Permaculture is an innovative framework for creating sustainable ways of living.
By thinking carefully about the way we use our resources - food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs - it is possible to get much more out of life by using less. We can be more productive for less effort, reaping benefits for our environment and ourselves, for now and for generations to come.
This is the essence of permaculture - the design of an ecologically sound way of living - in our households, gardens, communities and businesses. It is created by cooperating with nature and caring for the earth and its people.
Permaculture is not exclusive - its principles and practice can be used by anyone, anywhere:
Permaculture encourages us to be resourceful and self-reliant. It is not a dogma or a religion but an ecological design system which helps us find solutions to the many problems facing us - both locally and globally.
Writer Emma Chapman defines it as:
"Permaculture, originally 'Permanent Agriculture', is often viewed as a set of gardening techniques, but it has in fact developed into a whole design philosophy, and for some people a philosophy for life. Its central theme is the creation of human systems which provide for human needs, but using many natural elements and drawing inspiration from natural ecosystems. Its goals and priorities coincide with what many people see as the core requirements for sustainability."
Permaculture tackles how to grow food, build houses and create communities, and minimise environmental impact at the same time. Its principles are being constantly developed and refined by people throughout the world in very different climates and cultural circumstances.
The 12 permaculture design principles are thinking tools, that when used together, allow us to creatively re-design our environment and our behaviour in a world of less energy and resources. These principles are seen as universal, although the methods used to express them will vary greatly according to the place and situation. They can be applied to our personal, economic, social and political reorganisation and the ethical foundation of permaculture guides the use of these design tools, ensuring that they are used in appropriate ways.
Each principle can be thought of as a door that opens into a whole system of thinking, providing a different perspective that can be understood at varying levels of depth and application. David Holmgren, the co-originator of permaculture, redefined permaculture principles in his seminal book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. When I started giving talks about permaculture to all sorts of different audiences, I decided to write my own explanations and apply the principle not only to designing gardens and farms but to business, society and culture. Every principle comes with David's 'proverb' and is followed by an explanation.
1. OBSERVE & INTERACT
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
For us, this element of stillness and observation forms the key of permaculture design. In a world of instant makeovers, of 'fast' every-thing, having the capacity to observe the seasons, watch the changing microclimates on a patch of land, understand how the patterns of wind, weather and slope affect the frost pockets and plant growth, is an opportunity to begin to learn the deeper aspects of Earth Care. It also makes us more capable of making wise decisions about how we design or eco-renovate our houses and plan our gardens and farms.
2. CATCH & STORE ENERGY
"Make hay while the sun shines."
Intimately connected to observation is the art of capturing energy in a design, so that we minimise the need to seek resources from the outside. In a garden this is about avoiding planting tender seedlings in frost pockets in spring or maximising solar gain by siting a greenhouse/conservatory on the south side of a building so that we can both extend the season and heat a house with passive solar gain. We are attempting to capture water, sunlight, heat, soil, biomass and fertility whenever we can in order to become more self-resilient.
3. OBTAIN A YIELD
"You can't work on an empty stomach."
Food can account for as much as one third of our ecological footprint so it makes sense to grow as much as we can, even if this is limited to tasty sprouted grains on the windowsill of a flat. So a permaculture garden is by default an edible landscape with good floral companions to attract beneficial insects, and a building is a potential heat store and structure for solar panels. But the concept of 'yields' is not merely about renewable energy or veggies; a yield can be about social capital.
4. APPLY SELF-REGULATION & ACCEPT FEEDBACK
"The sins of the fathers are visited on the children of the seventh generation."
When we burn fossil fuels we release CO2 into the atmosphere, trapping heat and increasing temperatures. This causes ice to melt which leads to loss of reflective surfaces, leading to more absorption of sunlight and even higher temperatures. We must accept responsibility for our actions.
5. USE & VALUE RENEWABLE RESOURCES & SERVICES
"Let nature take its course."
Whenever possible, permaculture seeks to use resources that can be renewed. This naturally applies to energy but also to ecological building, coppicing, soil conservation, and the planting of perennial food crops, as well as annuals with seed saving. The dangers of relying on non-renewables, technological fixes and speculative money are becoming ever more evident.
6. PRODUCE NO WASTE
"Waste not, want not. A stitch in time saves nine."
We reuse first and recycle all possible materials: paper, cardboard, textiles, glass and compost all organic materials, from kitchen waste to shredded paper. The subsequent compost feeds the garden and the soil.
7. DESIGN FROM PATTERNS TO DETAILS
"Can't see the wood for the trees."
We spent a year observe the land before planting to determine how best to make it work with nature. We observed the seasons, the climatic variations, the weather, the soil patterns, slope, etc
In other words, we started off looking at the bigger picture, the pattern of what sustainable living might be, with examples from other places.
