What is Permaculture? An introduction to holistic system design

What is PERMACULTURE? An introduction to holistic system design

What is permaculture and how does it interact with gardening or natural farming and where it is actually comming from? One of the questions that are essential to figure out if permaculture is the right design methodology for you. Thats why we normaly start every workshop or Permaculture Design Course with a short session about the main facts and history of permaculture.

This article gives you a first impression about permaculture, the history and also current trends and future development of the movement. Touching ground with the three main ethics (people care, earth care and fair share) as well as important thinkers behind Permaculture, such as Bill Mollision, David Holmgren and the Club of Rome.

Author: Lars Blume

Mudhouse at Gaia Ashram, Thailand. Natural building is a great way to incorporate all 12 permaculture design principles in one project.

Mudhouse at Gaia Ashram, Thailand. Natural building is a great way to incorporate all 12 permaculture design principles in one project.

Permaculture: A merger between permanent and agriculture

Permaculture is a holistic system design approach that works with rather than against nature. As Bill Mollison framed it: “The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children”. Even though taking care of the environment and nature is not highlighted explicitly in this sentence permaculture design is exactly about this. It is an approach to designing ecosystems that are resilient and self-sufficient while meeting human needs.  

The idea about Permaculture started with food and food production; the term permaculture is a merger of permanent and agriculture. Food is super essential to every part of our life, culture and basic needs. Thus, pretty soon permaculture was also applied beyond agriculture or food system. Actually permaculture can design or help us to understand every aspect of our lives, or how society is built and functioning!  

Turning problems into solutions Permaculture & the Club of Rome

Triggered by the report “Limits to growth” by the Club of Rome in 1972, permaculture is looking for ways to live off the surplus of the world rather than mine the core of its existence. One could say that permaculture is turning and shaking the problems of our growth society, our global economic, and the current social model into solutions. The problems might have slightly changed compared to 1972, but even today our society runs on the assumption that growth is unlimited despite the planetary boundaries. Climate change, exploration of natural resources, peak oil, and other environmental problems are reminding us on a regular basis that we should adapt our actions and ways of living in order to stop our and the mass extension of other species.  

Of course permaculture cannot provide the one and only solution for that but permaculture can help to design ecosystems, and human systems that are resilient, regenerative and in a way trying to re-balance the existing imbalance between human and environmental needs.

Working with rather than against nature

Working with rather than against nature

Turning problems (waste) into solutions (compost)

Turning problems (waste) into solutions (compost)

Permaculture Ethics: Earth Care, People Care & Fair Share

Permaculture is highlighting and balancing these needs in its 3 main ethics: Earth care, People care, Fair share.

The three ethics or moral principles are used to guide action and act as constraints. All 3 are basically the essence of various indigenous cultures. In short, they can be used as your north star to guide you in each and every decision or action you want to take. If your action is on a long run not serving the Earth, environment or nature, it won’t be sustainable and even destructive, either in your lifetime or in the lifetime of the generation to come (earth care). If your action is self-centered and not supporting the people around you functioning communities will isolate you and your survival will be based on good will or your personal trust in the monetary system (people care). A community, humans or a complex ecosystem is only as strong as the weakest part/person. By taking care of marginalized groups and reducing injustice the resilience of a system will increase. This can also mean that everyone needs to reduce their consumption so the ecosystem gives enough for everyone; otherwise the system will collapse, or even worse, parts of the population will die (fair share).

Designing an ecosystem that gives habitat for humans and nature.

Designing an ecosystem that gives habitat for humans and nature.

Natural products are helpful to reduce your impact on natural resources and to consume mindfully.

Natural products are helpful to reduce your impact on natural resources and to consume mindfully.

People behind Permaculture

Bill Mollison and David Holmgren are seen as co-founder of the permaculture design system, a system that was fully described for the first time in the book “Permaculture One” in 1978. Permaculture design is a collective term that got its wisdom from 3 main sources:

  1. Indigenous knowledge

  2. Nature

  3. Science and technology

More than that, Bill and David, and the idea of permaculture where formed from the environmental movement in the 1960s around Rachel Carson's book “Silent Spring” (1962), James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis (1960) and Arne Naess’ “Deep ecology” 1972/73.

By searching for the right questions rather than an answer to any question, the concept of Permaculture and the first publications by Bill and David where heavily influenced by people and publications from all over the world that worked on different aspects, tools or techniques we now understand as the core of permaculture design. Masanobu Fukuoka’s “One straw revolution”, Esther Deans’“No-dig gardening”, H.T. Odum’s “Environment, Power and Society”, Russel Smith’s “Perennial tree crops”, P.A. Yeomans’ “Keyline design” and Wes Jackson – are just a few to name. All this existing knowledge and experiences were collected and reframed to serve one purpose: Striving to ask ‘what does this land have to give to me’ rather than ‘what can I take from this land.

What started with a few, is turning into a diverse movement of many. Permaculture is one approach to unite the people that are part of the great turning.

What started with a few, is turning into a diverse movement of many. Permaculture is one approach to unite the people that are part of the great turning.

