Introducing Permaculture

Reader Contribution by Maddy Harland
article image

Permaculture is primarily a thinking tool for designing low carbon, highly productive systems, but its influence can be very pervasive! Discovering permaculture often starts in the garden or on the farm, but permaculture isn’t just about growing food (although it can be a big help with designing productive food systems and I will be talking about this aspect a lot on this blog). Permaculture is a means of connecting each of us more deeply to nature’s patterns and wisdom  — and of applying that understanding in our daily lives. That is the inspirational nature of permaculture.

The disciple of permaculture design is based on observing what makes natural systems endure, establishing simple yet effective principles, and using them to mirror nature in whatever we chose to design: gardens, farms, buildings, woodlands, communities, businesses — even towns and cities. Permaculture is essentially about creating beneficial relationships between individual elements and making sure energy is captured rather than lost in a system. Its application is only as limited as our imagination.

Before we learn the principles and how to apply them, however, there is the bedrock in permaculture: its three ethics. These are its motivation, its heart. They are not exclusive to permaculture, and actually were derived by looking at the commonalities of many worldviews and beliefs. These ethics are therefore shared ethics, indeed shared by most of the world. What permaculture does is make them explicit within a design process that aims to take them out of the realms of philosophy and practically root them in everybody’s lives, transforming thinking into doing. It is their combined presence in a design that has a radical capacity for ecological and social transformation.

Earth Care 

Imagine the originators of permaculture, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, looking at the Australian landscape in the 1970s and seeing the devastating effects of a temperate European agriculture on the fragile soils of an ancient Antipodean landscape. Like the dust bowls of Oklahoma in the 1930s, an alien agriculture has the capacity to turn a delicately balanced ecology into desert. Their initial response was to design a permanent agriculture with tree crops and other perennials inhabiting all the niches, from the canopy to the ground cover and below. The soil is left untilled to establish its own robust micro-ecology. Key to this is that the land must be biodiverse and stable for future generations.

This ethic of Earth Care was bound to grow and pervade all aspects of permaculture: How can we have an organic agriculture or horticulture and manage our landscapes to sustain themselves over generations on one hand, and then consume goods from industries managed in ecologically damaging ways? The original vision of care for all living and non living things has grown to embrace a deep and comprehensive understanding of Earth Care that involves our many decisions, from the clothes we wear and the goods we buy to the materials we use for DIY projects.

People Care 

Embedded in permaculture is the concept of Permanent Culture. People Care asks that our basic needs for food, shelter, education, employment and healthy social relationships are met. Nor can genuine People Care be exclusive in a tribal sense. This is a global ethic of fair trade and intelligent support amongst all people, both at home and abroad.

Fair Shares or Sharing Resources 

The last ethic synthesizes the first two ethics. It acknowledges that we only have one earth, and we have to share it with all living things and future generations. There is no point in designing a sustainable family unit, community or nation whilst others languish without clean water, clean air, food, shelter, meaningful employment and social contact. Since the industrialized North uses the resources of at least three earths and much of the global South languishes in poverty, Fair Shares is an acknowledgement of that terrible imbalance and a call to limit consumption, especially of natural resources, in the North.

We human beings can either be the destroyers or the self-elected stewards of our planet, and we do have the capacity to put our ethics into action, literally to “walk our talk.” We are part of an interdependent planetary system that is under so much duress it is beginning to unravel, and we are running out of key resources like oil, phosphorus, and natural gas. Change is inevitable and so it makes sense to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and identify all the useful tools we can to help us bring a more ecologically balanced, equitable and renewable world into existence. Permaculture is one of them.

Coming next: Putting permaculture ethics into practice. Maddy Harland introduces the principles that help us ground the words in actions.

Photo Credit: Maddy and Tim’s veggie garden polyculture that mimics nature, from Penny Rose.