The word permaculture is mentioned with increasing frequency in speeches, books and magazine articles on sustainability and food security. What is permaculture? Is it a movement? A philosophy? Simply a set of design tools? In this article, I answer the above questions by looking at permaculture from a variety of angles. First, I briefly describe permaculture’s history, underlying ethics, and key principles and common practices. Then I discuss common criticisms of permaculture and explain the underlying perspective that shapes its use in addressing a community’s food, water and shelter needs (i.e., the lens through which a permaculturalist views development). Finally, I share how permaculture has influenced my own life and work, both as a Christian and as an agriculture development worker.
The word permaculture, coined by its co-founder Bill Mollison, is formed from the words “permanent” and “agriculture.” The concept of permaculture is difficult to explain in just a few words, because the term is used to describe (usually simultaneously) both a worldview/philosophy for living on the earth and a set of design principles and practices.
Bill Mollison emphasized the philosophical aspect in his definition: “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system” (Mollison 1988).
Rafter Ferguson, a well-regarded permaculture researcher and practitioner, has an elegantly simple way to frame the many aspects of permaculture: “Permaculture is meeting human needs while increasing ecosystem health” (Ferguson 2012). To guard against reductionism, Rafter adds a cautionary statement to his concise definition, saying, “I’m all for shorthand definitions in the right context as long as it’s being used to communicate a principle rather than obscure fundamental complexity” (Ferguson 2013b).
My own definition of permaculture is as follows: Permaculture is a cohesive set of ethics, principles and practices that help guide the stewardship of an ecosystem to ensure resilience and abundance to all its inhabitants.
Permaculturalists and Permaculture Designers
The permaculture movement is very open-source and non-centralized. A person wanting to call him/herself a Permaculturalist or Permaculture Designer is expected to complete a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) led by a teacher or group of teachers with sufficient training and experience to teach the course. Courses are offered through universities, at small farms that have been designed around permaculture principles, and even in the backyards of urban/peri-urban permaculturalists. Each course includes 72 hours of instruction based on the main themes laid out in Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual by Bill Mollison (1988). Courses can be structured many ways: intensive courses take place over nine consecutive days, weekend courses take place over several consecutive weekends, and online courses are typically nine weeks long.
Many people practice permaculture without calling themselves permaculture designers and without having taken a PDC. For example, ECHO’s Global Farm in Fort Myers, Florida, is an excellent example of applied permaculture practice, even though it has not been specifically designed according to permaculture principles. Many ECHO Technical Notes and articles have detailed the application of permaculture principles without using the “permaculture” label.
Key Figures and Primary Source Literature
Bill Mollison (born in 1928) is considered to be the father of permaculture. In 1978, Mollison collaborated with David Holmgren to write a foundational book called Permaculture One. Mollison also wrote Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual, published in 1988. This 400-page book lays down the foundational philosophies, principles and practices of permaculture. Mollison founded The Permaculture Institute in Tasmania, and created a training system to train others under the umbrella of permaculture.
David Holmgren (born in 1955) is a co-originator of the permaculture concept with Mollison. Holmgren is an Australian permaculture designer, ecological educator and writer. His 2002 book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, provides what many view as a more accessible guide to the principles of permaculture. Holmgren refined those principles over more than 25 years of practice.
Two other authors whose ideas are featured prominently in permaculture concepts are P.A. Yeomans (1904-1984) and Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008).
P.A. Yeomans was an Australian inventor known for the Keyline system, used to develop land and increase its fertility. Yeomans’ Keyline concepts are now part of the curriculum of many sustainable agriculture courses in colleges and universities across the world. Yeomans wrote four books: The Keyline Plan; The Challenge of Landscape; Water for Every Farm; and The City Forest.
Masanobu Fukuoka was a Japanese farmer and philosopher. He promoted no-till, no-herbicide grain cultivation farming methods, and created a particular method of farming, commonly referred to as “Natural Farming” or “Do-nothing Farming”. Fukuoka authored several Japanese books, scientific papers and other publications, most notably The One-Straw Revolution.
