Permaculture, as an agriculture system, is relatively recent. Permaculture has been challenging to succinctly define, so let’s explain it a bit. What is permaculture? Permaculture is a set of principles and a farming system that helps us design integrated whole systems for us to live on.
Bit vague, eh?
There are many different disciplines within the umbrella concept of permaculture, making it harder to pin down as a concept. These include ecology, engineering, architecture, and more.
When I said permaculture is relatively recent, I meant as a system of farming. Agriculture and farming have existed for ages, but the concept of permaculture is just decades old. Permaculture was developed by Australian ecologist Bill Mollison and his research assistant David Holmgren, and the word permaculture was first coined in 1978 by the two of them. They defined it as:
The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.
Why do we need Permaculture?
Agriculture revolutionized our civilization, and helped us advance into what we’ve become today. There’s no doubt about that. But as technology advanced, and modern technological solutions to agricultural challenges began to become widespread and led to an increase in agricultural automation and mechanization, unintended side-effects began to show up:
The destruction of soil, ecologies, and communities.
In order to produce more food faster, we use various methods – from pesticide-use to genetically-modified seeds that are “disease-resistant” – and are consequently facing the effects of such widespread use of techniques that are not in harmony with nature and do not dovetail well with local ecological systems. Our exponentially increasing dependence on what we thought were clever solutions (like monoculture crops, chemical-usage, and irrigation) is leading to deforestation, soil degradation, habitat loss, wildlife extinction and climate change.
Basically, we’re fucking everything up.
This is where many concerned people began to explore more sustainable methods of agriculture, one of which is permaculture.
What is Permaculture?
Here’s the definition from permaculturenews.org:
“Permaculture integrates land, resources, people and the environment through mutually beneficial synergies – imitating the no waste, closed loop systems seen in diverse natural systems. Permaculture studies and applies holistic solutions that are applicable in rural and urban contexts at any scale. It is a multidisciplinary toolbox including agriculture, water harvesting and hydrology, energy, natural building, forestry, waste management, animal systems, aquaculture, appropriate technology, economics and community development.”
Permaculture is a pretty radical concept: it is a philosophy as well as a scientific system, and it espouses the importance of ethics and working along with nature (instead of in conflict with it). It places a lot of emphasis on “thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor” (hear, hear!), and of looking at plants and animals as part of the entire system and not just as resources. (It’s sad that all this comes across as radical, when this is how we should have operated from the very beginning, but there’s no use crying over spilled milk, is there.)
Mollison, the founder of permaculture, emphasized that he also wanted the “culture” in the word to refer to culture – as in, our culture. He wrote the definitive book on permaculture, Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual. Holmgren wrote the second most important book on the subject – Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability. Other permaculture pioneers, practitioners and teachers include many such as Geoff Lawton:
My Imaginary Permaculture Farm
So, suppose I had a piece of land, and I wanted to develop it into an ecologically sound farm. Following the principles of permaculture, and my own needs, I could study the topography, local ecology and climate, and incorporate various specific elements into my piece of land right from the beginning. Elements such as, for example, a kitchen garden, medicinal plants, perennial trees – all placed strategically around my home on this piece of land. I could grow various crops in various seasons, all of which have an important part to play in the full picture (the way it is in nature).
If my land is located in an area that is prone to flooding, I could plan in advance for routing the floodwaters through a stream or river into a lowland part of my property, and it could help water the plants and forests there. If I expect a ton of snow during winter, I can plan to have wood set aside for heating, while also having planned my home with efficient materials that can keep the heat in during winter, and enable air circulation during the summer. I could integrate sustainable power sources – solar, water, wind – and be completely self-sufficient within that area, while also respecting and accommodating the neighboring ecosystems and life forms.
I could have large spaces to let local animals, wild and otherwise, explore and live (and they in turn would help maintain the balance of this ecological system that I have built.)
And with all this, I also could occasionally hire my neighbors and friends (at a fair price!) to help maintain the farm. I could provide fresh produce to the local markets, organic seeds and healthy soil to those who want to start gardening, and a beautiful place to explore to those who want to understand (and hopefully replicate) this system.
This system forms a closed loop: nothing is wasted and everything you need is available within it. It’s like a complex jigsaw puzzle, with every piece fitting in perfectly with the adjoining piece, and the whole working working together wonderfully.
(Sound like paradise? Ha, I think so! And I intent to turn this imaginary farm of mine into reality… someday!)
This is the complex beauty of permaculture: the concept of taking only what you need, and giving back what you have used; of interfering only a little bit, and allowing natural systems to do their thing; of living in harmony with the world around you, instead of fighting it at every stage.
What a glorious concept: working with nature?!
And this is not restricted by geography or ecology. There are permaculture farms and associations in North America, Brazil, South Africa, Europe, China, India, Malaysia, Australia (obviously), and pretty much anywhere you’d care to look.
Where are we now?
Our world right now is very far from the idyllic picture that is presented by permaculture. Please note that though I said “idyllic”, permaculture is a very practical and useful system that has tremendous potential to support communities as well as repair damaged ecosystems. The only thing it that it will take time – as all good things tend to do – and is not some magical quick-fix that you can turn on and off at your convenience.
Many permaculture communities, schools and organizations have risen up around the world in answer to our current crisis. You can find comprehensive lectures online for free, as well. And if you’re interested in homesteading, take a look at all the practical homesteading skills that will be super useful to you.
Our consumer culture fixates more on producing the maximum number of products – devouring resources at an unsustainable rate while doing it – and less on the heavy price paid by wildlife, indigenous communities, and the environment.
It’s time to change that.
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