Permaculture is a practical method of developing ecologically harmonious, efficient and productive systems that can be used by anyone, anywhere. It incorporates knowlege, tools and resources to create a regenerative, self-substaining society in both the physical and social sense.
WHAT IS PERMACULTURE?
It is understood as the design and life philosophy of working with nature and not against her. Permaculture creates human systems inspired in natural ecosystems , from which it draws inspiration for design and patterns to follow in the construction of environmentally sound, self-reliant spaces with the goal of meeting human needs.
Permaculture tries to simulate natural conditions with farming purposes. It consists on taking the natural processes found in ecosystems and emulating them in a controlled environment; in order to make the latter self-sustaining. Well applied, it could provide food for people around the world with a low maintenance cost and very little impact on the environment. In short, permaculture is a positive, effective solution to the current world crisis, in which climate change, hunger and poverty are running rampant.
Claire Gregory's permaculture garden: a suburban permaculture garden with different layers of vegetation - Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Permaculture was originally conceived as "permanent agriculture" and focused on methods to ensure sustainable food production. Imagine having a piece of land and developing a way for it to produce healthy fruits and vegetables with little maintenance and use of resources. That's what the original permaculture wanted to achieve.
Nowadays, the term is defined as the mixture of three words: "permanent", "agriculture" and "culture", after the dynamic nature of the movement opened space for the inclusion of economic and social systems.
Current-day permaculture encompasses taking the dream of sustainable food production from the privacy of backyards and homes and into the public, at the community level. It seeks the normalization and legalization of permaculture systems so all people can collaborate in the development of a society commited to fair-share, conscious living.
WHERE DID PERMACULTURE START?
Permaculture as it is known today started in the 1970s in Tasmania, Australia, with the work of Bill Mollison.
Mollison, an Australian ecologist and University of Tasmania professor had spent many years in direct contact with nature. His career as a wildlife ecologist had led him to observe the workings of natural ecosystems and the sustained, man-made destruction of them —so he decided to come up with a solution. And he thought said solution was to incorporate the patterns he had seen in natural ecosystems into his daily life.
This should be a no-brainer, for both Mollison and humanity in general. Natural systems, such as forests and wetlands are self-reliant and sustainable. They work as a well-oiled machine to meet their energy requirements and dispose of their waste, and every part of the ecosystem matters. Mollison applied these insights in the design and development of sustainable agricultural systems.
Later on, in that same decade, he and his student David Holmgren wrote and published books explaining Mollison's ideas. The books then turned into a design manual and courses and by the 1990s, permaculture was a well-known field in several countries, and was spreading through the United States. Today, permaculture is practiced by people all around the world, who learn it at workshops and permaculture design courses and later implement it in their own homes and as a lifestyle.
WERE THEY THE FIRST TO THINK ABOUT PERMACULTURE?
Well, no. Permaculture as an organized philosophy was brought in and then expanded by Mollison and Holmgren, however, they were not the first to think about sustainable food production. In fact, their work has been influenced by that of previous authors, such as Joseph Russell's "Tree Crops: A permanent agriculture", Toyohiko Kagawa's work on forest cultivation in Japan and P.A. Yeomans' "Water for Every Farm". Further influences are Routh Stout and Esther Deans' no-dig gardening and Masanobu Fukuoka's direct drilling natural agriculture.
ARE PERMACULTURE PRACTIONERS THE ONLY ONES WHO USE PERMACULTURE?
Absolutely not! While they are the ones who make a conscious choice and effort to use permaculture in their every day life, heaps of people use permaculture without realizing. Heathcote.org (W/D) cites: "concerned environmentalists, organic gardeners, conservationists, land use planners, urban activists, recyclers, indigenous people" among others as unaware permaculture practitioners.
BRANCHES IN THE PERMACULTURE DISCIPLINE
However easy and low-maintenance permaculture may seem, there are some branches in the permaculture world necessary to make it real. The main ones are ecological design, enviromental engineering, environment design, construction, and integrated management of water resources. We will explain them all in this order; maybe there is a permacultural farmer inside of us and we haven’t realized about it!
- Ecological design: It refers to the development of ecological buildings. This encompasses the design and construction of buildings with maximum untilization of natural resources, as a way to reduce their ecological impact in their building and operative stages. Ecological design takes into account resources like the sun, wind, vegetation and rain and uses them to decrease the environmental damage. This results in buildings with a lower power and food consumption rates, lower water waste and use of energy to acclimatize spaces, among other perks not found in their regular-built counterparts.
- Enviromental engineering: It is a branch of engineering that studies the environmental issues from a scientific point of view; taking into account the chemical, ecological, social, economic, and technological dimensions. Environmental engineering is based on the design and application of services and products made and used for the control and prevention of environmental degradation. For example: in automotive industry, environmental engineers are in charge of developing ways to reduce carbon emissions in their products.