Due to the recent growth in permaculture’s popularity, many books have been written to help explain basic concepts or to drill deeper into a particular system and/or practice. An extensive list of permaculture books and websites can be found at the end of the article.
Permaculture as a movement
Permaculture practitioners and teachers think deeply about natural systems, and especially about human interaction with those systems. Because technology has increased the capacity for humans to make large-scale and rapid changes to entire ecosystems, permaculture practitioners often find themselves on the front lines of a debate that pits extractive greed against the long-term health of the planet. In this way, permaculture joins the larger movement of those who wish to conserve natural systems and mitigate/restore the damage done by decades of unbridled exploitation. Permaculture’s voice in this movement is valuable because it offers positive, actionable design alternatives to the status quo.
Permaculture as a process for designing human community and natural ecosystems
Using a permaculture framework, the design process moves through several levels. It begins with ethics, then moves to principles, next to design strategies, and finally to technique or application.
Permaculture, whether viewed as a philosophy, a movement or a design process, rests on three ethical pillars: 1) care for the earth; 2) care for people; and 3) set limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistribute surplus (Holmgren 2002). Most people can agree with the first two ethical statements, but the concepts of population control and redistribution are loaded with controversy. For this reason, many permaculture authors and teachers have simplified/modified the third ethical principle to “fair share” or “care for the future.”
II. Principles – Bill Mollison
In Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual, Mollison (1988) condensed the core principles of permaculture design into the following five statements [in bold, with elaboration from the author]:
- Work with nature rather than against. This statement may seem obvious, but we humans tend to try and “have it our way” when it comes to the agriculture systems we develop. This often creates unnecessary failure, exorbitant use of natural resources, and potentially wide-spread ecological damage. Large-scale monocropping is a classic example of working against nature.
- The problem is the solution. If we are willing to look at a problem from a variety of angles, we will discover that the “problem” is actually a resource for another part of the ecosystem. A good example of this is Mollison’s well-known statement, “You don’t have a snail problem, you have a duck deficiency!”
- Make the least change for the greatest possible effect. Thoughtful interventions aimed at leverage points in an ecosystem yield the greatest returns for the time and resources invested. An example of this principle is S.A.L.T. (Sloping Agricultural Land Technology) for hillside farming. By planting trees along a contour (the leverage point), erosion is reduced, terraces are formed, and soil fertility is maintained—and possibly even enhanced.
- The yield of a system is theoretically unlimited. This principle might also be expressed by saying that it is only our knowledge and imagination that limit the sustainably productive potential of an ecosystem. A permaculture designer works to create layers of symbiotic relationships in an ecosystem. This concept is well-displayed in agroforestry systems, in which multiple stories of species work together to protect and serve each other, increasing both the total potential yield and (often) the individual yield of each component. Function stacking, another concept that illustrates this principle, refers to choosing plants and animals in a design that perform more than one function and yield more than one product. A flock of chickens is a good example of this idea; chickens provide food, feathers, manure, tillage, weed control, insect control, etc.
- Everything gardens (or modifies its environment). Every part of an ecosystem directly influences certain other parts of the system and has an overall influence on the system as a whole. In complex systems, changes bring unintended consequences. Careful observation over a long period of time reduces unintended negatives.
III. Principles – David Holmgren
In his book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability (2002), Holmgren expands the number of permaculture principles to twelve [in bold, with elaboration from the author]. His approach provides a more nuanced and systematic way to begin making stewardship decisions in complex and ever-changing ecosystems.
- Observe and Interact. Spend a long time observing an ecosystem before starting to build or garden in it. Doing so will enable us to build or garden as efficiently and sustainably as possible.
- Catch and Store Energy. Energy of all types flows into and out of all ecosystems. Make the most of these resources, and minimize/eliminate any losses. Energy resources include: sunlight; water; seeds; inherent heat (such as in stones and water); wind; and organic matter (in soil and compost).
- Obtain a Yield. When growing plants for food, fuel, textiles and/or beauty, we want to obtain a yield. Good stewardship is about abundance and blessings we can share.
