Traditional cultures that have endured and thrived for hundreds of thousands of years, are the true pioneers and developers of this ecologically-integrated approach to designing sustainable human systems. Permaculture is simply a new format for engaging with this invaluable and deep knowledge in a way that is more easily accessible for the western mindset.
Permaculture design is a creative process based on intelligent and thorough observation. It is a universal methodology that results in custom context specific solutions. Therefore it can never be prescriptive!
Permaculture design methodology was introduced in the 70´s by two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, as a response to the environmental, social and economic challenges facing the world: pollution of water, air and soil caused by industrial and agricultural practices, loss of biodiversity, decrease of non-renewable resources, climate change, destructive economic systems, etc.
Bill and David, working together at the University of Tasmania, looked for ways to create sustainable and regenerative agriculture systems. They researched traditional cultures around the world that have exited for hundreds of thousands of years, to identify what it was that made them so successful at living on this planet. Bill and David then merged this knowledge with the linear process structure of contemporary scientific research and academia to present the term “Permaculture.” This newly coined word was derived from the concept of “permanent agriculture” which emphasized:
“perennial agricultural systems that mimic nature and integrate diverse plants and animals useful to man” (Bill Mollison).
A few years later, the original concept of “permanent agriculture,” was expanded to include all aspects of human society as a “permanent culture.” Permaculture has since now spread all over the world, training thousands of people in sustainable living for energy descent.
It’s future vision according to David Holmgren is one of ‘consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fiber and energy for provision of local needs.’
We recommend reading about these concepts in the order presented here. This way the concepts feed into one another, following the ‘patterns to details” idea. For example, “Ecology” is the study of Nature. Nature and its ecosystems are what we look to as a model for design in Permaculture methodology so we start there. Then “Systems Thinking”, which is the understanding that is derived from observation of Nature. Once you understand systems thinking, it is easy to understand the essential value of the “Triple Ethic” and so on.
Ecology is the study of interrelationships and interdependence of living organisms between each other as well as their environments. It is a study of networks, connections, and feedback loops in Nature. Permaculture places itself on the shoulders of ecology and to understand ecosystems as models for design.
Natural ecosystems are the best examples of energy efficiency and resilience that we can observe. When we understand how they function, we can apply their functional patterns and ecological principles to any of our human systems.
As Patrick Whitefield mentioned “what makes an ecosystem work is what makes a permaculture system work. This can only be achieved by means of careful design. Useful connections can only be made between things if they are put in the right place relative to each other.” (Permaculture in a Nutshell,1993)
It is essential to understand systems thinking in order to understand how permaculture design works. Let’s first explore the following questions:
“What is a system?”
A system is an integrated set of elements that relate to one another for a common purpose or desired function.
“How can we think in terms of systems?”
Systems thinking, a modern branch of ecology, is thinking about whole systems in terms of relationships, patterns and context. Systems thinking considers that parts of a system can be better understood in the context of relationships. It offers an approach to problem solving that takes into consideration the reality that everything is connected. Our world is a grand network of systems nested within systems. Nothing is in isolation.
Systems Thinking is the concept of systemic wholeness, looking at the whole as more than the sum of the parts. This includes the interconnections between elements within systems as well as between the systems themselves.
All organisms in an ecosystem are dependent upon each other directly or indirectly. As G. Tyler Miller explains in the book “Living in the Environment,” Life on Earth depends on three interconnected factors:
• Consistent flow of high-quality energy from the sun, through living things in their feeding interactions, into the environment as low-quality energy (mostly heat dispersed into air or water at a low temperature), and eventually back into space as heat.
• Cycling of matter or nutrients (atoms, ions, and compounds needed for survival by living organisms) through parts of the biosphere. Because the earth is closed to significant inputs of matter from space, it essentially has a fixed and finite supply of nutrients. In order for Life to perpetuate itself indefinitely on finite resources, it has evolved clever ways of cycling, transforming and sharing them. Nutrient movements in ecosystems and in the biosphere are round-trips. Functionally this makes what was once limited, now limitless. Some cycles (sometimes referred to as regeneration rates) can take seconds to complete while others may take centuries or more.
