Overstory #94 - Permaculture
A personal note from Bill Mollison
I have been vitally concerned about the environment for over thirty years, first as a scientist and naturalist, later as a vigorous campaigner against environmental exploitation.
As a child I lived in a sort of dream, and I didn't really awaken until I was about twenty-eight years old. I spent most of my early working life in the bush or on the sea. I fished and hunted for my livelihood. It wasn't until the 1950s that I noticed large parts of the system in which I lived were disappearing. First fish stocks became extinct. Then I noticed the seaweed around the shorelines had gone. Large patches of forest began to die. I hadn't realised until those things were gone that I'd become very fond of them; that I was in love with my country.
This discovery shifted the emphasis of my work in the late 1960s. This lead to the development of the "Permaculture Concept," a strategy which focuses on sustainable design for urban and rural properties. Permaculture, or PERMAnent CULTURE, is the conscious design of agriculturally-productive ecosystems and energy conserving settlements which have the resilience, dynamic stability and diversity of natural systems, like forests or grasslands. Such systems provide for their own needs, do not pollute or exploit, and are therefore sustainable in the long term.
Permaculture design is taught in a 72 hour, two-week intensive course, as a series of strategies which draw on traditional knowledge and modern technology. Graduates of these courses can then teach others, or can design for themselves or others. Permaculture information has thus been freely and quickly disseminated. There are approximately 250,000 Permaculture graduates worldwide, and many thousands more who use Permaculture texts and information. There are very few countries which do not have a Permaculture group, association and indigenous teachers teaching in their own languages.
All of this has been achieved entirely independent of government and institutional support. There are no expensive showcase sites; rather the sum total of many people working in their backyards, farms, schools, community gardens, projects and villages.
The impetus for all the work I do has been the desire to leave our children gardens, not deserts. I see the great challenge of sustainable agriculture is to produce the food and fibre needed while sustaining fertile soils; maintaining supplies of clean water, and protecting and enhancing biological diversity and the health of ecosystems. Societies can meet this challenge by supporting vital ecosystems, farmers in their roles as producers and stewards and urban conservation groups.
©2000 Bill Mollison
Introduction to permaculture by Steve Diver
The word "permaculture" was coined in 1978 by Bill Mollison, an Australian ecologist, and one of his students, David Holmgren. It is a contraction of "permanent agriculture" or "permanent culture."
Permaculture is about designing ecological human habitats and food production systems. It is a land use and community building movement which strives for the harmonious integration of human dwellings, microclimate, annual and perennial plants, animals, soils, and water into stable, productive communities. The focus is not on these elements themselves, but rather on the relationships created among them by the way we place them in the landscape. This synergy is further enhanced by mimicking patterns found in nature.
A central theme in permaculture is the design of ecological landscapes that produce food. Emphasis is placed on multi-use plants, cultural practices such as sheet mulching and trellising, and the integration of animals to recycle nutrients and graze weeds.
However, permaculture entails much more than just food production. Energy efficient buildings, waste water treatment, recycling, and land stewardship in general are other important components of permaculture. More recently, permaculture has expanded its purview to include economic and social structures that support the evolution and development of more permanent communities, such as co-housing projects and eco-villages. As such, permaculture design concepts are applicable to urban as well as rural settings, and are appropriate for single households as well as whole farms and villages.
"Integrated farming" and "ecological engineering" are terms sometimes used to describe permaculture, with "cultivated ecology" perhaps coming the closest. Though helpful, these terms alone do not capture the holistic nature of permaculture; thus, the following definitions are included here to provide additional insight.
1. Bill Mollison:
Permaculture is a design system for creating sustainable human environments.
2. The Permaculture Drylands Institute, published in The Permaculture Activist (Autumn 1989):
Permaculture: the use of ecology as the basis for designing integrated systems of food production, housing, appropriate technology, and community development. Permaculture is built upon an ethic of caring for the earth and interacting with the environment in mutually beneficial ways.
3. Lee Barnes, former editor of Katuah Journal and Permaculture Connections, Waynesville, North Carolina:
Permaculture (PERMAnent agriCULTURE or PERMAnent CULTURE) is a sustainable design system stressing the harmonious interrelationship of humans, plants, animals and the Earth.
To paraphrase the founder of permaculture, designer Bill Mollison:
Permaculture principles focus on thoughtful designs for small-scale intensive systems which are labor efficient and which use biological resources instead of fossil fuels. Designs stress ecological connections and closed energy and material loops. The core of permaculture is design and the working relationships and connections between all things. Each component in a system performs multiple functions, and each function is supported by many elements. Key to efficient design is observation and replication of natural ecosystems, where designers maximize diversity with polycultures, stress efficient energy planning for houses and settlement, using and accelerating natural plant succession, and increasing the highly productive "edge-zones" within the system.
