There are many personal definitions of permaculture, which—quite fittingly—gives it so much life.
Developed by two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, in the 1970s, it has spread wildly throughout the world. As a snapshot, permaculture is the ethical, scientific and synchronistic design of natural systems to ensure a sustainable philosophy of living. It also aims to facilitate abundance for the future of humanity by producing all the food and materials it needs on a local scale.
At its core, permaculture is simply the collaboration of humans and nature in action.
The term initially meant “permanent agriculture,” however it evolved to also represent “permanent culture.” Due to the unsustainable practices that humanity currently employs, permaculture is one evidence-based solution to the self-destructive path we are on.
What is Permaculture?
“Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs.”
~ David Holmgren
Permaculture is working in conjunction with nature, not against it. It is the local production of all the materials each person needs, such as food, shelter and fuel.
Its use of the land is the opposite of a monoculture, which is the hallmark of the harmful industrial-agriculture model. Instead it’s a polyculture, where a diverse range of vegetation and animals are utilized to support each other into abundance.
As a quick overview, a permaculture plot on farms or mid-large urban areas have five zones, however all this might not be applicable if designing one in a small urban setting.
The first zone is the most utilized and is therefore the closest to the residence, which usually contains vegetable and herb gardens that need continual maintenance. Zone two is where daily attention is still required, but not as often, such as with poultry pens and orchard trees. The third zone is less visited and generally reserved for self-feeding stock and seasonal crops. In zone four there are food and fuel options made available from the food forest and zone five is a natural area that is rarely visited.
“The aim is to create systems that are ecologically-sound and economically viable, which provide for their own needs, do not exploit or pollute, and are therefore sustainable in the long term”
~ Bill Mollison
Once a permaculture farm is fully functioning, in principle nothing needs to be brought into the system as it supplies all of its own requirements. Food for humans, animals, soil and plants are produced by the plants and animals themselves. The sunlight and water that enters the property is captured in a way which maximizes its potential, which is also obviously used for the plot’s energy requirements.
It has three core tenets, which is to (1) care for the earth, (2) care for the people and (3) to have a return of surplus. These values are self-explanatory. It also has twelve design principles, which I won’t go into here, but which provide a guiding template for developing each unique permaculture system.
“Permaculture is a design science. It’s a system that supplies all the needs of humanity – all the basic needs and all the intricate needs – in a way that also benefits the environment.”
~ Geoff Lawton
Each area has layers, such as the canopy, understory, groundcover and vertical growing plants. The layers incorporate seasonal, annual and perennial plants too. Everything has multiple uses. For example, chickens provide food, prepare the soil and supply manure. Another example is that a specific plant is not just a food, but also provides a particular role for the soil and other plants (like nitrogen fixing legumes, for example). It can also deliver organic material for the worm farm and can be used to make compost.
Vegetation is planted in guilds, which is essentially a grouping of mutually beneficial plants. They can also include animals. For example, a guild might contain a nitrogen-fixing legume for the soil, vegetation that attracts pollinator insects and repels harmful bugs, shrubs that are great for “chop-and-drop” mulch and plants which are principally for food or aesthetic purposes.
When setting up a permaculture plot, it is important to adapt to local conditions. For example, living in an urban environment has its limitations, such as space, however it can be overcome by clever design. Different climates, particularly harsh ones, also provide a challenge; however, highly successful projects have illustrated that the permaculture methodology can be achieved anywhere, including in desert, mountainous and snowy environments.
Why is it Important?
“Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple”.
~ Bill Mollison
The statistics of consumption rates are frightening.
The projected outcomes of overconsumption and the abuse of our earth are dire, especially as we are already consuming 50% more resources than the planet can sustain. Permaculture aims to address these and other issues by developing models which ensure that humanity can not just survive, but thrive, even in an “oil obsolete world.”
Permaculture plots can be designed in small or large scale settings. It has been proven that they can reverse desertification as well as be successfully implemented on an enormous magnitude in highly degraded environments.
Permaculture can very easily solve some of the mess that humanity has created for itself, such as the shortage of healthy and clean food and water, as well as the destructive imbalance our species has created on our Mother Earth and its interconnected and interdependent species.
One example, among many, is the devastating impacts of industrial agriculture. It may have sped up the cultural evolution of humanity, but on a large and widespread scale it damages the natural world, including animal colonies such as bees, and has created a decline in the nutrient levels of the food it produces. It relies heavily on fossil fuels and degrades the soil, which includes bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, arthropods and earthworms.
It essentially kills natural systems.
It also requires high input for the associated output. Another important point is that it doesn’t feed the local population; through free trade agreements, food is unnecessarily shipped all over the globe and subsequently misses the people who need it most, whilst an enormous amount waste is created in the so-called “developed” nations.
Industrialized farming simply has to go—the death of it will be the conscious birth of humanity’s sustainable partnership with planet earth.
A growing proportion of the population are awakening to the challenges that face our global culture. Many are preparing themselves for the fallout of an increasingly interdependent global economy that is plagued with bubbles waiting to inevitably burst. In addition, the geopolitical landscape is currently so volatile that even Lord Rothschild believes that “we are faced with a geopolitical situation as dangerous as any we have faced since World War II.”
This all seems overwhelming and we may feel as though we are powerless. But we can make a difference. Permaculture plots can be created for ourselves, our family and our community no matter where we live; all we have to do is get our hands dirty—in our own backyards.
“You can solve all the world’s problems in a garden”
~ Geoff Lawton
Author: Phil Watt
Editor: Emma Ruffin