What is Permaculture?

Permaculture is the design of a Regenerative future…. Now…… In time it will be the organizing principle behind all of civilization, a natural civilization… Our future as a species depends on us making this happen.

The PERMACULTURE concept

Permaculture is the conscious design of human living environments that are reflections of the ecological principle that underlies nature. This principle is applied to all aspects of the human endeavor to create and attune a new natural civilization into the greater universal system.

It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a regenerative way. Permaculture design is a system of assembling conceptual, material, and strategic components in a pattern which functions to benefit life in all its forms. 

“A design is a marriage of landscape, people and skills in the context of regional society”. (Bill Mollison)

The process of permaculture design spirals through every aspect of the human endeavour

Without regenerative resource management, there is no possibility of a regenerative human culture. Regenerative human cultural and economic systems are built on the regenerative resource base which makes available renewable natural capital as the core and energy source for society.

THE ETHICAL FOUNDATION OF PERMACULTURE

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 ethic which remain constant whatever a person’s situation. These ethics are often summarized as;

CARE OF THE EARTH

Look after our planet and everything that lives on it.

CARE OF THE PEOPLE

Look after each other.

SURPLUS SHARE

Direct all surplus resources, time, and energy towards establishing to first two ethics in the world around us so that is may transform into a healthy, abundant and peaceful place for all.

PROMOTE LIFE

All forms of life have a right to exist. Our efforts as designers are directed towards enhancing and promoting life in all its wonderful and diverse forms.

PERMACULTURE principles

Permaculture Design is guided by a set of Ecologically Based Principles that what applied result in Cultivated Human Ecosystems that are self-regulating. These principles are applied in any context and remain constant no matter where you are. The elements of a permaculture design will vary with context but the principles are a constant. When assessing any system for permaculture integrity it is critical that all the principles are present throughout all systems as the complex interplay between elements that are chosen and placed according to the principles of permaculture enable the self-genesis of resources and homeostasis that we find in natural systems to be present in permaculture systems.

Permaculture Design is all about the application of permaculture principles through a definite set of processes, framed by the ethics. Each permaculture system is unique in the sense that it is a response to the needs and realities of the people and environment it is contextualised in and thus the elements that make up the system will be specific and appropriate to that context and design focus. However, the processes used in the design, the application of ethics and principles will always be the same through all permaculture systems no matter the context.

The principles of permaculture were developed by Bill Mollison and have subsequently been refined by David Holmgren and it is his version of the Principles that we find most useful and therefore apply. There are infinite iterations off each principle so once one has a good grasp of each one it becomes clear that they are integrated into one general principle, a sort of holographic system, where each of the 12 principles is really just a variation of a larger more embracing principle of Ecosystemicisim and it becomes clear that when observing a well-designed permaculture system you will see that each sub-system or aspect of the design will have all principles present. For example, when looking at a water harvesting system from a house roof, it becomes clear that within the whole of that system rest all 12 principles. There lies the art of effective and dynamic permaculture design.

The 12 Principles are summarized as follows

Observe and Interact

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Good design and community development depends on a free and harmonious relationship to nature, in which careful observation and thoughtful interaction provide the design inspiration, repertoire and patterns. It is not something that is generated in isolation, but through continuous and reciprocal interaction with the subject. Permaculture uses these conditions to consciously design our living environments for energy efficiency and integration. The core of this approach is emphasizing ourselves in nature and transformed by it. It can be seen as the keyhole in nature through which one sees the solution. Permaculture Design requires constant observation and interaction with the systems we are designing and developing so that we are aware of the opportunities and challenges that present themselves on a constant basis so that we can design and manage more effectively in tune with reality and become truly responsive to the world we live in.

The proverb “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” reminds us that the process of observing influences reality and that we must always be circumspect about absolute truths and values.

Catch and Store Energy

Make hay while the sun shines

It is our responsibility to identify and act upon opportunities to capture local flows of both renewable and non-renewable forms of energy. Doing this provides us with the energy by which we can rebuild capital as well as providing us with “income” for our immediate needs. This principle deals with the long-term storage of energy as savings and investment to build natural and human capital. The proverb “make hay while the sun shines” reminds us that we have limited time to catch and store energy before seasonal or episodic abundance dissipates. We need a basic understanding of energy laws; the foundation for all that is possible in nature and human affairs. Understanding these energy laws is fundamental to developing sustainable Permaculture based livelihoods as these are the laws of ecology.

