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Permaculture and Philosophy

We can teach philosophy by teaching gardening, but we cannot teach gardening by teaching philosophy. — Bill Mollison

The place of philosophy in Permaculture has always been a contentious subject and for very good reasons. The very identity and credibility of the design system of permaculture rests on its sound scientific underpinnings and foundations.

Through the definition of strict boundaries of what can and cannot be added to the body of the permaculture syllabus, it has managed to retain its intended focus, and therefore its effectiveness as a scientific design discipline.

If the relationship and connection of permaculture to philosophy is not clearly understood, we run the very real risk of destroying the integrity of the discipline of permaculture, by making inappropriate additions in the misguided endeavour to ‘make it all things to all people’.

So, the best way to tackle any contention about this subject is to examine the nature of permaculture itself as well as the nature of what we loosely define as philosophy, and the relationship between them. And that’s precisely what we’ll do!

The Nature of Permaculture

Permaculture is an applied science, as its focus is on the practical application of scientific knowledge to achieve certain aims. It does not aim to gather information for the purpose of amassing knowledge alone.

It is also an empirical science, deriving information through observation or experience of the natural world. The strong emphasis of the importance of observation as a tool in permaculture design should confirm clearly that this is the case.

The opposite of an empirical science is a theoretical science, which deals with theories, speculation and conjecture. So, we can see that permaculture is clearly not a theoretical discipline, but one grounded in practicality. It is also in essence pragmatic, and applicable to everyday life.

So far we have examined how permaculture resembles other sciences, but to make a complete and thorough analysis, we also need to check if it differs in any way.

Permaculture differs from many other sciences in that it is holistic, and not reductionist. It doesn’t reduce the world to a set of abstract and ultimately meaningless mathematical equations, which are nothing more than human mental abstractions. Instead, it describes the connections and relationships between natural systems, the countless living organisms on this planet, and the planet itself.

What makes Permaculture unique is that it has at its very core a set of three ethical principles:

  1. Care of the Earth
  2. Care of people
  3. Return of surplus to the Earth and people (also called “Fair Share”)

Now, ethical principles are not normally part of any science — they normally reside in the domains of philosophy and religion. So, permaculture is really unique in that it is an applied science with a philosophical branch grafted to it, which provides it with a set of ethics.

These ethics are in my opinion a valuable and necessary addition, because science is normally seen as an amoral discipline in our modern society — it inherently lacks ethical guidelines, and is not concerned with them.

In the scientific world, people such as bioethicists pick up the loose ends and deal with moral and ethical concerns, but these people are not scientists, but philosophers in both function and training. The state of our present world is living proof of where amoral science coupled with profit-driven technology and economics has taken us, and the concerns here should be evident….

Now, before anyone jumps the gun at my statement that “permaculture has a branch of philosophy grafted to it in the form of a set ethical principles”, let me further elaborate on nature of these ethical principles.

Permaculture’s Ethical Principles

Let me state at the outset of this discussion that:

  • The act of including ethical principles in permaculture is totally consistent with the nature of permaculture, and
  • The nature of the ethical principles themselves is congruent with the underlying purpose of permaculture

As a basic definition, permaculture is a holistic design system for creating sustainable human settlements and food production systems. It is a movement concerned with sustainable, environmentally sound land use and the building of stable communities, through the harmonious interrelationship of humans, plants, animals and the Earth.

By this very definition, this system necessitates that our conduct is focussed on the good of the planet, nature and the people. It cannot work otherwise.

In permaculture, we are dealing with scientifically definable and measurable systems here — biological ecosystems and human communities. What is beneficial or detrimental to either of these systems is not a subjective matter bound in the realms of personal opinion and conjecture. What is good or bad for living systems is objective scientific fact that can be observed, measured and the results readily reproduced. It is not idle philosophy abstracted from reality and relegated to the towers of academia. Neither does it depend on any metaphysical explanation, religious, spiritual or otherwise.

One point that must made be clear here is how the ethics of permaculture differ from other ethical systems. The ethical principles of permaculture are what I would describe as a ‘practical philosophy’ — one based on science and observation rather than theory, doctrine or belief.

So, the inclusion of an ethical system does not detract from the science; as it is based on solid science, it ensures that the science is applied only as intended, and achieves the intended ethical aims.

Having covered the nature of permaculture and its ethical system, it’s now time to look at the nature of ‘philosophies’, and the reasons why they are of concern to permaculture in certain contexts.

Philosophy and the Correct Sequence of Things – The Cart goes After the Horse…

To quote Bill Mollison, “We can teach philosophy by teaching gardening, but we cannot teach gardening by teaching philosophy”.

The wisdom contained in this quote may not be immediately apparent to a person with little life experience working with nature. To those that do have this experience, they can from their own experience immediately recognize that Bill Mollison has ‘been there’ and knew what he was talking about when he uttered this quote.

Unless you ‘get it’, because you have ‘walked the path’, then it’s all academic and the implications of this quote may not be immediately apparent, but I’ll do my best to explain.

By practicing permaculture and by that I mean really practicing it, applying it, doing something useful with it, living it, certain changes take place in your perspective and outlook.

