What is Permaculture? A beginners guide.
There is overwhelming evidence to tell us that we, this funny human race, must change our ways or be kicked off the earth as we know it. This is the Anthropocene - the current geological age where human activity is the dominate force affecting the climate, atmosphere and environment. The ‘sustainability movement’ is now rich with players, concepts and strategies, but is it effective or is it inherently flawed? ‘Sustainable’ practices, by definition, seek to maintain the status quo and keep the situation from getting worse. We’ve seen the sustainability agenda pushed for the last twenty five years and yet our planet has reach unprecedented levels of pollution, high temperatures, melted permafrost, extreme weather events, topsoil loss and biodiversity death. Clearly ‘sustaining’ is not good enough. We need to look at restoration. We need to embrace solutions focused not on ‘sustainability’ but on regeneration. This is where the permaculture movement comes in. While many certified organic agriculture practices qualify as sustainable they are, at the end of the day, extractive and depleting. Permaculture systems get stronger, more resilient, more diverse and more self-supporting over time. This article will shed light on the permaculture movement by diving into each of the twelve principles that guide us as permaculturists.
This regenerative movement was born out of Australia in the early 1970’s, pioneered by Bill Mollison and his student David Holmgren. Both men are considered as the co-originators of the permaculture concept. Based on three ethics -- care of the earth, care of people, and fair share – and a set of twelve principles, Permaculture is a mentality, a way of thinking, a design practice and most importantly is non-prescriptive. Nature is dynamic, changing, and incredibly varied between biomes. Thus permaculturists solve problems with the guides of ethics and principles rather than specific techniques or technologies, making this way of thinking applicable to any land or community, anywhere in the world. Other natural farming concepts, like Zero Budget Natural Farming, Korean Natural Farming, Rudolf Steiner’s Biodynamic Farming and No-Till Agriculture offer effective techniques to restore land and grow crops, but lack in a whole systems thinking approach that is characteristic of Permaculture. So let’s dive right in and explore these principles that shepherd this movement. All of these apply to land assessment and decision making as much as they apply to day to day behaviours within our homes and our families.
Principle #1: Observe and Interact.
All too often, humans have worked to control nature. To make her yield under our hoes and ploughs while we manicure and manipulate what comes from the ground. Permaculture takes a radical step in the other direction, on the side of nature, where we feel a deep trust for her perfect efficiencies, processes and decisions. From that place, the most effective way to approach your land is from a place of humble observation. Nature herself will tell you what she needs, what is working for her, and what is stopping her flow. Our job as the farmer is to step back and let her tell us, and keep our eyes, ears and hearts open enough to understand what she is sharing. As a practice of design, we first observe all of the wild energies that are on our land – how the sun and shadows play, where the wind blows, how the water flows, where it percolates and where it pools. Working with nature will always lead us to the most efficient system. Working against her is asking for future problems.
How can use observe and interact in our home life? For example you can conduct a lifecycle analysis of a common household product you use (ie toothpaste, deodorant, dish soap) and observe: what are the ingredients, are they harmful to my health or the planet’s health? Who is the parent company of this product and what other activities are they involved in? Are they ethical? What is this packaging made of? Is it recyclable? Only after observation are we equipped to ‘interact’ by deciding whether or not we want to keep using that product or find a natural or homemade replacement.
Principle #2: Catch and Store Energy
Nature is abundant in resources, it is our job to know how to harness and utilize those resources. For example: harvest your rain water, use solar and wind energy, extend a bumper harvest of cucumbers by pickling them, transform old milk into cheese and yogurt, capture the sun’s warmth in mudbricks to keep a home warm in cool climates. This principle speaks to capturing resources when they are abundant to use them in times of need. This also speaks to working with the natural flows of energy, like placing progressive bays of compost piles running downhill using gravity to move the piles through the stages. Dig yourself a cellar directly in the earth, on the shady side, to store a harvest of potatoes and pumpkins and pickles for months to come.
Principle #3: Obtain a Yield
Whether we admire this trait of human nature or not, it’s real and ever present. When we don’t receive anything tangible back for ourselves from our work, we lose steam. Obtaining a yield is important to keep up the momentum of our good work. We could be building habitat, restoring soil, and cleaning up waterways, but if we aren’t also luxuriating in fresh veggies, milk, eggs or honey from our land, it won’t be long before we return to the supermarket and retire the shovel! Obtaining a yield could also mean you construct a small tepee and earn some extra money renting it on Airbnb, or it could mean you make a value-add jam from wild foraged berries to sell, whatever it is we must be sure that there is a tangible reward for our work. “You can’t work on an empty stomach!”
Principle #4: Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback
Permaculture principles guide us to be more ecological stewards of the earth and be better community members. Neither is possible without this principle. Rethinking community and leadership to be more just and equitable starts with being able to look inward, accept feedback and have humility. Being a responsible citizen of the earth requires self-regulation. For example, is that instant craving for a packet of biscuits really worth the single use plastic? Could you instead bring your reusable bag to the bakery and in doing that small extra effort support a local business and skip the rubbish? Do you really need to drive to the market when you could walk the ½ kilometre instead? Must you buy that plastic water bottle in your moment of thirst or do you think you could just wait the 1 hour until you arrive at your destination and will be surely offered a glass of water? All of this is self regulation. Be conscious of your actions, for they all have a ripple. Be conscious of your mentality, it shapes who you are in the community.
