What is permaculture? Why is it important? What does permaculture offer our current ecological, agricultural, financial, cultural and emotional situation? Join us as we discuss its origin, tools, and philosophy, and discover why choosing to become a permaculture designer is one of the best decisions you’ll ever make! We will investigate your personal reasons for becoming a permaculture designer and explore the many ways permaculture can be used.
“Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems.”
This first module is taught by a faculty panel: a bunch of us contributed articles, videos, thoughts, and questions we want you to consider. We open the course like this so that you see, right away, that we all have slightly different, yet deeply connected, definitions of what permaculture is and isn’t.
In fact, every woman in this course has her own perspective, and that’s what makes us such a powerful teaching team. As you move through the course, if you find contradictions, that’s great! We aren’t trying to indoctrinate you and fill you with trivia for you to regurgitate. We are trying to open doors in your mind and invite you to also question, contradict, and come into conversation with any and all of these ideas.
We hope that, with our guidance, you will feel empowered to develop your own take on all of this, and find unique and revolutionary ways to apply permaculture to your land and to your life. And if sometimes it feels redundant, that’s perfect! The human mind needs to hear things multiple times to retain new information.
Heather Jo Flores' 2010 organic tomato breeding project at River's Turn Farm in Oregon includes 76 varieties of heirloom tomatoes from around the world.
“Permaculture” by name first gained International recognition when Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren released their book Permaculture One in 1978. They took the idea of a “permanent agriculture”, spliced the words together, and used the term to describe a methodology for designing perennially productive landscapes.
Permaculture designers work to establish homesteads and communities that provide for their own needs, require minimal care, and produce and distribute surplus food and goods.
Later, Mollison and Holmgren each published monumental guides to the design, implementation, and propagation of these world-changing concepts, and because they are based on natural patterns which repeat on every scale, the idea of permaculture has now expanded far beyond designing and implementing productive gardens and farms.
Permaculture emphasizes observation, careful planning, sharing of resources, and working with nature, rather than against it. Meeting our own needs without exploiting others is the secondary goal; regenerating the Earth so that it can continue to sustain life is the first.
The permaculture design system, which contains the specific set of ethics, principles, tools and techniques, offers an opportunity for individuals, families, and communities to create a living human culture that nourishes, rather than annihilates, the Earth.
From what those Aussies started, a global community has emerged, and many of us--many women--have also written books about permaculture, implemented projects, and, over decades of learning and experimentation, have developed layers of replicable praxis.
And what bleeds through, as permaculture evolves, is the perennial need to consider that interconnected network of invisible structures that enable (or prohibit) sustainable land design projects to stand the test of time.
Heather Jo Flores gives a run-down:
Sidenote from Heather, on the difference between a "component" and an "element":
A lot of designers use the word "elements" to describe the components of a permaculture design, and I have done so myself, often. But it's actually a pretty important distinction, and the more precisely we can communicate about our work, the more effective it will be.
Elements (water, earth, fire, air, etc) are design considerations. They are flows. Elements are sectors (more on that in the next module!)
Components are things that we build, move, and design into our site. Components are strategies. There is some crossover between elements and components, yes, but as a designer, you need to consider both categories, and not lump them into one. So, forgive me if I misdirect in this video when I say "elements" in spots where I should have said "components"! With 40 women on this teaching team, we worked hard to synchronize our language, and to agree on a lexicon that would be clear and consistent for students. There was a fair amount of variation in terms we used, partially because of our individual lineage as teachers, and also because of our cultural diversity.
That being said, do be precise in your language as a designer. The more clearly you can communicate your ideas, the more support you will get for implementation.
The same principles that make permaculture so successful on the landscape also work for designing invisible structures like social, emotional, economical, and political systems that can support your work on the ground. That’s because permaculture is not just about the components of a system; it is also about the flows and connections between those components. It is about the relationships. You can have solar power, an organic garden, an electric car, and a straw-bale house and still not live in a permaculture. A project becomes a permaculture only when special attention is paid to the relationships between each component, among the functions of those components, and among the people who work within the system.
Through a permaculture design process, we can organize these relationships for optimum success. Our creativity is our most powerful tool for overcoming the ills of our culture, and design helps us harness that creativity and put it to work.
