Permaculture as Philosophy: How to Apply ‘Turning Problems into Solutions’ in Real Life

Many people who use permaculture find it can be helpful not only in producing actual effective results from the systems they design, but also in assisting in the cultivation of a worldview which may be more beneficial in terms of creating a happy, healthy life than the one held previously. This is not to say that permaculture should be considered as an ideology, since it is more about looking at the world in a certain way but still making your own decisions based on what you observe than it is about subscribing to any particular idea. However, since permaculture is about creating resilient and adaptable systems which work within the natural world, it makes sense that it can also help you to be more resilient and adaptable in your own mind. How can we use permaculture to refresh and inspire us towards the creation of real change, and how can we apply this into our practical everyday activities? This article will explore some options as well as offering some simple actions everyone can do to help to turn frustration into inspiration, catastrophe into opportunity, and depression into creative action.

Language and solutions

Probably one of Bill Mollison’s most often-quoted phrases is

“Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple. (1)”

This view is woven throughout the permaculture principles, however people interpret them, especially in Mollison’s original design principle, “Turn Problems Into Solutions” (2).

A problem is usually defined as the opposite of a solution, so how can it change so drastically?

Firstly, it seems important to understand than in order to ‘turn a problem into a solution’, we do not have to physically change the problem. The change can be achieved through our use of language and through our widening of perspective. Unless we can take away the power of the problem by changing how we talk about it, and transcend the problem by accepting it as part of a wider picture, then it may well be difficult to solve it. Once we do these two things, however, it can open our imaginations and ability to create effective solutions.

When we describe something as a problem we are giving it the power to be a problem with our words and intentions, a phenomenon which is increasingly recognized in the world of psychotherapy (see for example 3). However, if we can expand our perspective and look at the problem another way, it is usually possible to see how the thing – whatever it is – can in fact be in some way beneficial for us. Even if something feels like a powerfully negative event or situation, it can be seen, from a purely psychological point of view, as an invitation. This has been being explored across many disciplines in a number of ways, for example in the fields of transpersonal psychology and psychosynthesis (3, 4). This widening of perception can be applied to any problem, large or small, from purely internal psychological crises to conflicts between people, or between humans and nature, or between entire countries or states. As examples of the latter we can look at the work being done by people such as John-Paul Lederach (see for example 5) and Johan Galtung (see for example 6), who work to help people who are supposedly fighting to create imaginative solutions to their problem, as well as in Marshall Rosenberg’s work with Non-Violent Communication (7). Many traditional cultures and ancient philosophies also advocate this way of looking at the world, and it has been written about by many Western thinkers such as Taoism-inspired Ursula K. LeGuin:
“Only in silence, the word:
Only in darkness, light
Only in dying, life…”

We cannot have one without the other and once we accept this, it can become much easier to accept any problem which comes our way as merely the counterpart to a beautiful solution.

More principles

Holmgren’s sixth principle, ‘Produce No Waste’ (9), as well as my interpretation of the third ethic, “Redistribution of Surplus” have also been and continue to be very helpful to me to turn problems into solutions. To me these two echo each other in a way. ‘Redistribution of Surplus’ seems to me to be about if you have too much of something then instead of disposing of it outside of a system, thus creating waste, you can redistribute it to another part of the system and so instead create abundance. If you encounter a problem which involves the creation of something which could be seen as waste, and you keep the third ethic and ‘Produce No Waste’ in mind, you may well be able to discover a way to turn the waste into a useful product. Even things which seem like quite devastating examples of waste have inspired people to create imaginative solutions which turn them into something which is useful and beneficial to those around. For example, there has been research into the use of mushrooms to bioremediate nuclear waste in the form of depleted uranium (10).

Keeping these ideas in mind can also help us to be aware of the bigger picture and the fact that there are probably more than enough resources for everyone in the world, whether human or not, to live comfortably, and it is only distribution which can sometimes be seen as a problem. For example, tales of ‘global food shortages’ continue to exist in mainstream media (see for example 11) which ignore reports (12, 13) that we are actually globally producing enough food to feed almost twice the current human population, but, due to a variety of factors, 30 – 50% of the food we produce is wasted (12, 13). When we take the latter into account we can see that the problem is not lack of food or too many people. The farming industry continues to be hugely inefficient, with large amounts of energy going into producing food which could be consumed by humans and feeding it instead to animals trapped in boxes (14, 15). So, as permaculture and other forms of holistic agriculture continue to become more and more popular, we are increasing the amount of people who could be fed in a regenerative way. In the short term, there are also many organisations who exist to redistribute the surplus which already exists, the 30 – 50% of so-called ‘food waste’. These include Feedback (16) and their Gleaning Network (17) who have harvested many tonnes of fruit and vegetables in the UK which would otherwise have been disposed of, and redistributed it instead to charities, homeless shelters and other organisations.

