Yet Another Explanation of What Exactly Permaculture Is
I’ve been practicing permaculture for several years now, but where I live, permaculture is not commonplace. I more often than not associate with people who have never heard the term, and frequently I find myself trying to sum it up quickly for strangers, family members, co-workers, old friends, neighbours, builders, earth-movers…most people who dare to ask what Emma and I are up to.
We’ve been putting in the groundwork of an off-grid cabin and homestead over the last year or more. It is, in fact, what we are doing, so by default, the word “permaculture” inevitably makes a cameo in many conversations. Even for those who have heard permaculture, there is usually the lingering follow up: What exactly is permaculture?
Having been a regular writer for Permaculture News for over half a decade now, a simple explanation looms heavily with me. I feel a responsibility to the permies out there to expound accurately and acutely, and equally I feel a responsibility to the confused and/or curious to provide something concrete and conclusive. Honestly, it’s rare-to-never that I hit anywhere close to the target. I’ve heard the same from others (like Toby Hemenway), and I’ve even written about it on this site before.
As my experience increases, my personal definition of permaculture evolves, and the level of detail (or the particular details) used in those frequent summaries change just as consistently. These are some of the points I like (or would actually like) to make when introducing permaculture to others, but time and attention span (both mine and theirs) usually get in the way. At the end of this article, I’ll try to sum this all up with a useful paragraph to encapsulate permaculture as I currently see it, at least an outline of it. For now, let me ramble a bit.
It’s not just gardening.
Most people who’ve passingly heard the term permaculture connect it to agriculture, so one of the first aspects I mention is that permaculture is not just gardening. Permaculture is a holistic design system, taking into account structures, energy, waste, resources, roads, footpaths, nature, community, water, wild and domesticated animals, climate, and so on in an attempt to make these things efficient, cooperative, and productive for the planet and people.
Expounding on that idea, I try to provide a simple example, usually centering around the basic garden cycle of growing food, composting kitchen scraps, and fertilising the soil with compost to grow more food. In permaculture, this productive loop is as important as growing the lettuce we are eating. Furthering the potential for compost, we could use the energy created during the decomposition process to heat water for the shower, warm a greenhouse, and produce biogas. We could place the compost heap strategically to provide shelter for a sensitive tree, to feed chickens, to passively fertilise a garden bed surrounding it, to minimize the distance for transporting from bin to garden, to act as a section of fencing… In doing this, we’ve taken what has become thought of as waste and made it useful to us and our environment.
That’s just composting. Permaculture seeks out and plans for these cycles and solutions for every endeavour we foist upon a property.
Malleability is the mantra.
With that in mind, it’s important to realise that permaculture is not encapsulated by one thing or technique. Rather, the approach accepts ecological, economic, and ergonomic solutions new and old, and ultimately permaculturalists work to take these solutions further by cleverly combining them into even better, cooperative solutions (as with the compost above). The practice isn’t to stick steadfastly to some specific methodology but to recognise and react positively to the situation immediately around us.
Permaculture design is malleable. It adjusts for climatic conditions, changing considerably for different regions with different weather extremes, rainfall, and temperatures. It also adapts for specific sites, understanding this patch of ground has different influences and proclivities, be it sun or soil or water or pollution or humans, than that patch of ground. It deliberates over the natural landscape, the surrounding landscape, and the cultural landscape, molding the design to fit, not forcing the proverbial square peg into a round hole.
Consider water storage in wet temperate climates versus drylands. Wet temperate climates are well-suited for large, open dams. Losing the water supply to evaporation isn’t a huge concern, and rain is regular. However, in the desert, water is at a premium; furthermore, it tends to come in deluges when it does arrive. Thus, water catchments need to be protected from the sun, and they need to mitigate the flood and erosion potential common to desert weather events. This requires a different approach, e.g. check dams with silt fields and long swales.
Because landscapes naturally evolve, permaculture designs constantly adjust to make the most of what has changed, what is changing, and what will change.
Sustainability is the minimum.
If honest, I must admit that I tend to be lazy here and fall back on what has become a trope in green terminology: Sustainability is a word people recognise and can readily categorise. But, permaculture is much more than another trendy claim of sustainability, advertising lingo increasingly attached to things that are decidedly not sustainable. Permaculture, in reality, is regenerative. Sustainability is the minimum. It should not be the goal.
Permaculture design aims to provide humanity’s needs by cooperating with nature rather than working against it, and within this effort is the drive to make the ecosystems around us healthier. We are building soils. Designs create stability through diversity, improve hydrology, prevent topsoil erosion, and increase the natural resources we rely upon. They harness renewable energy, reduce energy consumption, and put energy into furthering these notions.
