What is permaculture? For those of you who’ve only heard of the term in passing, and ever for you seasoned “permies” who struggle to explain this exciting (and sometimes life-changing) idea to others, here’s the gist in 7 points:
1. Permaculture is a Design System That Uses Ecosystem Principles to Meet Human Needs
“If we throw mother nature out the window, she comes back in the door with a pitchfork.” – Masanobu Fukuoka, author of The One Straw Revolution. Image from naturalfarming.org
Permaculture is an ecological systems theory. As author Toby Hemenway notes, while conventional thinking asks how we can meet our own needs, permaculture asks the broader question of how we can meet our needs while also taking ecosystem health into account.
Permaculture looks closely at how ecosystems work and condenses those functions into twelve general principles. These in turn inform our design decisions about shelter, food, water, energy, and waste management. They also rest on two fundamental assumptions:
- Humans are a part of the planet and cannot be separated from it.
- Humans can be a positive force that leaves things better than we find them.
If we are willing to learn from and work with nature, we can make smarter decisions to inform how we live. These choices can prevent the wasteful use of fossil fuels or the unnecessary need for environmentally and economically costly foods. They can help us avoid living in areas prone to fires, droughts, and floods. They can help us tread more lightly on the environment while saving us money and keeping us healthier and happier in the long-term.
2. Permaculture Regards Humans as Part of the Solution
Human beings cannot live in a physical world without having an impact. We consume resources, generate waste, and alter our surroundings. But what we can do, as an ethical and responsible species, is to optimize that disturbance. As a global industrial society, we are very ignorant of the consequences of our actions and are causing a lot of damage. Permaculture offers us a framework and the tools to align our creativity with actions that can repair and regenerate both the natural and human world.
3. Permaculture is a Way to Reframe the World
At its core, permaculture is an optimistic discipline. Research has shown that negative thoughts can shut down our prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain we think and design with. If our mindset constantly revolves around doom and gloom, it becomes very difficult to find solutions to the environmental challenges we face in the twenty-first century. By looking to the wonder and complexity of nature, permaculture allows us to reframe problems as opportunities. In the natural world, disturbance brings about new cycles, niches, and possibilities for species to adapt and prosper. When we approach things with this optimism, problems become much easier to deal with. A popular permaculture saying:
“One never has a slug problem in the garden, but rather a duck opportunity waiting to be exploited.”
4. Permaculture is a Metric to Define Sustainability
Modern society’s metrics for success are fundamentally flawed. Did GDP go up or down? Did quarterly results increase or decrease? Did employment rates rise or fall? As Steven Stoll writes in the Orion Magazine article, The Mismeasure of All Things, a lot of these indicators tell us nothing about the things that are truly important in life. They tell us nothing about ecosystem health and biodiversity, of farmer livelihoods or community cohesiveness. They offer us no advice on how to create a happier and healthier world.
In my opinion, we need new metrics to measure genuine success. Did we sequester more carbon than we emitted? Did we leave an area more species-rich than before? Did we grow a vibrant and thriving community? These are the things that truly matter, because we cannot thrive as a society without clean air and soil and community, no matter how large the GDP becomes.
Permaculture helps us establish many of these metrics. It helps us identify opportunities to make change and to inspire others. It promotes actions that increase diversity, health, and balance. There’s a lot of exciting work that can be done through the permaculture lens.
5. Permaculture is a Systems Approach to Design
It doesn’t matter what you’re designing – permaculture’s system approach represents a way of doing things differently. I’ve designed businesses, community groups, houses, and even laundry systems through a systems mindset. Permaculture design is universally applicable because it reflects how the real world, a world of interdependence and complexity, works. It makes available the tools for you to become aware of those connections, always with the big picture in mind.
6. Permaculture is a Set of Solutions
I’ve often said that permaculture is just one big solutions matrix. For any problem, there are a huge number of potential solutions. Permaculture provides you with the principles so that you can choose solutions that are optimized for you and your surroundings. An example in the area of home design:
What is most important – High thermal mass, high insulation , high thermal mass and insulation, or lightweight construction?
The solution depends on your needs: Which one will be most comfortable? Which uses the least energy? Which lasts the longest? Which has the lowest embedded and operating energy? Which is most suitable for your environment?
Examples in other design areas:
- Compost tea or Compost Extract?
- Wind power, Solar Power, Microhydro or Biomass?
- Raised beds or not? Wicking beds or sunken beds? No-till or till-based?
- Passive Solar greenhouse vs Gable style greenhouse?
It is this decision-making process, based on systems thinking and focused on optimization, that is invaluable to any project.
7. Permaculture is a Bunch of Disciplines Rolled Into One
Permaculture is engineering, physics, biology, anthropology and architecture all rolled into one. Obviously you don’t become an expert in all these fields just by studying permaculture, but you can gain a solid foundation in these areas while gaining perspective on how human beings fit on this planet. With this broad knowledge base, you can get started designing around your life’s needs while creating positive change.
As one of my friends once asked me, if the nuclear bomb is the most negative thing we have ever created, what is considered the most positive? I don’t think we really know yet because we have only started to apply ourselves, and that is really exciting to me.
Featured image: One of Masanobu Fukuoka’s seed balls. Picture by Herder3