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Pat Murphy March 4, 2011
Permaculture stands for Permanent Culture and/or Permanent Agriculture. It is defined as a design system for the creation of sustainable human settlements and is at the heart of the Transition movement. Transition founder Rob Hopkins notes:
“I love permaculture dearly. I did my Design Course in 1992, and have been a teacher of it since 1997. I live, breathe and dream permaculture. It is family. It is in my DNA.”
Rob states that he developed the first full time permaculture course in the world in 2001 at the Kinsale College of Future Education in Ireland.  He taught this course until 2005, at which time he moved to Totnes, England. The course at Kinsale continues under the direction of Graham Strouts.
Permaculture was founded by Bill Mollison in Australia in the late 1970s. The original written works were done with the help of David Holmgren, who is frequently referred to as the “Co-Originator of the Permaculture Concept”. The first two books were titled Permaculture One (1978) and Permaculture Two (1979). Mollison founded the Permaculture Institute in 1979 and authored another classic work Permaculture: A Designers Manual which was published in 1988. Mollison is less active in the movement now, being in his mid 80s. David Holmgren is still very active and wrote another seminal book Permaculture Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability which was published in 2002. Permaculture as a concept and a philosophy is about 33 years old.
David Holmgren’s work represents the most up to date perspective on Permaculture. According to him three ethics are central to permaculture, which are:
1 – Care for the earth
2 – Care for people
3 – Fair share
These ethics are the foundation of permaculture and, as pointed out by Holmgren, are frequently found in traditional less industrialized societies.
For people who have not read Holmgren’s books, I have included several lists of permaculture principles starting with the 12 principles of permaculture as he defines them:
Observe and Interact – “Beauty is in the mind of the beholder” – By taking the time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.
Catch and Store Energy – “Make hay while the sun shines” – By developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need.
Obtain a Yield – “You can’t work on an empty stomach” – Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the working you are doing.
Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback – “The sins of the fathers are visited on the children of the seventh generation” – We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well. Negative feedback is often slow to emerge.
Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services – “Let nature take its course” – Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.
Produce No Waste – “Waste not, want not” or “A stitch in time saves nine” – By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
Design from Patterns to Details – “Can’t see the forest for the trees” – 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.
Integrate Rather Than Segregate – “Many hands make light work” – By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.
Use Small and Slow Solutions – “Slow and steady wins the race” or “The bigger they are, the harder they fall” – Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and produce more sustainable outcomes.
Use and Value Diversity – “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” – Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.
Use Edges and Value the Marginal – “Don’t think you are on the right track just because it’s a well-beaten path” – 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.
Creatively Use and Respond to Change – “Vision is not seeing things as they are but as they will be” – We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing and then intervening at the right time.
There are other categories to the system which are sometimes described in a well known graphic, the Permaculture Flower. The flower has a set of seven categories listed below which include brief descriptions of each categories’ principles.
Passive solar design – Sun oriented glazing and shading, thermal mass, passive venting.
Natural construction materials – Earth, straw-bale, lime plaster, round pole, stone.
Water harvesting & Waste Reuse – Water tanks, compost toilets and reedbeds.
Biotechture – The manipulation of tree form to grow structures and buildings.
Earth sheltered construction – “Earthships” and other designs that build into the ground.
Natural disaster resistant construction – Bushfire, wind, flood & earthquake.
Owner building – Empowerment and financial autonomy of residents and communities in constructing their own housing using accessible technologies and materials.
Pattern Language – Organic design theory and tools of Christopher Alexander.
Tools & Technology
Reuse & creative recycling – Decentralized and context specific reuse of materials through craft, rather than centralized industrial processes.
Hand tools – Recovery and maintenance of traditional tools and skills.
Bicycles & electric bikes – Human powered and assisted transport that improves the efficiency of the human body.
Efficient & low pollution wood stoves – Rocket and other stove designs using simple materials and local construction.
Fuels from organic wastes – Bio-diesel, methanol, biogas and wood gas for local cooking, electricity and transport.
Wood gasification – Efficient and carbon neutral fuel for local electric power and vehicle transport.
Bio-char from forest wastes – Charcoal soil improver and carbon capture.
Co-generation – Use of fuel to generate electricity and provide heat for on-site use.
Micro-hydro & small scale wind – Simple renewable technologies for remote and local grid power.
Grid-tied renewable power generation – Use of the electric grid as a “battery” for localized power generation.
Energy storage – Heat banks, pumped storage (water), compressed air, and other simple temporary stores of energy.
Transition engineering – Re-localization of the maintenance, retrofit and redesign of infrastructure and technology.
