What is permaculture?

The goal of permaculture is to create harmony with ourselves, between people and with the planet.

“The central aim of permaculture is to reduce our ecological impact. Or more precisely to turn our negative ecological impact into a positive one.” Patrick Whitefield

Bill Mollison and David Holmgren first coined the word in the 1970s in Australia. The sustainability they described wasn’t completely new: much of the thinking is wisdom that our ancestors would have been well versed in, but this knowledge has been buried beneath the drive for productive and profitable agriculture systems and the thirst for fossil fuel economies.

“The essence of permaculture is ancient in origin – taking inspiration from the civilisations of the world that have survived for thousands of years… However, permaculture is an integration of many skills and disciplines, brought together to design ways of living sustainably in the 21st century.” Ian Lillington

There are as many permaculture definitions as there are permaculturists. Each person has developed their own ways of using permaculture and relationship to it. Different thoughts, images, ideas and feelings emerge.
Permaculture has limitless meanings, but here are some commonalities and key points to help us to understand it:


  • Uses nature as our guide
  • Thinks holistically
  • Is solutions based
  • Is a design system
  • Is based on co-operation and connections
  • Creates abundance and harmony

Using innate wisdom, new technologies and observation of nature’s patterns our aim is to create holistic systems that enhance quality of life without causing harm or pollution. We can create beneficial connections through design to give more substance and stability, like joining random words to make meaningful sentences.
It will take time to reinstate truly self-sustaining systems globally though we can find joys and benefits on the journey. Permaculture has gained momentum and spread rapidly around the world with people hungry to nurture and heal degraded and polluted land. Hundreds of thousands of people have benefited and changed their thinking and lifestyles, also creating abundance around them.

“Permaculture designers use a succinct set of principles and techniques to establish homesteads and communities that provide for their own needs, require minimal care, and produce and distribute surplus food and goods. … permaculture emphasises relaxation, sharing, and working with nature rather than against it. Meeting our own needs without exploiting others is the primary goal.” Heather Flores

There is not a single blueprint of how to get there. Each garden or person is unique and requires its own individual plan of action; there isn’t one design that fits all.

Permaculture provides a set of ethics at its core, principles to guide us, techniques that assist us, methodical steps in a design process to achieve our goals, and a call to action. For each of the following parts we use one of these as a way of providing a permaculture context for understanding. In the next part we focus on ourselves and start to build our tool kit of techniques for design, observation and creative thinking. We then think about how principles can help us to understand our relationships in part three. In part four we use design as a framework for creating a more harmonious society. We come back to the core of permaculture using the ethics to help us feel connected globally in part five. In the last part we open up to actions we can take in our own lives.

Permanent culture
People, their buildings and the ways they organise themselves are central to permaculture. Thus the permaculture vision of permanent (sustainable) agriculture has evolved to one of permanent (sustainable) culture…. It can be used to design, establish and manage and improve…all efforts made by individuals, households and communities towards a sustainable future.” David Holmgren

Permaculture originated from the observation of nature and as it is easiest to replicate nature’s systems in the garden most of the attention has been on doing just that. Growing food is one of the most powerful and tangible ways in which we can connect with the Earth and its cycles, and make a step towards living a healthier life. The main body of knowledge and experience currently resides in land-based systems.
However, there is a growing realisation that, while enough skills, resources and techniques for widespread planet care and repair currently exist, there are other stumbling blocks that we have yet to overcome. What has been noted time and again is the ability of people themselves to stand in the way of positive action, right through from a personal to a global level. We can observe with individual, community and larger scale projects that it is our dynamics as human beings that ultimately dictate success or stalling. Well-meaning projects can come to a stand still if people aren’t attended to.
Permaculture has evolved from being purely land based, to involving people in land-based systems, to thinking about the invisible structures within community groups. The next evolution has begun to take permaculture into the heart of all our people based systems. There may come a time in the future where the word permaculture becomes obsolete as it becomes ingrained in our state of mind and behaviour to think in an integrated systems way. Similarly, perhaps we will no longer need to label food as organic because all of our food is grown in this way.
Applications of permaculture
Since the 1970s hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have adapted and experimented with permaculture and integrated it into their lifestyles and thinking. The effects have gone beyond just learning to grow their own food sustainably. From this initial step of accepting responsibility and taking action further leaps of empowerment become possible. Permaculture gives us the ability to look for the positives in any situation and create solutions. By thinking holistically and seeking the most productive and least polluting options we can provide yields for ourselves and protect resources for future generations.
The same thinking can be applied as effectively to our own lives and how we interact with others as for gardens. A permaculture garden is productive, healthy, vibrant, dynamic and able to meet its own needs, these are the same characteristics we would find in a natural system. Likewise permaculture people and communities can be productive, healthy, vibrant, dynamic and able to meet their own needs.
Permaculture has been used to design lives, homes, gardens, businesses, smallholdings, farms and ecovillages. It has been used in peace initiatives in Palestine, earthquake relief work in Haiti, soil and community regeneration in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. It has been used in the centre of concrete jungles and reforesting deserts and is on the school curriculum in Malawi. We will hear more stories throughout from people using permaculture in their own lives.
Permaculture invites us to be a solution in the world.

(An excerpt from People and Permaculture)

Earthcare Manual; Patrick Whitefield; Permanent Publications, 2004; p5
Permaculture one; David Holmgren and Bill Mollison B; Tagari, 1990
The Holistic Life – Sustainability Through Permaculture; Ian lillington; Axion Publishing,
2007; p26
Food Not Lawns – How To Turn Your Yard Into A Garden And Your Neighbourhood Into A Community; H.C. Flores; Chelsea Green, 2006; p18
.Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability; David Holmgren; Permanent Publications, 2002; pxix

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