Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Bill Mollison and his student (at the time) David Holmgren did a great thing when they developed philosophy of Permaculture in the 1970's. It's a topic that greatly interests me because it's as much about us, and how we treat each other and our planet, as it is about growing things. The more I learn about gardening, the more I realize how my garden is connected to everything (just like my self and my body), and how we/it all has to work together to succeed and survive.

But really, what IS Permaculture? For years I have heard that word, and read a smattering about it online here and there, but not enough to make any real sense to me until I read Toby Hemenway's Gaia's Garden last year. That book gave me a basis for understanding permaculture, at least in a general way, and I'm now firmly convinced that permaculture is the very best, and perhaps the only way to get us out of the mess we've gotten ourselves into.

Albert Einstein said, "We cannot solve the significant problems we face at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them."

"Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system."
~ Bill Mollison (from the website)

This definition of permaculture expresses a basic concept in permaculture - examining and following nature's patterns. Permaculture advocates designing human systems based on natural ecosystems. Permaculture draws from several other disciplines including organic farming, agroforestry, sustainable development, and applied ecology.  But, there are many other definitions of permaculture, just as there are many definitions of sustainable living.

The actual term permaculture is a contraction of the words "permanent," "agriculture,” and “culture.” Although the original focus of permaculture was geared towards sustainable food production, the philosophy of permaculture has expanded over time to encompass economic and social systems. It is a dynamic movement that is still evolving. For example, some practitioners are integrating spirituality and personal growth work into the framework of permaculture.

At the very core of premaculture are Ethics, sadly lacking in today's BigAg in my opinion.

The three philosophical ethics of permaculture (in simple form) are:
1. Care of the earth means that our number one priority is taking care of the earth, making sure we don't damage its natural systems so all life systems can continue and multiply.

2. Care of the people means meeting people's needs (having equal access to resources) so that people's lives can be sustained and have a good quality of life as well, but without damaging the earth.

3. Accepting (or setting) limits to population and consumption is realizing that as a human species we cannot continue to increase and also sustain the planet. By governing our own needs, we can set aside resources for the 2 principles above.

I think those are some really exacting standards... but as we begin to embrace them, some wonderful things happen even on a small scale.

"Care of the Earth" happens in both big and small ways, and not just in growing things. I like Hemenway's distinction of horticulture vs. agriculture. He points out that the etymology of  horticulture is the Latin hortus, meaning garden, while the etymology of agriculture is the Latin ager, meaning field. The big difference in planting huge fields and planting gardens could be considered as a part of permaculture.

I remember when I was reading The Celestine Prophecy back in the early 1990's, how one of the Insights was what happened to the plants when he talked to them. They flourished! That's just a tiny personal bit of "care of the earth" although permaculture goes much deeper. What happens when we give plants the real food they need, rather than a chemical soup which ends up harming our ecosystems like our soils and waterways? What happens when we put plants in nifty little plant communities with many diverse neighbors, and each plant contributes something to the success of the whole?

"Care of the Earth" is about what products we use and discard like trash. I fight daily to get my family here to consider the effects of all the cleaning chemicals they use, when hydrogen peroxide and baking soda would suffice. We live on a now almost-dead creek (from pollution); our creek waters flow down to the Holston River where they eventually join up with the French Broad River near Knoxville; there they become the beginning of the Tennessee River... and then they travel together along to the Ohio River and finally join and mingle with the Mighty Mississippi near Cairo, Illinois, and eventually end up in New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico with the massive floating dead zones created by the polluted rivers. Every individual along the many miles of this creek, and all the rivers downstream, could change some of the dying creeks and rivers by simple "Care of the Earth".

Another biggie is what we allow commercial enterprises do to our Earth... fracking, strip mining, mountaintop removal, nuclear power plant waste products that are hazardous for 10,000+ years... and GMO's. (A bit of scientific research about GMO's show that they reduce sperm count from the get-go; lab tests in rats show GMO's render complete sterility in 3 generations... if you think about it, that's really population control, without consent.)