Let’s take a quick look at some of the original definitions from the founding father of permaculture, as presented in his monumental tome Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. This is by no means an exhaustive list of Mollison’s postulations but it does represent the nucleus of where permaculture, by name, evolved from, and we wanted to take a few moments to respond to and reflect upon these foundational ideas. All quotes below are from Bill Mollison.
The prime directive of permaculture:
“The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children’s.”
Big yes! But this is so much easier said than done. And it requires a diligent, daily practice.
Principle of stability:
“It is not the number of diverse things in a design that leads to stability, it is the number of beneficial connections between these components.”
Here we echo the importance of relationships, because if there are numerous connections, there will be plenty of support even if one connection is lost or is not available at certain times or seasons. But when there is a dearth of beneficial connections, there is no back-up. Linear systems often rely on single connections between different components. These single connections are crucial and make the system vulnerable: losing one connection, even temporarily, threatens the stability and sustainability of the whole system.
Law of return:
"Whatever we take, we must return."
The words “we must” can make it sound as though this is optional but, as the name “Law of Return” implies, returning what we take/use is mandatory if we are to honour the Earth and its inhabitants.
The yield of a system is, theoretically, unlimited.
"Yield is not a fixed sum in any design system. It is the measure of the comprehension, understanding, and ability of the designers and managers of that design.”
The possible number of uses of a resource within a system is limited only by the creativity and resourcefulness of the designer. If we turn this around, it also means that when yields are limited, when there are shortages, these are often the result of human actions and designs.
For example, with the focus on our yield, we must acknowledge that our system impacts others’ yields as well. The permaculture-inspired community Village Homes, in Davis, California, asks that no one block a neighbor’s solar access. This is a good example of when limiting your yield would be appropriate: in this case, by limiting your nut crop by keeping your nut trees to a reasonable, thoughtful height. As designers, we must be vigilant, especially in those brilliant creative moments when we unleash our own yield, that we don't inadvertently block the yield of somebody else. Be imaginative, be creative, but also be kind, considerate, and aware of the needs of others.
"Everything gardens, or has an effect on its environment."
As humans we have a tendency to assume that the things we make are not part of nature. We make clear distinctions between “man-made” or “artificial” on the one hand and “natural” on the other. But everything we design and produce is made from things here on earth. There is no other source of materials. What we make may damage the earth through pollution, but it is still part of the ecosystem.
All design is ecological design, for good or ill, and many hands make light work. Everywhere you go, everywhere you look, people, animals, and creatures of all shapes and sizes are hard at work, participating in a system. Sometimes those actions are helping the Earth, sometimes they are hurting it.
Either way, the more creatures who work together, in one direction or the other, the faster we see results!
“Everything gardens” also means everything is constantly in flux with its surroundings, whether those effects were intended by a designer, or just happened to occur on their own. Permaculture is about noticing and valuing the different roles a single component plays within the larger system, the different benefits it brings, and the wide variety of connections it has with different aspects of the whole. By watching how the elements in an existing system interact, we can then start thinking in terms of slight tweaks to the system, rather than wiping the slate clean and starting anew.
Work with nature, rather than against it.
“Become aware of the natural elements, forces, pressures, processes, agencies, and evolutions, so that we assist rather than impede natural developments.”
The problem is the solution; everything works both ways. It is only how we see things that makes them advantageous or not (if the wind blows cold, let us use both its strength and its coolness to our advantage). A corollary of this principle is that everything is a positive resource; it is just up to us to work out how we may use it as such.
Although, to use another permaculture saying, the opposite is also true! Sometimes a problem, like when somebody is being abused and/or exploited, is just a really big problem that needs to be faced and resolved.
And also: is it even possible for us to work against nature? Aren’t we nature too? As a permaculture student, designer, and practitioner, you should never accept anything at face value, not even the permaculture principles! You should think critically about each and every one.
Permaculture looks at a whole system, whether it’s a garden, a hospital or a business, rather than focusing on one part. It helps us see how the different elements, components, flows, and patterns within a system interrelate. For example, a baker may find that the extra effort it takes to source ingredients from local growers and suppliers is well worth it because of the personal relationships and support networks that develop as a result. She is able to tell customers exactly where the different ingredients come from, and those growers in turn support her work because it also means success for them. Rather than the baker being one competitive entity within the system, they join the whole and their work is much more supported.
This ability to look at a whole system means we can use it to think deeper about the current state of the world and also to help us understand how we actually got to this point.
