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The word permaculture, coined by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren during the 1970s, is a portmanteau of permanent agriculture as well as permanent culture. Through a series of publications, Mollison, Holmgren and their associates documented an approach to designing human settlements, in particular the development of perennial agricultural systems that mimic the structure and interrelationship found in natural ecologies.
Permaculture design principles extend from the position that "The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children" (Mollison, 1990). The intent was that, by rapidly training individuals in a core set of design principles, those individuals could become designers of their own environments and able to build increasingly self-sufficient human settlements — ones that reduce society's reliance on industrial systems of production and distribution that Mollison identified as fundamentally and systematically destroying the earth's ecosystems.
While originating as an agro-ecological design theory, permaculture has developed a large international following of individuals who have received training through intensive two week long 'permaculture design courses'. This 'permaculture community' continues to expand on the original teachings of Mollison and his associates, integrating a range of alternative cultural ideas, through a network of training, publications, permaculture gardens, and internet forums. In this way permaculture has become both a design system as well as a loosely defined philosophy or lifestyle ethic.
Additional recommended knowledge
In the mid 1970s, two Australians, Dr. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, started to develop ideas that they hoped could be used to create stable agricultural systems. This was a result of their perception of a rapidly growing use of destructive industrial-agricultural methods. They saw that these methods were poisoning the land and water, reducing biodiversity, and removing billions of tons of soil from previously fertile landscapes. A design approach called "permaculture" was their response and was first made public with the publication of Permaculture One in 1978.
The term permaculture initially meant "permanent agriculture" but this was quickly expanded to also stand for "permanent culture" as it was seen that social aspects were an integral part of a truly sustainable system. Mollison and Holmgren are widely considered to be the co-originators of the modern permaculture concept.
After the publication of Permaculture One, Mollison and Holmgren further refined and developed their ideas by designing hundreds of permaculture sites and organising this information into more detailed books. Mollison lectured in over eighty countries and his two-week Design Course was taught to many hundreds of students. By the early 1980s, the concept had moved on from being predominantly about the design of agricultural systems towards being a more fully holistic design process for creating sustainable human habitats.
By the mid 1980s, many of the students had become successful practitioners and had themselves begun teaching the techniques they had learned. In a short period of time permaculture groups, projects, associations, and institutes were established in over one hundred countries. In 1991 a Television documentary by ABC productions called 'The Global Gardener' showed permaculture applied to a range of world-wide situations, bringing the concept to a much broader public.
Permaculture has developed from its origins in Australia into an international 'movement'. English permaculture teacher Patrick Whitefield, author of The Earth Care Manual and Permaculture in a Nutshell, suggests that there are now two strands of permaculture: a) Original and b) Design permaculture. Original permaculture attempts to closely replicate nature by developing edible ecosystems which closely resemble their wild counterparts. Design permaculture takes the working connections at use in an ecosystem and uses them as its basis. The end result may not look as "natural" as a forest garden, but still has an underlying design based on ecological principles.
Elements of permaculture design
Permaculture principles draw heavily on the practical application of ecological theory to analyze the characteristics and potential relationships between design elements. Each element of a design is carefully analyzed in terms of its needs, outputs, and properties. For example a chicken needs water, moderated microclimate, food and other chickens, and produces meat, eggs, feathers and manure while doing a lot of scratching. Design elements are then assembled in relation to one another so that the products of one element feed the needs of adjacent elements. Synergy between design elements is achieved while minimizing waste and the demand for human labour or energy. Exemplary permaculture designs evolve over time, and can become extremely complex mosaics of conventional and inventive cultural systems that produce a high density of food and materials with minimal input. While techniques and cultural systems are freely borrowed from organic agriculture, sustainable forestry, horticulture, agroforestry, and the land management systems of indigenous peoples, permaculture's fundamental contribution to the field of ecological design is the development of a concise set of broadly applicable organizing principles that can be transferred through a brief intensive training.