Obtain a Yield

You can’t work on an empty stomach

Obtain a yield reminds us that we should design any system to provide for self-reliance at all levels (including ourselves) by using captured and stored energy effectively to maintain the system and capture more energy. Flexibility and creativity in finding new ways to obtain a yield will be critical in the transition from consumption to production. Elements and systems that do generate immediate yield will proliferate while those that don’t will wither. A yield profit or income functions as a reward that encourages, maintains and replicates the system that generated the yield. In this way successful systems spread.

If we are serious about regenerative design solutions, then we must be aiming for rewards that encourage success, growth and replications of those solutions.

Apply Self-Regulation & Accept Feedback

The sins of the fathers are visited on the children unto the seventh generation

This principle deals with self-regulatory aspects of Permaculture design that limit or discourage inappropriate growth or behaviour. With better understanding of how positive and negative feedbacks work in nature, we can design systems that are more self-regulating, which generate the resources they need from within themselves, thus reducing the work involved in repeated and harsh corrective management and reducing the need for external inputs for the functioning of the system. The previous principle described the feedback of energy from storages to help get more energy, an example of positive feedback. This can be thought of as an accelerator to push the system towards freely available energy. Similarly, negative feedback is the brake that prevents the system falling into holes of scarcity and instability from overuse or misuse of energy. Organisms and individuals adapt to the negative feedback from large-scale systems of nature and community by developing self-regulation to pre-empt and avoid the harsher consequence of external negative feedback. Self-maintaining and regulating systems are the Holy Grail of Permaculture

Use and Value Renewable Resources & Services

Let nature take its course

Renewable resources are those which are renewed and replaced by natural processes over reasonable periods without the need for major non-renewable inputs. Renewable resources should be seen as our sources of income, while non-renewable resources should be seen as capital assets. Spending our capital assets for day-to-day living is unsustainable in anyone’s language. Permaculture design should aim to make best use of renewable natural resources to manage and maintain yields, even if some use of non-renewable resources is needed in establishing the system. We need to restore the balance between renewable and non-renewable resource use. Renewable resources are those we gain from the natural elements, plants, animals, and living soil and water without them being consumed. For example, if we use a tree for wood we are using a renewable resource, but when we use a tree for shade and shelter we gain benefits from the living tree that are non-consuming and require no harvesting energy. This understanding is obvious and powerful in redesigning systems where many functions have become dependent on non-renewable and unsustainable resource use.

The proverb “let nature take its course” reminds us that human intervention and complication of processes can make things worse and that we should respect and value the wisdom in biological systems and processes

Produce No Waste

A stitch in time saves nine

Waste not, want not

This principle brings together traditional values of frugality and care for material goods, the mainstream concern about pollution, and the more radical perspective that sees wastes as resources and opportunities.

Pollution is an output of any system component that is not being used productively any other component of the system. This definition encourages us to look for ways to minimize pollution and waste through designing systems to make use of all outputs. The proverb “waste not, want not” reminds us that it is easy to be wasteful when there is an abundance but that this waste can cause later hardship. “A stitch in time saves nine” reminds us of the value of timely maintenance in preventing waste and work involved in major repair and restoration efforts.

Design from Patterns to Details

Can’t see the wood for the trees

The first 6 principles tend to consider systems from the bottom-up perspective of elements, organisms and individuals. The second six principles tend to emphasize the top-down perspective of the patterns and relationships that tend to emerge by system self-organisation and co-evolution. The commonality of patterns observable in nature and society allows us to not only make sense of what we see but to use a pattern from one context and scale to design in another. Pattern recognition (Principle 1 Observe and interact), is the necessary precursor to the process of design. The spider on its web, with its concentric and radial design, evokes zone and sector site planning, the best-known and perhaps most widely applied aspect of Permaculture design. The design pattern of the web is clear, but the details always vary. Complex systems that work tend to evolve from simple ones that work, so finding the appropriate pattern for that design is more important than understanding all the details of the elements in the system. The proverb “can’t see the wood (forest) for the trees” reminds us that the details tend to distract our awareness of the nature of the system; the closer we get the less we are able to comprehend the large picture. In permaculture we always establish the mainframe of the design first, which is the overall layout such as earthworks, roads, fencing, structures and then we move systematically into detail.