Coming back to ourselves

The Gleaning Network is just one example of a myriad of organisations and individuals out there who are imaginatively turning problems into solutions. Yet how can we bring this theory into practice in our own daily lives? It’s all very well to speak of acceptance when we are in our comfort zone but the key to putting the “problems into solutions“ philosophy into practice is to develop the ability to achieve this acceptance and wider perspective even when you are out of yours. I know I have had the experience of coming from a group of people interested in permaculture or otherwise wider-perspective, solutions-based ideas to speak with someone who is not necessarily used to seeing the world in this way, who confronts me with what they see as a ‘normal’ piece of bad news or negative way of looking at the situation. It can be difficult in these cases to remain focused on the opportunities presented by so-called problems, especially as, in order to engage with someone effectively, you usually need to show them that you understand at least a little bit what they are talking about. And, of course, even if you are with people with whom you share somewhat of a positive worldview, events and situations can always occur to test this. In fact, they almost definitely will occur, as this is the nature of the cycle of life. Below are some ideas which I have found help me in situations when it seems there is no solution, to help me to find my way out.

Accept the situation

This seems to be the first step and can be misinterpreted. Acceptance of a situation does not mean you have to be happy about it, and nor does it mean that you cannot change it. However, in my own experience and in the recommendations of many diverse speakers and philosophies, until you accept that a situation is happening, it is very difficult to move on and then go about changing it. This includes accepting whatever emotions come along with the situation. If someone you trusted gave you their word and then didn’t follow through, it’s possible (and probably healthy) that you feel anger. If you wanted to finish building your house but the work’s been postponed due to rain, you may well feel frustrated. If someone you love is in pain, it’s normal to feel sad. Much of mainstream Western culture seems to advocate holding onto emotions; however, recognising these emotions and expressing them means that it is easier to let them go and then move on to a constructive evaluation of what to do. As explored above, life is darkness as well as light and if you do not accept the darkness within yourself as well then you may be cutting yourself off from an authentic experience of what life is (3). As Joseph Campbell said,
“Suddenly you’re ripped into being alive. And life is pain, and life is suffering, and life is horror, but my god you’re alive and it’s spectacular.” (18)

How you express yourself in any situation is up to you and of course there are some means of expression which may be more helpful than others.

If you need help, ask for it

I sometimes find this one the most challenging as I often want to tackle my own problems by myself. However, I have consistently found that once you have accepted the situation but you are still unsure what to do about it, communicating with others can be a great aid, even if only by providing some understanding and comfort which can help to strengthen your own decision-making. This communication does not necessarily mean talking to other people, although it can. Answers can come from many places, and you may find help coming to you from a long walk in the forest, a swim in the ocean or an hour’s gazing into a fire. You could also ask yourself for help and connect to some deeper aspects of yourself than you may normally have access to, through meditation, dancing, or a huge variety of other means. You may be surprised with the answers which you find.

The only limit is your imagination

Now you are ready to find a solution you can remember that the solution can be anything, even something which no one has ever thought of before. In order to do this effectively you need to widen your perspective to include not only the factors of the problem but all of the factors affecting it in the holistic system which everything is a part of. Problems can often be great aids to innovation and creativity; in fact some people theorise that there can be no true creativity without some kind of conflict (see for example 19), and although conflict alone is not enough, you can use the opportunity to unleash your own imagination. It seems important to bear in mind with this step that, as well as all of the endless possibilities for innovation which your problem can represent, that ‘Small and Slow Solutions’ (20) may well be the most effective, and that you may also decide that the best option is to do nothing about the problem. Indeed, having accepted the problem, asked for help if you need it, and widened your perspective of how the problem is connected to the rest of the world, you may find that the problem actually no longer exists.

There is no right answer

Permaculture as a lens to help us to see the positives in any situation, and to problem-solve in an effective way, can be extremely helpful to help us access our imagination, potential, and connection to the world around us. I hope that this article can help to inspire you to see your own problems as solutions; however, if these words do not resonate with you, that’s ok too. There are many ways towards achieving the same goal and your own path is always unique to you.