- Apply Self-Regulation and Respond to Open Feedback Loops. Negative feedback can point to unsustainable methods, and probably means we need to do things a little differently. Excess positive feedback may hurt other systems. Our goal is balance. For people accustomed to viewing agriculture projects and/or development work as a series of problems to be solved, reading the negative feedback signals can seem fairly straightforward. Evaluation of excessive positive feedback can be harder to observe and discern. For example, for decades, mega-scale monocropping symbolized best-practice modern agricultural productivity. The negative environmental and human impacts of these systems were easy to miss, and remain easy to rationalize in the light of their enormous capacity to provide the raw materials for cheap calories and corporate profits. It is difficult in the dominant system to say “no thanks” to short term gains (excess positive feedback), even when we recognize that there will be a cost to both people and the planet.
- Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services. Conserve non-renewable resources, and always seek to restore resources. Expand our thinking about what could be a resource.
- Produce No Waste. Ideally, everything that is needed is made on site, and all byproducts become inputs for another part of the design.
- Design from Patterns to Details. Sort out the big picture first; everything else falls in place after that. Big picture items include factors like climate, terrain and sun aspect. Taking these items into consideration at the very beginning is critical to all of the other decisions that follow, and they ultimately determine the pattern of the design. A permaculture designer uses strategies like sectors and zones (see descriptions below) to help determine the overall pattern. He/she then moves toward specific techniques and plants.
- Integrate Rather Than Segregate. Every element in a system has strengths and weaknesses. In permaculture, we can use this to our advantage by pairing elements with complementary needs, so they help each other grow steadily. For example, in a keyhole garden, the composting system is directly integrated into the garden bed. Placing this keyhole garden close to the kitchen further integrates the system by locating the production area of fresh greens and the receptacle for trimmings and waste near the place where they are used, thus reducing labor.
- Use Small and Slow Solutions. Small and slow changes build resilience and diversity, making our system adaptable and reducing the effect of negative unintended consequences.
- Use and Value Diversity. Diversity forms the foundation of resilience.
- Use Edges and Value the Marginal. The borders or edges between different ecological zones and micro-climates are places of great diversity and potential. Species that can thrive on both sides of the edge have an advantage in these zones and can increase the productivity of the entire system.
- Creatively Use and Respond to Change. Things will always change; that’s guaranteed. Respond to change by innovating continuously, and don’t give up.
IV. Design Strategies
Connecting the ethics and principles of permaculture to a specific site requires a framework of design. Designers use a wide variety of methods to organize their thoughts and articulate their ideas. Some common tools are as follows:
Yeoman’s Keyline scale of permanence (Fig. 2) takes into consideration both the time and energy needed to make a change to a specific site or ecosystem. At the top of the scale, at the far end of both the time and effort axes, is “climate”; this aspect would require the most time and energy to change. At the bottom of the scale is “soil.”
Sectors (Fig. 3) are used to identify the various factors that interact with a site. Sectors would include phenomena like the path of the sun as it crosses the site; direction of seasonal or predominant winds; human and animal traffic patterns; noise; and visual impacts.
Zones identify the human interaction required to maintain specific areas of a site. Typically there are 6 zones, numbered 0 – 5. Zone 0 identifies the home or business structure where people live or work. Zone 1 is the high human traffic area of the site; in a residential setting, zone 1 would be the walkway between the driveway and the front door. It would also include the patio or a nearby kitchen/herb garden. Zone 2 would likely include things like annual vegetable beds and chickens, zone 3 would include fruit trees and pasture, zone 4 would have fuel wood, and zone 5 would be left wild to allow for continued observing and learning from nature.
Multi-species integration (plant guilds).Permaculture designers seek to bring multiple stories (canopy levels) of plants together in “plant guilds” to increase and diversify the yield in the system and to add resilience. Agroforestry and forest gardening are exemplary types of plant guilds. An example of a tropical plant guild would be an overstory tree such as a mango combined with shade-loving Barbados cherries, and below them, comfrey and garlic chives.
Agroforestry (multi-story, perennial-based food, fuel and fiber systems).The above example of plant guilding is also a good example of part of an agroforestry system. Agroforestry systems are designed to maximize the usable yields for humans from a multi-storied forest, while maintaining the diversity and increasing the fertility of the forest itself.