8. INTEGRATE RATHER THAN SEGREGATE
"Many hands make light work."
We have a cultural tendency to separate veggie gardens from flower gardens and use hard edges to design our spaces. Companion gardeners will know however that the more integrated the orchard is with the wildflower meadow, or the vegetables are with flowers frequented by beneficial insects, the less pests will prevail. The same is true for people. Cultural diversity yields a robust and fertile culture, whereas a rigid monoculture of politics and religion can bring sterility, even social and political repression.
9. USE SMALL & SLOW SOLUTIONS
"The bigger they are, the harder they fall."
Our society currently depends on vast inputs of fossil fuels, whilst our biosphere is over-loaded by their outputs. The more accessible and fixable our technology and chains of supply are, the more robust the system. This principle speaks of hand tools, of appropriate technology that can easily be fixed, and of relocalisation.
Currently we have a three day 'just in time' supply chain of supermarkets. If the fuel supply is interrupted, the super-market shelves will empty at an alarming rate. Better to build resilience into our systems by relocalising our essential needs as much as possible and having technological alternatives that we can fix.
10. USE & VALUE DIVERSITY
"Don't put all your eggs in one basket."
Biodiversity creates healthy ecosystems. Diversity in terms of crops, energy sources, and employment, make for greater sustainability. Valuing diversity amongst people makes for a more peaceful, equitable society. Conflict and wars are the biggest slayers of sustainable development.
11. USE EDGES & VALUE THE MARGINAL
"Don't think you are on the right track just because it is a well-beaten path."
Examples of 'edge' in nature are: where canopy meets clearing in the woodland, inviting in air and sunshine and a profusion of flowers; where sea and river meet land in the fertile interface of estuaries, full of invertebrates, fish and bird life; where the banks of streams meet the water's edge and fertility is built with deposited mud and sand in flood time, giving life to a riot of plant life; where plains and water meet, flooding and capturing alluvial soils...
Edge in nature is all about increasing diversity by the increase of inter-relationship between the elements: earth, air, fire (sun), and water. This phenomenon increases the opportunity for life in all of its marvellous fertility of forms. In human society, edge is where we have cultural diversity. It is the place where free thinkers and so-called 'alternative' people thrive. where new ideas are allowed to develop and ageless wisdom is given its rightful respect.
12. CREATIVELY USE & RESPOND TO CHANGE
"Vision is not seeing things as they are but as they will be."
In nature, there is a process of succession. Bare soil is colonised by weeds that are in turn superseded by brambles. Then pioneers follow; like silver birch, alder and gorse which stabilise the soil. The latter two even fix nitrogen to create an environment that can host slow growing temperate climate species like oak, beech and yew. But nature is dynamic and succession can be interrupted by brow-sing animals, storms that fell trees and create clearings or a changing climate that is less hospitable for certain climax giants like oak and beech.
The challenge of a permaculture designer is to understand how all these factors interact with each other in a landscape or on a particular plot of land, and design accordingly. It is no good restoring coppice without fencing out deer, or planting trees if they will shade out the solar panel in a decades' time. Equally well, we need to appreciate how climate change will affect our agriculture, with higher summer temperatures, greater volumes of rain in winter and springtime, and more violent storms with higher wind speeds. Hotter summers may allow more vineyards on the gentle southern slopes of the chalk downland. They may also make English oaks less viable in the south. What then do we plant and how do we design in resilience to our settlements?
With permaculture design, we create the potential for a powerful beneficial relationship with the Earth. We can become stewards for our world whilst still maintaining an openness and humility to accept nature as perhaps our most powerful and wisest of teachers. What a culture we could build if these two perspectives were the bedrock of our civilisation! I believe that as we awaken as human beings and our awareness grows, we turn away from designing our own private Eden and engage more fully with the rest of humanity and the biosphere. We cannot build ecological arks on a failing planet. We are part of an inter-dependent ecological system. There can be no 'them' and 'us' in ecology. Permaculture is about low carbon, eco-friendly, even abundant living. It is also an ethically based design system for people who want to not only transform their lives and the lives of the people around them, but also to play their part in bringing an ecologically balanced, equitable and kinder world into existence. That is our challenge.
Design is the conscious assembly of concepts, materials, techniques and strategies for a particular purpose. Yet seeing all the exciting possibilities that permaculture offers us, it’s easy to forget this and just end up throwing together a collection of ‘green’ technologies and techniques, only to be disappointed by the result. There’s now no shortage of these ‘green options’ for us to choose from and we’ve been given the impression that as long as we behave in certain ways and buy the right products, we’re doing the best we can.