Modern permaculture is a system design tool. It is a way of
In permaculture, we are learning from the working systems of nature to plan to fix the sick landscapes of human agricultural and city systems. We can apply systems thinking to the design of a kitchen tool as easily to the re-design of a farm. In permaculture we apply it to everything we need in order to build a sustainable future. Commonly, “Initiatives that are taken tend to evolve from strategies that focus on efficiency (for example, more accurate and controlled uses of inputs and minimisation of waste) to substitution (for example, from more to less disruptive interventions, such as from biocides to more specific biological controls and other more benign alternatives) to redesign -- fundamental changes in the design and management of the operation (Hill & MacRae 1995, Hill et al 1999)." "Permaculture is about helping people make redesign choices: setting new goals and a shift in thinking that affects not only their home but their actions in the workplace, borrowings and investments" (A Sampson-Kelly and Michel Fanton 1991). Examples include the design and employment of complex transport solutions, optimum use of natural resources such as sunlight, "radical design of information-rich, multi-storey polyculture systems" (Mollison & Slay 1991). "This progression generally involves a shift in the nature of one’s dependence -- from relying primarily on universal, purchased, imported, technology-based interventions to more specific locally available knowledge and skill-based ones. This usually eventually also involves fundamental shifts in world-views, senses of meaning, and associated lifestyles (Hill 1991). My experience is that although efficiency and substitution initiatives can make significant contributions to sustainability over the short term, much greater longer-term improvements can only be achieved by redesign strategies; and, furthermore, that steps need to be taken at the outset to ensure that efficiency and substitution strategies can serve as stepping stones and not barriers to redesign...” (Hill 2000)
The term permanent agriculture was first coined by Franklin Hiram King in his classic book from 1911, Farmers of Forty Centuries: Or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan. In this context, permanent agriculture is understood as agriculture that can be sustained indefinitely.
This definition was supported by Australian P. A. Yeomans (Water for Every Farm, 1973) who introduced an observation-based approach to land use in Australia in the 1940's, based partially on his understanding of geology. Yeomans introduced Keyline Design as a way of managing the supply and distribution of water of a site.
The work of Howard T. Odum was also an early influence, especially for Holmgren . Odum's work focused on system ecology, in particular the Maximum power principle, which examines the energy of a system and how natural systems tend to maximise the energy embodied in a system. For example, the total calorific value of woodland is very high with its multitude of plants and animals. It is an efficient converter of sunlight into biomass. A wheat field, on the other hand, has much less total energy and often requires a large energy input in terms of fertiliser. Another early influence was the work of Esther Deans where she pioneered No-Dig Gardening methods. Other recent influences include the VAC system in Vietnam which is a government supported system to build Vegetable Aquaculture and Animal enClosures that cycle resources.
Permaculture is a broad-based and holistic approach that has many applications to all aspects of life. At the heart of permaculture design and practice is a fundamental set of ‘core values’ or ethics which remain constant whatever a person's situation, whether they are creating systems for town planning or trade; whether the land they care for is only a windowbox or an entire forest. These 'ethics' are often summarised as;
Everyone needs to eat and drink, and it is the issue of food production where permaculture had its origins. It started with the belief that for people to feed themselves sustainably they need to move away from reliance on industrialised agriculture. Where industrial farms use fossil fuel (gasoline, diesel, natural gas..) driven technology specialising in each farm producing high yields of a single crop, permaculture stresses the value of low inputs into the land and diversity in terms of what is grown. The model for this was an abundance of small scale market and home gardens for food production with food miles being a primary issue.
The permaculture design innovation
The core of permaculture has always been in supplying a design toolkit for human habitation. This toolkit helps the designer to model a final design based on an observation of how ecosystems themselves interact. A simple example of this is how the Sun interacts with a plant by providing it with energy to grow. This plant may then be pollinated by bees or eaten by deer. These may disperse seed to allow other plants to grow into tall trees and provide shelter to these creatures from the wind. The bees may provide food for birds and the trees provide roosting for them. The tree's leaves will fall and rot, providing food for small insects and fungus. There will be a web of intricate connections that allow a diverse population of plant life and animals to survive by giving them food and shelter. One of the innovations of permaculture design was to appreciate the efficiency and productivity of natural ecosystems and seek to apply this to the way human needs for food and shelter are met. One of the most notable proponents of this design system has been David Holmgren, who based much of his permaculture innovation on zone analysis.
O'BREDIM design methodology
O'BREDIM is a mnemonic based on Observation, Boundaries, Resources, Evaluation, Design, Implementation and Maintenance.
The use of patterns both in nature and reusable patterns from other sites is often key to permaculture design. This echoes the Pattern language of Christopher Alexander used in architecture which has been an inspiration for many permaculture designers. All things, even the wind, the waves and the earth on its axis, moving around the Sun, form patterns. In pattern application, permaculture designers are encouraged to develop: 1. Awareness of the patterns that exist in nature (and how these function) 2. Application of pattern on sites in order to satisfy specific design needs. "The application of pattern on a design site involves the designer recognising the shape and potential to fit these patterns or combinations of patterns comfortably onto the landscape" Sampson-Kelly. We can use branching for the direction of our paths, rather than straight paths with square angles. Or we may use lobe-like paths of the main path (these are known as keyhole paths) that minimise waste and compaction of the soil.