Slowing and retaining water. Water is a cornerstone resource in any agriculture system. Good permaculture design keeps ideal levels of moisture in the system with minimal energy inputs. This means channeling away excess water, retaining water in dry seasons, and helping water penetrate the surface to get to the root zone of plants.
Composting. Composting ensures that fertility and nutrients stay inside and are recycled through an ecosystem. From simple compost piles to vermiculture systems to composting latrines, all sources of fertility are valuable and should be stewarded to our best ability.
Natural building. Where possible, use locally available and renewable materials to satisfy the need for shelter. This will help encourage local economies and preserve non-renewable resources. Secure and comfortable homes don’t have to look like the suburbs of the West, and imported designs and materials often lead to less comfort and safety. A good example of this is a metal roof replacing palm thatch. The metal roof is often less resistant to hurricane winds; it also transmits heat from the tropical sun, making the house unbearably hot during the day.
Common Criticisms of Permaculture
One common (and sometimes accurate) criticism of permaculture is that proponents make claims about yield potentials or resilience factors with little reliable data to back them up. Because promotion and documentation of permaculture practices is largely decentralized, no official governing body exists to validate the claims of permaculture practitioners and of those who tell permaculture’s stories. Lately, there has been robust discussion within the permaculture community about being more careful about what is claimed as fact, and about seeking partnership with people and institutions that can help verify good practice with good science and increase the community’s capacity to carry out experimentation that produces usable data and/or leads to more extensive research.
A second, more superficial, criticism of permaculture centers around the lifestyles of people who identity with it. Those caught up in a modern westernized paradigm might be tempted to criticize and marginalize those who have a different outlook, rather than try to understand their point of view—especially if that different outlook challenges some of the practices that make one’s life comfortable.
Permaculture in Development
Many permaculturalists subscribe to a post-industrial vision of the future. They see permaculture as a tool to prepare for a less mechanized, less economically globalized and de-urbanized world. As a result, they view the development process differently than typical traditional western development workers would. This view shapes permaculturalists’ “better future” paradigm, which impacts their choices regarding prioritization of labor and resources.
As an extreme example, a traditional western development agency working with smallholders in a rural setting might work to create supply and distribution chains that allow the smallholders access to the global market. It might bring non-local and non-renewable resources into the area to increase yields of a single crop or small variety of annual crops. It might envision consolidating smallholder farms into one larger operation to increase efficiency, thereby creating a smaller, more efficient labor force with the hope that those displaced would find better incomes off of the farm. All these efforts would be carried out under the guiding vision that the modernized industrial world is our best vision of the future; that increasing the economic base by creating more consumers has no resource barriers that technology can’t overcome; and that hard physical work and traditional rural living are things from which people ought to be freed.
By contrast, a permaculture designer working in the same situation would seek to strengthen the independence of the rural community and protect it from outside influences. He/she would seek to first create an ecosystem and social system that meets basic human needs, and that then trades out of its abundance, with maximum biodiversity. Rather than creating consumers, good permaculture seeks to create more resilient and successful producers who stay on the land, with the knowledge that their lives are valuable and that their work is among the most intricate and dignified.
My Personal Permaculture Story
My own embrace of permaculture, as both a design tool and a paradigm through which to view good human development, started about 11 years ago. As I embarked on a new career as a “community development/agriculture missionary,” and uprooted my family to a new culture and environment, I began to ask myself a very basic question: “What is development for?”
I was unsatisfied with initial answers that were based on experience. I could see the truly unsustainable nature of so much that was being called sustainable. I could see that the enhanced quality of life promised by the modern world often led to greater depths of misery and despair. I could see that when I said the word “development,” I projected a vision of middle class Americana; and I could see that that very lifestyle was crushing the world’s ecosystems and was by its very nature unsustainable.
I began to look for a different answer. My reading and research led me to the concept of permaculture. Permaculture provided a new way of thinking about how man could live a productive, abundant life, while nurturing and stewarding creation. I saw that, rather than just laying out a utopian vision, the Permaculture Design Manual and other permaculture literature gave step-by-step instructions for evaluating the natural systems around me and systematically bringing resilience and abundance into those systems. Permaculture design gave me an organized way to look at the big picture, and to plan and test small incremental changes.