But permaculture and design is about more than just choosing the right things, it’s also about how we connect them together. Nature abounds with examples of beneficial relationships, showing us the value of this strategy for long-term sustainability. So as permaculture designers, our role is to place components in the best places relative to each other, to create self-sustaining systems that also meet our needs. However, such relationships are often site-related, so we need to be able to consciously design; to become a ‘permaculture chef’, rather than simply learning to follow a recipe. While perfecting this can be a lifelong journey, it’s also not so hard to learn the basics.
While it’s easy to worry these days about our impact on the environment, it’s perfectly natural for us to be shaping it to meet our needs, every species that lives here does just that. The important question that Biomimicry advocate Janine Benyus asks us is whether our choices are well-adapted ones. Permaculture gives us the tools to create systems that support not just ourselves, but future generations too and Life as a whole.
In Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, Bill Mollison suggests:
That the systems we construct should last as long as possible, and take least maintenance.
These systems, fuelled by the sun, should produce not only for their own needs, but the needs of the people creating or controlling them. Thus, they are sustainable, as they sustain both themselves and those who construct them.
We can use energy to construct these systems, providing that in their lifetime, they store or conserve more energy than we use to construct them or to maintain them.
These design considerations provide us with clear criteria for how any permaculture design should perform. If we can design systems within these guidelines that meet our human needs, and at the same time support the eco-system as a whole, then we will be well on our way to a sustainable human society.
We should invest most time and energy in the establishment a good design, so inputs decrease as time goes on. Conversely, yields may start off small but then increase steadily. At a certain point, the total energy yielded from the site exceeds the total amount invested and the system goes ‘into profit’. One more thing worth remembering is that biologically we’re simply an eco-system living within a larger eco-system. And that whatever we do has consequences.
Ethics, Principles and Directives
Permaculture advises us that when we design to meet our needs, we should do so in a way that supports the ecosystem as a whole. The permaculture ethics, often abbreviated to Earth Care, People Care, Fair Shares, are our primary guidance in this process. Any ideas that don’t fit with these ethics just aren’t permaculture.
Bill Mollison and David Holmgren also provided us with a set of principles and directives, which have since been adapted and added to by others. The principles of ecology guide us in applying successful natural patterns to design gardens and farms. However, we can be even more creative and apply many of these same principles to people-based designs too. There are also principles that address how we think, helping us to see the gifts in every situation.
You’ll find many more and different versions of these principles on your travels. It’s not so much a matter of which ones are ‘right’, but rather which of them you find useful in your life.
Permaculture has borrowed many useful thinking tools from different places, including several design frameworks from other disciplines. One commonly used is SADI, which comes from Landscape Architecture; the letters standing for Survey, Analysis, Design, Implementation. The value of a framework is that it can guide us through the process of design, reducing the chance that we might overlook something. While each of these stages can be quite detailed in themselves, for us the main things to remember are:
Survey ~ of both the needs of the client(s) and the landscape that will be meeting those needs. This might well include some mapping. The more focus given to this observation stage, the better a design is likely to be. Bill Mollison suggests observing a system for at least one whole cycle, which for a land-based design is a whole year. This shouldn’t prevent us from making changes though, just don’t, as Bill would say, do anything you might find difficult to reverse.
Analysis ~ this is the stage where we take all the information we have gathered and use the ethics, principles and appropriate design tools and methods to help us decide the best elements to choose and how best to connect them together into resilient low input, high output systems.
Design (or as I prefer to call this part Decisions, as the whole process is about design) ~ this is where we commit to our ideas, producing maps and lists that communicate our ideas to our client(s). While attractive maps are helpful at this stage, including your reasons for decisions can help illuminate the design process and increase the likelihood of the clients understanding the bigger picture of how it is intended to function. A design proposal should also include suggested implementation and maintenance plans.
Implement ~ at some point we have to take our ideas and put them into practice. However much time we take to deliberate, we’ll still be surprised by some things that don’t work as planned; so we shouldn’t be afraid to take action. Only by implementing a design do we learn how well it performs in the real world. Mistakes are great opportunities to learn, but good attention to the survey and analysis stages should limit them to smallish ones.
Maintain / Monitor ~ this wasn’t included in the original acronym, but maybe Landscape Architects just implement and walk away. Without knowing how to care for the system (and particularly unfamiliar technologies like composting toilets), it can fail to perform as intended and perhaps be abandoned as ineffective.
Design Tools and Methods
Throughout the design process we can make use of many different thinking tools and methods. These can for instance help us to make client interviews fully inclusive, especially when working with larger groups or community designs. They can help us with our decision making processes to ensure we create effective designs and also help us to produce a realistic implementation plan. Here are just a few examples from the many outlined in my book:
Permaculture is neither a specific recipe, nor an end point. Rather it is an ongoing process of harmonious adaptation to nature’s changing conditions. The design process is a gift to us all that can help us to find and stay on our desired path.