Our homes can be built to interact positively with the environment around them. We can design for passive solar heating and natural cooling as opposed to relying on heating and air conditioning units. We can capture and store rainwater with the hard surface runoff from the roof and use that for household water. Afterward, we can use greywater to feed fruit trees. We can have composting toilets to add fertility to the landscape, not potentially pollute it. We can use the walls as thermal mass heat traps, trellises, and windbreaks.
Permaculture strives for holistic designs in which the separate systems interact with each other, each one providing a positive input to the next such that the whole is constantly improving, not just sustaining.
Permaculture has three ethics.
Citing the ethics of permaculture sometimes makes me nervous. A close family member once confused my permaculture practice with my veganism and personal politics and compared it to a cult. I came to the practice a vegan, and as has been proven many times over, it’s not actually a popular stance in many permaculture circles. While I would say that my politics, things like boycotting Wal-Mart and buying secondhand, are now influenced by permaculture ethics, these, too, were something I brought with me to the practice. Nevertheless, permaculture has three guiding ethics, most widely recognised as “earth care, people care, and fair share.”
In truth, while perhaps not ubiquitously followed, these ethics are fairly universal. No one really believes that harming the planet is a good thing, and in fact, taking care of it is much a better idea. While industrial norms have not played out this way, the notion isn’t really debatable. Furthermore, though we live on a planet ravaged by war and exploitation, our individual ethics, wherever they may come from, tell us this the wrong way, that we should treat others as we’d like to be treated (or, as often, don’t treat others how we wouldn’t want to be treated). In that same vein, selfishness is not a revered characteristic in any culture or religion. All of our heroes and figureheads are entities who give of themselves, their possessions, and their knowledge.
Something Emma and I do, which often gets attention, is wear only secondhand clothing. We do this, amongst other reasons, because it doesn’t occupy more of the planet’s resources, nor does it produce more pollution in manufacturing and shipping. We also recognise manufacturing today, particularly with clothing, comes from human exploitation, so we try to avoid indirectly participating in that. Though it seems at times we are destitute, unable to buy a new pair of shoes, we think the earth care and people care we deliver in this pursuit is worth the misconception. We could buy new clothes, economically speaking, but not doing so helps us stay on the straight and narrow of our own ethical stances.
The extent to which we all—we being permaculturalists—take these measures may be different, but permaculture defines itself with these ethics. On the other side of that coin, none of us are perfect just yet and recognising that, I think, is also important.
Permaculture becomes a lifestyle.
One of the more important aspects of permaculture that I didn’t initially recognise but came to recognise as truly defining is that practicing it is a specific lifestyle. A balcony garden or a raised bed, these are but small gardening options found on a toolbar within permaculture. More often than not, they are the beginning, a getting to know you phase. As designs incorporate more things—energy, waste, water, food—practicing permaculture changes your life.
In short, choices are not arbitrary, and everything done has purpose. Finances and jobs become different because there is less and less need to pay for groceries, power bills, and sanitation pick up. Every barren hillside becomes a mountain of potential water harvesting, every home a project for retrofitting efficiency, every bit of organic trash an opportunity to feed the ecosystem with something useful. Things bought are weightier, laced with attached functions, ecological concerns, and humanitarianism, not to mention where this thing has come from, how long it will last, and how much energy it took to make it. The permaculture life is engaging, and that engagement is unbelievably fulfilling because it is filled with meaning.
As a result of a frugal lifestyle, Emma and I can thrive with part-time jobs. She teaches English online in the mornings. I write for a few websites and help to look after some properties two or three days a week. We both enjoy the work we do, but much of our life is spent pursuing other goals, like building a cabin ourselves, growing our own food, furthering our educations, cooking from scratch, and foraging mushrooms in the mountains. Though our combined incomes would technically categorise us a little above impoverishment (in the US), because we spend many of our working hours working for ourselves, we have all the things we want, not just need.
Permaculture design is more than just designing the physical landscape, homes, and gardens. It is literally setting the stage for how life will be lived. Priorities shift towards self-reliance and fulfilment beyond economic role-playing.
We act locally and think globally.
The ultimate reasons for choosing a permaculture lifestyle are both individual and inextricably communal. Permaculture is local to the core, concerned first with the very land we stand on daily, the regions we live in, and the supply streams available within them. At times, this can appear almost isolationist, but these personal and local efforts are in aid of a global concern for the natural planet, fellow humans, and reinstituting a mutually beneficial relationship between those two things.
Though somewhat apolitical, the permaculture approach most certainly, and unavoidably, falls towards particular political leanings when we consider the planet and people. Protecting and fostering healthy ecosystems and cooperative communities are the heart of permaculture, whereas economies based on consumption and the pursuit of continual capital growth is not because they are neither sustainable for meeting our needs nor good for the planet. If we are acting under these principles, how could we not land on certain sides of both national and geopolitical issues.