- Environmental design: This concept is based upon the cautious design from older times, which analyzed natural patterns to better adapt to an ever-changing environment. However, since the start of environmental construction in 1940, it also implies the design of environmentally sound infrastructure. This branch of permaculture is concerned with resource-efficient buildings, as well as conscious land use and community planning, urban ecology, water waste management, among others.
- Construction: Nothing that we didn’t know before! Construction encompasses the making of any and all types of infrastructure we can find in any city or community development —from business buildings to houses, public squares, schools, etc. It is a very important issue in permaculture, as any infrastructure we set up will be made with ecological construction techniques, necessary for the environment's self-sustainability.
- Integrated management of water resources: In the words of the Global Water Partnership (GWP), it is "a process which promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources in order to maximise economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems". This branch of permaculture is based upon the fact that all uses and abuses of finite water resources are interconnected. Therefore, using too much water on one economic activity means there is less for the remaining ones. Similarly, the pollution of one water source harms the existing ecosystems and compromises future use of said source.
AN ETHICAL WIN-WIN RELATIONSHIP
Permaculture is not just a farming technique, it is a culture with social features and certain ethical aspects which are key to its survival. These aspects are: Taking care of the earth, taking care of the people; and fair share.
- Taking care of the ground: Means that we have to look out for the conservation of the Earth. Without a healthy planet, people will get sick —and humanity will disappear.
- Taking care of the people: Is to ensure that everyone will have enough resources —mainly fertile ground and water— to live and thrive.
- Fair share: Is setting limits for consumption, thus guaranteeing equal access to resources for all. We must ensure the fair repartition of the resources; we are all humans and we all need the same. This rule encompasses recirculation of the resources, or what is the same, recycling.
Based on the three ethical principles of permaculture, a list of 12 permaculture principles were developed to guide new and old practitioners
Based on these three ethical rules, twelve principles were created to guide our journey into the complex natural and social realities that we explore when implementing a sustainable life system. The twelve principles of permaculture are listed below.
- Observe and interact: Engaging with nature can give us insight on the solution of our problems. We were not brought into this world knowing everything and the human race does not hold the answers to all issues.
- Catch and store energy: This encompasses developing systems that allow us to collect resources while they're abundant in order to use them in times of need. This, of course, does not mean that we will hoard every item in the store, or appropriate all crops. Permaculture does not support selfishness. Rather, it means that we have to be conscious of what we have and what we need to live and thrive and act accordingly.
- Obtain a yield: Efficiently managing the permaculture systems we build and the time we spend on them to ensure maximum productivity. Simply put: more results with less effort.
- Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: Guides and helpful advice on how to properly implement permaculture exist and they should be used. Don't swim in the dark! Use these guides as something to start and improve upon. They are in place to help us differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate practices, in order to ensure we are not doing more harm than good. In permaculture, it is also important to embrace feedback.
- Use and value renewable resources and services: Renewable resources are the be all and end all of permaculture. They encourage a revision and reformation of our consumptive culture and dependence on non-renewable resources. When we opt for renewable resources, we are not only making the best choice for ourselves, but also for the environment and on the long run: the planet.
- Produce no waste: We all generate waste, but we must strive to produce the absolute minimum we can. For example: Instead of dropping your fruit peels in the garbage bin, why not feed them to your pets? Or use tap water instead of buying plastic water bottles. You can always purchase rechargeable bottles if you're iffy about drinking from the tap.
- Design from patterns to details: We should observe the existing patterns in nature and use them as the backbone of our permaculture system. Analyzing these and societal patterns permit tweaking of the final details.
- Creatively use and respond to chage: Most of us are afraid of change; but we must stop looking at it as some kind of monster that will come to destroy our lives, eat our food, and burn our crops. Change is inevitable and our friend if we observe the pre-existent patterns and intervene at the right time.
- Use small and slow solutions: Nature has no master key, and neither should you! Instead of managing a big, complex ecosystem focus on managing a small, slow one which makes better use of local resources and produces more sustainable outcomes.
- Use and value diversity: Accepting diversity is not enough, we have to embrace and appreciate the fact it exists! Diversity reduces our vulnerabilities and takes advantage of the uniqueness of the environment we are trying to emulate/create.
- Use edges and value the marginal: Exit your comfort zone and move all over the spectrum of possibilities, available resources and other system elements. Surely enough, you will find richer, more productive ways of managing your permaculture system that way.
- Integrate rather than seggregate: Permaculture is about integrating ourselves —with nature and one another. We already noted how important it is to observe and draw inspiration from natural ecosystems, but collaboration is also paramount in making this work!