Saturday, February 9, 2013

WTF is Permaculture??

This is a question (although not always so colorfully phrased) comes up to practicing permaculturists often enough as to be a running gag; that awkward moment at any given dinner party when the permies look at each other with raised eyebrow to silently ask: who's gonna answer that question this time?

Googling (yes that's a word) 'what is permaculture' at the time of this writing yielded 5,222,000 or so results - you may have even heard of permaculture, described as anything from an idealist-hippie-lifestyle, to a survivalist-response-to-peak-oil-and-the-impending-collapse-of-industrial-civilization-as-we-know-it, to "Revolution Disguised as Gardening".

Photo: from 'The Lexicon of Sustainability' PBS series & traveling art show.

Permaculturists themselves have described permaculture varyingly as:

  • an international social movement (and its regional extensions),
  • a worldview and theory of human-environment relations,
  • a design framework,
  • and/or a bundle of practices.


Very simply put:  Permaculture is a framework for sustainable design.

Bill Mollison, who coined the word permaculture, defines it on page one of 'Permaculture: A Designer's Manual' (his 576-page treatsie on the subject) thus:

Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems.

Permaculture design is a system of assembling conceptual, material and strategic components in a pettern which functions to benefit life in all its forms.

Because permaculture offers a framework for the this type of design, may I suggest that this  framework can be adapted and applied towards designing resilient human systems of any kind. 

While permaculture was initially conceived of as a tool to design & redesign our agricultural & food production systems, permaculture practicioners quickly realized that you cannot address food systems without addressesing waste management, water, energy prodction, social & economic systems, conservation, cultural diversity, and many other areas affecting human & ecological well-being. 

We discovered that permaculture design can be a useful tool to help us design solutions for the challenges we face in sorts of different contexts, whether we be building tools or working to create healthy, resilient communities.

In over 30 years of putting permaculture design principles into action & practice - in practically every possible bioregional & cultural context around the world - at some point in their practice, permaculturists everywhere stumble into the same blinding flash of the obvious: that everything in the natural world is interconnected.


The calling card of permaculture is good design - aka 'Uncommon common sense'.  Placing elements where they will create mutually beneficial relationships with other elements in your system, backing up your major functions, and patterning after natural systems are some of the design principles the permaculture designer will utilise to create a robust & effective design.

However, it is the ethical foundation which underpins the permaculture design approach that makes it so powerful as a design science.  In crafting a permaculture design, decisions are made through the ethical filter of: Care of Earth, Care of People, and Fair Share of Resources.

Every design decision made through a permacultural lens must pass through this filter : how does this decision take care of earth / people / steward our resources?  Utilizing this ethical filter acknowledges that the resources we have access to are nested within the biophysical limits of the ecosystems we live within, and that without respecting this fact, there are no people to care for, nor are there resources available to share.

It is perhaps this ethical filter which is the cause of so much confusion when it comes to defining permaculture; the power of these 3 simple ethical principles to frame & shape our decision-making (and therefore our worldview) can be deeply personal.

But that, my friends, is a topic for another post at another time.



Matthew Lynch
Essays on permaculture
Honolulu, Hawaii

February 2013


PS  For further reading, Toby Hemmenway (Field Director of the Permaculture Institute (USA) and best-selling author of Gaia's Garden) has posted a very well articulated essay exploring what exactly permaculture is, by starting with the question: 'What permaculture isn't'.