Permaculture zones are a way of organizing design elements in a human environment based on the frequency of human use. Frequently manipulated or harvested elements are located close to the house in zones one and two, while less frequently manipulated elements of the design are farther away from the house.
Links and connections
Also key to the permacultural design model is that useful connections are made between components in the final design. The formal analogy for this is a natural mature ecosystem. So, in much the same way as there are useful connections between Sun, plants, insects and soil there will be useful connections between different plants and their relationship to the landscape and humans. Another innovation of the permaculture design is to design a landuse or other system that has multiple outputs. In terms of Holmgren's application of H.T. Odum's work, a useful connection is viewed as one that maximises power: that is, maximizes the rate of useful energy transformation. A comparison which illustrates this is between a wheat field and a forest. “It is not the number of diverse things in a design that leads to stability, it is the number of beneficial connections between these components” Mollison 1988.
In permaculture and forest gardening, seven layers are identified:
The 8th layer, or Mycosphere (fungi), is often included in layering.
A mature ecosystem such as ancient woodland has a huge number of relationships between its component parts: trees, understory, ground cover, soil, fungi, insects and other animals. Plants grow at different heights. This allows a diverse community of life to grow in a relatively small space. Plants come into leaf and fruit at different times of year. For example, in the UK, wild garlic comes into leaf on the woodland floor in the time before the top canopy re-appears with the spring. A wood suffers very little soil erosion as there are always roots in the soil. It offers a habitat to a wide variety of animal life which the plants rely on for pollination and seed distribution. The productivity of such a forest in terms of how much new growth it produces exceeds the most productive wheat field. It is in this observation of how more productive a wood may be on far less input of fertilizers that the potential productivity of a permaculture design is modelled. The many connections in a wood contribute together to a proliferation of opportunities for amplifier feedbacks to evolve that in turn maximise energy flow through the system.
Here is a photo of a layered warm temperate garden in NSW, Australia (courtesy of PermacualtureVisions). There are several layers: the canopy layer is Inga Edulis (Ice Cream Bean, the middle stratum contains Plum and Peach, Mango, Mulberry and nurse plants such as native wattle. There are shrubs such as sage and woody herbs, ground covers such as sweet potato and vines such as passionfruit and kiwi fruit. The tubers consist of onions and taro.
Polyculture is agriculture using multiple crops in the same space, in imitation of the diversity of natural ecosystems, and avoiding large stands of single crops, or monoculture. It includes crop rotation, multi-cropping, and inter-cropping. Alley cropping is a simplification of the layered system which typically uses just two layers, with alternate rows of trees and smaller plants.
Permaculture Guilds are groups of plants which work particularly well together. These can be those observed in nature such as the White Oak guild which centers on the White Oak tree and includes 10 other plants. Native communities can be adapted by substitution of plants more suitable for human use.
The Three Sisters of maize, squash and beans is a well known guild. The British National Vegetation Classification provides a comprehensive list of plant communities in the UK. Guilds can be thought of as an extension of companion planting.
Permaculturists maintain that where vastly differing systems meet, there is an intense area of productivity and useful connections. The greatest example of this is the coast. Where the land and the sea meet there is a particularly rich area that meets a disproportionate percentage of human and animal needs. This is evidenced by the fact that the overwhelming majority of humankind lives within 100 km of the sea. So this idea is played out in permacultural designs by using spirals in the herb garden or creating ponds that have wavy undulating shorelines rather than a simple circle or oval. Edges between woodland and open areas have been claimed to be the most productive.
Perennial plants are often used in permaculture design. As they do not need to be planted every year they require less maintenance and fertilisers. They are especially important in the outer zones and in layered systems. Ken Fern of Plants For A Future has spent many years investigating suitable perennial plants.
Many permaculture designs involve animals. Chickens can be used as a method of weed control and also as a producer of eggs, meat and fertiliser. Agroforestry combines trees with grazing animals.
Some projects are critical of the use of animals (see vegan organic gardening). However not all permaculture sites farm the animals. The animals are pets and can be treated as co-habitators and co-workers of the site, eating foods normally unpalatable to people such as slugs, termites, being an integral part of the pest management by eating some pests, supplying fertiliser through their droppings and controlling some weed species.
