What is permaculture? That's the most common question that any permaculturist ever hears. To sum it up in a nutshell, permaculture is a design philosophy that emphasizes working with, rather than against, nature. Instead of attempting to overcome nature, permaculture seeks to mimic and utilize natural processes and patterns.
Permaculture rejects extraction economies in favor of new approaches that embrace and multiply renewable resources. It strives to create sustainable, closed-loop systems which generate zero waste.
The foundation of permaculture is a series of 12 design principles. These principles have been widely applied to agriculture, landscape design, architecture, urban design, utilities, resource acquisition, and waste disposal. While those are a few common applications, the principles of permaculture can be applied to any design or situation.
There are 3 core tenets that are at the root of all permaculture design. These tenets define everything else that falls under the umbrella of permaculture.
Many of the underlying elements of permaculture are as old as life itself. As long as life has existed on earth living things have adhered to, rather than fought against, the patterns of nature. Examine any indigenous culture and you will find elements of permaculture that have occurred naturally without any formal training.
The dawn of the philosophy that we know as "Permaculture" was a necessary response to the development of modern agricultural systems that abandoned respect for nature and adherence to its patterns. The earliest recorded such critique of modern agriculture was Joseph Russell's 1929 book Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture. Russell envisioned agricultural systems that obeyed the natural pattern of ecosystems having multiple layers (canopy, understory, herbaceous layer, etc.) rather than clearing the land and forcing one herbaceous layer - as in modern agriculture.
We only invented the word organic because we made things inorganic.
We only invented the word natural because we made things unnatural.
We only invented the word permaculture because we made agriculture.
― Khang Kijarro Nguyen
Other noteworthy early developments include:
Then in the 1970s, two Australian environmentalists named Bill Mollison and David Holmgren connected in Tasmania and began working together. They wanted to define a positive direction forward for the millions of people who had become disenchanted with Western policies and practices during the late 1960s.
Mollison and Holmgren recognized that modern agricultural techniques were heavily dependent on non-renewable external inputs. They observed that the result of this approach was detrimental to both the soil and the water. And they began working together to develop new systems that embraced biodiversity and relied only on renewable internal inputs. They coined the term "Permaculture" as a combination of the words "permanent" and "agriculture."
Together, Mollison and Holmgren wrote an article titled "A Permaculture System for Southern Australian Conditions." Their article was published in 1976 in the newsletter Tasmania's Organic Farmer and Gardener, and the permaculture movement was born. The two also collaborated on the book Permaculture One - A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements, which was first published in 1978.
Shortly thereafter, the two parted ways. Holmgren went to work putting the ideas of permaculture into practice on a small rural farm in Victoria, Australia.
Mollison opted to go public and spread the message of permaculture to the masses. He did radio interviews and speaking tours for the next few years. In 1979, he taught the first permaculture design course to 18 participants at a small hotel in Stanley, Tasmania. Mollison encouraged each graduate to become a teacher, and in this way the principles of permaculture spread worldwide within a decade.
See PacificEdge's 2007 write up for a more detailed history of permaculture.
This whole site is here to answer the question, "What is permaculture?" Have a look around, read about the various popular concepts, read about the people who fuel the movement, and check out the long lists of resources that we've gathered up.
Spend a little time on this site and you'll know exactly how to answer if anyone ever asks you, "What is permaculture?"