The Essence of Permaculture – by David Holmgren
The word permaculture was coined by Bill Mollison and David holmgren in the mid-1970’s to describe an integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man.
A more current definition of permaculture, which reflects the expansion of focus implicit in the book Permaculture One, is ‘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.’ People, their buildings and the ways in which they organize themselves are central to permaculture.
Thus the permaculture vision of permanent or sustainable agriculture has evolved to one of permanent or sustainable culture.
The design system For many people, the above conception of permaculture is so global in its scope that its usefulness is reduced. More precisely, permaculture as the use of systems thinking and design principles that provide the organising framework for implementing the above vision. It draws together the diverse ideas, skills and ways of living which need to be rediscovered and developed in order to empower us to provide for our needs, while increasing the natural capital for future generations.
In this more limited but important sense, permaculture is not the landscape, or even the skills of organicgardening, sustainable farming, energy efficient building or eco-village development as such, but it can be used to design, establish, manage and improve these and all other efforts made by individuals, households and communities towards a sustainable future. The Permaculture Design System “Flower” shows the key domains that require transformation to
create a sustainable culture. Historically, permaculture has focused on Land and Nature Stewardship as both asource for, and an application of, ethical and design principles. Those principles are now being applied to other domains
dealing with physical and energetic resources, as well as human organization (often called invisible structures in permaculture teaching). Some of the specific fields, design systems and solutions that have been associated with this wider view of permaculture (at least in Australia) are shown around the periphery of the flower. The spiral evolutionary path beginning with ethics and principles suggests knitting together of these domains, initially at the personal and the local level, and then proceeding to the collective and global level. The spidery nature of that spiral suggests the uncertain and variable nature of that process of integration.
Permaculture is also a network of individuals and groups spreading permaculture design solutions in both rich and poor countries on all continents. Largely unrecognised in academia, and unsupported by government or business, perm
aculture activists are contributing to a more sustainable future by reorganising their lives and work around permaculture design principles. In this way they are creating small local changes, but ones that are directly and indirectly influencing action in the fields of sustainable development, organic agriculture, appropriate technology and intentional community design.
The Permaculture Design Course
Most of the people involved in this network have completed a Permaculture Design Course(PDC), which for over 20years has been the prime vehicle for permaculture inspiration and training worldwide. The inspiration aspect of the PDC has acted as a social glue bonding participants to an extent that the world-wide network could be described as a social movement.
A curriculum was codified in 1984, but divergent evolution of both the form and content of thesecourses, as presented by different permaculture teachers, has produced very varied and localised experiences and understand
ings of permaculture.
Impediments to the Spread of Permaculture
There are many reasons why ecological development solutions that reflect permaculture design principles have not had a greater impact over the last few decades.
Some of those reasons are:
•Prevailing scientific culture of reductionism that is cautious, if not hostile, to holistic methods of inquiry.
•The dominant culture of consumerism, driven by dysfunctional economic measures of well-being and progress.
•Political, economic and social elites (both global and local) which stand to lose influence and power through the adoption of local autonomy and self-reliance.
These and related impediments express themselves differently in different societies and contexts.
For the five billion or so majority for whom the cost of basic needs is high relative to real income, the opportunities to maintain or redevelop more self-reliant means of providing for needs are extremely limited. The depletion of local natural resources by population pressure, innovation in resource extraction technology, ethnic and migratory conflict, as well as government and corporate exploitation, have all reduced the productivity and viability of old co-evolved sustainable systems. At the same time, growth in the monetary economy has provided more
opportunities for farm and factory labour, thereby increasing measured income, but failing to take account of declining well-being. The lure of opportunities in the rapidly growing cities has been like the dangled carrot , enticing country folk to move to the city. This process follows a model as old as Charles Dickens’ character Dick Wittington, who believed the streets of early 19th century London were paved with gold. At the same time, government provision of health, education, and other services have all been slashed by IMF and World Bank imposed structural adjustment. This failed system of economic and social development is extraordinary in its ubiquity and repetition.
