It seems that lots of people get curious about the idea of permaculture because of an interest in growing food. This isn’t surprising, as the design of agricultural systems was the focus of most early permaculture thinking. But since their early days in the 70s and 80s, permaculturists have expanded the concept beyond agriculture, to apply to education, urban planning, finance, manufacturing, and just about every other arena of the human endeavor.
Think of permaculture as a toolbox for the design and repair of ecosystems on every scale, from neighborhood food resilience to small businesses, national land-use planning to planetary nutrient cycles. All you need to begin using it is a working knowledge of the tools.
In permaculture, we like to talk about designing from patterns to details, meaning that we first seek to understand the big-picture, meta-level concepts within a system (e.g. climate), and then work down to the fine-grain particulars (e.g. local vegetation dynamics). Applying this to permaculture itself, we start by looking at the ethics that underpin the philosophy (patterns), and then move to principles, strategies, and techniques (details). Until I have more time to elaborate, this page is only going to discuss the ethics and principles.
Permaculture’s Ethical Basis
Permaculture, unlike most other design frameworks, is founded on an explicit set of ethics. These ethics, Care for the Earth, Care for People, and the Fair Distribution of Resources, underpin all permaculture thinking.
Our highest priority must be to steward the ecological infrastructure that supports us. No matter what technological advances humans make, soil, air, and water will still be the basis for all terrestrial life. Our continued success as a species demands that future advances in human culture and technology not only cease to damage these precious resources, but that they actively take a role in regenerating them. Our agricultural and industrial processes must be redesigned so that they provide their intended product while simultaneously building soil, cleaning air, and purifying water. (And they can!)
Among the rights of all peoples are those of self-governance and access to the basic resources necessary to thrive. Securing these rights for ourselves, and conducting our lives in a way that supports others in doing so, is imperative. When individuals and societies work toward these ends, the enormous societal costs associated with poverty, racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression are eliminated, costs which are paid not only in human labor and suffering, but also by overburdening the Earth in the form of pollution and the endless consumption of natural resources.
Perhaps implied by the first two ethics, “fair shares” is a catchy abbreviation describing the equitable distribution of resources and setting limits to population and consumption. This is necessary for both Earthcare and Peoplecare: when societies highly value the fair distribution of resources, people don’t have to engage in ecologically destructive behavior in order to survive (e.g. slash-and-burn agriculture); when societies decide to set limits to population and consumption, there can enough resources for everyone to experience a high quality-of-life.
Observation: The Key to Good Design
All philosophies of design view observation as a necessary skill, but permaculture is among the few that hold it up as the most important skill of all. A good understanding of any system is essential to modifying it toward a desired outcome, without creating significant unintended consequences. Economies, communities, and ecosystems are extraordinarily complex systems which cannot be understood in terms of simple, linear models.
Permaculture, like other frameworks, sets forth principles that guide the design of human settlements and systems of production. One characteristic that sets permaculture principles apart from the vast majority of other philosophies is that it is founded on observations of how ecosystems evolve. While most schools of design have only recently begun to recognize the most basic concepts of ecology, permaculture has always viewed them as integral to design: everything is connected to everything else; there is no “away”; nothing in nature grows indefinitely.
From these observations of natural systems, basic principles of design are deduced. Here are just a few permaculture principles to start off with:
Stacking Functions – Nothing in nature performs only one function; an apple tree doesn’t just produce fruit, it also provides shade, produces biomass, transpires moisture, creates a microclimate under its canopy, etc. By noticing how nature stacks functions, we can design elements into our systems such that they provide many services: a stone wall can be placed to just look nice, or it can be placed such that it will retain soil, serve as a bench, capture heat from the sun, and frame an outdoor space; a chicken coop can be placed in isolation, or it can be integrated into a broader system so that the chickens provide pest control, weeding, and fertilizer in a garden. On a larger scale, the exterior of a large building can be designed to be just a wall, OR it can be designed such that it provides energy production (photovoltaic panels), rainwater harvesting, passive heating/cooling, and natural light.
Designed Redundancy – A system is vulnerable where any essential function is served by only one element, or a necessary energy or resource is supplied by a single source. Consider how vulnerable Las Vegas is: with an annual precipitation averaging less than five inches, its sole water supply a human-made reservoir projected to dry up by 2021. On a home-scale, a number of water harvesting techniques can be utilized simultaneously: from the roof-top, runoff from hard surfaces, recapture from greywater, and infiltration of excess water into the soil. Each additional storage adds to the overall resilience of the site in the face of a future water shortage or drought.
Calorie In/Calorie Out – A sustainable system must, on average, regenerate it’s resource-base at an equal or greater rate than that base is consumed. Our 200-plus year of hyper-consumption has only been made possible by super-concentrated forms of ancient sunlight, such as coal and oil, which are produced in an amount of time that is exponentially greater than the time in which we’re consuming them. Future societies will need to design systems that consume no more energy than is constantly regenerating: the enormous amount of sunlight that hits the earth every day; the massive energy in the oceans’ tidal movements; tectonic; geothermal; etc.
Energy/Resource Cycling – Resources should be cycled within a system as many times before they are allowed to leave. For instance, the same water can used and repurified many times using simple biofilters, which reduces the pressure we put on our water resources. Applied, somewhat simplistically, to economics: $25 only creates $25 worth of value if it is spent at a business that doesn’t reinvest that money in the local economy. $25 that exchanges hands four times locally creates $100 worth of value in that community.
These are just a few of many principles, and because there have been relatively few attempts to codify permaculture principles, you’ll never find a “complete list.” While there are 10-15 that are almost universally taught, every teacher and practitioner tends to have their own amalgamation of principles that they consider to be the most integral. What all of the principles have in common, though, is that they describe a way in which ecosystems have evolved, over billions of years, to thrive. Which leads us to the central question…
The Central Question…?
Perhaps the most important thing to ask when designing or redesigning something is: “How would this look if we designed it to function like a natural ecosystem?” If we are able to answer this singular question about our basic life support systems: food, shelter, water, medicine, transportation, politics, etc., then we can solved the greatest problems of our times. Permaculture reminds us to always ask this question, and it gives us the tools to find the answers.
Further Reading and Other Resources
Toby Hemenway, a frequent Trackers Permaculture instructor, has written what is probably the most accessible guide to landscape permaculture Gaia’s Garden.
Some of the older core texts of permaculture include Permaculture One, Permaculture Two, and Permaculture:A Designers Manual. David Holmgren’s 2003 Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability is a solid intermediate text for readers with a basic understanding of permaculture or other systems frameworks.
Dave Jacke’s encyclopedic Edible Forest Gardens (a thick two-volume set), is the most complete work to date on temperate climate permaculture. A must read for any aspiring permaculture landscape designer or enthusiast.
Wikipedia entry on permaculture.