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'.



Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Lost Language of Araki Island


Although this community is dealing with the implications of the impending extinction of their native language, Araki Island appears to be doing many things right from a food security & community resilience standpoint.  While many people have moved to the nearest urban center of Luganville in search of work, much of the villages’ food is still grown on the island.  In addition to white rice, canned fish appears to be  a staple here - perhaps as a response to the seasonal fishing that is available on Araki.

While an integrated coconut/cacao understory cash crop plantation on the island has the potential to generate more local income through value-added processes (such as pressing their own coconut oil and creating artisan products such as soap & chocolate), care must be taken that any development projects geared towards increasing economic gain do not compromise food security.

This is one illustration of the opposing tensions of traditional vs. modern culture discussed in the previous section; it is unclear if people have left the island because of a lack of food security, or in pursuit of the perceived affluence offered by prospects of life in the city.

 - excerpt from 'Kaikai fo Laef Project Report 2012' -


A recent lecture by Anthropologist & Enthnobotanist Wade Davis at The University of Hawaii @ Manoa has me reflecting back to our time spent on Araki Island in Vanuatu.

Photo: Field notes, data source: 'Sea level change', by National Research Council (U.S.). Geophysics Study Committee.  National Academies, 1990.

Araki Island is noteworthy for its 3 distinct terraces rising from the sea, each level remnants of a coral reef bed thrust upwards in 3 distinct geographical ages.


We arrive by banana boat about an hour or so before nightfall, cautiously timing our leap from bobbing boat to rocky ledge that would be impossible in rough seas.  Then, in what has to be the quickest tour of the island ever given, we are whisked away to explore the slash-and-burn sustenance gardens perched on the second terrace above the village while there was still light.

We march uphill through the densely forested slopes which smell heavily of earthy fungi, to emerge blinking into a freshly burnt garden plot, its scorched earth jarring to all our senses.  Mountain taro (cocoyam), cassava, yams, varieties of Island cabbage (Abelmoschus manihot), and sweet potatoes were planted throughout, while sapprophytic fungi quickly colonized the dead & dying trees within the newly cleared plot.  

Photos: Freshly cleared garden plot on second terrace; Sapprophytic mushrooms colonizing dead wood; Newly planted cocoyams; newly planted cassava.

As the golden hour of sunset intensified, we decide to ascend to the upper terrace against all precautionary logic, risking being caught in the rapidly encroaching darkness of nightfall - but are told (with a sly wink) that the bioluminescent mushrooms will help light our way home if needed, and I am tempted to linger long enough to see what a forest full of glow-in-the-dark mushrooms looks like in the tropical night of a half moon.

Photos: Garden on Araki's upper terrace; Wild chicken trap made from vines; Bioluminescent mushroom.

Later that evening, while waiting for the community to gather for a gardening Q&A session in the longhouse, we learn that the Araki language is only spoken by the Chief, his 2 brothers, and their sister.  In a village of only 200 people, the children attend school until the 6th grade on Araki, then commute to nearby Santo Island for their higher grade levels, until finally the majority of Araki youth head to the urban center of Luganville in search of more opportunity.

The leadership is strong here, the vibrant sense of community palpable in the longhouse that night, and the people of Araki a proud, resourceful & resilient bunch.  Yet despite this their living language is perched precariously on the edge of extinction, primarily as a result of the relentlessly irrestible pull of modern culture: What good to the market is a dying language spoken on a tiny island by less than 200 people?

To help answer this question I offer three quotes from Wade Davis:

"Together the myriad of cultures makes up an intellectual and spritual web of life that envelops the planet and is every bit as important to the well being of the planet as is the biological web of life that we know as the 'biosphere'.  You might think of this social web of life as an "ethnosphere", a term best defined as the sum total of all thoughts and intuitions, myths and beliefs, ideas and inspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness" 

"What could be more lonley than to be enveloped in silence, to be the last of your people to speak your native tongue, to have no way to pass on the wisdom of your ancestors or anticipate the promise of your descendants."

"Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities."

                        - Wade Davis, author of 'The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World -


For further exploration of the enthosphere, see:

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Horticultural Selection & Biodiversity on Araki Island

Photo: Different varieties of Island Cabbage (Abelmoschus manihot) observed during site visits around Vanuatu.

The topography of this small island is unique in that it is comprised of 3 distinct terraces, made up of ancient reef beds that have been thrust up above sea level over time.  This means that a wide variety of microclimates are available in a very small space - walking around cultivation areas on all three terraces felt akin to what it must be like to walk around a giant-sized herb spiral.

By selecting for desirable traits (such as flavor, hardiness, time to harvest, etc) and saving seeds / propagules from the best plants, varieties specifically adapted to microclimates on Araki can be developed over time.  In this way, the remote location of this community can be leveraged to their advantage, providing a refuge of sorts to develop & protect the horticultural selection of biodiversity for the region.

