This is the first in a series of fourteen introductory articles about permaculture — one for each chapter of Bill Mollison’s “Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual.” Through this series I will connect theory with practice, and share practical examples of permaculture in action.
Permaculture design is a system of assembling conceptual, material and strategic components in a pattern which functions to benefit life in all its forms. It provides a sustainable and secure place for living things on earth. While each component is important, permaculture is less about the things themselves and more about how the things fit together.
Permaculture does not dwell on the negative. While we maintain a healthy awareness of present day problems, we are more focused on the positive, continually asking the question “what do we want?”
Few people would argue that our global and local environments are on the down-hill slide, but it is important that we cut clearly through the mass of misinformation and half-truths that exist. Only by getting to the heart of the matter can we reasonably design a plan to change things.
Just the other day I was reading an article in The Province, which took the position that we need to start investing in natural systems if we are going to maintain our precious existence on this planet. The article stated that 60 countries have lost nearly all their forests, and that 1/3 of all fish stocks, food for two billion people, were on the brink of collapse. Furthermore, due to soil erosion,we can no longer farm 30% of all agricultural land on the planet.
How did we get here? We rely on a system of economic and social organization that has seen us become less and less responsible for our own basic needs. By supporting and expanding this system, we have come to rely more and more on distant lands and resources.
Agriculture is particularly grim and is responsible for more deforestation, CO2 production, chemical pollution and soil erosion than any other activity on the planet. The sad part is we have been convinced that the only way to feed ourselves is through the destructive and highly centralized system of plow-based agriculture. This is just plain false.
Consider the following statistics:
- One billion people on the planet, 80% of whom are involved in agriculture, are malnourished and hungry.
- US agricultural production produces $300/acre 
- Home gardeners produce over $42,000/acre, with an average of 5 hours work per week 
Just take a quick look around your neighborhood and you can see that home gardening gets far better production per acre than any other agricultural system.
The largest and most energy intensive agriculture on the planet is the lawn. It uses more fossil fuel, human energy and chemical fertilizer than most other forms of agriculture. What does it produce? Polluted watersheds, polluted oceans, health problems and lawn trimmings for the garbage dump.
By turning our lawns into food systems, we can immediately remove ourselves from two of the most destructive systems on the face of the planet: the lawn and plow-based agriculture.
This brings us to the “Prime Directive of Permaculture”: to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children. In other words, we need to get our house and garden in order, so that they feed and shelter us.
Very few of us living in urban areas produce enough food to meet our own basic needs. We can all use permaculture to overcome this fundamental disconnect in contemporary urban life.
When making decisions within the permaculture framework, we rely on the permaculture ethic as a tool for conflict resolution and benchmarks to measure success in our design. This ethic is simple:
- Earth Care: living, growing and promoting the function of living systems. Building biomass (capturing CO2 in living systems) is good.
- People Care: providing clean water, food and shelter, and strong communities that do not enslave people.
- Return of Surplus: all surplus generated by these systems is returned back into earth care and people care, not into the generation of more surplus for the sake of surplus. Growth is not endless, since we live on a single planet with finite resources.
Permaculture is an ethical system stressing positivism and cooperation. We use this ethic in all aspects of the design process. It is a value set that guides us. It is the ethic that makes some design strategies available to us and others not, as any design we produce must fit within the ethical criteria.
Implicit in this ethic is the Life Ethic: all living organisms are not only means but ends in themselves. In addition to having value to the human species and other living organisms, they have an intrinsic worth. All life is good.
Even though the ethic is well-reasoned, it is still somewhat subjective. It’s important to be aware of my personal biases. We are all on a continuum of understanding, and it’s not my duty to pass judgement or convince anybody of how wrong they are and how right I am. My only responsibility is to take care of my needs and be sure that my activities fall within the permaculture ethic. As I move further along the road to a sustainable lifestyle I generate a surplus of resources and information that I willingly share with others who are working towards a right-livelihood themselves.
Information is often the first resource in surplus.
So, how do we design lives to become ones of net production as opposed to ones of net consumption?
A practical application:
- Earth Care: a well mulched home garden builds soil faster than any other system. This reduces our need for plow agriculture and takes kitchen waste, paper waste and all other compostable materials out of our land fills.
- People Care: the garden provides local, clean and healthy food to the gardener, as well as a source of relaxation and contemplation.
- Return of Surplus: home gardens are usually over-productive and surplus is shared with neighbors and friends, or left to compost back into the soil.
In the words of my friend and mentor, Geoff Lawton: “All the problems of the world can be solved in a garden.” It does not stop at the garden. Permaculture is such a good-sense approach to design and problem solving that it can be applied to many other facets of human life. This is not a move backwards to feudalism and peasantry, it is an evolution towards a society and planet of absolute abundance.
Over the next thirteen months I will cover each chapter in the Permaculture Design Certificate and explore many ways to use this revolutionary system of design. I believe you will be inspired by the simplicity and the commonplace nature of the solutions to our incredibly complex set of political and environmental problems.
Check in again next month when I will cover chapter two “Concepts and Themes in Design.” This chapter looks into the nature of sustainable system, their principles and our directives as designers for positive change.
- Panel on food security, World Economic Forum, 2009
- US Agricultural census, 2007
- National Gardening Association, 2009