Here's a mini-lecture on whole-systems design:
At its root, permaculture is about connections between humans and nature, or between humans and other parts of nature. Observation is a key part of permaculture, because the more inter-connections you notice in the world around you, the more you understand and appreciate how the world works. Observation helps us see cause and effect relationships.
As you go through this course, we ask that you look deeper at patterns of behavior, at our human systems, and at ways of thinking that shape events that we witness. If we start noticing the effect of our actions, this helps us reduce the number of unintended consequences our actions have, or at least limit their impact. Reflecting on the impacts of our actions may increase our knowledge and understanding of our habitat. Once your eyes open to the links between nature and humanity, you will be using permaculture as a lens to view the world. The power of permaculture comes from its deep grounding in how nature actually works, which enables us, for example, to develop strategies and techniques that effectively heal the Earth.
Permaculture takes an ecological view. This means being aware of our place in the ecosystem and making sure what we do is beneficial, not harmful. Everything is interconnected, so everything needs to be considered, including:
Food should be ethically grown and harvested, with minimal damage to local ecologies. “Cultivated Ecology” refers to gardens, livestock systems, or foraging areas that are managed in a way that creates abundance rather than decreasing it in the long term.
Water should be used respectfully, stored appropriately, and be able to clean itself infinitely within natural ecological processes. Sites should strive to stay within the local "water budget" of precipitation that falls from the sky.
Shelter should reflect the materials and resources of the region, be thoughtfully designed to use minimal resources, be comfortable and safe and able to be repaired and modified.
Technology should design for tasks first, then electricity. (Like designing first for line drying laundry and only later for installing solar panels to run a clothes dryer). When electricity is employed, it should be manageable by the inhabitants, reflect an appropriate scale, and cause minimal waste and damage to ecologies.
Transport. Including transport in designs is important because most of us travel regularly, and how we do this has an impact on us, on air quality, on noise and on accessibility. Design in walking, cycling and public transport, instead of assuming people will drive.
Waste. Composting toilets is one of the things permaculture is famous for! There’s a good reason for that. Flushing toilets use a lot of clean drinking water, and the "waste" is, well, just that: wasted. Both pee and poo are full of valuable nutrients for the soil, so long as they are collected and treated properly to avoid risk of disease, hence the composting loos.
Energy. Passive solar makes the most of the sun’s warmth, utilising sun-facing walls (south facing or north facing, depending on which hemisphere of the world you are in) to warm houses, for example by adding larger windows or a lean-to greenhouse or conservatory on this side.
Community needs can be met with real live people developing connections and growing together, rather than design that encourages isolated mistrust and addictions. A key part of permaculture design is being aware of how people will interact with the design. We are creatures of habit, and easily forget to do things differently unless it’s obvious, or unless we’re guided towards the new feature. For example, a bike rack near an entrance is a visual reminder and may increase numbers cycling, whereas a composting toilet that is accessed via a ladder is less likely to be used by many people. In permaculture, we strive to consider all of the interconnected relationships that make up the many layers of a design, of a community, and of the world. We call these "invisible structures," and they are what enables your permaculture design, in the real world, to stand the test of time.
By now, you know that permaculture is way more than gardening. Of course, food growing is essential; we all need to eat, and food security is a big issue. But it’s not an isolated issue. There are fundamental reasons why food is scarce in some places and abundant in others, and why some people can afford food while others in the same place can’t. Looking at these underlying and interlinked issues through a permaculture lens means looking at the basic injustices built into our current system. Many people focus, understandably, on our treatment of the environment, e.g. the soil, when looking at the food system, but don’t step back to see the whole system at play. If we don’t include human relationships in our whole system design, that design is doomed to fail.
Group dynamics can be tricky, whether we’re thinking about friends and neighbours, or about regional decision-making (or international relations). We have found that our ability to create permaculture solutions is based on how effectively groups can work together, whether large or small.
We want you to succeed, so we include topics in this course such as conflict resolution, active listening, and observation of social dynamics. For example, specifically creating a welcoming atmosphere for quiet voices and opinions will do much towards making accurate designs and cultivating whole group agreement.