Through spending time working with nature in a nurturing, caring way — tending to plants, trees and wildlife — you develop a connection with it. When you spend time caring for nature, year after year through the seasons, watching the cycles of birth, growth, decline and death of all forms of life, you become attuned to its cycles. Through spending time and effort interacting with nature as an integral part of it, in the same way as all other living things do, as a peer and not a master, you develop a communion with nature — a sense of oneness with it. Through all this experience, you then finally truly appreciate all life and its worth, its sanctity, and how nature as a whole is truly sacred.

Your personal philosophy then will arise from your deep experience of earth stewardship and communion, not beforehand!

If it comes beforehand, it’s just a baseless academic mental construct without any foundation (and most likely, no real merit either). If it comes after the acquisition of knowledge, which is then consolidated by experience, then it is what is called wisdom. This is indelibly etched in the psyche because it has been truly ‘understood’. It has, in a sense, been earned, and not just memorised.

In my mind this is what Bill Mollison meant, and I have realised this through my own personal experience, not through theorizing or from memorising some random fact presented in a course or textbook.

Hence, through gardening in a permaculture sense, and the activities associated with it — caring for the Earth (and all living organisms that make up the planet’s ecosystems), caring for the people, and sharing our surplus — we create the right conditions for a philosophy, or even a spirituality to arise of its own accord, one that has a foundation in reality based upon experience, wisdom and understanding.

If we indulge in philosophising without a connection to life, without ‘walking the walk’, then we’re only ‘talking the talk’, we’re just amusing ourselves with our own thought processes disconnected from the real world, and we are just subscribing to a belief system (usually someone else’s).

Something Missing?

One sentiment frequently echoed around certain permaculture circles is that ‘something is missing from permaculture, they should teach about spirituality…

Why should people think this? It’s often heard after the conclusion of a 72-hour intensive Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) Course, which people almost unanimously describe as ‘life-changing’. I have looked into the phenomenon, and this is my theory for why this happens.

The PDC covers a lot of ground, but what it does even more profoundly is explore in depth our place in the world, the natural order of the planet, and our proper place in it.

Humanity has existed in close connection with nature for the majority of its 200,000 year existence as the species Homo sapiens (modern man). Our connection to nature is hard-wired into us. Our modern society has disconnected us from our source, our roots, and from the web of life that interconnects all life on planet Earth.

Deep down we all feel something is not right. In modern society we have a deep discontent gnawing away at us from the very depth of our core. We deeply thirst for that reconnection to life itself. Since the pull to our true natures is buried so deeply below so much pointless distractions and mental activities, we become unconscious of our deepest yearnings.

In a modern society where people are isolated, alienated, marginalised, and barely exist in lives devoid of meaning, they survive by trying to feed their base desires, their most primal urges. Advertising tells us what will make us happy, unbridled consumption! – buy this and that and you’ll be complete! But we never are, and we find that the bottomless pit of insatiable desires within us is never filled.

We try to ignore it all by pursuing distractions and meaningless activities to keep our mind occupied (that we often label as ‘entertainment’) so we can’t notice how dissatisfied we really are. Unfortunately, we can’t stay in perpetual motion indefinitely, and in the moments where we have stillness, isolation or boredom, when the distractions cease, all the discontent surfaces to the top of our conscious minds and haunts us like a demon released from the depths of hell.

The PDC seems to ‘reconnect’ us to what I’d best describe as our genetic memory of our connection with nature, creating a profound experience, which is further enhanced by the realisation of how much on the wrong track our society is when we can truly see nature’s real order.

Having this perspective shift and a sense of reconnection to nature and a recognition of our proper place in the system leaves a strong impression that we’re connected to something bigger than us, and that something is also missing.

Strangely enough, these are the very elements that drive us on our inner personal journeys, which urge us to construct our personal philosophies to explain who we are and our place in the world, through which we derive our own personal meaning. These philosophies can extend into spirituality — the quest for connection and communion with something beyond and greater than our sense of self, and the realisation of meaning and purpose that accompanies this process.

So, training in permaculture can ignite one’s personal quest for meaning and purpose in life! Yes, it can indeed. And this is precisely where the confusion begins. Permaculture is a design framework, but the practitioner must provide the design techniques, which are the ‘tools’. If you wish to design a permaculture garden, permaculture will give you the framework to design energy efficient, sustainable gardens that model nature’s systems, but it will not teach you horticulture. If you wish to design energy efficient houses, you have to teach yourself architecture, and then apply your architectural skills within a permaculture design framework. The key is that you must supply the content!

Similarly, permaculture might act as a primer to a personal philosophical or spiritual quest or journey, but it doesn’t supply the philosophy or spirituality. This is your responsibility. This you must find yourself. Once again, you must supply the content!

The Source of the Problem

Through a misunderstanding of the ‘inner need’ that arises through the perspective shift in permaculture study, some teachers have decided to do something about the feeling that ‘something is missing’ by blending their own personal spiritual belief systems into their permaculture courses.

The second mistake some teachers make is to assume that because permaculture includes a life-affirming ethical system that makes it compatible with other life-affirming philosophies, spiritual systems and religions, then it is fine to add these to their permaculture courses.