The same system of power that extracts and exploits the less powerful, soothes the billion or so middle-class people, mostly in the North, into complacency with low, and even falling costs relative to average incomes, of food, water, energy and other essential derived goods. This failure of global markets to transmit signals about resource depletion and environmental degradation has insulated consumers against the need for developing more self-reliant lifestyles, and disabled the drive for public policies which might assist these necessary adaptations. The flood of new and cheap consumer goods has stimulated consumption to a point of super-saturation, while at the same time measures of social capital and well being continue to fall from peaks in the 1970’s.
The craven acceptance of economic growth at all costs, and the powerful established corporate and government interests, which stand to lose power from such a transition, makes clear the radical political nature of the permaculture agenda.
Focus on opportunities rather than obstacles
While permaculture activists are acutely aware of these impediments to what they do, permaculture strategies focus on the opportunities rather than the obstacles. In the context of helping the transition from ignorant consumption
to responsible production, permaculture builds on the persistence of both a culture of self-reliance, community
values, and the retention of a range of skills, both conceptual and practical, despite the ravages of affluence. The identification of these invisible resources is as important in any permaculture project as the evaluation of biophysical and material resources. While sustainable “production” (of food and other resources) remains the prime objective of permaculture strategies, it can be argued that permaculture has been more effective at pioneering what has come to be called “sustainable consumption”. Rather than weak strategies to encourage green consumer purchasing, permaculture addresses the issues by reintegrating and contracting the production/consumption cycle around the focal point of the active individual nested within a household and a local community.
Although permaculture is a conceptual framework for sustainable development that has its roots in ecological science and systems thinking, its grassroots spread within many different cultures and contexts show its potential to contribute to the evolution of a popular culture of sustainability, through adoption of very practical and empowering solutions.
Permaculture is founded on some fundamental assumptions that are critical to both understanding and evaluating it. The assumptions on which permaculture was originally based were implied in Permaculture One,and are worthrepeating:
•Humans, although unusual within the natural world, are subject to the same scientific (energy) laws that govern the material universe, including the evolution of life.
•The tapping of fossil fuels during the industrial era was seen as the primary cause of the spectacular explosion in human numbers, technology and every other novel feature of modern society.
•The environmental crisis is real and of a magnitude that will certainly transform modern global industrial society beyond recognition. In the process, the well-being and even survival of the world’s expanding population is directly threatened.
•The ongoing and future impacts of global industrial society and human numbers on the world’s wondrous biodiversity are assumed to be far greater than the massive changes of the last few hundred years.
•Despite the inevitably unique nature of future realities, the depletion of fossil fuels within a few generations will see a gradual return of system design principles observable in nature and pre-industrial societies, and which are dependent on renewable energy and resources (even if the specific forms of those systems will reflect unique and local circumstances).
Thus permaculture is based on an assumption of progressively reducing energy and resource consumption, and an inevitable reduction in human numbers. This can be called the “energy descent future” to emphasise the primacy of energy in human destiny, and the least negative but clear description of what some might call “decline”, “contraction,” “decay” or “dieoff”. This energy descent future can be visualized as the gentle descent after an exhilarating balloon flight that returns us to the Earth, our home. Of course that earth has been transformed by humanity’s “energy ascent”, making the future as challenging and as novel as any period in history. In openly accepting such a future as inevitable we have a choice between fearful acquisitiveness, cavalier disregard or creative adaption.
The conceptual underpinning of these assumptions arises from many sources, especially the published work of American ecologist Howard Odum – . The ongoing influence of Odum’s work on the evolution of new ideas is made explicit in the dedication and extensive references to Odum in Permaculture, Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability, as well as articles in David Holmgren: Collected Writings 1978-2000 . Among the recently published works on fossil energy peak and consequent descent, Richard Heinberg’s wonderfully titled book, The Party’s Over probably provides the best overview of the evidence and issues, with appropriate acknowledgement to Campbell, Leherrere and other retired and independent petroleum geologists who, in the mid 1990’s exposed the real facts about the world’s fossil fuel reserves, and the critical nature of peak as opposed to ultimate production of fossil fuel in the current forum of oil and gas.