It’s growing in popularity. But what is permaculture? And can permaculture feed the world, really?
By Jody McCutcheon
From urban gardens in New York to huge chakras in Peru, permaculture principles have influenced how people grow food. It’s a natural form of cultivation that has been championed by popular eco-guru Rob Greenfield and indigenous people alike. But what is permaculture? Is it a legitimate practice that’s helping to shatter the destructive shackles of industrial agriculture and reinvigorate our ravaged planet, or is it merely a heartwarming concept that’s too good to be true? Can permaculture feed the world, or is it just a hippy pipe dream?
Let’s take a look.
What Is Permaculture?
So what exactly is permaculture? While many people mistake it for a simple set of gardening techniques, it’s actually much more comprehensive. Consider it a multidisciplinary toolbox that incorporates various strategies functioning synergistically to simulate patterns and features found in natural ecosystems, with the goal of harmoniously integrating land, people, resources and the environment. In this way, permaculture is a means of efficiently and sustainably satisfying our basic needs of food, energy and shelter, as well as other material and non-material needs.
The idea of constructing agricultural systems based on natural ecosystems has existed for millenia. But during the 1960’s, in response to industrial agriculture’s reliance on non-renewable resources, poisoning of land and water and decimation of biodiversity, an Australian academic duo by the name of Bill Mollison and David Holmgren started reconsidering ideas of stable agricultural systems. By 1978, they’d coined the word permaculture in their book Permaculture One. According to Mollison, his best answer to the question ‘What is permaculture’ is: “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against, nature.”
Interestingly, the term that initially connoted “permanent agriculture”–American writer Joseph Russell Smith used that very phrase in the subtitle of his 1929 book Tree Crops–has since come to mean “permanent culture.” In the 1980’s, permaculture’s parameters broadened to include sustainability of human habitats and social design principles, incorporating technology, education, even economics. But herein we’ll focus on its agricultural ethos.
So what is permaculture in terms of philosophy? Well, it embraces three ethical touchstones that are found in most traditional societies going back to primitive times.
- Care for the Earth
- Care for the people
- Setting limits to population and consumption
The first tenet, Earth Care, embraces the idea of caring for all living things. The easiest way to succeed here is for us humans to reduce our overall consumption. By rebuilding the planet’s natural capital and organic growth, we will protect all living systems, allowing ourselves (among other creatures) to thrive.
Which brings us to the second tenet: people care. Look around at our families, neighbours and communities. Now imagine what is possible through collaboration and cooperation. Working together, we will put ourselves in the best position to nourish ourselves with access to life-sustaining resources, which in turn will put us in the best position to care for our surrounding environment. Our survival is Earth’s survival.
The third tenet is also called the Fair Share principle. In witnessing the appalling consequences of unchecked human consumption, we’ve discovered that continuous growth isn’t only impossible, but also that it accelerates the extinction of species. We must take only what we need and reinvest the surplus. In times of abundance, we must reserve what we don’t need for those people (and times) less fortunate. Furthermore, it’s important to recognize the limits of how much we can both give and take.
So, what is permaculture in terms of design?
The complexities of permaculture become obvious once we understand that it incorporates several disciplines. Common ones include organic farming, aquaculture and sustainable development. Particular emphasis is placed on recognizing patterns of landscape, function and species assemblies, with the thinking that optimal placement of these elements will maximize benefits to local environments.
Yet the focus is not on any individual element, but rather on the whole created by the combination of elements. Theoretically, as these elements achieve synergy, they evolve into highly complex and intricate systems that produce high densities of food and materials with minimal input.
David Holmgren has reduced permaculture’s myriad strategies into twelve design principles:
- Observe and interact – Engage with nature to determine best solutions for particular issues, keeping in mind a holistic approach.
- Catch and store energy – Develop systems to collect resources at peak abundance for use in times of need.
- Obtain a yield – Ensure that work is producing worthwhile rewards. For example, food gardening and rainwater harvesting efforts must offer sufficient yields. If so, they’re effectively reducing human impact on the environment while offering terrific incentive to continue working.
- Apply self-regulation and accept feedback – This principle discourages inappropriate activity and allows systems to continue proper functioning.
- Use and value renewable resources and services – We must optimize our use of “nature’s abundance,” thus reducing our consumption and dependence on non-renewable resources.
- Produce no waste – Waste not, want not, right? Permaculture strives to minimize waste. Even human and animal poo is useful!
- Design from patterns to details – Step back, observe patterns. Design based on these patterns, fill in the details along the way.
- Integrate rather than segregate – Putting the right elements in the right places allows us to foster productive relationships between elements.
- Use small and slow solutions – Small, slow systems are easier to maintain than larger ones. They make better use of local resources and provide more sustainable outcomes. Patience is the greatest virtue here. Imagine tending to a garden and watching it flourish over time.