And this is, my friends, is where the confusion begins….

Just because the system of permaculture is compatible with possibly all positive belief systems does not mean they can be grafted onto it! It will only damage permaculture as a discipline if this is attempted.

Why you may ask?

Simply because permaculture, being a science, is truly universal, but spiritual or philosophical beliefs are not.

Permaculture is meant to appeal to a wide audience, and as a discipline it can be practiced all people regardless of whether they are an atheist, agnostic, theist or whether they subscribe to this philosophy or that. If we include elements that are not universally agreed upon (because they are not scientific, and therefore cannot be proven with science), we run the risk of excluding a large portion of the general population who may hold different personal beliefs. If the intention is to bring permaculture to a wider audience, then excluding a portion of the populace would run counter to this aim.

Furthermore, just because people hold spiritual beliefs does not necessarily mean they will all agree with each other. There is no guarantee that a permaculture teacher who espouses their own personal spiritual beliefs in a permaculture course will not alienate people with different spiritual beliefs either.

With the inclusion of a very narrow set of spiritual beliefs, permaculture as a discipline will, as a consequence, become marginalised to a very narrow subset of the total population — to only those people who are interested in both permaculture and that specific spiritual belief. It is in effect a subgroup of a subgroup of the total population. This is hardly the way to gain widespread acceptance for such a valuable system as permaculture!

One objection often raised in this respect is the discussion of indigenous spirituality in permaculture texts and the apparent reverence for them.

The explanation for this is quite simple, and ties in with the point made earlier about spirituality/philosophy arising from living a life in harmonious connection with nature.

These indigenous spiritualties are the result of people’s close connection, communion with, and reverence for nature and all life. They have lived as part of nature for millennia, and understood their place in it — their spirituality arose from there. The connection was never lost. They didn’t dream up their spiritually in the lofty towers of academia in a university somewhere, it arose from living a life in harmony with nature, as an integral part of it.

The Solution

As permaculture tells us, the seeds of the solution can be found within every problem, and the problem of philosophy in permaculture is no different.

Permaculture’s compatibility with a wide range of belief systems means that the design system can have universal appeal, regardless of individual differences. As a consequence, permaculture can be taught in various communities with the effect of supporting their philosophical, spiritual or religious values, ethics and principles.

Permaculture is meant to co-exist alongside these compatible systems, interconnected to them in the same way that all living things are interconnected in the web of life. In the same way that different organisms can co-exist in a supportive, symbiotic relationship with each other without changing their unique genetic make-up, so too can permaculture co-exist in a supportive manner without changing its unique nature or composition.

If a teacher is delivering a permaculture design course, then they should deliver it as it is, retaining its original character and nature. By running a permaculture course, a teacher is acting as a representative of the wider permaculture community and is promoting the universal system of permaculture, which is the same as permaculture being taught by other teachers, to their students right around world.

Now, if a permaculture teacher wishes to teach metaphysical courses which they believe are compatible with permaculture, then they are promoting something unique and personal which represents no-one else but themselves, and their own beliefs. It would be a gross misrepresentation of the permaculture community to title such a course with the word ‘permaculture’, for it projects to the world that “this is permaculture”, which is simply not the case!

I believe that the permaculture course should be taught strictly as a permaculture course out of respect and obligation to the greater permaculture community.

A metaphysical course should be represented as the teacher’s own personal system, or their version of a larger system, whichever it may be, without any possibility of confusion that it is associated in any way with permaculture.

If the point isn’t quite clear, let me illustrate with a clear example. If I sign up for a permaculture course, I would want to learn permaculture. I would not necessarily want to have someone else’s spiritual belief shoved down my throat, as part of a captive audience of a course that is there to learn permaculture. If I have my own spiritual beliefs, or if I don’t have any, I would want that respected, without being forced to be subjected someone else’s personal beliefs when I’m not there for that reason.

In summary, we maintain the integrity of permaculture and teach it in its original form, for the following reasons:

  • Out of mutual respect for students’ own personal beliefs.
  • To be more open and inclusive to people of different belief systems in order to attract a wider audience.
  • To respect the aims and intentions of the founders of the system of permaculture, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, and to respect the hard work of countless teachers that have dedicated themselves to support and carry on the founders’ work.

And on that last point, if we really are trying to be spiritual, then I think that respect for our ‘elders’ is a fairly universal concept or value in most spiritual, religious and philosophical systems if I’m not mistaken!


We can conclude that due to permaculture’s unique nature as an applied science with its own scientifically validated ethical system, it can harmoniously co-exist with possibly all life-affirming philosophical, religious and spiritual systems in a supportive way, without changing them or needing to be changed itself.

Permaculture can help us identify our need for an ethical personal philosophy or the need to pursue a spiritual path, but it cannot supply them, nor is it obliged to as a scientific design discipline, as such a purpose is well beyond its scope. We must find our personal philosophy or our spiritual path ourselves. That is our responsibility.

Philosophy and spirituality, which are deeply personal by nature, are ultimately not something that we need to graft onto permaculture, which is universal by nature. By living harmoniously with nature and our fellow men (and women!) in an ethical way, we lay the foundations for both a deeper philosophical understanding of life and for a spiritual life.