1. Mollison, B, ? As quoted by R. Harding, Permaculture News, 10/3/17. – retrieved 19/7/17

2. Tropical Permaculture, 2017. ‘Permaculture Principle IV: Turn Problems into Solutions’. – retrieved 19/7/17

3. Firman, J; Gila, A, 2002. Psychosynthesis: A Psychology of the Spirit. SUNY Press: New York City, USA.

4. Grof, S; Grof, C, 2010. Holotropic Breathwork: A New Approach to Self-Exploration and Therapy. SUNY Press: New York City, USA

5. Lederach, J.P, 2010. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK

6. Galtung, J, 2004. Transcend and Transform: An Introduction to Conflict Work.Routledge: London, UK

7. Rosenberg, M, 2003. Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life. Puddledancer Press: Encinitas, USA

8. LeGuin, U.K, 1968. A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle 1). Parnassus Books: Nashville, USA

9. Permaculture Principles, 2017. ‘Permaculture Design Principle 6: Produce No Waste’. – retrieved 19/7/17

10. Purnomo, A.S et al, 2011. ‘Bioremediation of DDT contaminated soil using brown-rot fungus’. Science Daily, 12/1/11. – retrieved 28/4/17

11. Greaves, S et al, 2017. ‘A world perspective on food shortages’. Financial Times, 21/2/17. – retrieved 19/7/17

12. de Schutter, 2010. ‘Agroecology and the Right to Food’. Report to the United Nations General Assembly, Geneva, Switzerland, 20/12/10. Available as a PDF here:– retrieved 19/7/17

13. Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 2013. ‘Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not’. IMechE: London. Available as a PDF here:—waste-not-want-not.pdf?sfvrsn=0 – retrieved 19/7/17

14. Oakeshott, I; Lymbery, P, 2014. Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat. Bloomsbury Publishing: London, UK

15. Fukuoka, F, 1985. The Natural Way of Farming: The Theory and Practice of Green Philosophy. Other India Press: Mapusa, India

16. Feedback Global, 2017. ‘About Us’.

17. Feedback Global, 2017. ‘The Gleaning Network UK’.– retrieved 19/7/17

18. Campbell, J, as quoted in Episode 4, ‘Sacrifice and Bliss’ of The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, 1988. PBS: Arlington County, USA. Video and transcript vailable here: – retrieved 19/7/17

19. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon: New York City

20. Permaculture Principles, 2017. ‘Permaculture Design Principle 9: Use Small and Slow Solutions’.– retrieved 19/7/17

Charlotte Ashwanden

Charlotte Ashwanden (nee Haworth). Born in London, I am very interested in peace and community and have a degree in Peace Studies. I got my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, from Treeyo at Permaship in Bulgaria, and my Permaculture Teaching Certificate in 2018 at Aranya in India. For me, permaculture is about so much more than garden design; I am mainly interested in applying ‘human permaculture’ as a complement to peace practices. In particular, I like to look at how human permaculture can be applied through psychology, communication and education techniques. In 2015 I got married in a pagan ceremony in a field to David Ashwanden and changed my surname to Ashwanden. With my husband, I’ve travelled a lot in Europe and Asia and encountered many permaculture and community projects. I have lived in various situations, from squatted land to intentional communities, as well as more ‘normal’ places, in the UK, Spain, Italy, Thailand and Vietnam. A professional dancer, I do fire and hula dance and sometimes run dance meditation workshops. Currently, I live in the Andalucian mountains.


  1. This is everything I have been trying to get across to my family, friends and work mates. Great to see that I am not the only one who sees permaculture as so much more than a garden, it is something you can apply to all aspect of your existence. Awesome article!!!

  2. Thank you, Charlotte! There is much about what is currently called “Permaculture” (with a capital ‘P’) that I dislike as much as I dislike many of the elements of what is called “Politics” (with a capital ‘P’). Oddly enough, it is mainly women who make the difference between “politics” and “Politics”, and often between “permaculture” and “Permaculture”, and it is often the dominant culture’s ghastly need to retain its domination, exploitation, colonization (etc., etc.) that messes up life as we know it.

  3. How do I clear my meadow property of all the poison ivy, poison oak, and now poison hemlock? I don’t want to use spray. How can I clear the land of all these unwanted plants?

    1. Hi Joyce! This seems like an unusual comment for an article about permaculture as philosophy. Or are you talking about ‘poison’ in the metaphorical sense? If so, maybe you can consider that even the most poisonous substances can have benefits for humans and other creatures. Holistic thinking may help you to find a solution.

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