Permaculture can be described as a mindful approach to ecological design. Applying ecological design to human systems has a number of consequences. First of all, it reminds us we are part of nature, not separate from it. Because nature is itself sustainable, applying lessons we learn from nature observation to our human world helps us restore and recreate our world in a genuinely sustainable manner. In other words, our world, our habitat, our square mile, can be self-sustaining, starting with our inner landscape and working towards societal change.
Here, Welsh permaculture teacher Marit Parker (also a member of our faculty) shares her perspective:
We’ll get into much more detail about invisible structures in the third module, but for now let’s explore two types of invisible structures that need to be considered in every whole system design: the “emotional landscape” and the “social landscape.”
Some questions to ask yourself and think about:
How do you limit your own yield?
Is your “emotional landscape” designed for resilience and sustainability?
How can you maximize your creativity as a designer by being more mindful to self-care and emotional health?
This is important not only to your own work, but also if you plan to interact with others on a project. If you aren’t well-designed in your own self, you won’t be of much use to the team. We’ve all had those experiences with somebody who had a solid skill set in the project at hand, but was emotionally challenging to work alongside. Don’t be that person! Allow all of what you learn in this course to support you as a human, the designer. You matter.
Here’s a video from Heather Jo Flores’ free mini-course on emotional permaculture:
In addition to the inner landscape, the social landscape is full of invisible structures that have a huge impact on our design work.
This course looks beyond gardening and looks at the interconnectedness of everything in the world. Even a single tree or flock of ducks contribute a large amount to the overall system.
Permaculture offers a fresh lens through which we can see the world. For those of us brought up in industrialised nations, it can help us regain more holistic, more caring, more nurturing ways of knowing, that have been devalued in our cultures in recent times.
Start by using permaculture in the work that you are currently doing, and to guide you to the work you want to do. We need more system thinkers looking at the big picture. When we look at things narrowly or disconnectedly, segregating different topics instead of joining them up, we come up with solutions that bring unintended consequences, not only in the ecology of plants but in the ecology of humans as well.
For example, the scientific study of the atomic structure of matter was very clever and fascinating, but because the work was disconnected from normal life, ethical boundaries that could have protected us were crossed, and concerns were brushed aside. The result is a world capable of destroying itself many times over.
Applying permaculture to your current work means you are using your existing knowledge and expertise, and adding a few different perspectives. This can bring a more holistic approach to your work, and provide a strong ethical base that puts other considerations above financial profit.
For example, it could mean:
Don’t forget, the world needs more “permie” lawyers, accountants, policy makers and homemakers, because while most people would agree with the three ethics at a personal level, translating these into the outside world is more challenging.
When you train your mind to remember permaculture theories, to pull them out like a master craftsperson would pull out her favorite chisel, then you begin to see everything around you in a different way. By putting our hands in the soil, we gain access to the wisdom of the earth; by putting our heads together, we learn how to use that knowledge for the benefit of all.
When people participate in an ecological design, when we work hard to improve soil, purify water, plant trees, encourage wildlife, reduce pollution and waste, something deep inside of us shifts. We tune into the subtle voices of nature. We become more aware of our bodies, more mindful of our impact on the environment, better at listening and communicating, and more able to overcome fears and obstacles.
As you proceed through this course, remember to pay attention to process, not just the land applications. Remember everything is interconnected. Permaculture is relevant anywhere, not just in the garden, and one of the challenges (and joys) is to apply what you learn to your existing areas of expertise. As you delve deeper into the ethics and principles, and hear about practical examples from a wide range of projects, the implications of applying a permaculture perspective to your current work may start to become clearer. Design with a purpose, one that creates a sustainable future beyond your own backyard.
However, remember not to allow “permaculture” or any other catchphrase to replace critical thought, common sense, and a steadfast commitment to being present, available, vulnerable, and willing to do the work, on the ground, in the community, every day. And not just the land-work. The heart-work is just as important. That’s what the third ethic is about. That’s what permaculture is. And that’s why we’re all here.
These slow, steady changes in the way you experience the world shouldn’t be taken lightly, nor should they be rushed. Don't forget, reading this article won’t get you much farther than the armchair: you have to get out there and try this stuff in your own yard, in your own community. You have to do the thing. Daily.
So, let's engage as a community of individuals who think our own thoughts, do our own work, and yet trust and rely upon each other as we move toward a common and fruitful future. One step at a time, we can become adept at caring for the Earth, caring for the people, and finding a myriad of ways to communicate and demonstrate equality, sharing, and abundance.