It is through ethical, life-affirming action, that we will find our own personal philosophy or spirituality, and not by learning about someone else’s own personal version in a sustainable design course. Put that way, it hardly seems like the place for it….

So, if you want spirituality or philosophy to go along with your permaculture training, my advice is to go out there, practice what you’ve learned, put it into action and do some good in this world. Make an effort to make the world a better place for the good of all, and I guarantee that you will be rewarded with your own personal philosophy or spirituality, and possibly a better world too!


Title photo: Plato, the greatest western philosopher of all time, born 428 or 427 B.C.E. in Athens, Greece, and died in 347 B.C.E. He taught in a garden, or sacred grove, dedicated to the God Academus, so it was known as “The Academy”.

Further Reading:


  1. When I read this interview series with Nikos Salingaros and see how the discipline of architecture is TOTALLY destroyed by nihilistic and dogmatic philosophies, it horrifies to think about that the discipline of permaculture has the possibility to go down the same way.

    The discipline of architecture has destroyed our communities more than anything else , permaculture has the possibility to heal them.

  2. I agree with your main point, that permaculture should not be mixed with religion and philosophy, but I disagree strongly that permaculture is strictly science based. I am also having a difficult time understanding the pretentious pseudo-authority air with which this article is written, and WHY it was written in the first place?

    To act as if permaculture is strictly scientific is bullshit. Show me the plethora of peer review, un-biased scientific papers written about the design system of permaculture. Show me the fact checker scrutinizing Bill Mollison’s words, or Geoff Lawton’s. Read the designer’s manual for god sake. It is laced with scientific errors (to its credit it is full of scientific concepts little discussed and little known). I am beginning to wonder why the PRI is so adamant about permaculture being strictly scientific?

    I say, who cares! Why do we care so much about what other people are doing? Focus on yourself, your own work. Permaculture will not be ruined if some teachers take an expanded interpretation; permaculture exists on the ground and in cultures, not in seeking the approval of scientists, researchers, and governments.

    ASSERT the value of permaculture for what it is, a half-way scientific and ethical approach to the design of sustainable ecosystems THAT ACTUALLY WORKS, unlike most of the bullshit that comes out of scientific research, never able to reach a conclusion, constantly arguing/debating.

    That said, my name is Jason Gerhardt, and I am a permaculturist. I read scientific papers, and I apply my own thoughts to what I read and see, but foremost I am an observer. I scrutinize what I observe so that I may understand it, and then I apply it to the design of ecosystems (which includes human communities). If you want to call that science, good luck co-opting the term from academia. I call it permaculture design!

  3. I also agree with the main point of this article, that religion should not be incorporated into Permaculture teaching. Other than that, I have two main comments:

    Firstly, Angelo seemed to argue that we can only legitimately develop a personal philosophy as a result of experience, rather than discovering a philosophy or set of ethical principles, and then putting them into action. I suspect that this argument would invalidate the experience of many people, including myself, who came to permaculture and its ethics through reading and thinking, and only later put them into action. But then, I would argue that reading and thinking are a key means of extending our experience, in the first instance anyway. Obviously we need to ‘walk the talk’ and act on our ethics/philosophy for it to be truly ours.

    And it also seems to me that practicing Permaculture involves thinking, reading and action in equal measure, and in no particular order. So perhaps the experience/philosophy thing has a bit of a chicken and egg paradox to it.

    My second comment relates to the idea of Permaculture as science, which I don’t think is an issue, but I don’t think any scientific practice can be divorced from individual/collective philosophy and/or worldview – or errors of fact for that matter. As a scientist your worldview or philosophy will, at the very least, partly influence what you think important to study, and what questions you want to answer in doing so. I think it is going to be really important that permaculture practitioners not repeat the errors of mainstream science, including the belief that their practice is somehow philosophically and ideologically neutral.

    However, I think that being transparent about the role our philosophy or worldview plays in shaping our practice will also mean striving honestly to keep it out of our teaching, as much as is humanly possible. In so doing, we are practicing ‘people care’ by acknowledging that others may not share our views, and that hearing them may create discomfort, as well as a barrier to learning.

  4. Hi Jason,

    In response to the points you’ve raised:

    My main point is not only that Permaculture should not be mixed up with philosophy, religion, etc, but that these can emerge on their own through the practice application of Permaculture, so they don’t need to be appended to the PDC course syllabus.

    Why was it written? Because there is an obvious need as spelt out in detail in the article, and which was clearly evident from the reaction to Craig’s previous article on a closely related topic. Not sure what to make of the comment “pretentious pseudo-authority air with which this article is written” – are you implying I don’t have the authority, expertise or credentials to write such an article? I would suggest that you’d be mistaken if that was the case.

