Permaculture TheorySeries: Permaculture

Part 1, A brief history of Permaculture

Where does permaculture originate? How has the concept developed since?

The term permaculture was coined as an agricultural system by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1978. Since then, permaculture has developed into a global movement and a holistic life-philosophy.

This article is the first of the series Permaculture, in which I explore the theoretical underpinnings of the permaculture framework.

The concept of permaculture has gained significant traction in the last two decades and has culminated into what could be called a global movement. What lies at the heart of the permaculture movement is the understanding that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way that we, the human species, see and interact with our planet and our fellow humans. Permaculture offers the promise of an alternative approach to living, one that is aligned with the wellbeing of our planet and all its inhabitants – a new way to conceptualise and relate to the world.

In the upcoming article series, of which this article is the first, I will shed light on the concept of permaculture and illustrate the potential this concept comprises. We will commence by revisiting the history of permaculture, and continue by exploring what the concept actually encompasses in the next article. In future articles different areas of permaculture as well as specific methods and tools will be explored.

The term permaculture was first coined by Bill Mollison and his student at the University of Tasmania, David Holmgren, with the release of their book Permaculture One in 1978. Bill and David were worried about the developments of the industrial approach to agriculture: evermore dependent on non-renewable resources, while poisoning land and water, crippling biodiversity and removing billions of tons topsoil from previously fertile landscapes.

In Permaculture One, Bill and David devise a framework for an alternative, sustainable agricultural system that is based on combining perennial trees, shrubs, herbs, fungi, and root systems in such a way that all elements support and benefit each other. As the framework mimicks the functioning of our planet’s natural ecosystems, it is meant to be an agricultural system that can be sustained indefinitely – a permanent agricultural system, a permaculture.

Soon after permaculture was introduced to the public, Bill and David realised that what they had envisioned had the potential to be much more than merely an agricultural system. In his book Introduction to Permaculture that was published in 1997, Bill says:

As I saw permaculture in the 1970s, it was a beneficial assembly of plants and animals in relation to human settlements, mostly aimed towards household and community self-reliance, and perhaps as a “commercial endeavor” only arising from a surplus from that system. However, permaculture has come to mean more than just food-sufficiency in the household. Self-reliance in food is meaningless unless people have access to land, information, and financial resources. So in recent years it has come to encompass appropriate legal and financial strategies, including strategies for land access, business structures, and regional self-financing. This way it is a whole human system.

Nevertheless, permaculture retained a very strong agricultural focus, initially. In 1981 the first permaculture design course (PDC) was taught by Bill Mollison at the Permaculture Research Institute in Tasmania, which he had founded in 1979. PDCs are 72-hour workshops that are meant as a crashcourse, to familiarise participants with the very basics of permaculture (as an agricultural system), with the idea to spread the knowledge about the concept. To this end the Barking Frogs Permaculture Center released a Permaculture Design Course Pamphlet Series with 15 pamphlets that is based on Bill Mollison’s 1981 PDC. Through Bill’s PDC system, hundreds of participants received a permaculture education in the years to follow.

In the years to come, Bill Mollison further fine-tuned his ideas, designing permaculture sites, giving lectures and PDCs all over the world, and writing more detailed books. In 1988, what would become Bill Mollison’s most famous book, Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual was released. The Designer’s Manual has been used extensively as the text book worldwide, and has become the backbone of the 72-hour PDCs.

The PDCs proved a crucial factor in spreading the idea of permaculture: As Bill Mollison was encouraging participants of his courses to become teachers themselves and design their on permaculture sites, the concept quickly spread across continents. Among the participants of Bill’s original PDCs were renowned permaculturists like Geoff Lawton, Toby Hemenway and Simon Fjell who went on to further develop the permaculture concept. By the late 1990s, permaculture had developed into a global movement with an ever-growing community of permaculturists – many of whom have been documenting their experiences, contributing to a global knowledge base.

While Bill Mollison was at the spotlight of the further development of permaculture, David Holmgren’s recognition was much slower to develop. In 2002, however, David released a book that would procure him his own position in the permaculture movement. In Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, he lays out 12 fundamental permaculture principles based on his 20+ years of experience in the field. This contribution has been very well received in the permaculture community and David’s 12 design principles are, along with Bill’s 10 design principles, the most widely accepted and used ones.

The mode of observation of and interaction with the natural environment that is at the heart of permaculture was also “discovered” as an effective and meaningful alternative to industrial agriculture by other pioneers of the time. Famously, Japanese scientist, philosopher and farmer Masanobu Fukuoka put forward his ideas of a natural approach to living and farming in his book One-Straw Revolution that was first published in 1975. Another celebrated pioneer is austrian farmer Sepp Holzer, who developed his own approach to natural farming after taking over his parents 45ha mountain farm (called Krameterhof) in 1962 and first published his approach in his 2002 book The Rebel Farmer. Sepp Holzer’s approach has received much attention and he joined the permaculture movement in later years. He now calls his specific approach Holzer Permaculture, and outlines some of his methods in his 2012 book Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture.

Permaculture has grown to be a globally known concept and an immense amount of knowledge, methods and tools have been developed through the contribution of innumerable permaculturists. Permaculture has developed into a holistic life-philosophy that is much more than merely a set of alternative farming practices. Nevertheless, much of the focus in permaculture still remains on the earthcare ethic, although it has transpired that it is only in connection with a healthy people, a healthy society and economic security that cycles can truly be closed. Rather than simply meaning permanent agriclture, permaculture today already stands for permanent culture, and this is where I believe the true strength of the permaculture philosophy lies: permaculture was born with the aim of sustainably securing the basis for human survival, but has grown to truly encompass the equally important determinants of peoplecare and fairshare.


In the next article of this series, we will take a closer look at what the term permaculture actually means today.

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