- Use and value diversity – Diversity reduces vulnerability to various threats and exploits the unique nature of its surrounding environment.
- Use edges and value the marginal – We often find the most valuable, diverse and productive elements of the system in the interface between things, such as where land meets sea.
- Creatively use and respond to change – By carefully observing and intervening at opportune times, we can use inevitable change to our advantage. For example, harvest and eat what’s in season.
Why Is Permaculture Important?
On paper, permaculture sounds like a great approach to making agricultural and land development practices more sustainable, helping us to move away from toxic GMO foods and agrochemicals. But what are the actual implications?
One is that our use of permaculture to shape resource systems will allow other, natural systems to rehabilitate themselves. Creating food supply systems and settlements will relieve pressure on land, forests and wildlife; harvesting rainwater will ease the burden on fresh water sources; developing biofuel and sustainable electricity sources will ease reliance on fossil fuels. Permaculture’s anthropocentric, cultivated ecologies are meant to provide for humans and their livestock, thus leaving natural systems to serve wildlife and wilderness conservation.
Another implication concerns the treatment of waste and energy input. In the wild, many species contribute to the recycling of waste, energy and nutrients back into the system. By imitating nature’s no-waste, closed-loop systems, permaculture helps us recycle those things back into our own gardens and cultivated ecosystems. Think of compost and mulch, or feeding excess electricity back into the grid.
Permaculture also helps us transition from dependent consumers to responsible producers, and provides us with strategies that will allow us to prepare for an uncertain future of less available energy. Finally, as Mollison pointed out in his book Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, a lack of permanent agriculture means a lack of stable social order. So permaculture equals social stability.
Common Permaculture Practices
The various techniques and strategies used in permaculture depend on location, climate conditions and available resources. While methods may differ, the philosophy behind them remains the same: having multiple elements functioning synergistically to create sustainable, agriculturally productive ecosystems that are as diverse, stable and resilient as natural ecosystems. Below are some common permaculture practices I haven’t yet mentioned.
A land-management system that combines trees and shrubs with crops and livestock to create diversity, productivity and sustainability in land-use systems.
The practice of burying large wood stores to increase soil-water retention.
A construction technique in which a structure is built with sustainable methods, from sustainable materials, with emphasis on lessening environmental impact without sacrificing comfort, health or aesthetics.
A no-dig gardening technique that mimics leaf cover on forest floors to generate healthy, productive, low-maintenance ecosystems. Sheet mulch serves as a sort of “nutrient bank” for the plants below, storing nutrients and slowly releasing them as the organic matter naturally decomposes.
Intensive Rotational Grazing
A grazing system that utilizes the regular, systematic movement of flocks from one pasture, range or forest to another to maximize quantity and quality of forage growth. Many species of animals can be used, including cattle, sheep, goats and fowl.
The use of layered vegetation in designing functional ecosystems. A food forest, for example, generally contains seven layers–canopy, understory, shrub, herbaceous, soil surface/groundcover, rhizosphere, vertical (eight if you include fungi, nine if you include aquatic/wetland). Every layer engages in intricate relationships with its neighbours to maximize both sustainability and benefits to humans.
These practices illustrate the creativity involved in permaculture’s design process, especially in how it mimics systems found in nature and maximizes useful synergies between elements to achieve a final design that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
So, What is Permaculture, And Can It Feed The World?
Despite all the fuzzy feelings of optimism produced by permaculture theory, the field isn’t immune from criticism. I’ll start by mentioning an interesting trademark/copyright issue. Mollison originally claimed copyright over the word “permaculture.” His books stated as much on the copyright page. However, copyright law only protects the description of an idea, not the idea itself. Mollison eventually abandoned his copyright attempts, as well as subsequent attempts to get a service mark (a trademark on a service).
Mollison’s mentality in this regard segues nicely into the main criticism of permaculture. As this Huffington Post article says, permaculture is often depicted as a “gringo movement,” or a field of knowledge shared only among those with the means to acquire it. Permaculture courses often cost $2,000 or more, which makes the discipline something of an exclusive club reserved for the privileged.
The very idea of selling the knowledge gained from learning about permaculture seems at odds with the third tenet, the fair share principle. Is knowledge a profit tool, or should it rather be universally owned and accessible? Indeed, if sustainable living through permaculture remains a boutique option, it will become a privilege of the rich.
This kind of avarice doesn’t bode well for the future of food production. In a few short decades, we’ll need to feed ten billion people. If permaculture is to allow us to do this reliably and sustainably, it will have to focus on frugality and thrift.
Only once it’s universally accessible will we be able to use permaculture’s ideals to transform our toxic, exploitative relationship with the planet into a beautiful, long-term symbiosis that benefits all living creatures.
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