• Gravity, which allows the planet to hold onto its atmosphere and helps to enable the movement and cycling of chemicals through the air, water, soil, and organisms.
A simply way to think about this is to remember that EVERYTHING GARDENS.
Design is a way of putting content, form and function together for a particular purpose. Design is essentially decision-making. And like Victor Papanek said:
“All men are designers. All that we do, almost all the time is design, for design is basic to all human activity”.
It is a way of approaching design challenges with the understanding that everything is connected, that everything is a part of a system. By doing this, the entire whole is optimized, rather than its individual parts in isolation. Many problems at solved at once, multiple benefits result from a single expenditure, and the system yields more diverse and widely distributed benefits. We must optimize the capacity of inter-relating elements in space and time in a functional and cooperative way. It is a method for practical, creative resolution of problems and creation of solutions, with the intent of an improved future result.
When designing systems (land systems, financial systems, social systems) there are many elements and factors to take in consideration, some variable, some non-variable. So following a process is the best approach to deal with systems complexity and make sure we take the right steps and keep track from the beginning till the end.
Permaculture is a design discipline that uses systems thinking as an approach to designing sustainable human systems that function as a whole. This means that each part of the bigger system (singular elements or smaller systems) is included in a network of beneficial relationships that forms a whole (“whole” being whatever we are designing). The placement of elements and their functional interconnections is thoughtfully planned for the effectiveness and resilience of the whole. Looking at the whole as more than the sum of the parts allows us to first understand the wider scale before focusing on the details (Patterns to Details). This will be further explained when clarifying the difference between design, strategies and techniques.
First, let’s see how permaculture design combines systems thinking with ecological principles and ethics. As was mentioned previously, the concept of permaculture evolved from designing agricultural systems to designing human systems. This means permaculture is about sustainable design applied to human settlements, with a focus on how we can provide for our needs in a way that works with ecological systems and nourishes the planet.
Human beings have various basic needs (air, water, food, shelter, clothing, community, etc). A holistic approach is necessary to design for this wide range of functional needs. For this reason, permaculture design includes natural systems, social systems and economic systems. Its systems thinking approach integrates these various systems into a functional whole. And this is why permaculture is considered “whole systems design.” It gives us the tools we need as designers to integrate a wide range of disciplines, fields of knowledge, strategies and techniques to create functional whole systems.
A permaculture system at a home-scale will integrate the house, vegetable gardens, animals, people, community, local economy, hydrology, geology, etc. so that they function together as a system.
As Robyn Francis, one of the pioneers of permaculture, states:
“Permaculture addresses all aspects of human culture, not only food production, but how we build, how we organize ourselves and how we utilize all our resources including the human resource.”
In “Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability” (2001) David Holmgren presents ‘the permaculture flower’ showing the 7 key domains of human lives that require transformation (new thinking and new solutions) to create a sustainable culture that is prepared for energy descent.
7 key domains for redesigning human culture are represented in the flower petals:
– Land & Nature Stewardship
– Tools & Technology
– Education & Culture
– Health & Spiritual Well-being
– Finances & Economics
– Land Tenure & Community
For each of the 7 domains, David presents a ‘tool kit’ of sustainable options that can be useful to integrate in permaculture systems. This tool kit includes many sustainable disciplines, fields of knowledge, strategies and techniques. The options considered in the ‘tool kit’ aren’t new or exclusive to permaculture. But permaculture has given them context. These ideas are now organized in an overall/holistic framework for sustainable design. This is the primary innovation of permaculture, an ethically guided framework for design that is accessible to anyone interested in sustainable and regenerative design.
