Permaculture TheorySeries: Permaculture

Part 2, What is permaculture?

What does the word permaculture stand for?

Permaculture is hyped as the solution to global crises by some and dismissed as hippie-nonsense by others. In this article I look at permaculture as a holistic philosophy that can foster conscious ecological design.

Series Permaculture Part 2

After we took a look at the roots of permaculture in Part 1 of this Series, it is now time to find out what the term permaculture actually means today.

Permaculture. A term that has received much attention throughout the last decades and a term that is almost impossible to overlook when engaging with topics related to sustainable food production systems and natural living. A term that is hyped as the solution for the ecological crisis our planet is facing by some, and dismissed as hippie-nonsense with no real potential to contribute to global food security by others. A term that is often thoroughly misunderstood or reduced to much less than what it actually means, because it is such an elusive concept in the entirety of its meaning. In this article I will attempt to shed light on what permaculture really is about, and illustrate the potential this concept comprises.

What is Permaculture?

One of the great things about permaculture is also the cause for much confusion: there is no set definition of permaculture. On the one hand, this makes the entire concept rather elusive. On the other hand, it gives everyone the freedom to adapt permaculture to their personal journey of co-creating with the planet in a way that suits their specific circumstances. What is more, the fact that there is no set definition has allowed permaculture to evolve from being merely an agricultural framework to encompass all spheres of human interaction.

Permaculture should be understood as a holistic philosophy, in which the planet is recognised as an interconnected ecosystem with which human beings (along with all other matter, fungi, plants, insects, animals) are inextricably linked. Our planet as an ecosystem can only function if all its elements are respected and nurtured. Identifying, respecting, and nurturing these elements, while at the same time creating sound livelihoods for us humans is what permaculture is all about.

Permaculture as a mindset

It is hence important to realise that permaculture is a mindset that encourages the development and application of practical solutions that are appropriate to a problem or desired outcome in a given location in a certain context at a given time. Permaculture is not a fixed set of methods or practices.

As Bill Mollison once famously said:

We’re not teaching people how to do things, we’re teaching people how to think about doing things.

A permaculture approach always begins by observing and understanding how things influence one another. This could be in natural ecosystems (where light, air, water, plants and animals interact), but also in human interaction (where people, structures and processes interact). Once the interconnections are sufficiently understood, solutions for the problems that arise can be devised, based on the holistic understanding of all relevant elements and their influences. This is called systems thinking.

Systems Thinking

In systems thinking a system’s behavior is understood to result from the structure of its feedback loops. Consequently, root causes are never the result of individual elements, but always understood as the forces arising from particular feedback loops. To apply systems thinking means to seek the connections in any situation, to find out how things influence one another.

Permaculture can be understood as applied systems thinking: Observing natural ecosystems and human interaction and applying conscious, ecological design as a framework for building genuinely sustainable and resilient systems . These systems are not limited to agricultural systems, farms or houses. Permaculture can be applied to rethink and remodel communities, economies or policies.

To support permaculture designers in building those systems, a simple set of ethics, principles and process models have been developed, intended to guide decision-making and the process.

Permaculture ethics

There are three permaculture ethics that serve as a foundation for every permaculture design: earthcare, peoplecare, fairshare. This triple-bottom-line emphasises the importance of sustainability with regards to interactions with both the natural world and other human beings. This is what David Holmgren says about the permaculture ethics:

Ethics are culturally evolved mechanisms that regulate self-interest, giving us a better understanding of good and bad outcomes. The greater the power of humans, the more critical ethics become for long-term cultural and biological survival.

Every action in permaculture should thus be conducted in a way that natural ecosystems are not harmed, people are cared for and economic outcomes are just and fairly distributed.

We will take a closer look at the permaculture ethics in the next part of this article series.

Design principles

To give designers more guidance in developing their designs, the design principles allow for a more elaborate comprehension of the three permaculture ethics. As design principles are set up to reflect nature’s inherent intelligence, they are meant so serve as a tool for designers to interpret how ecosystem are established.

There are different sets of principles, most notably the 10 principles by David Mollison (in Introduction to Permaculture, 1997) and the 12 principles by David Holmgren (in Permaculture: Principles and Pathways, 2002), but also lesser known sets of principles by other permaculturists. Depending on the design object and intention one set of principles might be more useful to a specific permaculture design than another – it is up to the designer to choose.

The individual design principles each embody a complete conceptual framework, rooted in permaculture’s holistic worldview. By bringing these separate principles together, holistic design systems can be created. The principles help designers to always keep in mind the health of the system as a whole, the parts that the system consists of, and how the individual parts interact.

We will take a closer look at the permaculture ethics in the next part of this article series.

Conscious design and Process models

Let us quickly recapture: So far we’ve described permaculture as applied systems thinking, encouraging designers to be aware of the interconnectedness of things and to observe how things influence each other. Permaculture ethics and design principles have been developed to help designers come up with systems that:

  • Incorporate our understanding of natural ecosystems,
  • work to the benefit of the earth and the people (while generating a surplus value for both), and
  • reflect nature’s inherent intelligence.

We can call systems that have been designed in such a way systems with a conscious ecological design. The consciousness results from applying systems thinking and the ecological component is ensured by the permaculture ethics and principles. What remains is the design part: What exactly is design? Who designs? And how does one design?

Like the word permaculture, the word design is somewhat elusive and there is no all-encompassing definition. In the Oxford Dictionary (2017), design (as a verb) is defined as:

Decide upon the look and functioning of (a building, garment, or other object), by making a detailed drawing of it: a number of architectural students were designing a factory.

