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Permaculture: helping human world behaving like a tree

Permaculture is a term minted by the Australian ecologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren from “agriculture”, “culture” and “permanent”, to refer to the design of sustainable human habitats that, imitating nature, increase the diversity and productivity of ecosystems. Permaculture can be applied to domestic gardens, agrarian systems, urban areas or even to the global economy.

Permaculture serves, according to the creators of the term, to design sustainable human habitats. The designs inspired by permaculture provide food, energy and dwelling for people and animals and at the same time relate the needs and surpluses of each element of the system: the waste of one element is transformed into living for another.

Environments that are maintained by themselves

Applying the principles of permaculture to human designs is a dynamic, although stable system, that is maintained by itself. Designs based on permaculture can be developed in any climate and environment, on any scale, from a small balcony to a town or city.

The principles of permaculture design are based on the premise, formulated by Bill Mollison in 1990, that “the only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children”. The intention was to convert any individual into a designer of her own self-sufficient environment.

The individual, once having learned a handful of fundamental design principles, could create sustainable human settlements capable of reducing the dependence of society on industrial systems of production and distribution that, according to Mollison, are responsible for the systematic destruction of earth’s ecosystems.

Elements of a design based on permaculture

The principles of permaculture are supported by the practical application of ecological theory to analyze the potential relationships between different elements. Every design element is carefully analyzed in function of what it needs, what it contributes and its properties.

For example, a chicken needs as sustenance water, a moderate microclimate, food and other chickens; in exchange, it produces meat, eggs, feathers and quality manure, products that are contributed to the system.

The elements of any given design are prepared to work together and to assure that the products of one element feed the needs of adjacent elements, and vice versa. The objective is to achieve a synergy between all the elements of a design and, at the same time, to minimize waste and the need for work or energy.

The designs based on the most paradigmatic permaculture evolve with time and can become complex mosaics composed of structures with cultural elements, as much conventional as invented, capable of producing a high density of food and other products with a minimum contribution of work and sustenance.

Though the techniques and cultural systems are taken from organic agriculture, sustainable forestry, horticulture, agroforestry, as well as from traditional systems of agrarian management developed by native villages, the fundamental contribution of permaculture to the field of ecological design is the development of a concise assembly of principles that anyone can learn through an intensive training.

12 principles for a permaculture design

David Holmgren, co-author of the book Permaculture One alongside Bill Mollison (both minted the term “permaculture”), has established 12 principles for design based on permaculture:

  • Observe and interact.
  • Catch and store energy.
  • Obtain a yield.
  • Apply self-regulation and accept feedback.
  • Use and value renewable resources and services.
  • Produce no waste.
  • Design from patterns to details.
  • Integrate rather than segregate.
  • Use small and slow solutions.
  • Use and value diversity.
  • Use edges and value the marginal.
  • Creatively use and respond to change.

Permaculture values

Permaculture is a discipline with global reach that has numerous applications in all aspects of life.

In the nucleus of permaculture design are an assembly of fundamental values or ethics, that remain constant, independently of the situation or of a person, whether regarding the creation of urban or commercial systems; whether it pertains to taking care of a flowerpot or of an entire forest.

This “ethics” often is summarized as:

  • Earthcare: to recognize that the earth is the source of all life and that we form a part of it.
  • Peoplecare: to help each other in changing lifestyles that harm us and in developing healthy communities.
  • Fairshare: to establish limits on consumption and to guarantee that earth’s limited resources are utilized in a wise and fair way.

Permaculture: a tool to design systems

Modern permaculture is understood as a tool to design systems. It is seen as a way to:

  • Understand a whole system or problem.
  • See connections among elements -parts- fundamentals of a system.
  • Observe how the parts are interrelated.
  • Plan how to repair atrophied systems through the application of ideas learnt from other long-term sustainable working systems.

Permaculture emphasizes, according to its followers, the capacity of its principles to adapt to any system, from the kitchen or balcony of a home to a stock farm or the mass transit system of a metropolis.

According to April Sampson-Kelly and Michel Fanton, “permaculture is about helping people make redesign choices: setting new goals and a shift in thinking that effects not only their home but their actions in the workplace, borrowings and investments.”

  • More information on permaculture, in Wikipedia.