Annual monoculture (anti-pattern)
Annual monoculture such as a wheatfield can be considered a pattern to be avoided in terms of space (height is uniform) and time (crops grow at the same rate until harvesting). During growth and especially after harvesting the system is prone to soil erosion from rain. The field requires a hefty input of fertilizers for growth and machinery for harvesting. The work is more likely to be repetitive, mechanised and rely on fossil fuels.
No pattern should be hard and fast and depending on the design considerations they can be broken. An example of this is broadscale permaculture practiced at Ragmans Lane Farm, which has a component of annual farming. Here the amount of human involvement is a key factor influencing the design.
Applying these values means using fewer non-renewable sources of energy, particularly petroleum based forms of energy. Burning fossil fuels contributes to greenhouse gases and global warming; however, using less energy is more than just combatting global warming. Food production should be a fully renewable system; but using current agricultural systems this is not the case. Industrial agriculture requires large amounts of petroleum, both to run the equipment, and to supply pesticides and fertilizers. Permaculture is in part an attempt to create a renewable system of food production that relies upon minimal amounts of energy.
For example permaculture focuses on maximizing the use of trees (agroforestry) and perennial food crops because they make a more efficient and long term use of energy than traditional seasonal crops. A farmer does not have to exert energy every year replanting them, and this frees up that energy to be used somewhere else.
Traditional pre-industrial agriculture was labor intensive, industrial agriculture is fossil fuel intensive and permaculture is design and information intensive and petrofree. Partially permaculture is an attempt to work smarter, not harder; and when possible the energy used should come from renewable sources such as wind power, passive solar designs or biofuels.
A good example of this kind of efficient design is the chicken greenhouse. By attaching the chicken coop to a greenhouse you can reduce the need to heat the greenhouse by fossil fuels, as the chicken's bodies heat the area. The chickens scratching and pecking can be put to good use to clear new land for crops. Their manure can be used to fertilise the soil. Feathers could be used in compost or as a mulch. In a conventional factory situation all these chicken outputs are seen as a waste problem. So in factories cooled by huge air conditioners, the chicken waste is extracted. All the energy is focused on egg production. Thus it is a further principle of permaculture that "pollution is energy in the wrong place".
Holmgren's 12 design principles
David Holmgren has developed 12 design principles for permaculture:
Permaculture design for ecologinomic (ecology-economic) ethics
A basic principle is thus to "add value" to existing crops. A permaculture design therefore seeks to provide a wide range of solutions by including its main ethics (see above) as an integral part of the final value-added design. Crucially, it seeks to address problems that include the economic question of how to either make money from growing crops or exchange crops for labour such as in the LETS scheme. Each final design therefore should include economic considerations as well as give equal weight to maintaining ecological balance, making sure that the needs of people working on the project are met and that no one is exploited.
Community economics require a balance between the three aspects that comprise a community, justice, environment and economics aka the triple bottom line. This approach is also referred to as the Triple E (EEE)which stands for ecological-economics-ethics. A cooperative farmer's market could be an example of this structure. The farmers are the workers and owners.
One way of doing this is through designing a system that has "multiple outputs" For example, a wheat field interspersed with walnuts will reduce soil erosion, act as a windbreak and provide a walnut crop as well as a wheat crop. As there are two crops to manage the work will be more interesting. Here the system comes into conflict with conventional agriculture and economics. By interplanting trees in wheat fields there is a reduction in the wheat yield. The field is also harder to harvest using machinery, as the operator has to drive around the trees. Most farms specialise in a few crops at a time and seek to maximise surplus in order to increase profit. This surplus can only be maintained with a massive injection of fossil fuels. So, as things stand it is quite hard for a permaculture farm to compete with a "conventional " farm in order to grow basic fruit and vegetables.
John Robin has been one the strongest critics of permaculture, criticising it for its potential to spread environmental weeds, reflecting a divide between native plant advocates and permaculture.
Besides using non-indigenous species, through permaculture higher densities of certain trees (e.g. fruit-trees, nuts, ...) are planted than would be the case in nature. Finally, these fruit-trees, nuts, and hedge-trees are sometimes (if not mostly) selected (cross-bred) varieties which - although they provide higher yield, better growing conditions and such like - are not natural.
Some critics have argued that permaculture is best suited to tropical, Mediterranean or desert conditions, and is largely unsuitable for a cool temperate country such as the UK.
Permaculture in the tropics, as expressed in 'Permaculture: A Designer's Manual', did not produce significant amounts of food or fruit when applied in Northern New South Wales and Queensland, largely since the closed canopy is not conducive to fruit production. The system, whilst very healthy in and of itself, yielded very little produce.