"Care of the Earth"  is also how we manage our finite resources (oil, natural gas, the metals we mine, water, and the topsoil we wash away) so that we can continue to exist, and still leave some resources for our children and grandchildren. (We should all work on becoming more realistic about what our basic "needs"  vs. "wants" really are.)

Then there is BigAg, with their/our dependence on the rapidly depleting supplies of fossil fuels. The majority of the food we eat world-wide is produced by BigAg, unless we somehow manage to supplement it with a fruit-nut-veggie patch in our yards or our neighborhoods. Having a garden, even if it's just potted tomatoes on a balcony, IS one way we can start to make changes, and assure some nutritionally good foods in our households as we do. (There are many other ways, but a garden is a good one.) Permaculture can be a pathway because it can teach us, among other things, how to increase yield while eliminating dependence on man-made chemical fertilizers. We just have to learn to do as Nature does!

 "Care of the People" is a vast challenge, and is more than just not making war on them, or even just feeding them. Most of us mentally divide "us" and "them", and we weep and gnash our teeth at problems that happen within our immediate family and those we know and care about, whether it's a health problem, an auto accident, or job loss. Of course, we also lament the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives in a catastrophe half way around the world, but it is a detached kind of lament and doesn't really touch us, deep down on some emotional level, like those at home do.

So, when we move manufacturing (sweatshops?) to foreign countries out of our view, we can act detached from the abuses. We prohibit DDT here in the US but sell it overseas, and we can pretend we have eliminated that particular toxin, even though it comes back to us in/on imported foods.

Here's a very simplistic "care of the people" test just in your own personal surroundings... If you work in a large office or plant, very likely there is a person you pass often, with just a cursory nod or "Hello". The next time you pass that person, stop and make a personal comment to them, something like "that color looks good on you"... or "hey, that's a great tie/tattoo/haircut"... just anything more personal than the previous impersonal nods. Watch the reaction... the whole energy pattern changes for the better.

"Accepting Limits to population and consumption"... Years ago, the Chinese limited the number and gender of live children a couple could have. It brought fierce turmoil to their people. But I think we all really KNOW in our hearts the world cannot continue to sustain the projected increase in world population. A big question for everyone is: are you willing to limit your number of children/grandchildren? Or is that just the responsibility of "others" in poorer nations?

But it's NOT just limiting population; it's about limiting resources so everyone has a fair share.

I personally believe that the principles of permaculture could cure the planet from the all the damage conventional chemical agriculture has wrought, and maybe save us from extinction.
The permaculture ideas I know about are wonderful, and I have adopted some of the food forest ideas, which are partially from the Permaculture crowd and partially from others... and they all pretty much follow the Wiki definition, "Permaculture is a theory of ecological design which seeks to develop sustainable human settlements and agricultural horticultural systems, by attempting to model them on natural ecosystems." 

I'd love to take a PDC but it is not likely; the charges for the PDC course vary considerably with location. Here in Virginia and nearby North Carolina, the going rate is well in excess of $1,000... while a friend in upstate New York can find the same PDC certificate course for under $300. I think the design concepts are important, especially the ecological ones, but I want lots of practical information applicable to my situation, too.

I must say, though, that if I had the opportunity (and the money) to take a PDC course from one of the established Permaculture giants like Geoff Lawton or Toby Hemenway, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

If money is an issue, as it is for me, there are some good alternatives to learning about permaculture other than taking a PDC. Unfortunatey for us in the US, much of the available information is for tropical climates, but that is beginning to change as the concepts are becoming more widely known across the US and Canada. There are some permaculture forums on the internet, and several blogs that focus on various aspects of permaculture.

If you learn easily from books, you can buy  Bill Mollison's Permaculture: A Designer's Manual; it sells for around $110. It is the definitive Permaculture design manual in print since 1988, and it is the text book and curriculum for the 72-hour Certificate course in Permaculture Design (PDC). Written for teachers, students and designers, it follows on and greatly enlarges on the initial introductory texts, Permaculture One (1978) and Permaculture Two (1979, currently OOP) both of which are still in demand over twenty years after publication. Very little of the material found in the Designer's Manual is reproduced from the former texts. It covers design methodologies and strategies for both urban and rural applications describing property design and natural farming techniques.

