On Permaculture

On Permaculture

Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that are modeled on the relationships found in natural ecologies.  Permaculture is sustainable land use design. This is based on ecological and biological principles, often using patterns that occur in nature to maximise effect and minimise work. Permaculture aims to create stable, productive systems that provide for human needs, harmoniously integrating the land with its inhabitants.  The ecological processes of plants, animals, their nutrient cycles, climatic factors and weather cycles are all part of the picture. Inhabitants’ needs are provided for using proven technologies for food, energy, shelter and infrastructure. Elements in a system are viewed in relationship to other elements, where the outputs of one element become the inputs of another. Within a Permaculture system, work is minimised, “wastes” become resources, productivity and yields increase, and environments are restored. Permaculture principles can be applied to any environment, at any scale from dense urban settlements to individual homes, from farms to entire regions.The first recorded modern practice of permaculture as a systematic method was by Austrian farmer Sepp Holzer in the 1960s, but the method was scientifically developed by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren and their associates during the 1970s in a series of publications.The word permaculture is described by Mollison as a portmanteau of permanent agriculture, and permanent culture.The intent is that, by training individuals in a core set of design principles, those individuals can design their own environments and 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 Earth’s ecosystems.While originating as an agro-ecological design theory, permaculture has developed a large international following. This “permaculture community” continues to expand on the original ideas, integrating a range of ideas of alternative culture, through a network of publications, permaculture gardens, intentional communities, training programs, and internet forums. In this way, permaculture has become a form of architecture of nature and ecology as well as an informal institution of alternative social ideals.

Many permaculture designs involve animals other than humans. Chickens can be used as a method of weed control and also as a producer of eggs, meat and fertilizer. Some types of agroforestry systems combine 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 and termites, being an integral part of the pest management by eating some pests, supplying fertilizer through their droppings and controlling some weed species.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, mechanized 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.Natural Energy use: e.g. a cave for preservationApplying 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 combating global warming.Using current agricultural systems the food production system is not fully renewable. Industrial agriculture uses large amounts of petroleum and natural gas, 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 passive solar designs.A good example of this kind of efficient design is the chicken greenhouse. By attaching a chicken coop to a greenhouse you can reduce the need to heat the greenhouse by fossil fuels, as the chickens’ 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 in composting to fertilize 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.In large factory farms (cooled by large air conditioning systems), chicken heat is a waste byproduct, along with their manure. All energy is focused on egg production. Thus it is a further principle of permaculture that “pollution is energy in the wrong place”.These restatements of the principles of permaculture appear in Holmgren’s Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability:

Observe and interact – By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.

Catch and store energy – By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need.

Obtain a yield – Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.

Apply self-regulation and accept feedback – We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.

Use and value renewable resources and services – Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behaviour and dependence on non-renewable resources.

Produce no waste – By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.

Design from patterns to details – By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society.

These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.

Integrate rather than segregate – By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.

Use small and slow solutions – Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.

Use and value diversity – Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.

Use edges and value the marginal – The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.

Creatively use and respond to change – We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.

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 labor 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 requires a balance between the three aspects that comprise a community: justice, environment and economics, also called the triple bottom line, or “ecological-economics-ethics” (EEE) or “triple E”. A cooperative farmer’s market could be an example of this structure. The farmers are the workers and owners.Additionally, all economics are limited by their ecology. No economic system stands apart independently from its eco-system; therefore, all external costs must be considered when discussing economics.One way of doing this is through designing a system that has “multiple outputs”. For example, a wheat field interspersed with nut trees will reduce soil erosion, act as a windbreak and provide a nut crop as well as a wheat crop. Here the system comes into conflict with conventional agriculture and economics. Interplanting trees in a wheat field reduces the wheat yield and makes the field harder to harvest using machinery, as the operator has to drive around the trees.Most farms specialize in a few crops at a time and seek to maximize surplus in order to increase profit. This surplus can only be maintained with a massive injection of fossil fuels.

Main article: list of permaculture projectsIn 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.Permaculture is about creating small successful interconnected domestic food forests. Permaculture has also been used successfully in Eco-Village design, many of its strategies have been applied to large scale broadscale commercial farming, and it has been successful as a development tool to help meet the needs of indigenous communities facing degraded standards of living from development of land and the introduction of industrialized food in Australia and in Africa.

John Robin has been one the strongest critics of permaculture, criticizing it for its potential to spread environmental weeds, reflecting a divide between native plant advocates and permaculture. 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 attempted to trademark the term permaculture to prevent this practice.Another criticism of permaculture is to be found in a book review of Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden, published in the Whole Earth Review. In it, Williams critiques the view that woods are more highly productive than farmland on the basis of the theory of ecological succession which states that net productivity declines as ecosystems mature. He also criticized the lack of scientifically tested 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.