A bumblebee, visiting the flowers produced by one of my broccoli plants during last year’s growing season. A great example of how we can “share the surplus” of our gardens with our pollinator friends.
Ah, permaculture… One of my most favorite topics! For many of you who are reading this, permaculture may be a familiar topic. For many others, it will be a completely new topic. The idea of using permaculture to create sustainable human settlements is simple, but at the same time, the applications are quite broad.
Because permaculture involves so many things, if you were to ask 10 different permaculturists (of which I am also one, since I took a Permaculture Design Course two years ago), you will get 10 different definitions of what permaculture actually is. Today, I will try to define for you what permaculture is from my viewpoint, and I will share why I believe that it is critical for many of the issues that we are currently facing in our world today. By the end of this article, I also hope to spark a love of permaculture in your heart. Okay, I can’t make you love permaculture, but hopefully you will at least gain an appreciation for its importance.
What is Permaculture?
At its core, permaculture is a way to live sustainably with the world around us. It first began as a design system intended to create permanent agricultural systems, but has since evolved into a designed permanent culture, including building sustainable communities and social structures, sustainable agriculture and growing systems, sustainable economic systems, sustainable buildings and shelter, and much more. It is a system where we can design the ways that we live to be more in harmony with the environment and with each other. It takes principles found in nature and applies them to our lives and how we live. It provides a blueprint of practical solutions to many of our problems of natural resource depletion and brings us to a place of a more abundant and hopeful future.
Permaculture Offers Many Solutions
I realize that these descriptions sound quite Utopian. However, with permaculture, many practical techniques can be found to solve many of the issues that we are facing in our world today. Natural resource depletion everywhere? Permaculture can help. Loss of soil fertility? Permaculture has answers. Erosion problems? Permaculture has answers. Flooding problems? Permaculture has answers. Got pollution problems and need some remediation? Permaculture can help. Can’t grow food anymore on severely degraded land? Permaculture has answers. Too much waste? Permaculture has answers. Water resource limitations? Permaculture has answers. An unsustainable economy? Permaculture has a few principles that can help out with that. Unsustainable agriculture running rampant everywhere? Permaculture was created for times such as this!
While I’m not saying that permaculture will solve every single problem that exists out there, I am saying that it can provide many tools to help us to transition to a much more sustainable future. For much of humanity’s history, we have focused on dominating and controlling the landscape, and fighting against nature. Our tendency to do this as a species was not much of an issue when there weren’t so many of us living on our planet, and we also didn’t have the technologies that we have now to make such negative impacts on the land at such large scales. As we became more and more dominant on the landscape of the Earth and became more efficient in the ways that we did things, we began to isolate ourselves from the land and we forgot how dependent on nature that we really are. The truth is, no matter how many “awesome” things that we invent for ourselves, the realities of natural resource limitations still exist, and we’ll never be able to invent our way out of every problem.
We Are Standing at a Global CrossroadToday, we find ourselves at an important crossroad, where humanity must start making some critical decisions about how we are going to live on this planet, and we must begin to work with nature instead of against it. We are currently experiencing the realities of hitting many critical limits of nature. In Ecology, this is known as the carrying capacity, where the existing resources can only supply so much to a growing population of organisms. I certainly don’t need to discuss at length how we are experiencing an unprecedented loss of global biodiversity, increased levels of flooding, pollution, extreme weather, drought and famine, and things don’t seem to be getting a whole lot better. At the same time, we are experiencing a lot of economic and social problems in the world today. We are isolated from one another, and our families are suffering. And, we keep getting sicker… It is clear that a lot of changes are needed.
Diagram of a forest garden. One of the great aspects of permaculture design. Image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forest_gardening
A Resilient and Sustainable Future is Possible!
It is true that there are many complicated problems today, and they cannot be solved overnight. However, I do believe that we can start to turn a corner and implement some sustainable solutions that could give everyone a much more abundant and resilient future. It will take a fundamental paradigm shift to see that things can be different than they are now, and that we are actually more personally empowered than we have been led to believe. Permaculture can be a part of that future.
Permaculture is based upon the following three ethics: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share. These ethics inform everything done in permaculture, and are all considered to be of equal importance. Earth Care is caring for the natural world. People Care incorporates taking care of human needs but in a sustainable manner. Fair Share means that the natural world has its limits, and that available surplus should be shared according to need. Nature is efficient, and everything gets used and recycled. You don’t find many “hoarders” in nature, and when you do (squirrels, for instance), the resources do still eventually get recycled back into the system, not thrown away and buried under the ground, never to decompose or cause pollution problems.
So what does permaculture actually look like? It’s as varied as the ecosystems on the Earth, and looks different in each place that it is applied, so this makes permaculture applicable pretty much anywhere. Permaculture looks like aquaponics, herb spirals, capturing and storing rainwater, swales, hugelkultur, lasagna gardening, vertical growing systems, lots of organic matter to restore the soil, forest gardens, and an emphasis on perennial plants and growing systems. It looks like local economic systems, community time banks, local currencies, and homeopathic, herbal, and other alternative and holistic forms of medicine. It looks like CSAs and investing in your local economy. It looks like sharing the surplus from your garden or from your fruit trees with those in need. It looks like energy and water efficiency, composting, and reducing and recycling our waste. It looks like reducing our carbon footprint and reducing or eliminating our commute distances, using public transit, and using a bicycle to get from place to place. All of these things are just a start. As you can see, permaculture is very holistic, and can incorporate many things into our lives to make ourselves more sustainable. It gives us a framework to go from just talking about being sustainable to actually doing these things in our lives.
Permaculture projects that work for some places will not work for others, simply because climate and environmental conditions, skills, knowledge of people, and available materials vary from place to place. Permaculture is being used worldwide for a variety of projects to restore landscapes. It has even been used in the desert to grow food! Check out the following video produced by one of the world’s leading permaculture instructors, Geoff Lawton, about his Greening the Desert Project to see the power of permaculture in action:
To learn about an update to the Greening the Desert project, check out this link:
If you are interested in learning more about permaculture, I recommend to you the following books and resources.
Books about permaculture:
Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture by Rosemary Morrow. A guide to using and applying permaculture in a variety of settings.
Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway. A great guide to applying and using permaculture in urban and suburban settings.
Permaculture in a Nutshell by Patrick Whitefield. A short and easy to read book that gives you the basics on permaculture and its applications.
The Permaculture Handbook by Peter Bane. A practical and comprehensive guide to permaculture design.
Just a few of the awesome permaculture websites that exist:Worldwide Permaculture Network