While grandiose in its ideals, the practice of permaculture first and foremost begins within our own homes and only just beyond our own stoops. It begins with growing some food at home, continually reducing the waste we personally produce, minimising the resources we take, and joining grassroots networks of like-minded doers. It begins by us buying from responsible sources, supporting local companies over international conglomerates, and recognising our own potential to find a better way as opposed to being preoccupied with the missteps of others.
Permaculture has to be local. It can’t be otherwise. It is built upon the local landscape and climate and what makes sense for where we are, and until we successfully do our part at home, we can’t have a positive global impact.
Can I put this all into one coherent paragraph?
Umm… In all honesty, this article was meant to be about half as long as it is, but let’s give it a shot:
Permaculture is not just gardening, but a design system that makes all of the elements in it—energy, shelter, plants, animals, water, people, etc—work together efficiently. The designs are not fixed but rather adjust themselves to landscape, climate, culture, and particular tastes. That said, however the configuration materialises, it is in pursuit of mutually benefiting the planet and the people relying on it for their survival, pushing beyond sustainability and into regeneration. Three simple ethics guide this effort: caring for the environment, caring for ourselves and other people, and sharing our productive surpluses rather than hoarding them. Therefore, permaculture design is merely the framework for an entirely new way of living, one that changes what’s immediately around us for the better and hopefully plays a role in a global effort to improve all life on the planet.
Another great article. Thank you.
Here’s my current favourite definition:
Permaculture is an ethically based design pattern (or template) for creating and maintaining systems that increase ecological health while providing for human needs.
I also used to be a fan of ‘the golden rule’ until I heard A C Grayling say this:
“Don’t treat others the way you want to be treated. They may not like it! True compassion is taking the time to find out how others want to be treated.”
I like this article, but think we should stick with Bill Mollison’s third ethic. Setting limits to population and consumption is what he says in the PDM. I think that works and is easy to explain, we have a finite planet therefore we have limits. The force sharing version is Marxist and turns many people away from permaculture. Better to be non-political.
Thanks for your many great articles.
When we live in the country, it is less populated and cooler and you wonder where everyone is? When we visit a City it is 3 degrees hotter because of the tarmac off-gassing, vehicles and the heavy breathers. The planet’s temperature varies from region to region, depending on where you live. An intelligent observation is the answer when it comes to Permaculture. Your region will inform your design decisions as to what to grow and how to survive and thrive. ~ Thank you for the lovely post.
Thank you for an evocative and enjoyable read, and thank you for not throwing the sustainability baby out with the bathwater. A lot of regenerativists are doing that these days (it’s *their* “green trope”), which reminds me of the first Ms Magazine editorial I ever read. I was in my early 20s and life was good and I used to say, “I don’t need to be a feminist.” That editorial acknowledged that a lot of women in North America were doing much better than our mothers’ generation had, but beseeched us not to give up on the feminist movement when so many women around the world still had very few of the rights, freedoms and privileges that we had achieved.
Yes, of course, regenerative agriculture (you know, the way it was done in so many places for so many millennia — China, for example) is a great idea. In my view, though, pooh-poohing sustainability when so many people around the world are still nowhere near that mid-goal is short-sighted and selfish. The UN’s Agenda 2030 17 Sustainable Development Goals make it clear that sustainability is not something we can leapfrog over on our way to regenerativeness (like Africa leapfrogged over landline telephones and went straight to cellular, or like we need to help developing nations leapfrog to non-combustion renewable energy rather than building out their fossil fuel energy capacity). And because most North Americans are sustainable development illiterate (enviros successfully planted the “it’s an oxymoron” meme here soon after the Rio Earth Summit*), there’s little knowledge of its principles and processes, and how effectively these would dovetail with permaculture. (Maybe it’s time for me to write an article for Permaculture News!)
* p.s. Sustainable development can’t be an oxymoron. Human beings develop. It’s what we do (compared to, say, deer). So we have to answer the question, Do we want to develop in ways that are sustainable? Or do we want to continue developing in ways that are unsustainable?
This is so funny as a single woman of 2 now adult children, living the land living life, in a rural area, I am no stranger to negative & really rude responses to my lifestyle choices. Our house is on the market & the amount of people even the real estate who say I have a lot to clean up. Our place is not messy its strategic & nobody asks why. You see around here the norm is clear the land you’ll grow more( I am watching the neighbours cleared land wash away & I am collecting the top soil of the neighbours across the road as they skid up their driveway). Our land has gone from clay to soil it has taken a long time but it can be done & has been. So I have given up on trying to explain myself & letting the proof of permaculture living the living land life speak for itself & praying that a kindred family see the quality of life that it is.
Good article – many thanks.
My favorite defo:
“Permaculture is the conscious application of the principles of ecology in the design of sustainable human habitats” from Lea Harrison, 1988.
I have no problem with using the word sustainable – it’s all about context – when looking at BM’s original text, a system is sustainable if 1. it meets its own needs for growth & maintenance, and 2. produces a profit for re-investment. What the details of those are is then context-specific.