Permaculture has been around since the 70s, but few know what it's all about. Here is a quick rundown to help you understand its central principles.
Permaculture is a portmanteau of "permanent" and "agriculture." Bill Mollison coined it in the late 70s, and he is the founder of a global permaculture movement. He says, "Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems."
Mollison's formulation presupposes the idea that nature is resilient and stable without any adverse human intervention. Therefore, the permaculture mentality is one of constant attention and mindfulness concerning how we interact with the environment to get food, especially near our homes. Mollison developed three ethics and several principles to guide farmers through the permaculture design process.
Food and Society Are Straining Under the Weight of Climate Change
Most of us are consumers – ravenous consumers. However, the principles of permaculture provide a guide to becoming producers who work in tandem with nature to cultivate the land responsibly. As the world moves toward a population of 9 billion in 2050 and natural resources become scarce, the resilience that permaculture promises will become more vital.
Permaculture Is a System of Ethics
The foundation of permaculture is three basic ethics; that is, three considerations that guide decision-making. The three ethics begin with the farming process and expand outwards to the community at large. If any part of agriculture fails to live up to these ethics, it is, by definition, not permaculture.
Permaculture Is Not Only For Farming – It's For Everything.
Ethic #1 - Earth Care
Every practice should be sustainable or regenerative. For example, farmers should develop systems for capturing rainwater on their property if they tap an aquifer for irrigation. Catchments could be simple dams of fallen wood or something more hi-tech, but the aim is to replace the water taken from the aquifer.
While sustainability demands that our actions should not deplete resources faster than the Earth replenishes them, permaculture strives to repair, replenish, and reclaim arable soil from the predations of industrial farming.
Ethic #2 - People Care
Fair treatment lies at the heart of the People Care ethic. Individual laborers on larger farms deserve a fair wage, and small farmers deserve a fair price for their goods. Furthermore, working conditions must be equitable, as should lending practices for groups who want to start farms but have faced historical discrimination. In sum, all decisions should build and strengthen communities.
Ethic #3 - Fair Share
The third ethic of permaculture pertains to how we dispose of the goods from farming. In a perfect system, the laborers would control ownership of the produce. They would only keep what they needed to sustain themselves and maintain the productivity of the farm, then distribute the bulk of the harvest according to need.
We can apply the ethic of Fair Share to the culture at large. For example, some communities have less access to education than others. If funding distribution were needs-based, people from these communities would receive the education they need to participate in the wider permaculture. The Fair Share ethic guides decision-making when it is time to distribute goods and services.
The Principles of Permaculture
Holmgren has outlined several principles of permaculture intended to guide and inform the design of every agricultural endeavor. While following these principles will look different for every farm and garden, the principles are adaptable to fit any circumstance.
Observe and Interact – Carefully study the landscape by engaging with it. Learn how the ecosystem functions.
Catch and Store Energy – Employ means to collect and store resources when they are abundant (e.g., water catchments, fallen trees, etc.).
Obtain a Yield – Don't do things that won't produce something worthwhile. For example, avoid purely aesthetic garden plants and trees.
Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback – Limit your consumption to only what you need. Adopt a humble mindset and learn from your mistakes.
Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services – Try to cease consumption of non-renewables.
Produce No Waste – The waste of one process becomes the fuel for another.
Use compost, manure, etc.
Design from Patterns to Details – Design your farm (or other business) based on patterns you observe. Add details afterward to address context-specific issues.
Integrate Rather Than Segregate – Different elements of a farm should work together. For example, water runoff from an uphill orchard should hydrate a low-lying crop.
Use Small and Slow Solutions – Compared to a large farm, a smallholding is easy to maintain, sustainable, and does not waste resources.
Use and Value Diversity - Monocropping is out, and integrating animal livestock with plant crops builds resilience. (Bio)diversity is a strength.
Use Edges and Value the Marginal – Borders between elements are where innovation happens. For instance, the bees nesting in a field's border hedge produces honey from the field, adding new value.
Creatively Use and Respond to Change – Things change if your farming or gardening turns a piece of land into a marsh, plant edible water-loving crops in it.
Permaculture Is Not Only for Farming – It's for Everything
Permaculture goes beyond sustainability. The three ethics, at their foundation, point to a restorative mindset that addresses Earth, food, and society. Furthermore, the principles outlined above give adaptable guidance to redesign vast sections of our food system. As the world's population increases and communities suffer the ravages of climate change and insufficient access to food, permaculture's principles may hold the key to avoiding the looming crisis.
Follow the Ethics – Even well-intentioned people can be wasteful, take advantage of others, and stingy with what they've earned. Be mindful of these traps, and do your best to be generous, good to the planet, and grateful to others.
Think about the Principles – Most can apply to things outside of agriculture. Read the principles closely and see how many you can adapt to other areas of your life and work.
Investigate – Look for organizations in your area that support permaculture. They may have resources to help you start participating or buy food from a permaculture farm.