Permaculture is a simple concept, yet notoriously difficult to define. I call it the cultivation of sustainable ecosystems. Some would say this definition is too vague, but I think of it as a starting point which encompasses, if not specifically mentioning, all that permaculture is and is not.
Cultivation is the process of raising and nurturing natural things- plants, animals and cultures, for our own use. Therefore our actions are an integral part of permaculture, in that we actively design and work systems to be as useful to us as possible.
Sustainable means something that does not need (indefinite) external inputs, and is therefore self-reliant once established. More broadly, it should not have negative impacts on the broader environment by way of pollution or the destruction of natural resources.
Ecosystems are natural systems balanced in a way to create equilibrium: with cycles, food webs and biodiversity creating stability. The goal is to harness these systems, and use them as inspiration for permaculture design.
Permaculture was originally defined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren (the co-originators of the concept) as an “intergrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man.” (B. Mollison & D. Holmgren, Permaculture One Corgi 1978)
In his book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways to Sustainability (Holmgren Design Services 2002), Holmgren says a more current definition is “consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs.”
In Permaculture: A Designers Manual (Tagari, 1988), Mollison, who coined the word, writes
“Permaculture (Permanent agriculture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious intergration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way. Without permanent agriculture there is no possibility of a stable social order.”
However it is defined, permaculture aims to provide for our human needs, by harnessing natural processes and preserving the environment.
The opposite of the cultivation of sustainable ecosystems, then, is the acceptance of unsustainable, man-made systems.
Despite the short term advantages of modern life, our relationship with the environment causes waste, pollution and disrupts the equilibrium of ecosystems. Natural resources are exploited, and irreversible destruction dismissed as collateral damage in the name of progress.
But people, plants and animals are, in fact, able to co-exist harmoniously. By using permaculture design, principles, and ethics, we can mimic the natural world and use resources sustainably. The key is to accounts for our actions and see them as part of a holistic system.
By doing so, we can provide for our most basic needs easily, with no environmental downside... just as we have done for thousands of years. As for the perks of modern living- we can have this too! We just need to learn to pay the true environmental cost of these choices.
The benefits of permaculture go beyond environmentalism, however. Taking responsibility for our food and wellbeing helps us reconnect with the simplest pleasures in life, and reject rampant consumerism. The value of relationships and community become central as we rely less on global business, and more on local resource sharing and cooperation. It’s better for our health as we eat fresher food and live less sedentary lifestyles. And, as we abandon the idea of being superior to our environment and embrace being a part of it, it could even be argued that permaculture has a spiritual aspect.
Most of all, permaculture helps us take control of our lives. When we are no longer dependent on big business for our basic needs, we become secure. When the economy no longer dictates our ability to live fulfilling lives, we become independent. And when we reject the notion that the only possible world is one determined by others, we become free.
By engaging with permaculture, we can help stop the destruction of our natural world. There's a great article about it by Andy Russell here..
In its purest form, a permaculture might resemble a bio-dome on Mars- a hybrid system of plants, animals and technology, intricately arranged to support life. People can live here, but only if their actions are factored into the functioning of the system as a whole, and moderated appropriately.
On Earth, we already have an atmosphere, water and renewable resources, balanced into a remarkably functional system. Like a bio-dome, it can provide for us indefinitely if we account for our actions. So the first way we can practice permaculture is to care for the planet that supports us.
Ecosystems are also more local. They might form a rainforest or a coral reef. They can be found around a single tree or in a handful of soil. And while people can never recreate the complexity of life needed to form an ecosystem from scratch, we can design and create habitats that harness the same natural processes to keep things in balance.
A permaculture might be a few acres with lots of animals and plants living in harmony. It might be a rooftop community garden where people gather to share and cooperate. It might be a suburban backyard, a cleverly designed balcony, or herbs on a window sill combined with a worm farm in the laundry. Large or small, simple or complicated, if it creates a more sustainable relationship between the various elements of our lives, it is permaculture in action.
large scale permaculture