What is Permaculture?

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“The world can no longer sustain the damage caused by modern agriculture, monocultural forestry, and thoughtless settlement design, and in the near future we will see the end of wasted energy, or the end of civilization as know it, due to human-caused pollution and climate changes.”

So begins Bill Mollison’s seminal book Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Permaculture, he posits, is a form of conscious designing with nature, a ‘harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.’

In the decades since Mollision began teaching his strategies of permaculture, the idea has again and again eclipsed his original techniques. Today you can find permaculture design courses taught at colleges and churches alike, and with countless variances of emphasis in mind, connecting the movement to other ideas like biodynamics, vegan and organic living, homesteading, rewilding, and more. Far from bringing dilution to the work, I would argue these variances mirror an intrinsic diversity found in nature, and so bolster the underlying theories that unify them.

Permaculture today is not always the ‘permanent agriculture’ Mollision originally conceptualized. In fact many of us are trying to get away from systems which resemble agriculture. Instead, permaculture today seems more engaged with questions around ‘permanent culture.’ What is the human ecological niche? What kind of culture does other life on this planet need us to adopt?

Permaculture has become a creative strategy of designing, experimenting, and engaging with the planet that affirms the value of ourselves, our community, and ecosystem. It’s not just organic gardening. It’s not just homesteading. It’s human culture, it’s connectivity to animal and plant life, mutual aid across species, and sustainability designed for our ecosystems, not our bank accounts.

Co-creator of the movement, David Holmgren, enumerates twelve design principles that inform permaculture. They are:

  • Observe and interact

  • Catch and store energy

  • Obtain a yield

  • Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

  • Use and value renewable resources

  • Produce no waste

  • Design from patterns to details

  • Integrate rather than segregate

  • Use small and slow solutions

  • Use and value diversity

  • Use edges and value the marginal

  • Creatively use and respond to change

Learn more: Permaculture Design Principles

These principles are almost universally shared by permaculturists, but interpretations of how to engage with each remains a lively source of perennial discussion within the community. Beyond the design principles, permaculture also orients around three core ethics who also provide a rich compost of community debate: Earth care, people care, and fair share.

Taken together, this core of permaculture inspires people around the world to engage with the world they live in, the human and non-human communities they live with, and the future still ours to grow even—if not especially—as the impact of human civilization on the planet becomes more and more apparent.

Where Can I Learn More?

They say the second-best way to learn about permaculture is to study it. Today, there are courses taught both online and in-person around the world. For folks in North America, The Permaculture Institute of North America (PINA) keeps a listing of upcoming courses around the continent on their calendar page.

If the cost of a full course is out of reach, or if you’d just like to learn more before committing to a lengthy program, you can find tons of free information out there on YouTube, Facebook, and many permaculturists’ personal websites. The Permaculture Women’s Guild website for instance features an entire section devoted to free content as well as a 52-week free course.

Books have been an important part of the permaculture movement since its inception as well. Check out your local library branch, radical bookstore, or gardening supply shop for titles related to permaculture near you.

Watch: 5 Books That Got Me Into Permaculture

Putting It Into Practice

Of course, the best way to learn more about permaculture is to get your hands in the dirt and experiment.

One of the other key concepts I haven’t mentioned yet is this idea of ‘zones.’ Permaculture encourages us to think about the ways different systems relate to each other, and one strategy for mapping those relationships is to conceptualize different zones beginning with ourselves and our homes, and then working our way out to the wild. Since permaculture encompasses so much of a mindset and lifestyle change from what many of us are used to, reflecting on our relationships in individual zones can be a great way to make those changes more bite-sized.

For me, there’s a lot of great internal stuff I like to chew on before making any plans. In my experience, this internal work is something some folks accidentally skip over. So occasionally I make blog posts under the category ‘zone zero’ to help encourage some deeper thinking there.

And unlike a lot of other permaculturists, I don’t have a big farm. So while I’m not presently doing a lot of work in those middle zones where we might find market gardens or big-time farming projects, a lot of my work does focus on my own micro-homestead. Check out my ‘zone one’ category posts for more of this content.

Last but not least, I occasionally write up other posts which just talk about permaculture more as a general concept or strategy, rather than getting into the nitty-gritty of specific projects or experiments I am working on. For posts like that, you want to browse the category link for ‘permaculture,’ or check out the featured post slider below which shows off the last few posts I’ve made on that subject.