The perceived lack of evidential data about the performance of the system and lack of a central body representing the system have also been sources of criticism.
Bill Mollison himself has also been critical of itinerant teachers of permaculture who would go on to teach after only a short course. At one point Mollison unsuccessfully tried to trademark the term permaculture to prevent this practice.
Perhaps the strongest criticism of permaculture is to be found in the Review of Toby Hemenway's book Gaia's Garden, which was published in the Winter 2001 edition of the Whole Earth Review. In it, Greg Williams critiques the view that woods were more highly productive than farmland based on the theory of ecological succession which says that net productivity declines as ecosystems mature. He also criticised the lack of scientifically respectable data and questions whether permaculture is applicable to more than a small number of dedicated people. Hemenway's response in the same magazine disputes Williams's claim on productivity as focusing on climax rather than on maturing forests, citing data from ecologist Robert Whittaker's book Communities and Ecosystems. Hemenway is also critical of Williams's characterisation of permaculture as simply forest gardening.
In the years since its conception, permaculture has become a successful approach to designing sustainable systems. Its adaptability and emphasis on meeting human needs means that it can be utilized in every climatic and cultural zone. However, at the moment the large proportion of practitioners are only likely to be inspired individuals and there is a distinct lack of broadscale permaculture projects. Nevertheless, permaculture has also been used successfully as a development tool to help meet the needs of indigenous communities at risk from exploitation by free-market economics.
Permaculture is now well-established across the world and there are some inspiring examples of its use:
Zimbabwe has sixty schools designed using permaculture, with a national team working within the schools' curriculum development unit. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has produced a report on using permaculture in refugee situations after successful use in camps in Southern Africa and Macedonia. The Biofarming approach applied in Ethiopia has very similar features and can be considered as permaculture. It is mainly promoted by BEA (NGO) based in Addis Ababa.
The development of permaculture co-founder David Holmgren's home plot at Melliodora, Central Victoria, has been well documented at his website and published in e-book format .
Designed from permaculture principles, Crystal Waters is a socially and environmentally responsible, economically viable rural subdivision north of Brisbane, Australia. Crystal Waters was designed by Max Lindegger, Robert Tap, Barry Goodman and Geoff Young, and established in 1987. It received the 1996 World Habitat Award (assessed by Dr Wally N’Dow) for its "pioneering work in demonstrating new ways of low impact, sustainable living". Eighty-three freehold residential and two commercial lots occupy 20% of the 259ha (640 acre) property. The remaining 80% is the best land, and is owned in common. It can be licensed for sustainable agriculture, forestry, recreation and habitat projects.
The Indonesian Development of Education and Permaculture assisted in disaster relief in Aceh, Indonesia after the 2004 Tsunami . They have also developed Wastewater Gardens, a small-scale sewage treatment systems similar to Reedbeds.
The Panya Project, located in Mae Taeng, Chiang Mai, Thailand, is a sustainable living project implementing permaculture principals and hosting permaculture workshops for both English and Thai language speakers. In the fall of 2006, the project hosted a PDC taught by Geoff Lawton of the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia, and subsequently put in over 500 meters of swales and a 2 million liter dam. The community at The Panya Project uses permaculture to help regenerate what used to be a monocrop mango plantation, actively transforming it into a biodiverse food forest, organic farm and education center. They also incorporate natural building into their design, i.e. wattle and cob and adobe brick. Learn more about this project at The Panya Project 
Two acres of land at Ayia Skepi Therapeutic Centre in Filani village, a drug rehabilitation centre about 25km from Nicosia, are being developed by Emily Markides, Julia Yelton, Charles Yelton and the residents of the detoxification centre.
There are a number of example permaculture projects in the UK, including:
Other projects tend to be more community oriented, particularly in urban areas. These include Naturewise, a north London based group who tend a number of forest gardens and allotments as well as running regular permaculture introductory and design courses ; and Organiclea, a workers cooperative who are involved in developing local food growing and distribution initiatives around the Walthamstow area of east London .
The UK Permaculture Association publishes an extensive directory of other projects and example sites throughout the country .
United States of America
Cuba has in the past 18 years transformed their food production using bio-dynamic farming and permaculture. Havana produces up to 50% of its food requirements from within the city limits, all of it is organic and produced by people in their homes, gardens and in municipal spaces. Read more about how and why the Cubans made this happen at The Power of Community
IPEC - Ecocentro at the Instituto de Permacultura e Ecovilas do Cerrado - the Institute of Permaculture and Ecovillage of the Cerrado
|This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Permaculture". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.|