Permaculture adopts techniques and principles from ecology, appropriate technology, sustainable agriculture, and the wisdom of indigenous peoples. The ethical basis of permaculture rests upon care of the earth--maintaining a system in which all life can thrive. This includes human access to resources and provisions, but not the accumulation of wealth, power, or land beyond their needs.
Characteristics of permaculture
- Permaculture is one of the most holistic, integrated systems analysis and design methodologies found in the world.
- Permaculture can be applied to create productive ecosystems from the human-use standpoint or to help degraded ecosystems recover health and wildness. Permaculture can be applied in any ecosystem, no matter how degraded.
- Permaculture values and validates traditional knowledge and experience. Permaculture incorporates sustainable agriculture practices and land management techniques and strategies from around the world. Permaculture is a bridge between traditional cultures and emergent earth-tuned cultures.
- Permaculture promotes organic agriculture which does not use pesticides to pollute the environment.
- Permaculture aims to maximize symbiotic and synergistic relationships between site components.
- Permaculture is urban planning as well as rural land design.
- Permaculture design is site specific, client specific, and culture specific.
The practical application of permaculture
Permaculture is not limited to plant and animal agriculture, but also includes community planning and development, use of appropriate technologies (coupled with an adjustment of lifestyle), and adoption of concepts and philosophies that are both earth-based and people-centered, such as bioregionalism.
Many of the appropriate technologies advocated by permaculturists are well known. Among these are solar and wind power, composting toilets, solar greenhouses, energy efficient housing, and solar food cooking and drying.
Due to the inherent sustainability of perennial cropping systems, permaculture places a heavy emphasis on tree crops. Systems that integrate annual and perennial crops--such as alley cropping and agroforestry--take advantage of "the edge effect," increase biological diversity, and offer other characteristics missing in monocultural systems. Thus, multicropping systems that blend woody perennials and annuals hold promise as viable techniques for large-scale farming. Ecological methods of production for any specific crop or farming system (e.g., soil building practices, biological pest control, composting) are central to permaculture as well as to sustainable agriculture in general.
Since permaculture is not a production system, per se, but rather a land use and community planning philosophy, it is not limited to a specific method of production. Furthermore, as permaculture principles may be adapted to farms or villages worldwide, it is site specific and therefore amenable to locally adapted techniques of production.
As an example, standard organic farming and gardening techniques utilizing cover crops, green manures, crop rotation, and mulches are emphasized in permacultural systems. However, there are many other options and technologies available to sustainable farmers working within a permacultural framework (e.g., chisel plows, no-till implements, spading implements, compost turners, rotational grazing). The decision as to which "system" is employed is site-specific and management dependent.
Farming systems and techniques commonly associated with permaculture include agroforestry, swales, contour plantings, Keyline agriculture (soil and water management), hedgerows and windbreaks, and integrated farming systems such as pond-dike aquaculture, aquaponics, intercropping, and polyculture.
Gardening and recycling methods common to permaculture include edible landscaping, keyhole gardening, companion planting, trellising, sheet mulching, chicken tractors, solar greenhouses, spiral herb gardens, swales, and vermicomposting.
Water collection, management, and re-use systems like Keyline, greywater, rain catchment, constructed wetlands, aquaponics (the integration of hydroponics with recirculating aquaculture), and solar aquatic ponds (also known as Living Machines) play an important role in permaculture designs.
The ethics of permaculture
Permaculture is unique among alternative farming systems (e.g., organic, sustainable, eco-agriculture, biodynamic) in that it works with a set of ethics that suggest we think and act responsibly in relation to each other and the earth.
The ethics of permaculture provide a sense of place in the larger scheme of things, and serve as a guidepost to right livelihood in concert with the global community and the environment, rather than individualism and indifference.
1. Care of the Earth
....includes all living and non-living things--plants, animals, land, water and air
2. Care of People
....promotes self-reliance and community responsibility--access to resources necessary for existence
3. Setting Limits to Population & Consumption
....gives away surplus--contribution of surplus time, labor, money, information, and energy to achieve the aims of earth and people care.
Permaculture also acknowledges a basic life ethic, which recognizes the intrinsic worth of every living thing. A tree has value in itself, even if it presents no commercial value to humans. That the tree is alive and functioning is worthwhile. It is doing its part in nature: recycling litter, producing oxygen, sequestering carbon dioxide, sheltering animals, building soils, and so on.
The principles of permaculture design
Whereas permaculture ethics are more akin to broad moral values or codes of behavior, the principles of permaculture provide a set of universally applicable guidelines which can be used in designing sustainable habitats. Distilled from multiple disciplines--ecology, energy conservation, landscape design, and environmental science--these principles are inherent in any permaculture design, in any climate, and at any scale.