    You might strongly disagree that Permaculture is strictly science-based, but you don’t give me any sound reasons why this is the case. I have a science background myself, and from what I see, it all looks like applied science, and I’ve explained this point in the article. I also work as a presenter on the subject of comparative spirituality (completely separately from my Permaculture work of course, working with completely different audiences!) and I think I’m qualified to tell the difference. What defines science is the methodology, not the absence or presence of peer review journals. See my discussion on the nature of empirical science. Information is gathered through observation, and the results and conclusions can all be verified because they are repeatable by others – this makes it science. I’ve employed the methods detailed by Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton – I don’t take anyone’s words at face value, I put everything I learned at their PDC to a test, my experiment has been running for over three years now, and you can see some of the conclusions in my previous PRI article – or all the data and results, including hard facts and figures on my web site –

    In regards to your comments about Design manual, or for that matter any other compilation of scientific information – science is based on the premise that what we accept and understand at present may be subject to revision, expansion or correction in the future as new information comes to light. It is not infallible Divine revelation, no science is. Even Einstein’s theory or relativity changed the way we think about something we thought as unquestionable as Newton’s laws of motion…

    To answer your next question, my guess is that reason PRI, as well as the founders of Permaculture themselves, insist that Permaculture is a science because it was founded by two ecologists as part of a scientific endeavour, and PRI represents their aims and purpose! I’m betting it’s safe to assume that they know what they invented, for if they don’t know, then who does?

    Who cares you ask? Everyone trying to promote Permaculture for the greater good, that’s who cares. I’ve outlined why deviating from the intended structure of the discipline will be detrimental, as has Craig in his article, so I won’t repeat myself here.

    I take your point, some of science has gone the wrong way, tied to corporate research grants and producing phony research that supports narrow vested corporate interests. Glyphosate research, anyone? Any phony research is just bad science, but it does not invalidate or devalue the scientific method itself. I might be inclined to conclude that you’re mixing up the scientific community with the scientific method here… I don’t believe anyone in Permaculture is chasing the approval of scientists and governments, and I don’t think that anyone really cares for their approval either. I know Bill Mollison doesn’t from studying with him, he advocates what he calls ‘barefoot Permaculture’, where you hop off the plane, take your shoes off, live amongst the locals, and do the work that needs to be done. Straight, hands-on work. If we waited for approval from these external groups, nothing would ever get done. Need I say more?

    I’m glad we’re agreed that Permaculture really works. If it does, and other people can make it work too, then it’s applied science, pure and simple. From your description of how you’re practising Permaculture, I’m happy to let you know that you are indeed applying the scientific method, which is great! We’re not “co-opting the term from academia”, science stands on its own, apart from academia – and even in a society where modern science is closely tied to academia, the very existence of private and commercial research demonstrates this fact that science and academia are not tied together.

    So, after all is said and done, I’m hoping you’re also out there, doing the good work, creating working demonstration Permaculture sites as evidence to the world that it all works, teaching people how to do it, and making the world a better place! Anything else, is, well… just academic!

  5. I don’t know if I would say that empirical and theoretical science are opposites, (perhaps applied and theoretical). We can come about theories a priori, or a posteriori. The latter means our theories are empirically based.

    Certainly one could not be a Permaculturist without at least a cursory understanding of (the theory of) evolution and natural selection. These would be theories accepted a priori, and perhaps then verified by experience in the field. My point is that ALL of this is valuable: the a priori and the a posteriori theories, as well as the experience which comes between them. The cart and the horse are not an apt metaphor here, because Permaculture is not a linear system. Philosophy may not teach one to garden, but it might be what gets them in the garden in the first place.

    And while I do think it important to safeguard the term, we should not blindly follow the founders of Permaculture (brilliant though they are). To do so is to risk becoming the Emersonian ‘dead institution.’ Permaculture should embody its own tenets of emergence. Those of us who practice it should volunteer information regarding what it is and what it is not. This is what feminists have been doing for decades, and while there are still some who misconstrue the term, for the most part, it has become respected and understood. Had we simply defined the term as ‘what Gloria Steinem or Angela Davis says,’ feminism would never have evolved in all its robust complexity.

    I very often liken Permaculture to Taoism in its use of naturally occurring processes and to Zen Buddhism in its stress of observation over conceptualization, and I think that doing so serves to enrich the Tao, and Zen, and Permaculture alike. Mollison quotes Chief Seattle and Buckminster Fuller; I quote Dogen and Lau-tzu. There is no conflict here.

  6. @Jason

    Hi! Some thoughts ….

    By keeping permaculture out of the Universities maybe we don’t have the scientific peer review of the permaculture design system overall but we CAN, as you say, draw upon work by people with good scientific credentials who make their work accessible to a wider readership.

    In my pursuit of information I am currently reading Fukuoka’s The One Straw Revolution, Lowenfels and Lewis’s Teaming with Microbes, Bates’ The Biochar Solution and Stamets’ Mycelium Running. Fukuoka was a scientist and although he mixes philosophy with his work his observations of his work are clear. The other three books are full of scientific references cited if anyone should wish to pursue them. Once read and inwardly digested I will be applying what I learnt from these books to my patch of rocky dry land. This is my approach because I have an academic background (and a bad back at the moment!)

    So,there are many aspects of Permaculture which are being studied by scientists and we can use their work. But by the nature of academia, as Fukuoka points out, scientists are not encouraged to look at the big picture, so they miss the point. Permaculture overcomes this obstacle.