An excellent book if you are just starting out is Gaia's Garden (by Toby Hemenway) for around $20.

Another alternative is to investigate the work of Sepp Holzer, an Austrian man who has done some remarkable things in Natural Farming, much like the great natural farming pioneer, Masanobu Fukuoka. The Holzer Permaculture is a branch of permaculture developed by Sepp independently from the mainstream Permaculture. It is particularly noteworthy because it grew out of practical application and absolutely detached from the scientific community.

By the way, there has been lots of contention over who if anyone controls the legal rights to the word "Permaculture", meaning is it trademarked or copyrighted, and if so, who holds the legal rights to the use of the word. For a long time Bill Mollison claimed to have copyrighted the word permaculture, and his books reflected that on the copyright page, saying "The contents of this book and the word PERMACULTURE are copyright." These statements were largely accepted at face-value within the permaculture community. However, copyright law does not protect names, ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something; it only protects the expression or the description of an idea, not the idea itself. Eventually Mollison acknowledged that he was mistaken and that no copyright protection existed for the word "permaculture". Source


  1. Hi Darius,

    There's an online permaculture course at NC State University: Introduction to Permaculture -

    I hate the word sustainable. It started out being vague and has now been co-opted so that we all feel good while essentially continuing life as we know it, eg. sustainable growth. Sustainable growth is an oxymoron. You cannot have infinite growth in a finite world. Regenerative is a much more constructive word. Organic food may or may not be sustainable if inputs did not come from resources within the farm which produced it. Organic food is sustainable if the inputs that produced it are regenerative. A clearer example might be firewood. Cutting trees for firewood is not sustainable because it usually results in deforestation. However, coppice with standards produces firewood regeneratively and does not result in deforestation.

    When some product or system is labelled as sustainable, consider whether it is regenerative. Only then can you determine if it is sustainable.


    1. Thanks for the link, Mike! You are always so helpful in sharing information and resources. :)

      I don't like the word sustainable either. Coppicing is something I will post about when I can take some of my own photos; few Americans are aware of the practice!

  2. i am listening to the series linked above.. It is very enjoyable and I recommend it to anyone with not much knowledge on the subject.. add me to the i dont like sustainable club... also cant stand "organic"

  3. I really have doubts about the amount of useful skill that can be obtained in a 14 day "intensive" PDC covering natural gardening, sustainable technology, natural building, and fostering healthy communities, all for only seven hundred dollars. It might be a great class, but it has got to fall far short of qualifying a person to be a "designer". The part I do know about is natural building and two weeks falls so far short of qualifying to be a designer it is almost criminal. The short coming that really bothers me is how little of the information applies to my local ecosystem. So much to learn, with so much tradition forgotten, we might be in for a big hurt.

    1. Dennis, I agree.

      Statistically, people retain only 10% of what they hear (like in a class)... and THEN they are going to go out and TEACH and/or PRACTICE it?

      With every ecosystem being different, the design challenges are enormous.

  4. Darius,

    Like you, I've pined after a PDC and then I realize that I don't really need it. I'm sure that I could probably learn a lot because I always do no matter how much I think I know. I think that if one has a start point of regenerative and one is reflective and can listen to what nature nature is saying and can see what one is being shown, then the outcomes will fit what permaculture is about.

    Your picture suggests that you are reflective and your writing here and at Dave's Garden says that your hear and see what Nature is telling you and showing you.

    Keep pining but you don't need a PDC. It seems to me that there's a bit too much teaching and not enough doing right now in permaculture. Doing is a far better teacher.


    1. Mike, I think you may be right... but I'll watch all the permaculture class videos on the NCSU site anyway.

      I'm plowing through the Va Tech library copies of the 2-volume Edible Forest Garden right now. Fortunately I'm an autodidact and learn easily, just don't remember as much anymore... hard drive aka brain is full, LOL!


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