Nature is our best teacher. Natural ecosystems are the best examples of functionality, efficiency and resilience. In an ecosystem everything is interconnected for maximum benefit of the whole. Each species takes care of its own needs and its surplus provides for the needs of something else and contributes to the entire system. Resources and energy flow in various forms and ways through a dynamic and adaptable web of connections between organisms and their environment. If we mimic the way ecosystems function we can create human systems that are equally functional, efficient and resilient.
Through good design, we optimize the relationship between rates of production and consumption by strategically cycling energy and resources to eliminate pollution, unnecessary labor and reduce energy demand while increasing clean air, water, soil and food for all living things. In fact, in Nature there is no such thing as waste or pollution. Waste equals food. Resources circulate within the system, used and transformed by one element and then passed on to other elements in a form in which they can utilize. What is waste for one organism is useful for another. This concept is simple. And we can mimic this easily in our human systems. We just need to change our mindset.
Besides its wholistic application permaculture design is innovative in applying ethics and principles to design.
The ethics (care for people, care for the earth and fair share) are the foundation of permaculture design and underpin every design decision in the creation of a sustainable system. They make us feel good and align us with reality.
Is this option good for the Planet? Does it care for the people? Is it fair share in the global sense? ~ inspired by Annemarie & Graham Brookman
When working within a system, it is clear that interdependency is the rule. We can break a complex system into parts to make it more manageable but we must always keep in mind that no matter how thoughtfully we dissect the whole, these “parts” are essentially arbitrary and are inextricably linked to each other through the function of the whole, The creation of these “parts” is simply a strategy to help us discuss and understand the whole system. These “parts” are defined by their relationship not independent, isolated components. They are constantly and deeply interacting with each other. Think of the “whole” as a three-legged stool. Because of this it is imperative that we create a tool to keep this reality of “wholeness” in the forefront of our decision-making. This powerful tool is an Ethical Framework: EARTH CARE, PEOPLE CARE & FAIR SHARE.
As a result, Permaculture Design is supported by a philosophy of cooperation with nature and each other while sharing resources evenly.
The Permaculture Triple Ethic is at the heart of every design decision and is what we measure our potential solutions against.
“Think about this: do soil scientists benefit the earth? Consider chemical fertilizers and pesticides. What would happen if scientists had ethics and not simply research goals?” ~ Rosemary Morrow
The design principles are guidelines for sustainable design. They are principles found in nature and for that reason are ingrained in us. Ecosystems are the best examples of energy efficiency and resilience that we can observe and using their principles as guidelines to design our “human systems” is the best may to ensure sustainability and resilience.
David Holmgren explains permaculture principles to be: “universally applicable principles derived from the study of the natural world, the observation of natural patterns and the study of systems. Their scientific foundation lies in the shoulders of ecology and more particularly in systems ecology.”
Originally, in his books “Introduction to Permaculture” and “Designers’ Manual” Bill Mollison presented one set of principles and then later, another set. A few years later, David Holmgren came up with yet another set of principles in his book “Principles and Pathways beyond sustainability.” These different sets of principles overlap and reinforce each other. Essentially, they are different ways of looking at the same universal patterns of Nature.
Bill Mollison’s permaculture principles:
– Relative location
– Each element perform multiple functions
– Each important function is supported by multiple elements
– Energy efficient planning: zones, sectors and slope
– Use biological resources
– Cycle energy, nutrients and resources
– Small-scale intensive solutions
– Accelerate succession and evolution
– Edge awareness
– Everything gardens.
– Work with nature rather than against it.
– The problem is the solution.
– Make the least change for the greatest effect.
– Cooperation over competition.
David Holmgren’s permaculture principles:
– Observe & interact
– Catch & store energy
– Obtain a yield
– Apply self-regulation & accept feedback
– Use and value renewable resources & services
– Produce no waste
– Design from patterns to details
– Integrate rather than segregate
– Use small & slow solutions
– Use & value diversity
– Use edges & value the marginal
– Creatively use & respond to change
Over the years, other permaculture authors have adapted or redefined these permaculture principles to be better applied in their cultural context and language. But keep in mind, that the principles are strongest when utilized together. The more principles you consider during your design decision-making process, the more holistic, energy efficient and resilient the system you design, will be.