    Bill Mollison’s Designer’s Manual, written in 1988, cites quite a few references. I often wish it had been better edited but perhaps there was no-one around at the time who could take on such a huge task! It is still a tour de force. And there was an urgency to get the ideas out into the wider world. It establishes the vauluable framework for the PDC which is still followed today.

    The bonus content of a PDC is the knowledge of the teacher who can draw on their own experience and give examples of systems working all over the world. The point is that we need to retain some rigour in the teaching of the PDC. Potential students need a quality assurance system which allows them the best choice of teachers. If they want permaculture that’s what they should get! Additional matters should be clearly labelled and taught separately. We do need to care what other people are doing as otherwise permaculture could disappear into a muddle of woolly thinking and conjecture. And it is too important to allow that to happen.

    Jason, perhaps we have different understandings of the term “science”, but I just looked it up in the dictionary and I think it works, especially if you take into account social science as well. Angelo, thank you for such a well written and thought provoking article. This debate has been really interesting. And Craig, thanks for setting us all off! Best wishes to all, Helen

  7. Some great comments so far, with quite a few important points raised.

    Sara, you summed up what I meant with your statement “Obviously we need to ‘walk the talk’ and act on our ethics/philosophy for it to be truly ours.” Our true philosophy comes after we practise it, hence the horse-cart analogy.

    I totally agree that “scientific practice can be divorced from individual/collective philosophy and/or worldview”. We, as humans, by our very nature are subjective creatures, and everything we do is infused with who we are. Science aims to be intentionally as subjective as humanly possible, but we can never be completely objective. I appreciate you bringing this up, it acknowledges the human element, which is important in any holistic system, such as Permaculture.

    Even more importantly, I like the way you’ve brought the focus back on to the Permaculture ethics, which should guide our conduct in all our Permaculture actions, including matters such as this, when you mention “…practicing ‘people care’ by acknowledging that others may not share our views…”. Very well said.

    Helen, great comments and thanks for the great list of books than all permaculture practioners should try to get a hold of, these texts you mention are all very highly regarded and definitely recommended!

    Amanda, yes, you’re correct, the empirical and speculative approaches are two means that science employs, not opposites, one for that which is testable, such as the boiling point of water, the other for matters that aren’t, like the creation of the universe. We can all agree Permaculture falls into the former category.

    True, all science has theoretical underpinings, and we can test most of them in the applied sciences. Being human, all our actions begin with thoughts, and all our systems begin with theories, our ideas are the seeds of all our actions. It’s all a continuum, so, as you correctly state, it is all important, the pre-and post experience theories and the experiences inbetween.

    The horse-cart analogy relates to the emergence of philosophy from experience, and when we look at how many world views and spiritual systems emerge, they are are in response to living and real life experience, they don’t emerge in a vacuum.

    You mention Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama created this system in response to the suffering he witnessed in the world, and found that through practical experience that neither excessive hedonism nor harsh asceticism brought relief. Then he meditated on his experience under the Bodhi tree and came up with The Middle Way, then his philosophy emerged, not before.

    You also mention Taoism, Lao Tzu worked out his philosophy through a long life of hard-earned wisdom, and as the story goes, he was so disillusioned with the way society was going, he decided to leave it. He had observed and understood what was wrong in the world, and why things turned out that way, and then came to understand the true nature of things and how it can all be made right, through The Way, the Tao. When a border guard realised the old man was leaving, and recognising him as a great sage, he asked him to pen his wisdom down before he left, and those writings became the Tao Te Ching.

    These examples are both metaphors for our personal journeys, and our ‘true’ philosopies arise in the same way, before that, they are just passing beliefs.

    Totally agreed, these philosopies and many others are in total harmony with Permaculture. Indeed, I would go as far as saying that they help one understand Permaculture better.

    Here’s my favourite chapter from the Tao Te Ching,it almost sounds like what Permaculture is telling us:

    Chaper 29
    Those who wish to take the world and control it
    I see that they cannot succeed
    The world is sacred
    It cannot be controlled
    The one who controls it will fail
    The one who treats it as a material object will lose it

    This was written 2500 years ago in China, and we’re still trying to control Nature…

    You’ve raised an important point here too, the whole flip-side of this discussion, the other extreme end of the spectrum, that we don’t blindly follow Permaculture and turn it into dogma. Sadly, this is happening too! I guess it’s all in keeping the balance of extremes! The Permaculture founders intended us to understand the underlying principles, and to think for ourselves in how we apply them. To cite Permaculture Dsign Principle 11. 11.Attitudinal Principles, -Everything works both ways and more specifically,
    -Permaculture is information and imagination intensive. Yes, it’s a creative process too!

    As we learn from Permaculture itself, natural systems are dynamic, and evolving, and thus, human ones are too. Permaculture will grow and change naturally with time, that’s expected. It’s important that this process not ‘sidetracked’ into somewhere it’s not meant to go.

    Great points folks, it’s always good to share ideas! Thanks

  8. Angelo,
    I appreciate your response! First, I want to recognize that the tone in my comment was unnecessarily harsh, and I apologize for that. After spending more time thinking over my initial, very strong, reaction to your piece, I have a few thoughts I want to share.