   - excerpt from 'Kaikai fo Laef Project Report 2012' -


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Village Economy

"How can we be
Self-reliant with our needs
So that we can become
Interdependent with our wants?"
   -Hunter Heaivilin-

Photo: Hunter Heaivilin teaches Village Design on Ifira Island, Vanuatu.

The Village Economy Game was played in order to demonstrate and give a practical experience of how to connect the products & functions of one local enterprise to the needs of another.

  1. Students are asked to create an enterprise that could meet a currently un-met need that they would be interested in pursuing.
  2. A functional analysis is performed to determine the needs, characteristics, functions and products of each enterprise.
  3. Students are asked to find car many connections as they can with other students enterprises (this typically results in much laughter and shenanigans), and then report back to the class about the connections they managed to make.

Here's a summary of the enterpises Vanuatu Villagers came up with, and the beginnings of the many connections that were made between enterprises (see if you can make connections of your own):

Photo: Village Economy Mindmap, 2012 Vanuatu PDC

A simple shift in focus towards making these localized connections, can reduce our reliance upon external inputs while we are contributing to the vibrancy of our community.  We can reduce our waste and cycle energy (in its many forms) within our community many times before it leaves.

Once we have met our needs as a community we find ourselves with a new challenge: what to do with the surplus?  Now we can look to neighboring communities to establish trades with our surplus, enriching our quality of life and that of our neighbors.

If we are smart, we can live within the ecological limits of our lands, creating products & developing  skills shaped by our landscape - these will have enormous value in other communities but will be obsolete in others - we can seek to match these community products with communities where these are in need, and the web grows stronger.

In times of scarcity, we can meet most of our needs within our communities (and reach out to the relationships we have made with other communities if needed), while in times of plenty our collective joy can be multiplied by sharing & trading our surplus: self-reliant, and interdependent.

Photo: 2012 Oahu PDC Village Economy Mindmap Timelapse


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Your Culture or Your Money

When students were asked, "How has your community changed over the last 10 years?", students came up with the following list:

Photo: Class brainstorm on shifting culture in their communities.

This exchange framed a class discussion around the definition of an 'asset'.  Robert Kiyosaki, author of the Rich Dad Poor Dad series of books, has said that the difference between the rich & poor is that the poor spend their lives buying assets which are really liabilities because they do not understand the difference, while the rich spend their lives acquiring things which are truly assets.

This is certainly true for the middle class in developing nations.  For example, if your income were to stop, most people would not be able to continue making they mortgage payments (and so would likely lose the house), whilst a positively cash flowing rental unit would keep putting money into your pocket. 

Therefore your primary residence, which the bank tells you is your greatest asset, is actually potentially your biggest liability.

According to Kiyosaki, properly defined: an asset feeds you, a liability eats you.

This simple definition of assets vs. liabilities can be a powerful tool for the consumerist middle class single-mindedly striving towards accumulating enough income and assets to elevate their standards of living, and could also be a powerful tool in helping families, organizations and communities manage their finances better.

However, it is too narrow a definition to be useful in the context of working towards ending poverty.

This definition of assets is framed by and perpetuates the prevailing capitalistic view of the world - one in which gross income (or GDP) is the primary indicator of a person's (or country's) overall well-being, and people are reduced to hedonistic accumulators & consumer.  It does not allow for any other paradigm.

If we limit ourselves to this definition then we deny ourselves the opportunity to account for the many other factors which contribute to healthy, thriving communities.  We deny ourselves the opportunity fully embrace the richness of reciprocal experience that is human culture, where people flourish most when given opportunities to create, contribute, collaborate, and celebrate.

Photo: Ifira Island keiki.  Are we born into this world focused on 'accumulation' and 'consumption'?

Instead, we can take this a step further and expand upon this definition to allow room for culture to evolve (adapted from Rosemary Morrow's 'Earth User's Guide to Permaculture'):


Photo: Reclassify your assets.


Degenerative Assets.
The more I use these, the less I have of it / the more I need of it.  Worse yet, the more I use this, the more it harms me / my community / my ennvironment.  Most items ('stuff') prized by consumerist culture falls into this category.

Generative Assets.
I can use these to make / create / modify / enhance me / my community / my environment.  Some of the things which fall into the first category could instead become 'generative' if used differently (ie using fossil-fuel powered equipment to create earthworks which pasively harvest water and rebuld soils).

Regenerative Assets.
I can use these, and they will multiply over time if properly cared for.  Biological resources, and many of our natural resources fall into this category.  If we were to focus on creating / developing / accumulating this type of asset, we take care of future generations while taking care of our own needs.

Knowledge-based Assets.
Ethical knowledge leading to self-reliance is the only asset class which can offer an unlimited yield; we are limited only by our creativity, our imagination, and our ability to apply knowledge.  When knowledge is framed by an ethical structure which values care of the earth, care of people,and stewardship of resources, it can result in actions & practices which are beneficial to all.