-creator of the Permaculture concept, has focused the Permaculture principles into twelve, comprehensive points. Visit his site for more information and free materials: Essence of Permaculture