Similar to yoga, writing, and art, permaculture is a life-path, a daily practice. At first, you might not feel like you’re very flexible. Don’t worry about it. Just keep trying. Breathe in, breathe out, chop wood, carry water.
Throughout this course you’ll encounter these words again and again. Here’s a mini-glossary to help turn rhetoric into reality:
Empowering means we can do it ourselves. We don’t have to wait for those “in power” to do something. For example, when Mary Clear and Pam Warhurst started Incredible Edible, they didn’t ask for permission to plant vegetables around Todmorden, their local town; they just got on with it. Now they have the full support of the local council, police, schools and medical centres because the community has witnessed the multiple benefits this project has brought to the area. They empowered themselves and, in turn, their whole community.
Regenerative means something that re-creates itself. A forest is an example of a regenerative system. The leaves capture energy from the sun to enable the tree to turn nutrients from the soil into nourishment. When the leaves fall, they are turned into fertile soil by worms and fungi. Seeds land in this soil and grow into new trees.
Design system means we are looking carefully at what we do and what we want to do, and trying to design a way of doing things that makes sense. Because we are trying to mimic natural systems, this includes being aware of how every element of the system interrelates with everything else. For example, if we keep a tool storage shed chaotic, we may be forced to go to the store to buy an item we already have, plus be stressed out in the process. It makes better ecological sense, and natural sense, to design for a reasonable level of order.
Sustainability means a system that is self-sustaining. It’s a cyclical system, rather than linear. For example, think of the difference between travelling by car, bicycle or on foot in terms of the inputs required. Plus the more we ride a bike, hear birdsong and feel the elements, the more we’ll want to bike again. We introduce ourselves to techniques that evolve into hobbies we love.
Abundance means there is plenty for everyone. This may seem obvious. However, consider for a moment how long modern tools and appliances last. Annie Leonard describes “planned obsolescence” and how our economy depends on this in the video The Story of Stuff (11:00). Think how this differs from the “BUD” principle, i.e. making things that are Beautiful, Useful and Durable.
None of the ideas used in permaculture are new. The land-based knowledge that Bill Mollison studied in Indigenous and traditional societies, and in peasant cultures, has been the basis of human culture for millenia. What Mollison did was to format these concepts into a Western academic understanding. Mollison, David Holmgren, Rosemary Morrow, and the many that followed were then able to create an evolving, tangible curriculum about sustainable living and Earth repair. Their work makes sense to those of us who have grown up within industrial societies, where that close connection and inter-relationship with our surroundings and with each other has been damaged or lost.
Up until recently, the debt permaculture leadership owes Indigenous and other land-based societies has rarely been acknowledged; however, a growing number of permaculturists are becoming aware of this omission, and taking action. A body of work is developing that adds greater depth to permaculture. This course is part of that work, so you will hear about specific cultures, civilisations and communities whose work has inspired permaculture, learn how the permaculture community can give back, and be offered opportunities to explore the deeper nuances and wider benefits of some original ideas and approaches.
Right about now (and all through this course) you might find yourself thinking, “Permaculture is just common sense!” And yes, it would seem so. But unfortunately permaculture isn’t common practice. So here we are, trying to make it so.
Consider these questions as you review what you've just seen and read:
People come to permaculture for a myriad of reasons. Many discover the practice as they make plans for their garden or farm. Others are looking for ways to bring about social change. What attracted you to permaculture?
As you work through this course your answers to the questions below might change. Reflecting and journaling about your changing perspectives over the course will help you to explain permaculture to others and incorporate this explanation into your final design.
This exercise will help you tune into the living systems around you and begin to cultivate a “designer’s mind,” which is the first step in becoming a permaculture expert!
Choose a tree near your home.
Perhaps it’s on your street and you pass it every day. Go to the tree and touch it with your hands. Look at it up close and from far away. Smell the bark, the leaves, the soil around the trunk. Hug it, lean against it, touch it with your tongue.
Refer to the drawing below, and try to think of even more uses, functions, and connections. Write about it, draw a mind-map about it, or just think about it for a while and then share your thoughts/drawings/writing in either or both of these groups:
Student Tamsin Driver used an oak tree near her home for this exercise. Here's what she came up with!
In closing, here's Gela Lorax, the youngest member of our faculty, giving her definition of permaculture.