Principle #5: Use & Value Renewable Resources & Services
Peak oil is upon us and an ‘energy descent’ future is near. Our current lifestyle (and economy! and politics!) is built on the assumption of limitless energy from fossil fuels. This energy, in the form of gas for cooking, electricity, petrol for cars, etc, is not limitless and not renewable. Now, while we still have a choice, we must shift our mentality towards renewable resources and services. This is as simple as building a rocket oven to efficiently and cleanly cook with wood or creating a habitat for ducks to keep your snail and slug population in check. This gets as complex as constructing large buildings only using natural materials like cob and thatch or upskilling yourself to understand how to utilize the whole animal – from meat for eating to tanning the hide. We can cook using the sun and wood, we can move around using our legs to push bicycles, we can garden using our pigs to dig and our chickens to scratch, and we can collect things from nature for our kids to play with. Think creatively and think beyond fossil fuels! Soon we won’t have a choice ;)
Principle #6: Produce No Waste
Nature does not have waste; everything gets transformed, transmuted, recycled and consumed. Our modern consumer world is full of waste; waste is the other side of the coin to cheap goods and instant gratification. Learn to care and repair, upskill to upcycle, make things yourself, and detach your mind from the consumer rat race of buying more stuff. Waste is a resource; in nature the waste from one systems is the fuel for another. Even our own human waste is valuable rich nutrients for our farm! Build a dry composting toilet; start a compost pile; wash and reuse all your plastic bags; commit to gifting homemade goods. Check out one of my all time favorite books, The Art of Frugal Hedonism, for all the reasons and ways to get this principle working for you!
Principle #7: Design from Patterns to Detail
Patterns are all around us – the spiral of a snail shell is the spiral of the galaxies, the dendritic pattern of a tree’s branches is the flow of modern freeways. When we zoom out and observe the patterns in nature, we are able to understand their function and apply those patterns to our permaculture designs for maximized efficiency. This principle goes hand in hand with the 1st – observe and interact. The only way to notice patterns, on any scale, is to take the time to observe. Permaculture learning has a big emphasis on learning the patterns of nature and applying them on every scale. Nature is our best teacher.
Principle #8: Integrate Rather than Segregate
Permaculture design is all about seeing the connections between the different elements of our land, our home, our workplace etc. Each element will have different inputs, outputs and behaviours. By analysing those three things, we can pair together various elements so the inputs of one are supported by the outputs of another. The more we can connect our systems, the more resource efficient we become. Waste becomes resource. Find the connections, think about how things can work together, and create relationships that support each other. In community, we can collaborate instead of working alone. In families, we can get our kids involved in the garden and teach them real life skills by making roles that are suited for little ones. In the garden, instead of trying to eliminate all pests with chemicals, invite in pollinators, bug and reptiles higher up the food chain to keep pest populations in check. Monocultures are segregated systems that are weak and vulnerable to disease and crop failure, leaving a multitude of dead biodiversity in their wake. Polycultures are diverse integrated systems that are balanced, productive and sustained. Nourish connections. Nature does not flourish in a vacuum; abundant life is always integrated!
Principle #9: Use Small & Slow Solutions
This principle also goes hand in hand with ‘observe & interact’. We can be more economical and frugal with our time, resources and effort by making slow and progressive changes and then observing to make sure our solution is the right fit. Arriving on a new piece of land and immediately cutting all the native trees to make room for your mango orchard can have many unintended consequences! You might experience land erosion or loss of fertility or infestation of a new pest or a loss of bird life. Swift and big changes are much harder to recover from. Taking things slow and steady allows room for feedback and for changes and pivots. It allows you to stay nimble and flexible, dynamic and flowing, just like nature.
Principle #10: Use & Value Diversity
In diversity, we have strength and resilience. The strength of a forest is measured in its biodiversity, in its ability to support life. Diversity is also our strength in community – different perspectives, backgrounds, skills, knowledge and interest is what makes a community flourish. Diversity is the spice of life! Apply this to your daily life by learning the wild foods that flourish around you; how can you harvest and prepare them? What are the native seeds that grow where you live? Diversify your diet to include ancient grains, millets and forgotten varietals. To not value and find the beauty of diversity is to live in fear; expand yourself to embrace the multitude of shades, colors, shapes and flavors of nature’s abundance – in people, in crops, in animals, in ideas.
Principle 11: Uses Edges & Value the Marginal
Like all of the principles, this one is both literal and figurative. The ‘edge’ is the place where two systems come together. In nature, the interaction between two ecosystems is often the most productive with the highest biodiversity – think about the river bank – the intersection of water and land that flourishes with unique flora and fauna. Permaculture designers try to create more edge in designs by having garden beds and paths that are non-linear. The edge where a garden bed meets the path is the perfect place to grow some lettuces or salad greens that are small and easily clipped as you walk back into the house. Valuing the marginal reminds us not to overlook less-valued systems; we can harvest seaweed from the rocky shores or mushrooms from patches of forest. Underutilized spaces provide us the creative opportunity to create abundance where it was previously overlooked.
Principle 12: Creatively Use & Respond to Change
The only constant is change. Nature knows this and moves with ease through changes in the seasons and the cycles of life. We human folk have a tendency to hold tight with an iron grip to our expectations and plans. Permaculture encourages us to embrace change and use all changes as opportunity to think creatively and live positively. Change your diet with the seasons, plant trees for the future, learn lean technologies like ferro-cement water tanks, and design for disaster so you’re prepared for destructive weather events. Value the knowledge and insights of both our elders and our children. Change is part of life, with proper design and the right attitude, we can weather anything that come our way.
Permaculture principles keep us on a path not of ‘sustainability’ but on a path of regeneration, where we are active participants in making a more thriving planet tomorrow, next year and the next 100 years. In these challenging climatic changes, we must stay positive, stay creative and stay humble. Let nature be our teacher, let us listen to her and let us use the ethics and principles of permaculture as clues along this all-important quest.