Education & Culture
Homeschooling – Parents as natural teachers of children within the household economy.
Waldorf education – Schools based on the educational methods of Rudolf Steiner.
Participatory arts & music – Reclaiming our place as actors/musicians rather than spectators.
Social ecology – Philosophy focused on the redesign of society using ecological principles.
Action learning – A reflective process of progressive problem solving that accepts the observer as a part of the system being studied.
Transition culture – An evolving exploration of the head, heart and hand of energy descent.
Health & Spiritual Well-Being
Home birth & breast feeding – Reclaiming birth and infant nutrition as part of the economy of nature and the household.
Complementary & holistic medicine – A wide spectrum of approaches to health care outside of conventional allopathic medicine.
Yoga, Tai Chi & other body/mind/spirit disciplines – The maintenance of health through regular designed exercises based on eastern traditions.
Spirit of place, indigenous cultural revival – Reconnection of spiritual and cultural values to place and “country”.
Dying with dignity – Movement to reclaim dying from institutionalized medicine.
Finances & Economics
Local & regional currencies – Interest-free money systems that serve a defined and limited territory.
Carpooling, ride sharing & car share – Rebuilding community by more efficient use of existing cars and roads.
Ethical investment & fair trade – Using the power of investment and consumption to drive equitable economies.
Farmers markets & community supported agriculture (CSA) – Direct connection and contracting between producers and consumers without the middlemen.
WWOOFing & similar networks – Voluntary exchange of work for food, accommodation and experience of ecological living.
Tradable energy quotas – A parallel currency to allow equitable distribution and trade of the right to consume and pollute.
Life cycle analysis & ‘emergy’ accounting – Holistic methods for measuring the full costs and benefits of existing and new technologies and economies.
Land Tenure & Community Governance
Cooperatives & Body Corporates – Legal structures for collective ownership and management of land, buildings and other assets.
Cohousing & Ecovillages – Ecologically designed communities where residents are bound together by some degree of shared ownership and organization.
Open Space Technology & Consensus Decision Making – Collaborative tools for sharing knowledge and reaching decisions.
Native Title & Traditional Use Rights – Traditional ways of non-exclusive use of land and resources, recognized in law.
Land & Nature Stewardship
Bio-intensive gardening – Use of compost, double digging, companion planting and natural pest control to produce the maximum amount of food in the minimum area.
Forest gardening – Producing food from trees, perennial and annual plants in a system that mimics a natural forest.
Seed saving – Collecting and storing seeds, often with the aim of maintaining certain strains.
Organic agriculture – Commercial agriculture that uses natural fertilizers and pest control methods.
Biodynamics – A system of organic agriculture and gardening based on the work of Rudolf Steiner.
Natural farming – A Japanese system of organic agriculture involving minimal or no use of tillage and animal manures, most notably associated with Masanobu Fukuoka.
Keyline water harvesting – A system of landscape analysis, water harvesting and soil development using dams, channels and soil condition ploughing, developed by P.A.Yeomans.
Holistic rangeland management – A system that uses intensive rotational grazing of livestock to sustainably manage land and provide animal yields, developed and taught by Allan Savory.
Natural sequence farming – A system of gabions, revegetation, and swales, to restore health and productivity of floodplains, developed by Peter Andrews.
Agroforestry – Integrated production of pastures and/or crops with timber and/or tree crops.
Nature-based forestry – Sustainable forestry that uses mixed species, long rotations, minimal impact harvesting and natural regeneration in wild and planted timber forests.
Integrated aquaculture – Aquatic systems that provide most of the food for harvested fish and/or other animals.
Wild harvesting & hunting – Gathering food and other yields from wild plants and animals.
Gleaning – Gathering of food wasted by commercial production.
As I reviewed these, it became apparent to me that I have spent a good part of my life involved with these kinds of “sustainability” principles and activities in one form or another including intentional communities, environmental activities and living in small towns. Many of these principles are represented in the way of life of people in third world countries. They are found in many groups in the Intentional Communities movement. In one sense they form the basis for a concept of a different culture and in another sense they are a set of attributes that could define any culture.
My main question with permaculture is not so much “what is permaculture” but rather “where are the human settlements?” that are based on permaculture. (Recall Permaculture has been around for more than three decades). There are few such settlements in the U.S. and the ones I have visited or read about are quite small. I visited Earthaven in North Carolina in 2005 and the School of Future Education in Kinsale in 2009. And I visited two permaculture sites in Cuba during my three trips there to make the film “The Power of Community – How Cuba Survived Peak Oil”. In most places, the work done was more demonstrative than practical.