    First, I like your description of permaculture science as “applied science”. Unfortunately, I have simply encountered too many scientists who think the culture of science is inseparable from the scientific method. Not sure about Australia, but here in the U.S. science is so entrenched in the culture of science (that is to say academia, corporate influence, funding, etc.) that it is not very appealing to even use the word “science” anymore. That is, most people don’t really know what “science” means, so the word has lost meaning in everyday language, much on par with the words “religion” or “spirituality”. I applaud the efforts of anyone who wish to revive the real meaning, but I choose not to focus my energy on that.

    Second, the science that has been documented on permaculture is not nearly rigorous enough to qualify as “science” in the minds of most scientists. I have first hand experience with this in academia. That doesn’t mean permaculture is not science-based and extremely valid, just that most of the scientific community will resist coming aboard the permaculture ship.

    Third, when reading your article it felt like you were telling me what I should think. I will always have a strong reaction to that, as a freethinking human being. The tone of the article is what could be described as over-authoritarian. Not that you are not an authority, but might I suggest being careful to not talk-down to your audience. Many people who read your article on a website like PRI are already well familiar with permaculture, having practiced it longer than yourself, myself included. So in that sense I object with you telling me what I should think. Instead perhaps tell me how you arrived at your own conclusion and go easy on the sales pitch so that you can potentially bring me along with you. Perhaps I am unique in that I dislike being sold an opinion. I more prefer story told from a personal perspective. Bear in mind, I do not intend to tell you how you should write, I just wish to explain to you what about the article inspired such a strong reaction in me, which may be relevant to others as well.

    Fourth, I feel like this article is trying further to explain and convince readers that there is only one way to approach permaculture. I happen to mostly agree with your view, but I am always wary of an attitude that suggests it can only be this way, or that. That is, permaculture can only be science-based, or it’s not permaculture, or any other variation. There is no wonder why there are such divided camps in the field of permaculture. One reason for that is that each camp seems to defend and aggressively assert that their way is the right way. This is why I say “who cares”? I mean to suggest let go of the grip on life a little, loosen up, we’re hanging on too tight. This is why I say permaculture exists “on the ground” not in opinions, arguments, and intellectual thought. Things aren’t so black and white, this way or that, good or bad. If people want permaculture to spread, then valuing the multitude of perspectives might be useful. Embody and maintain your own, but why talk-down the other perspectives? Again, focus on yourself, your own work.

    Lastly, I object to the strong assertion of the scientific mind and the overly intellectualized thinking that gets applied to permaculture in this article. It zaps the heart right out of a subject that is very dear to me. The left brain is wonderful and powerful, but without the right brain, without emotion, passion, heart, intuition, we are cutting out a huge number of people that may be inspired to pursue permaculture. Many people don’t have the intellectual background that it seems you do. I for one, came from inner city schools, where I wasn’t taught a damn thing, just punished, put through security sweeps, shot at, beat-up, arrested. This experience served to strengthen my heart, not my intellect. I have since gained a strong intellect, but many others aren’t so fortunate to have a chance at quality education.

    I expect many people will arrive to permaculture not from the mind, but from the heart. It would be useful to encourage and foster that, instead of putting that down. The mind and heart are inextricably inter-woven, there is no linear succession that can be applied there. I arrived to permaculture from the heart. If you want examples of the quality and amount of work and energy I give to the promotion of permaculture, check out my profile on

    It does not have to be one way or the other. For example, I teach permaculture in-line with the PDC curriculum from a fairly intellectual standpoint, but I will never disregard the heart, my roots.

    Perhaps this explains my reaction to your article. Again, I apologize if I attacked you. I had a strong reaction for reasons that you might now be able to understand.


  9. Thanks Jason, I appreciate your frankness and honesty.

    I agree with you about ther bad state of science, it’s a shame about the state its in, as the methods have a lot to offer, and there is also a disturbing movement of ‘scientism’, where some people use science as a substitute religion. No wonder science has a bad name.

    I’m in agreement with your seconsd point to, parts of the scientific community are hesitant to embrace Permaculture, it’s a bit of a marginalised applied science, probably because it threatens so many corporate interests, and many of these scientists depend on corporate research funding or are fully indoctrinated about pesticide and chemical fertilizer based mechanised agribusiness that they refuse to have their opinions challenged.

    With the article, the aim was to put forward the arguments that explain to readers why a certain position is maintained by the Permaculture movement/founders, and my understanding of the reasons, for the purpose of creating understanding. I do acknowledge that my arguments can sometimes be forceful at times to convey a point, but the intention is never to denigrate another position, just to try explain the ‘whys’ – a bit like science itself.

    I don’t disagree with you that the writing style employed in this article is straight objective reason, a left-brain analysis and dissection of the issue. I fully agree with the importance of the right brain approach, and that many people prefer a more ‘heart’ based and human approach rather ‘head’ based cold-hard reasoning, which by its very nature, tends to be objective and impersonal.

    I prefer to employ both head and heart, but in a text based online forum such as this, it is difficult to utilise the tools of the right brain, such as images, art, myth, allegory, story, relationship and connection. It’s true we need to use a way of teaching Permaculture in a way that captures the left and right brain focussed people. I find Bill Mollison does that brilliantly with his stories and anecdotes, which he ties in to perrtinent facts when teaching an important principle. It’s a hard gig, the left-brain types get impatient with the stories, and want to ‘get to the facts’ while the right brain people get a bit overloaded with the ‘dry theory’. It’s like walking a fine line to appeal to both camps.

