What is Permaculture?

Warwick Rowell, Friday 28 January 2011

People frequently ask me “What is Permaculture?” with a very quizzical, uncertain tone in their voices. I have a variety of answers, depending on how much time we have available. The shortest answer I can give is “Permaculture is applied integrated design.” But that takes a bit of explaining! A bumper sticker we prepared for the Sixth International Permaculture Conference in Perth in 1996 expanded on this a little: “Permaculture: Designing for a sustainable future”. Here is a slightly longer definition I find helpful:

Permaculture is a pragmatic, positive philosophy that is personal, apolitical, not about protest, with productive placement being its prime concern.

Permaculture is a system of thinking – a philosophy – concerned with the real life concerns of individuals, families, societies and cultures as they try to meet their needs. It is based on the finding that many cultures have not been sustainable because their methods of food production have destroyed their soils. This is primarily because they were or are dependant on large-scale monoculture annual cropping systems.

It doesn’t matter where you are, or what you are doing; a positive attitude is an essential starting point for any further action. So Permaculture invites people to look at what is abundant in their lives and surroundings, and to use that abundance to meet other needs. Permaculture is also positive in a systems sense; Permaculturists alter the function of a system to better meet their needs by adding elements to the system, and increasing its complexity, rather than trying to suppress or eliminate parts of the system. The elimination strategy is fundamentally doomed to failure; look at the resistance of insects, rabbits, bacteria, and so on to all our sophisticated “…icides”.

Permaculture is a philosophy at a number of levels. Its moral, normative philosophy is expressed in the Permaculture ethics, which I summarize as Earth Care, People Care, Surplus Share, Limits Aware. It has a scientific descriptive underpinning, which is based on positivism. After being an active participant in the 1960s protest and flower power movements, Bill Mollison saw that they did not work, and says specifically that he planned to use positivism as the basis for Permaculture. Permaculture is overwhelmingly concerned with what is realistic and observable and logical and tested. Permaculture is a philosophy, as well as a theory, as well as a guide to practice.

Permaculture is more to do with how each person leads their life, with the people immediately around them, than a missionary, proselytizing set of ideas. Permaculturists see that, in the long run, people have to solve their own problems in their own contexts and within their own cultures. It is also based on the observation that many people who get into charitable work frequently do so to solve their own problems, too frequently at the expense of those they are purporting to help. So get your own systems perfect before believing that you can help others improve theirs! Unless they ask, specifically, for your help.

Permaculture is not about short-term politics. Party politics are in the main about left and right, and Permaculture is concerned with the whole system, and so encompasses both individualistic and social issues, both competitive and cooperative ideals, both selfish and selfless viewpoints of our motivation. It is about people taking charge of their own lives, and therefore the fundamental idea of representative politics is anathema to a designed independent system. This does not mean we should not be involved in politics. Just don’t call it Permaculture.

Not about protest:
Unless you are very very smart, and able to protest so well that your goals are quickly achieved, most protest does nothing more than reinforce the orthodoxy. The way one system replaces another has been well researched; the best way for the new system to establish itself is just to demonstrate over and over again, in a wide variety of contexts, that it is a more rewarding or appropriate way of living. And to ignore the responses of the dominant system; first it will ignore the emerging system, then it will ridicule it, then it will tolerate it, then it will try to subvert it, then it will accept it. Another form of protest is to try to escape your own culture by taking on another. But “culture” is a pervasive system that operates about four or five levels higher than your individual system, so it is unlikely you can escape its subtle influences; they have been affecting you and more broadly your family for many generations.

Fundamentally Permaculture is about placing an element in a system so that it and the system work better. Initially Permaculture was concerned with the placement of plants and animals in our systems to mimic biological systems; the aim is to meet people’s food, fuel and fibre needs in the smallest space possible. But with the overarching aim of enhanced, more productive placement, it becomes clear very quickly that Permaculture must also be concerned with other elements in the man- made systems around us, like housing, transport, banking, education, money, and so on.