Integrate Rather than Segregate

Many hands make light work

In every aspect of nature, from the internal workings of organisms to whole ecosystems, we find the connections between things are as important as the things themselves. Obtain a yield and Apply Self- regulation and Feedback cover some aspects of integrated systems from the bottom up perspective of the elements or individuals. How does each element (or person) look after its own needs through self-reliance and contribute to the large system? Design from Patterns to Details emphasized the top-down perspective in order to identify and apply appropriate patterns that guide the design and self-organizational growth of elements and relationships (the details). This principle focuses more closely on the different types of relationships the draw elements together in more closely integrated systems, and on improved methods of designing communities of plants, animals and people to gain benefits from these relationships. The ability of the designer to create systems that are closely integrated depends on a broad view of the range of jigsaw-like lock-and-key relationships that characterize ecological and social communities. As well as deliberate design, we need to foresee and allow for effective ecological and social relationships that develop from-organization and growth. The abstract whole system both arises from the organization of the elements and also gives them form and character. In developing an awareness of the importance of relationships in the design of self-reliant systems, two statements in the Permaculture concept have been crucial.

  • each element performs many functions
  • each important function is supported by many elements.

Apply these statements to systems design and the end result is integration.

The proverb “many hands make light work” reminds us of the intangible benefits from collective rather than solitary action as well as the more general synergistic nature of integrated systems in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Use Small & Slow Solutions

The bigger they are, the harder they fall

Slow and steady wins the race

Systems should be designed to perform function at the smallest scale that is practical and energy-efficient for that function. Human scale and capacity should be the yardstick for a humane, democratic and sustainable society. Wherever we do anything of a self-reliant nature – growing food, fixing a broken appliance, maintaining our health – we are making very powerful and effective use of this principle. Whenever we purchase from small, local businesses or contribute to local community and environmental issues we are also applying this principle. The speed of movement of materials and people (and other living things) between systems should be minimized. A reduction in speed is a reduction in total movement, increasing the energy available for the system’s self-reliance and autonomy. Speed, especially of personal movement, generates high levels of stimulation that drown out the subtle and the quiet. The proverb “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” is a reminder of one of the disadvantages of size and excessive growth. The proverb, “slow and steady wins the race” is one of the many that encourage patience while reflecting a common truth in nature and society.

Use & Value Diversity

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

The great diversity of forms, functions and interactions in nature and humanity are the source for evolved systematic complexity and stability. The role and value of diversity in nature, culture and Permaculture is itself complex, dynamic, and at times apparently contradictory. Diversity needs to be seen as a result of the balance and tension in nature between variety and possibility on the one hand, and productivity and power on the other. It is now widely recognized that monoculture is a major cause of vulnerability to pests and diseases, and therefore of the widespread use of toxic chemicals and energy to control these. Polyculture is one of the most important and widely recognized applications of the use of diversity, but is by no means the only one.

Diversity between cultivated systems reflects the unique nature of site, situation and cultural context. Diversity of structure, both living and built, is an important aspect of the principle, as is the diversity within species and populations, including human communities. The proverb “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” embodies the common sense understanding that diversity provides insurance against the vagaries of nature and everyday life.

Use Edges & Value the Marginal

Don’t think you are on the right track just because it is a well-beaten path

Eastern spiritual traditions and martial arts regard peripheral vision as a critical sense that connects us to the world quite differently to focused vision. This principle reminds us to maintain awareness and make use of edges and margins at all scales in all systems. Whatever is the object of our attention we, we need to remember that it is at the edge of any thing, system or medium that the most interesting events take place; design that sees edge as an opportunity rather than a problem is more likely to be successful and adaptable. The beach where the ocean and the land meet is a good example of the power of the edge because the edge is a place where two or more environments meet, making the energy of both environments available for use there. This is a reality well recognized by surfers.  In the process, we discard the negative connotations associated with the word “marginal” in order to see the value in elements that only peripherally contribute to a function or system. It is from these peripheral elements that some of the most innovative solutions to today’s challenges emerge.

