You might have heard the term ‘Permaculture’. Yet most people would probably struggle to give you a simple definition of what permaculture actually is. So what then, is this ‘Permaculture’?
The word ‘permaculture’ itself is a contraction of ‘Permanent’ and ‘Agriculture’- a term coined by two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970’s, inspired by the traditional relationship that Indigenous Australian communities had with their lands and forests. These days the ‘culture’ in permaculture is also seen to embrace social culture.
Permaculture combines three key aspects: an ethical framework emphasising ecological health and socio-economic justice, a holistic understanding of the processes and relationships in nature, and a systemic design framework. These are integrated with an emphasis on observing before taking action, in order to create a permaculture design that works with, rather than against, the natural processes around us.
Permaculture recognizes that humans are an inherent part of the ecosystem - indeed understanding that it is the worldview which positions us as separate from nature, or as having ‘power over’ nature, that also legitimises humanity’s patterns of destruction. As humans, we consume a lot of resources and produce a lot of waste. The principles and ethics of permaculture design give us a framework to make positive choices by observing and learning from nature. In this way, the aim of a permaculture design is to create systems that meet human needs for shelter, food and energy, whilst also contributing to the health of the ecosystem.
Permaculture is not just about agriculture, however the farm is a useful metaphor. Taking the example of a farm, permaculture can help to design ‘closed loop systems’ where each element has many functions. Rather than a monoculture system that is linear in its design, needing a lot of inputs and producing a lot of waste, a permaculture farm encourages healthy connections between each element, making sure to encourage cycles. One element’s ‘waste’ can be the food for another element, or useful for another function.
For example, a conventional farm might grow simply one type of corn. They would buy the genetically modified seeds from a large agribusiness, along with chemical fertilisers and pesticides. They would dig the soil and plant rows and rows of the same crop. This process relies on expensive and intensive inputs which actually damage and erode the soil while minimising biodiversity.
Alternatively, a permaculture practitioner designing a farm would instead take time to observe the site, mapping natural cycles and flows. They would choose plants to grow that were a good match for the place, while also being culturally relevant to the community. Instead of growing simply one vegetable, they would design companion plant guilds. For example, instead of simply growing corn, they might grow a trio of vegetables which each support one another in some way. One well known traditional Native American plant guild is the ‘three sisters’ - squash, which covers the soil and helps to prevent soil erosion and water evaporation; corn, to utilise the vertical growing space; and beans, which fix nitrogen in the soil and grow up the corn. Natural cycles don’t produce waste, so at the end of the growing season the dead leaves and other organic ‘waste’ can be left to compost or biodegrade, building the soil.
Though the word permaculture is often associated with farming, the design principles are equally useful for designing non land-based projects, community associations, or even business. The nature inspired principles of permaculture can be applied almost anywhere, building health and resilience wherever the touch.