What is Permaculture?

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.

The 3 Core Tenets of Permaculture

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.

  1. Care for the Earth
    Without a healthy earth, we as humans cannot thrive.  Therefore all of our systems must first strive to provide a healthy environment for us to work in.
  2. Care for the People
    People are at the center of the permaculture philosophy.  We plan, design, and execute the principles of permaculture in order to create abundance, happiness, and health.  People must not be exploited.  Nor can they be ignored, marginalized, or neglected.
  3. Return of Surplus
    Successful permaculture designs generate a surplus.  Minimal external inputs should be used, and outputs should continually increase.  Surpluses can be harvested, but anything that is not immediately needed should be reinvested in the system.

The 12 Principles of Permaculture

  1. Observe and Interact
    Observe your design site and interact with all of its elements.  Learn about the forces that are at work, what drives them, and what their effects are.  Try not to interrupt any preexisting natural processes.  Observe and interact with all aspects of your design site before making any changes.
  2. Catch and Store Energy
    You are surrounded by abundant energy every day.  Catch and store the heat from the sun.  Catch and store electricity from the sun and wind.  Catch energy wherever you find it, and find a way to store it.
  3. Obtain a Yield
    Create a design that makes something useful.  Your yield might be food, energy, resources, products, knowledge, or social rewards.  Create a design that is creative and productive.
  4. Apply Self-Regulation and Respond to Feedback
    Consistently review your results and make adjustments based on what you learn.  If something doesn't work, stop it.  Change it.  Revisit your design and make improvements as you receive feedback from stakeholders and the site itself.
  5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services
    Find and use resources that will never run out.  Evaluate the life cycle of your resources, and find an appropriate use for each stage.  Try to find and use resources that each serve many different functions.
  6. Produce No Waste
    Strive to create closed loops where each spent resource has a purpose.  One classic example is to feed plants to your animals, and use your animal's manure as fertilizer to grow more plants.  What is permaculture?  Permaculture is zero outside inputs and zero waste.
  7. Design from Pattern to Details
    Learn to recognize the patterns that exist in nature around you.  Apply those patterns to the details of your design to maximize efficiency and effectiveness.
  8. Integrate Rather than Segregate
    Combine elements and their functions to create synergy and stack functions.  Don't attempt to separate the various elements of your design.  Do try to match up complimentary elements that work well together.
  9. Use Small and Slow Solutions
    Quick fixes are often fool's gold, providing short term rewards at the expense of long-term success.  Build solutions that use many small components to address long-term goals.
  10. Use and Value Diversity
    Permaculture rejects all forms of monoculture in order to create as diverse an environment as possible.  Take advantage of the complex interplay between people, plants, animals, insects, and microorganisms to maintain healthy and balanced ecosystems.
  11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal
    When two elements meet, they create an unusually productive and diverse environment where their edges touch.  Cultivate those edges and maximize their effect within your design.
  12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change
    When you follow the principles of permaculture, the palette you paint on is continually changing and responding to conditions.  Monitor changes as they happen, and refer back to the foundational principles as you adapt and revise your design.

The History 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:

  • Toyohiko Kagawa's work on forest farming in Japan in the 1930s
  • Masanobu Fukuoka's work on no-till farming and regenerative agriculture in Japan in the 1930s
  • Ruth Stouts work on no-till gardening in Kansas in the 1950s and 1960s

The Birth of the Movement

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. 

What is 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?"

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