 

“Don’t think you are on the right track just because it is a well-beaten path”, reminds us that the most common, obvious and popular is not necessarily the most significant or influential.

Creatively Use & Respond to Change

Vision is not seeing things as they are but as they will be

This principle has two threads: designing to make use of change in a deliberate and co-operative way, and creatively responding or adapting to large-scale system change that is beyond our control or influence. The acceleration of ecological succession within cultivated systems is the most common expression of this principle in Permaculture. These concepts have been applied to understand how organizational and social change can be creatively encouraged. As well as using a broader range of ecological models to show how we might make use of succession. Although stability is an important part of Permaculture, evolutionary change was essential. Permaculture is about the durability of natural living systems and human culture, but this durability paradoxically depends in large measure on flexibility and change.

 

While it is important to integrate this understanding of impermanence and continuous change into our daily consciousness, the apparent illusion of stability, permanence and sustainability is resolved by recognizing the scale-dependent nature of change discussed in Design from Patterns to Details. In any particular system, the small scale, fast, short-lived, cyclic changes of the elements actually contribute to higher-order system stability. A contextual and systematic sense of the dynamic balance between stability and change contributes to design that is evolutionary rather than random.

 

The proverb”vision is not about seeing things as they are but as they will be”, emphasizes that understanding change is much more than the projection of statistical trend lines. It’s about seeing the potential inherent in all things and processes. It also makes a cyclical link between this last design principle about change and the first about observation.

 

It is the above Permaculture concept, ethical framework and principles that will be applied to all aspects of the design so that the project will reflect a truly sustainable approach that will ensure long term Natural Capital Resources upon which the community members in the project can create abundance and choice in their lives without harming each other or their environment. Rather they will be enhancing their long term cultural and economic potential.

 

Permaculture Context

Our biggest challenge is the fact that all aspects of our world have become Centralised. Everything from governance, economics, culture, education, transport, law, settlement, etc has become centralised in pattern. This has resulted in the resources of the earth and its people becoming concentrated into the hands of an elite who are now very powerful as a result and our wealth gap on the planet has reached unacceptable levels.  The concentration of wealth and power is abused by those at the centre of this web and they are using this context to plunder the earth and its people.

The only way we are going to turn this situation around is to redistribute this wealth and power back to the people via ecosystemic design. This is where grassroots systems such as permaculture play a critical role, and in fact, permaculture has become the most effective tool towards this goal. 

We are seeing a ground-up evolution into decentralised and distributed systems of economics, governance, education, justice, agriculture, industry, finance and more. This is the future of humanity and through the application of permaculture design as a tool for transformation of all levels of society we are Redesigning & Repurposing of existing systems, from a centralised entropic (energy and resources deplete and become unavailable) pyramid structure of separated control and harvest dynamics into a decentralised integrated & productive human ecosystem, of egalitarian benefit to all life forms based on the ecotropic (energy and resources are regenerated and become available to promote life) dynamics of nature. This is not a political movement, permaculture is about changing the world one site at a time via mobilising and empowering people to make direct change in their lives by taking responsibility for everything they have control over as individuals and as localised communities. This is where the concept of “Act locally and think globally” has its most relevance. As history shows, people who wait for centralised systems to deliver life oppertunities wait in vain, while those who empower themselves through tools such as permaculture and other holistic distributed, peer to peer systems evolve into abundance and transcend the limitations that come from expecting government to provide quality of life.

The Regenerative Society

The term Sustainability is not relevant to permaculture. Sustainability implies that systems sustain rather than evolve. Permaculture is Regenerative which implies evolution and growth. Regenerative systems restore and evolve social, economic and ecological processes and enable humans to enter a Co-evolutionary dynamic with nature. By applying permaculture design into a context along with other appropriate holistic tools such as Keyline Design and Holistic Management we can develop a land-use system that restore and regenerates natural ecosystem processes and human culture to higher levels of effectiveness than before human action began degenerating them. Thus the process of developing human society becomes the restoration vector rather than the destructive one. 