Permaculture is good stewardship. For me, it is also a way to work for God’s kingdom. I view permaculture’s ethical pillars (listed earlier in this article) through different lenses, so that they become the following: 1) actively love God’s image bearers; 2) diligently steward God’s creation; and 3) live contentedly and joyfully share God’s provision.
After practicing permaculture principles on my own for a few years, I took a Permaculture Design Course to increase my proficiency and confidence in using the design processes. The class was challenging and extremely helpful. The exchange of perspective and experience was invaluable, as was having design concepts evaluated by fellow students and a professor. As mentioned earlier, permaculture classes are offered in a variety of formats. The resource section has some links to well-respected courses.
Permaculture is part of the growing community of eco-agriculture disciplines. It is rapidly gaining acceptance as a valuable design methodology in both non-government and government institutions across the globe. It is adaptable to every ecosystem and culture, and offers accessible problem-solving tools rather than silver-bullet solutions. It considers the ecosystem and social system as a whole, facilitating good stewardship, and providing a pathway to true sustainability, resilience and abundance.
Bane, Peter. The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country. BC, Canada: New Society, 2012.
Beyer, Hunter and Franklin Martin. Permacopia Book Three: Plants for Permaculture in Hawai’i, & other Tropical & Subtropical bioregions. Volcano, Hawai’i: Homescapes, 2000.
Falk, Ben. The Resilient Farm Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013.
Fukuoka, Masanobu. One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming. NYRB Classics, 2009.
Holmgren, David. Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Hepburn, Vic: Holmgren Design Services, 2002.
Jacke, Dave and Eric Toensmeier. Edible Forest Gardens, Volume 1: Ecological Vision, Theory for Temperate Climate Permaculture. Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2005.
Jacke, Dave and Eric Toensmeier. Edible Forest Gardens, Volume 2: Ecological Design And Practice For Temperate-Climate Permaculture. Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2005.
Lancaster, Brad. Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Vol 1: Guiding Principles to Welcome Rain into Your Life and Landscape, 2nd ed. Arizona: Rainsource Press, 2013.
Lancaster, Brad. Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Vol 2: Water-Harvesting Earthworks. Arizona: Rainsource Press, 2013.
Martin, Franklin. Plants for Use in Permaculture in the Tropics, 2nd Edition. Florida: Yankee Permaculture, 2009.
Mollison, Bill. Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual. Tyalgum, Australia: Tagari Publications, 1988.
Morrow, Rosemary. Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture. Kangaroo Pr, 1994.
Savory, Allan. Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making, 2nd ed. Island Press, 1998.
Toensmeier, Eric. Perennial Vegetables: From Artichoke to ‘Zuiki’ Taro, a Gardener’s Guide to over 100 Delicious, Easy-to-Grow Edibles. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007.
Yeomans, P. A. Water For Every Farm: Yeomans Keyline Plan, 4th ed. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2008.
Acres USA – www.acresusa.com
Permaculture Design Magazine – www.permaculturedesignmagazine.com
Resources quoted in this article:
Ferguson, Rafter Sass. “Wait... you’re studying what again? (Part 2): What do you mean by permaculture?” Liberation Ecology, November 14, 2012, http://liberationecology.org/2012/11/14/wait-youre-studying-what-again-part-2/
Ferguson, Rafter Sass. “The convenience and poverty of simple definitions” Liberation Ecology, June 13, 2013, http://liberationecology.org/2013/06/13/the-convenience-and-poverty-of-simple-definitions/
Ferguson, Rafter Sass. “Continuing the Conversation – Permaculture as a Movement” Liberation Ecology, June 25, 2013, http://liberationecology.org/2013/06/25/continuing-the-conversation-permaculture-as-a-movement/
Hemenway, Toby. “What Permaculture Isn’t—and Is,” November 18, 2012, http://www.patternliteracy.com/668-what-permaculture-isnt-and-is
Ward, B. 2015. Permaculture In Development: An introduction to permaculture and its application in agriculture development. ECHO Development Notes no. 129