Permaculture — an introduction

March 16, 2018

Tour leader, writer and permaculture aficionado, Phil Moore gives an introduction to Permaculture — a design system informing and inspiring the work of Brake the Cycle


Permaculture is many things to many people. Resisting easy definition, here’s a description from Bill Mollison’s‘Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual’, originally published in 1988:


“Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”    


Permaculture is a design science, a way of seeing the world, a movement, and much more. As a design system it has influenced and inspired how we conduct ourselves at Brake the Cycle and has inspired the choice of projects we visit on our tours. 


So, we thought we’d share some of the key ideas in permaculture by way of an introduction. Broadly speaking Permaculture is about designing sustainable human settlements. Integrating ecology, organic husbandry, architecture, and landscape design, with the use of appropriate technologies, Permaculture creates systems in step with the natural world and its resources.


The word Permaculture is a blend of ‘permanent’ and ‘agri-culture’. Both a way of seeing and acting in the world, Permaculture is concerned with our place on planet earth and how we go about our business. Coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren to describe an “integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man”, Permaculture was very much a reaction to an alien, temperate inspired, and European modelled, agriculture on Australian soils. These damaging practices were being observed around the time of the first oil shock in the early 1970s when OPEC declared an oil embargo, hiking up the price of what was, and remains, the engine of commercial agriculture. The pinch was quickly felt in modern farming which relies heavily on fossil fuel inputs.


In his book ‘Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability’ (2004), Holmgren’s definition of Permaculture as, “[c]onsciously 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,” opened the vision up to include the idea of permanent (sustainable) cultures - not just agriculture.


Permaculture is built on the foundation of ethics which inform and underpin its guiding principles. These ethics, which form a three legged stool upon which a number of design principles sit are: ‘Care of the Earth’; ‘Care of People’, ‘Fair shares’. Relatively self explanatory, perhaps the last - ‘fair shares’ - is the trickiest, philosophically speaking.


‘Fair shares’ is a neatly rhyming headline for an idea: setting limits to consumption and reproduction and redistributing surplus for the benefit of the planet (i.e. returning, recycling and careful use of macronutrients such potassium, magnesium, calcium required in large amounts for plant growth) and for people (there is plenty of food in the world, the sticking point is distribution — and political will). The third ethic is an acknowledgement that we only have one earth and we have to share it and its resources with all living things - now and into the future. By governing our own needs and thinking ecologically and environmentally we can discern and really sense what’s needed — and what’s not. Somewhere between a directive and a moral imperative the ‘fair shares’ concept is a reminder of the imbalances in consumption patterns and an invitation to ecologically manage such patterns (especially in the Global North).


And management is a useful word here. If permaculture is a form of ecology with a human and planetary perspective it’s useful to remind ourselves about the word ‘ecology’. Ecology comes from the Greek oikos ‘house’ and -ology ‘a subject of interest’. Interestingly the word  ‘Economy’ shares the same root (from Greek oikonomia 'household management', based on oikos 'house' and nemein 'manage'). 


Permaculture inclined perspectives are sensitive to the connection between the biosphere, what we see as resources and our modern economies. Smart phones still need to be made from real, mined material. Home, our planet, is arguably in a mess - both ecologically and financially. And it’s not difficult to see how one effects the other. Shifting the Enlightenment clarion call of ‘Man as the measure of all things’, Permaculture calls for a greater awareness, and care, of the Earth. We live on a planet of finite resources and are well advised to use and manage our resources as ecologically and creatively as we can. Permaculture’s great strength is connecting the dots, in ‘systems thinking’.

Holmgren’s book ‘Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability’ outlines a series of twelve principles, or thinking tools to help us along our way in ‘systems thinking’. No single permaculture is the same. An acre of industrially produced wheat in the Ukraine, East Anglia or the US will largely look, and be managed, the same way. Permaculture is sensitive to place — both the ecology and topology of the environment. Each permaculture site is different and relies on observation and local knowledge. Holmgren’s twelve principles can be viewed here.


One of the essential practices of permaculture is to develop perennial agricultural systems that thrive over time without recourse to expensive and harmful inputs. Such systems include perennial-plant guilds, forest gardens, agroforestry, and mixed animal and plant polycultures. Such practices have occurred for millennia and continue in many parts of the world at different scales, from back yard permaculture to acres wide systems. 


Past Brake the Cycle rides have visited many permaculture projects such as Offshoots, set within Towneley Hall, Burnley’s largest park. What was once a forgotten Victorian walled kitchen garden is now an accessible public permaculture project. Rows of veg are overlooked by the Walter Siegel cabin which is a stone’s throw from the compost loo and right next to the Apiary from where bees forage in the multiplicity of plants.


As Mollison writes in ‘Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual’: “Permaculture as a design system contains nothing new. It arranges what was there in a different way, so that it works to conserve energy or create more than it consumes.”


The emphasis is on designing beneficial relationships, or connections between varying components.


A planned ecology, where inspiration is drawn from the natural world. And it’s all very common sense. Where you place your wormery, where you let your chickens go, how you use the manure from your animals  (and yourself perhaps!). Natural ecosystems are the model. 


There is often confusion between organic gardening and permaculture. If we think of permaculture as the organising conceptual toolbox, and organic gardening (or, agroforestry or no-dig gardening say) as one of those tools or techniques, we begin to appreciate that Permaculture is about big picture thinking, about systems thinking and ecology —looking at the relationship between things. This is what Permaculture brings to the world of farming and agriculture (and more): a framework, a way of thinking. 


And the genius of Permaculture isn’t that it’s a set of laws which the designer must follow blindly. There are no errors from learning — just the evolution of a living system and its design.


This post originally appeared in Indie Farmer — a magazine about food, farming & culture

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