energy lifestyle sustainability transition towns

What is permaculture?

Permaculture is something I’d heard a lot about in reading around sustainability over the last couple of years. It underpins the Transition Towns movement, which I’m increasingly involved in. It’s also a great way to grow vegetables with minimum effort, which appeals to the idler in me. So this weekend I went on an introductory course.

Permaculture is a essentially a set of principles for sustainable living, an approach to life based on observation and design. It was first developed in Australia in the 1970s, by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, as a reaction to the industrialization of agriculture and forestry.

The way we farm in the developed world is hugely energy-intensive and ultimately unsustainable. In so-called primitive societies, farming takes place on a much smaller scale and causes no damage to ecosystems, while delivering higher yields.  The ‘forest gardens’ that the indigenous peoples of Indonesia or the Philippines create can be farmed in perpetuity, for thousands of years – it is permanent agriculture.

Learning from this kind of gardening, Mollison and Holmgren drew out a number of over-arching principles for creating low-impact, productive ways of life. There are a number of different formulations of these principles, and I will mention those another time. These are the ones we learned at the weekend:

Work with nature, rather than against it
By observing a piece of land, you can work out what it naturally wants to do. (Most of the UK defaults to woodland, if left along for long enough.) Work with the natural tendencies of the land, tweaking it to your needs, rather than imposing and then constantly enforcing a human vision for it.

Everything gardens
Every living thing intervenes in its environment in one way or another to benefit itself, or ‘gardens’ it’s immediate surroundings. It may be a big change like a beaver building a dam, or a tiny change, like a plant fixing nitrogen in the soil. By working out what each plant or animal does, beneficial relationships can be created. (See companion planting)

The problem is the solution
If something isn’t working, the clues to the solution will be inherent in the problem itself. A creative solution may make the ‘problem’ into a positive. If your garden has slugs, that’s bad news for your vegetables, but it would be good news for ducks.

Make the least change for the greatest possible effect
By getting elements of a system working together, work can be done without any further intervention. Permaculturists famously don’t dig their plots, but get worms to naturally turn and aerate the soil.

The yield of a system is only limited by the imagination of the designer
Elements of a natural system have multiple effects, and they can all be used. A chicken, for example, lays eggs. But it also produces manure, scratches the soil, eats bugs and pests, and generates body heat. How can you put all of those ‘yields’ to good use?

Permaculture works through close observation, seeing the way various things work together, and creating synergies. Although the examples above are agricultural, the principles can be applied to many areas of life, in town planning, architecture, design, or forestry. Because it deals with systems as a whole, and incorporates values such as energy conservation and zero-waste, it offers a useful set of tools for a society facing climate change and peak oil. I will be investigating further.

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  1. I am with you until the “The yield of a system is only limited by the imagination of the designer” principle.

    I thought that the point there was that we should not restrict our definition of yield to the amount of product produced from a piece of land, but that we should also consider, for instance, health benefits of outdoors exercise, calming influence of nature etc etc

    “Each element has multiple functions” and its twin “Each function should be supported by many elements” were presented as principles in their own right.

    It’s about resilience and biodiversity naturally going together.

    “Each element has multiple functions” is indeed similar to “The yield of a system is only limited by the imagination of the designer”. The former simply tells us a fact, the latter reminds us not to take a narrow view of what these functions are.

    The idea is that elements with multiple functions are better because they have more to offer to others, thereby increasing their own chances of being supported by others.

    “Each function should be supported by many elements” is saying that you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket (monoculture). Chances of survival are increased if you have a backup!

  2. Perhaps – I was a little confused by the exact definition of the last one! I’ve been reading some alternative formulations of the principles, and they shed a lot more light on what permaculture’s about, so I’ll post those at some point for comparison.

  3. I’m doing my thesis paper on the topic of permaculture or rather on a non government organization in the Cebu Philippines, Cebu Permaculture Initiatives.

    In an educational tour of their projects I was swept away at how simple the concept of permaculture is and how practical its solutions are. I fell in love with it. 🙂

    1. Me too. It makes complete sense to work with nature rather than against it. It strikes me that it’s what agriculture was always meant to be, somehow. I’m trying to apply in the back garden.

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