- Relative location
- Each element performs multiple functions
- Each function is supported by many elements
- Energy efficient planning
- Using biological resources
- Energy cycling
- Small-scale intensive systems
- Natural plant succession and stacking
- Polyculture and diversity of species
- Increasing "edge" within a system
- Observe and replicate natural patterns
- Pay attention to scale
Four ways to learn about permaculture include: the permaculture design course, the permaculture literature, the Internet, and permaculture workshops.
The Permaculture Design Course is the primary vehicle for transfer of permaculture expertise. The standard course is 72 hours in length and lasts two weeks. Graduates are issued a permaculture design certificate and are entitled to use the term "Permaculture" in the pursuit of livelihood and for educational purposes. Graduates are eligible to continue studies and become certified permaculture consultants.
The permaculture literature is a rich source of information on a wide range of topics dealing with land use, plant and animal agriculture, water management, appropriate technology, energy-efficient and toxic-free housing, and community design.
Since 1995, the Internet (e.g., World Wide Web and E-mail) has become an important resource and networking tool in the dissemination of permaculture information. A selection of web sites is listed below.
Permaculture workshops are commonly held as one to three day events to provide training on technologies such as vermicomposting, solar greenhouses, straw bale construction, sheet mulching, and organic gardening.
Periodicals and Organizations
The Permaculture Activist is the leading periodical for North American permaculture. It publishes articles on permaculture, edible landscaping, bioregionalism, aquaculture, etc, and provides a current listing of upcoming permaculture design courses. It serves as an important networking tool in the U.S., Canada, and Central America. Back issues are available.
Permaculture Drylands Journal Permaculture Drylands Institute P.O. Box 156 Santa Fe, NM 87504-0156 USA 505-983-0663; Fax: 505-986-0339; Email: Pdrylands@aol.com
Permaculture Drylands Journal (formerly Sustainable Living in Drylands) is published in April, August, and December by the Permaculture Drylands Educa tion and Research Institute. It focuses on permaculture concepts and designs for arid lands, with a heavy focus on New Mexico and Arizona. PDJ has published articles on straw bale buildings, solar box cookers, dryland farming, and many other topics of interest; back issues are available. PDI offers a regular series of Permaculture Design Courses.
Permaculture International Journal Permaculture International Ltd. P.O. Box 6039 South Lismore, NSW 2480 Australia; Email: email@example.com
Permaculture International Journal was the leading permaculture magazine for two decades, yet ceased publication in mid-2000. Permaculture International Ltd. continues its activities online, with a web page that features a newsletter, a global directory, an email discussion list, educational resources, and permaculture events in Australia. Back issues of PIJ, found in a few libraries here and there, is a goldmine of valuable information.
Tagari Publications - Permaculture Institute 31 Rulla Road Sisters Creek Tasmania 7325 Australia + 61 (0)3 6445 0945 Fax: + 61 (0)3 6445 0944; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The International Permaculture Institute serves as the international coordinating organization for permaculture activities such as permaculture design accreditation.
Books on Permaculture
Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay. 1991. Tagari Publishers, Tyalgum, Australia. 198 p.
Permaculture: A Designer's Manual by Bill Mollison. 1988. Tagari Publications, Tyalgum, Australia. 576 p.
Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway. 2001. Chelsea Green Publishing Co., White River Junction, Vermont, USA. 222 p..
Earth User's Guide to Permaculture by Rosemary Morrow and Rob Allsop. 2000. Simon & Schuster Intl.
On-Line Articles, Fact Sheets, & Proceedings on Permaculture
Permaculture: Design For Living by Bill Mollison. Originally published in IN CONTEXT #28, Spring 1991: http://www.context.org/ICLIB/IC28/Mollison.htm
Building A Bamboo Farm: Using Permaculture Principles in Bamboo Agroforestry by Simon Henderson. One of several on-line articles at Permaculture the Earth: http://www.permaearth.org/bamboo.html
This edition of The Overstory is excerpted with the kind permission of Steve Diver from the full version:
Introduction to Permaculture: Concepts and Resources posted at http://www.attra.org/attra-pub/perma.html.
Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA) P.O. Box 3657 Fayetteville, AR 72702 Phone: 1-800-346-9140 --- FAX: (501) 442-9842 Web: http://www.attra.org
"Characteristics of Permaculture" is from: Pilarski, M. (ed.) 1994. Restoration Forestry. Kivaki Press, Durango, CO. p. 450.
About the author
A permaculture design course graduate, Steve Diver is a technical specialist in horticulture and agronomy at the Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA) program, the national sustainable farming information center located at the University of Arkansas.
The focus of the ATTRA program is on farming systems that enhance the economic livelihoods of farm families while sustaining the environment. ATTRA provides resources and technical assistance to commercial farmers, including small farmers and market gardeners, in the United States.
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