Bill Mollision & David Homgren

Bill Mollison worked at the University of Tasmania where he taught Environmental Psychology. That’s where Mollison and Holmgren met. Their joint discussions and thoughts where published as Holmrgren’s thesis called “Permaculture One”

One year later Permaculture 2 was published, expanding on the permaculture concept with more concrete examples on how people have evolved new approaches to deal with real problems.

Bill Mollison modelled many of his ideas from indigenous living practices and was interested in blurring the line between human, home, garden, and nature, whereas Masanobu Fukuoka believed that “changes to be of any consequence must come first at the basic philosophical level”. In 1981, Bill Mollison, Masanobu Fukuoka, and Wes Jackson met in the USA West Coast. This meeting, even though it happened without David Holmgren, is seen as the first milestone of the global permaculture movement.

In 1981, the first Permaculture Design Course (PDC) was given by Bill Mollison as a 140 hour lecture series. Mollison was inspired by Vietnamese Monks and the concept of “barefoot trainers”. The concept in short: Monks walk around the country and teaching others, once others feel called they also become trainers and monks and do the same. By doing so, more and more people are going out and spreading the word.

2 different ways to forster growth of the permaculture movement

Bill Mollison, was driven by the vision to bring the concept of permaculture to as many people as possible. Thus, he designed his concept around his PDC in the following way: he wanted to gather the influential, relevant, and most interested people of one country or region and deliver one PDC per country or region. That way, so his belief, the knowledge will spread. After facilitating one PDC, he would be able to move on and trust in the participants that they would form a grassroots movement, a group of barefoot trainers that would spread the knowledge within the region.  This is the reason why a PDC course is designed in a way that every participant actually can become a PDC teacher after some years of practice. In 1988, “Permaculture: A designers Manual” was published which now functions as the curriculum, text book or even the bible of permaculture.

Whereas Bill Mollison wanted to develop the movement and train permaculturists around the world, David Holmgren felt called to further develop the concept of permaculture and went back to do more research. One outcome was a theoretical look at the principles behind permaculture: “Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability” (2002).

Different ways can nourish and serve the same goal.

Different ways can nourish and serve the same goal.

Nature as the super client helps to unite different concepts.

Nature as the super client helps to unite different concepts.

Permaculture today and future trends

Today Permaculture is changing rapidly from a mainly male dominated “doing” mentality with egocentric characters towards a way more diverse ecosystem. Social permaculture and non-land-based designs are becoming more and more visible and even businesses are applying permaculture principles to transform into more ethical and environmental friendly market participants. Vegan permaculture is transforming holistic systems, including or excluding animals as main elements, into close loop systems that can function without exploiting animals.

Inclusive and regenerative permaculture

Inclusive permaculture is on the way to become the main topics for the next decade. Questions like how permaculture can increase living conditions in impermanent settlements such as slums and refugee camps, or how permaculture can help to connect generations and cultures while sharing plant knowledge might find the solutions to form a more equal and just society. Regenerative permaculture hopes to find ways to lock carbon into ecosystems long-term, and slow down climate change. Regenerative permaculture can also help to give back to nature and regenerate degraded areas, recharge water tables, and change farmers towards a new narrative.  Producing, being, or even thinking sustainable is no longer enough as we want to change the current situation to a better and not just obtain our current climate chaos. We want to make our planet be better off in the first place.

Retrofitting and Suburban permaculture

Finally, retrofitting for houses is something that is part of the future permaculture movements. Finding answers to the question how we can make efficient use of existing structures and retrofit and reuse old buildings instead of demolishing and replace by newly built units. Suburbia and cities becoming a key target of modern permaculture, way beyond the transition town movement, that has unfortunately reached is capacity to change in some areas.  In David Holmgren’s latest book “ RetroSuburbia the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future” (2018) he is focusing on the living reality of the middle class living in suburban areas and ways to use the massive leverage to transform the energy dependency of this kind of living onto a more resilient path.

With new problems and issues, new trends and ways will be added into the existing permaculture world. However, and this is kind of remarkable, Bill Mollison’s and David Holmgren’s permaculture classics might be nearly 40 years old but they can still be understand as the main north star towards a lifestyle or even society beyond sustainability.

Retroffiting existing strucutres & regenerating contaminated areas are on the future permaculture agenda.

Retroffiting existing strucutres & regenerating contaminated areas are on the future permaculture agenda.

Definition of Permaculture

Permaculture comes without a proper set of definitions. Manifested by the ethics earth care, people care, and fair share and keeping the holistic system design approach in mind, people defining it in many different ways, and all are kind of right but at the same time not universal. The definitions of permaculture are changing over time as the focus and the problems are changing too.

Want to learn more?

We will organize a Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) Course on 5 weekends starting May 18 till end of June in Hannover, Northern Germany. You can be part of the entire PDC or just opt-in for some of the weekends. You can find more information here or just drop us a message; we’re happy to hear from you.

If you want to experience a design process join one of our workshops or invite us to your property and become the host for the next workshop. Just drop us a mail for further information. Or just subscribe for our monthly newsletter.

Furthermore you can join Gaia Ashram an community based education centre as a volunteer and learn more about gardening, spirituality and nature connection, For futher information check www.gaiaschoolasia.com.