Natural systems are not static, they are constantly evolving into higher levels of complexity and stability and it is this natural process of succession that permaculture design enhances towards generating human life support systems that constantly grow and evolve into higher levels of complexity, stability and abundance. Permaculture design processes mimic natural processes so a permaculture designed civilisation functions as a vast ecosystem that is designed in favour of humanity and provides the context for all life on earth to thrive. Thus we introduce a new term that sits on top of sustainability and is a more effective reflection of what permaculture systems enable… Thrivability.

Thus with effective application of permaculture Principles, Ethics and Design Processes we can enable co-evolution between people and nature, that generates the context & resources to support regeneration in all aspects of society (ecosystemic order)

The Design Process

Permaculture is a Design System that is completely process driven. By following the process, which is very specific an effective permaculture design will be the end result. Permaculture design is a science, it is about discovering and unearthing the reality of the people and place and integrating them into a unique pattern that blends landscape and people effectively into a highly productive self-regulating cultivated ecosystem. Design emerges, it is not imposed or is based on opinion, such as conventional landscaping. Through the application of the permaculture design process, a reality emerges, which is the scientifically most appropriate approach to take towards creating a regenerative system considering the human and landscape context. Permaculture Design is not an opinion or a template but rather a creative discovery that brings together tools and approaches from multiple disciplines and integrates them into a seamless approach.

The language of permaculture design is a pattern language and the process of design enables the designer to firstly identify the patterns that exist in the site under design and then to apply patterns onto the site to achieve specific goals and outcomes.  This pattern application is harmonic and harmonises with the landscape, it is never forced. As soon as you push landscape out of form your pushing against massive energies and forces that will win, but if you work with it you have the biggest opportunity for working with universal energies. It is through careful observation you recognise the patterns and evolutions, act on them and make adjustments as they dynamically change.

 The Design Process has 2 major aspects…

The Observation Phase

The Design Phase

 

"Patterning is the way we frame our design. Design is the subject of Permaculture." Geoff Lawton

Observation Phase

Before a design can happen understanding of the people and landscape context is needed. Here the principle of Observe and Interact is the defining prisim through which we are working and we do not design or impose ideas but rather absorb and discover. There are a scale of processes that are applied that enable the designer to become aware of the opportunities and challenges present in the environment they are designed for. This phase requires us to generate knowledge of the climate context, the objective aspects of the land itself such as soils, water sources, land-shape, vegetation, existing infrastructures, wildlife patterns, what is happening around the site, the influences on the site from energies around it, services available to the site, local and regional resources, regulations, etc. These are mapped in layers to reveal specific patterns and characteristics that inform our design.

We also need to understand our context or the context we are designing for and so develop a Holistic Context for the site which frames the design. The Holistic Context captures the Qualtiy of Life that the residents/members wish to live and which the design should support.

 

The Design Phase

Once we have all the base data we need the design actually starts to suggest itself and through applying the design process we will tease the design out from the relevant data we have gathered.

Design starts with the principle of “Patterns to Details” by creating a mainframe that holds the details of the design. Good design follows the Keyline Scale of Permanence as a process to inform where to begin and how to unfold the design.

We will start by defining what components make up the design (water infrastructures, roads, productions systems, structures, fencing, energy generating systems, etc), that we extract from the Holistic Context and other data sets and layer them into the design based on analysis processes. We start with the aspects that have the greatest influence and are the hardest to establish, that will inform further detail. For example, we always start with largescale water infrastructures such as dams and swales, which inform access, fencing, where we place perennial production systems that are tree-based, and the placement of buildings and so on, until we have brought the design down to the level of detail we need to begin implementing.

The design is captured in a series of map layers as well as in an accompanying document explaining the layouts and patterns in the maps. This can take the form of word, powerpoint, spreadsheets, mindmaps and more.

The design is never static and is always evolving based on the constant influx of new information and ideas, so we always keep the design simple and flexible.

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