Many people say that permaculture is highly theoretical. Rob Hopkins addressed this in response to a 2009 blog by well known author and blogger Sharon Astyk by commenting as follows:
“Permaculture has, for a long time, been good at making big claims… I’m sure, at various times, I have been as guilty of this as anyone. ‘Permaculture can feed the world’, ‘permaculture is more productive than intensive farming’, ‘we definitely know that permaculture works’.”
Rob then describes his experience in teaching about the advantages of chicken greenhouses and discovering neither he nor other fellow teachers had actually ever seen one. He goes on to comment on the approach:
“Yet there it is as a design classic that we tell people definitely works. There are others; is mulching the best technique in temperate zones, is forest gardening really as low maintenance as it is often presented, are permaculture gardens based on a preponderance of perennial plants anywhere near as productive as traditional market gardening?”
“What has long concerned me is that there are lots of people out there in permaculture, all with great motivation and intention, disseminating things which may or may not work, and not enough people actually rigorously testing it, revisiting projects, documenting successes and failures, and being honest about them. Misperceptions and half-truths become enshrined as fact.”
Rob talks more about how little first hand testable research is taking place. He recalls that Bill Mollison’s message was that “we just need to do stuff”. He goes on to say:
“…..He (Mollison) famously said ‘if (we) lose the universities we lose nothing, if we lose the forests, we lose everything’. Yes, fair point, but to me it implied a rejection of the idea of research and measurement, and as a result, we have a movement of doers, and very little measurement, and not enough self criticism and self reflection. .….There is an old joke that runs thus; how many permaculturists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: 14 – One to change the bulb and 13 to run light bulb changing workshops.”
Rob then discussed a second built in flaw which is the inability of permaculture to present itself acceptably to the mainstream. He notes that it is rooted in an alternative culture waiting for the world to wake up and realize that permaculture holds the answers. He says:
“I think it is extraordinary that, to the best of my knowledge, there is still no landscape design consultancy out there (in the UK at least) tendering for public parks, new developments and other spaces, producing really high quality permaculture designs for edible landscapes, agroforestry plantings and skilful and productive water management in those places. Where are the trainers taking permaculture principles into organizations? By now there ought to be loads.”
“…. I have taught hundreds of people all I know about permaculture, especially through the course in Kinsale. How many of them now work as permaculture design professionals? How many of them then augmented what I had taught them with written presentation skills, graphic design skills, the skills required to run their own business? To the best of my knowledge none, although many of them integrated various aspects of permaculture into their lives.”
It is not clear to me if permaculture is a movement with substantial historical accomplishments. It is a growing collection of ideas and practices that Holmgren believes are the best way to live in a sustainable manner, which I appreciate. His lists are very diverse, bringing under Permaculture’s umbrella Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic agriculture and Waldorf education as well as Chris Alexander’s Pattern Language. There is carpooling and ridesharing, agroforestry and nature-based forestry, organic agriculture and natural farming, passive solar building and biotecture, to call out a few. Some of the categories have been added recently. Maybe in a few years the German “passive house” will become part of permaculture too. The term “permaculture” seems to have become an umbrella for an extremely wide and growing range of methods and ideas. If a person does any one of the things on the list, they could call themselves a “permaculturist.” My wife has been an organic gardener for many years, but she does not call herself a permaculturist. Co-housing and Eco-villages are part of the “in” list, but not Intentional Communities. Seeing the breadth of the possibilities was eye-opening for me, as most people I know attempting permaculture are focused on food forests and no-till CSA farming.
Another part of the permaculture movement appears to be highly theoretical with most activity going into attending and/or teaching courses. I have at different times tried to create a list of productive groups with accurate metrics but have not been able to do so. As far as I can tell, the population of practicing permaculturists is extremely small and none of those who practice it use all the principles. Some do agroforestry, some organic gardening, some no-till farming, some car sharing, and some a mix from the list. This emphasizes the experimental nature of the Transition movement as noted in Transition’s “Cheerful Disclaimer”. In reading Mollison’s and Holmgren’s works, I can see that they can be taken as a collection of various paths of action with the focus to live using less energy and more in community with ones fellow citizens and nature.
In summary, permaculture appears to be an endeavor to collect many creative options and ideas from many sources under one umbrella with a unique name. It appears to be much broader in scope and less practical than portrayed in Transition literature. For this reason, although it can inspire, I am not sure if permaculture can be the basis for a worldwide movement that needs to grow rapidly to counter the dangers of peak oil and climate change.