    Fully agree that we need to approach Permaculture with our hearts, for this is what differentiates us in my mind from the other ‘heartless’ disciplines.

    Ultimately, we need to apply our design principles to our own movement and strive to create a synergistic, supportive community that brings all the various elements harmoniously for the greater good. Now that’s one big and challenging design!

    Thanks for your constructive comments, much appreciated.

  10. Angelo, I keep re-reading your article and am seeing your points clearer. I think we have more common ground that it would seem. I’m just overly frustrated with the dominance of the left-brain in the debates about this subject and the “Permaculture and Metaphysics”. I sympathize with the difficulty in creative application to logical, linear documentation of thought. Bill is certainly one of the masters at that!

    Thanks for taking my feedback in good stride. Feedback is difficult to accept and difficult to give in helpful ways, something I clearly need to get better at.

    Best of success with all your work!

  11. I for one are pleased to read the concepts expressed in this article. Permaculture as a system of agriculture has much to offer, and its ethics are sound. With individual practitioners of permaculture coming from many different faiths and cultures it is important that permaculture is not confused with any spiritual practice.

  12. Quoting the original blog post: “If you wish to design a permaculture garden, permaculture will give you the framework to design energy efficient, sustainable gardens that model nature’s systems, but it will not teach you horticulture. If you wish to design energy efficient houses, you have to teach yourself architecture, and then apply your architectural skills within a permaculture design framework. The key is that you must supply the content!”

    Seems to me that spiritual frameworks are simply another aspect of design that must be considered. The fact that (relatively permanent) indigenous cultures rely heavily on their belief system to regulate their resource management would indicate that cultural frameworks are a key to understanding perma(nent)cultural systems.

    The huge diversity of cultural beliefs around the world reflects the huge diversity of ways of living on Earth. In that sense, teaching a single spiritual belief system is pointless. However, drawing out the common threads in indigenous belief systems did lead Mollison to develop the three permaculture ethics (p. 2 of the manual) [If anyone knows if that was ever written up more fully, I’d love to hear from you].

    Thus, although specific cultural beliefs should not be taught at a PDC, the question Bill asks, “How do people evolve an ethic, and why should we bother to do so?”, seems to me well worth considering. It’s the whole thing about giving the hungry a fish versus giving them a fishing net. You mention in the original blog post that a PDC creates a hunger for a new spiritual understanding: sharpening the students’ critical mind and giving them the tools to analyse cultural belief patterns would allow them to feed that hunger themselves.

  13. Fearnside: So you’re talking about farming more as an art than a science.
    Berry: It’s both. Art is a way of making, and science is a way of knowing. You’re never going to escape the need for either one; you’ve got to have a certain amount of knowledge, and you’ve got to have a certain amount of art. You’ve got to know how to make a thing — whether it’s a crop or a novel — and you’ve got to have a way of making it.


    I think permaculture is just as much about art as about science!

  14. I teach a very ‘straight’ PDC with no metaphysical content. I am deeply spiritual but opposed to religion. If students want to talk about spirituality, I explain my position and the argumemts that have raged in permaculture over the last 35 years on it with regards to a PDC.
    I often say “If you want to include it in your design, go right ahead, but I’m not going to teach it.”
    Permaculture is about the art of living AND the science of living. That is what makes it special and unique.

  15. One point is the author is still being political by changing the third ethic to a fair share. That is not what is typed in the manual. I also take issue with return of the surplus back to people. Same difference as fair share, which is again, political. Besides, those points are covered with the second ethic. It would be closer to the third ethic to type return of the surplus back to the biosphere. That would be scientific, but still, not what is stated in the manual. [Webmaster Edit]

  16. I don’t know why people twist ” Return of surplus to the Earth and people” as ” Fair Share” Unless Fair is understood that if you work your butt off you are quite entitled to more than someone who does nothing. Unfortunately the word Fair can be very broadly interpreted, thus using it to try to describe what Return of surplus to the Earth and People means, is quite a twisted explanation. It could be construed in a communistic sense that everyone should get the same as their neighbour ( which never happened anyhow) The only time that having your fair share is really fair, is when you are a kid, an equal in your mother’s eyes when she reminds all children to equally share the cake or whatever she gave them that she made and made the decision to dish out equally. I am sure if one of the children always made the cake instead of the mother and all the other children were too lazy to do so, that the mother would have no qualms about the child who made the cake to reserve a bit more of an ” unfair” size for itself. So let’s stick to the philosophy as written and not put our generalised take on it that can be construed completely different to what it says. I would interpret it as saying don’t be greedy for more than you need, not you have to be “fair” to everyone else. Return what you don’t need so that others can either make use of it or it leaves the earth in a healthier state for others, including nature, to work with. But you may interpret it in whichever way you may. However, don’t swap the actual words encouraging people to go by your take, rather than what Bill Mollison actually said. If he wanted it to be Fair Share those are the words he would have used.

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