The word “decide” is not very specific here, maybe the phrase “the process of deciding” is more suitable, and it is not necessary to make a drawing to design something, although it is often useful. What is crucial to realise is that design is not an abstract activity reserved to an elite of professional designers, but much rather something that almost everyone does very regularly. Have you ever built a sand castle or a snowman? Put up a shelf? Rearranged the clutter on your desk? Voilà, you have actively designed your environment. This should also answer the who question: everyone can design. And everyone can be a permaculture designer. At its very core, designing simply means that you actively modify your environment. Like problem solving, design is a very natural and ubiquitous human activity. Possbile objects of design include:

  • Physical artifacts (simple, like a spoon, or complex, like a house)
  • Processes (such as a workflow)
  • Symbolic systems (such as a programming languages)
  • Symbolic scripts (such as an essay or software)
  • Laws, rules and policies
  • Human activity systems

To help permaculture designers engage in the process of designing, permaculturists have come up with process models, in addition to the permaculture ethics and principles. Bill Mollison has devised his own design process (called the core model), but there is a host of process models by numerous permaculturists out there. Doug Crouch teaches a Hybrid Design Process adapted from Bill’s, while the german permaculturists Jascha Röhr and Sonja Hörster have come up with the Field-Process-Model. Again, as with the different sets of design principles, depending on the object and intention of the design, one process model may be more suitable to a specific design than another.

We will take a closer look at the design process in a future part of this article series.

Methods and tools

At this point you may wonder: what about all those techniques and practices that embody permaculture for many people? Sectoring and zoning, companion-planting and forest-gardening, compost toilets and solar dehydrators? To be clear, I very much embrace all of these and do not intend to downplay their importance in many permaculture designs, but I have not mentioned them so far for two reasons.

Firstly, I wanted to stress the importance of understanding permaculture as a mindset, a perspective on the world, nothing less than a holistic philosophy. When engaging in earthcare and designing out of an understanding of the permaculture philosophy, the establishment of a forest-garden or the practice of companion-planting may be a great way to implement design solutions that incorporate the permaculture spirit. But I find it important not to reduce permaculture to a set of techniques or practices.

Secondly, as I have stated in the beginning of this article, permaculture is about developing practical solutions that are appropriate to a problem or desired outcome in a given location in a certain context at a given time. Appropriate in a given location in a certain context at a given time. This means that not every celebrated “permaculture method” is necessarily approapriate for every problem or desired outcome: the appropriateness may vary according to the desired outcome, the location, the context or the time. For instance, when designing a market-garden on a one-acre lot, incorporating a food-forest may be neither feasible nor conducive to the desired outcome in that specific context and location.

Nevertheless, there is a set of permaculture tools and methods that should be applied when using a permaculture approach to design landscapes (such as sectoring and zoning) and the global permaculture community has developed an insurmountable amount of astonishing techniques and practices that provide amazing solutions to specific problems in specific locations and contexts. One excellent example are banana circles: a great design element for tropical permaculture garden and forest designs – but completely misplaced and useless in, say, a mediterranean garden.

We will take a closer look at sectoring and zoning, climate considerations and more specific tools and methods in a future part of this article series.

The permaculture cosmos

Hopefully the term permaculture has become a little less elusive to you by now. This article has been very theoretical and I promise future articles will be more hands-on, but I find it important to convey to you the spirit of permaculture to create a solid basis.

In the below graphic I have attempted to illustrate the different aspects that belong to the permaculture framework: the permaculture cosmos. At the bottom the three permaculture ethics form the triple-bottom-line. The ethics are supported by the design principles, process models, and all other available methods and tools. These take place in and are supported and updated by an in-depth knowledge and understanding.

The Permaculture CosmosI hope you enjoyed the read – thank you for bearing with me until here! To finish off lightly, I would like to share with you this beautifully simple definition of permaculture by the Permaculture Research Institute:

Permaculture is a design system for ecological and sustainable living, integrating plants, animals, buildings, people and community.

In the next article of this series, we will examine the permaculture ethics and the design principles.

2 Responses to “Part 2, What is permaculture?”

  • I liked that you marked every time the word interconnection appeared
    I would like to ask, by curiosity, what do you think about building ecovillages in remote areas and the ‘interconnection’ it has with global challenges.. at the same time your idea about applying a limited (by force) permaculture design in cities, where multiples interactions and complexity make part of the challenge to achieve ecological mature systems
    I was wondering how isolated the first idea can be to a complex world. At the same time that I consider urban permaculture limited and far from achieve maturity. What do you think?

    • Hey Ricardo, thank you for your comment. On the one hand, building ecovillages and making cities more sustainable are tasks that require very different design solutions. Nevertheless I believe that both working on improving our cities and working on building new communities are viable and necessary actions to move into a more sustainable future. I believe that smaller social entities that create ecologically and socially sustainable structures are indispensible in the response to global challenges. Especially if they create ways for others to learn from their experience – then physical remoteness may not be so relevant. At the same time, megacities are a reality that we have to deal with today, and working on making them more sustainable is just as indispensible a task. But I think we need to realise that a big city can never be fully self-sufficient and will always rely on the land outside of its borders. The challenge here lies not only in bringing agricultural systems into the city, but just as much in fostering new connections between city and countyside. With CSAs and farmers markets, small farms and producers as much as larger ecovillages can play a crucial role in re-establishing regional food security and getting city-dwellers back in touch with the source of their food.


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