Figuring out how to design whole systems and the decision-making of design work can be just as complex as the systems we are trying to design. It can be simply overwhelming. Utilizing a universal and reliable step-by-step design process is extremely helpful, if not essential when dealing with this level of complexity. A design process shifts feelings of being overwhelmed by the all the information, to being curious and excited because we are confident that it will come together in a functional and integrated design.
Designing is fun. It is like a game. We follow the steps of the design process and the result is like magic: everything find its place in harmony! Imagine you have the task of designing your farm. Independent of its size, a farm is a complex system because it includes various elements and even systems inside the main system. To come up with a design you will be asked to consider many factors, biotic and abiotic, natural and human, etc. In general you will be working with a complex diversity of variables and the design process will help you organize them in relationship to each other to ensure functional ‘whole-ness.’
In addition, we don’t have time to waste, quite frankly. The need for ecosystems regeneration to stabilize our global climate is urgent. We can’t afford to act randomly. Following a proven process get us quicker, more accurate and more efficient results. The permaculture design process provides a pattern of thinking that is informed by Nature that enables us to know where to start and what to do.
Keep in mind, that there are many ways to accomplish each step in the process. Some people design through thinking, some design through doing, some design through collating experiences and references. You can design through your hands, you can design through your mind… All is fine, as long as we don’t skip steps.
Design is frequently misunderstood and often mistaken as the simple application of strategies and techniques. A very common example is when people ask ‘what is the difference between permaculture and organic agriculture?’ The difference is simple yet sometimes subtle:
Permaculture is a system for designing sustainable human systems. It clarifies functional needs and goals within a system while upholding the triple ethic. Once these interdependent functions are determined, then we use strategies and techniques to best fulfill the functions we need. For example we may use the strategy of organic agriculture to produce food since it allows nutrients to be cycled onsite as well as many other benefits. In turn, we may then choose from a variety of techniques like cover-cropping, compost tea, integrated pest management (IPM) and rotational grazing to maintain soil fertility and crop health within our organic agriculture strategy.
Just because a farm is an organic farm, doesn’t guarantee that it is permaculture system. Permaculture is about achieving functional integration not exclusively about the lack or reduction of chemical inputs. For a farm to be a permaculture system the elements on the farm must be placed in relationship to each other. They must be connected in a functional way. For example, the farm pond is placed high in the landscape to provide gravity-fed, nutrient rich irrigation for the crops that are located lower down in the landscape. The pond is placed in the keypoint (a point in the landscape where water naturally accumulates due the shape of the land). The pond also has an spillway that leads into a swale that gently delivers surplus water passively along contour, allowing water to spread out and infiltrate into the broader landscape. This reduces erosion and recharges the groundwater. And so on. This is permaculture…a network of systems within systems that function as a whole.
Robyn Francis describes the difference between design, strategies and techniques like this:
“Techniques are the “how-to-do” something, like various composting systems, how to set up an irrigation or watering system, different methods of mulching and planting, building a chicken tractor and so on.”
“Strategy is about “how and when”, the timing and sequence of jobs and events. Like my food forest, the strategy was inspired by the ecological process of natural forest succession. In the first year, I planted fast-growing pigeon pea bushes and longer-term tree legumes to provide shade, frost protection, mulch and nutrients. The next year fruit trees were planted under the shade of the pigeon peas (…)”
“Design is about where we place things in relationship to each other and how we integrate the connections between them (within in a functional whole). It’s where we place the food forest in relationship to the whole garden or farm, and the way we pattern the relative placement of the plants, paths, water and other elements within the food forest itself.”
“So first comes the design, planning out “what goes where”; then we need to devise our strategies, “what happens when”; and then you select the appropriate techniques for the situation.”