Agriculture word cloud

Language and Permaculture, Part 1: Why we need to focus on Terminology to take Permaculture to the next level.

One of the most universally applicable attractions of permaculture is that it is a practical set of design tools, based on directly observable effects and which can be used to create physical solutions to problems in the world.

Indeed, co-conceptualiser of permaculture Bill Mollison famously pointed out that one of the reasons permaculture is so useful is that it involves actually applying what you are saying to what you are doing: “Anyone who ever studied mankind by listening to them was self-deluded. The first thing they should have done was to answer the question, “Can they report to you correctly on their behavior?” And the answer is, “No, the poor b******s cannot.”” (1)

Please visit PRI Supporter by clicking here or the image.
Please visit PRI Supporter by clicking here or the image.

However, at the same time, there also exists a rich bibliography and filmography of Mollison’s own words and sayings. Permaculture has become, probably for the most part due to its practical application, a globally-practised set of design tools; yet the way in which these tools are communicated is through language. So, it seems pertinent to explore whether or not the language we are using is as effective as it can be, or if there are some changes we can make to maximise the ways in which permaculture can be spoken of, in relation to ourselves and the world around us.

Language and the More-Than-Human

R. Buckminster Fuller calls language “the first human technology” (2).  There are some theories that the current conception in many societies of humans as some way separate from the other aspects of our planet can be traced back to the advent of phonetic language, or language whose meaning is in the sounds but which bears no direct linkage to the physical world other than that which we conceptualise (see for example 3).

Phonetic language created abstract concepts and with them an ability to artificially extract ourselves from the physical realm and into that of ideas, so we felt distanced from, as David Abram (1996) (3) puts it, the “animate landscape”:

“Human language…arose not only as a means of attunement between persons, but between ourselves and the animate landscape…By denying that birds and other animals have their own styles of speech, by insisting that the river has no real voice and that the ground itself is mute, we stifle our direct experience…
We then wonder why we are unable to communicate even among ourselves” (3)

Bokmakierie bird - Telophorus zeylonus

Key to this is our rejection of the element of air as anything substantial or useful:

“As long as we experience the invisible depths that surround us as empty space, we will be able to deny, or repress, our thorough interdependence with the other animals, the plants, and the living land that sustains us.” (3)

Abram cites many tribes and cultures around the globe whose language is still based in the sensory world rather than phonemes and who therefore have a very different way of relating to their environment than cultures which use phonetic language (3), such as the Aboriginal idea that air is a means of communication, connecting us with every living thing.


Yet Abram wrote this theory in English, a language based entirely on phonemes made of abstract letters. For him, though we have created this very powerful “spell” of language which has led us away from what he terms the “more-than-human” world, or the web of ecosystems which, however much we pretend they don’t, are continuously surrounding us, we can also use this same technology to re-connect with the animate landscape.

Technology is not easily un-invented and it seems inefficient and not very useful to claim that since language helped us into situations where our world is ecologically unbalanced we should therefore dispense with it. Rather, we need to regain control of this technology and begin using words in a conscious way, understanding the sensual connection they can help us to make in the world so that

“This breathing landscape is no longer just a passive backdrop against which human history unfolds, but a potentized field of intelligence in which our actions participate.” (3)

What is terminology and why is it so important?

It is with this “potentized field of intelligence” that we can look critically at some of the words we regularly use in permaculture and how we can change them to encourage human interaction and harmony with the “more-than-human”. Though words can be seen as of less importance than actions, as Abram and others have explored, how we use words physically shapes our reality (see for example 4) and so even if we are unconscious of the effects of our language we are still creating effects with it all the time.

Permaculture is about considering the effects of our designs on the world around us and this can include that of our words.  At first glance, perhaps this refers simply to the ethics and principles which are specific to the way we perceive the world using permaculture. The way we use these principles and ethics and how we define them is of great importance when communicating about permaculture; however, there are also broader terms which pertain to permaculture and how it is practised, including the underlying concepts of the word itself.

‘Sustainable is not all that great’

The first definition of permaculture which comes up on Google is “the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient” (5). Here we immediately run into two rather problematic terms. As Gaia’s Garden author Toby Hemenway points out in his talk ‘How Permaculture can Save Humanity and the Earth, but Not Civilisation’ (6), if we are to be content with a system being sustainable we are content with being able to do the same thing over and over again with the current resources but not necessarily with improving the situation:

“If someone said ‘how’s your marriage?’ And you say ‘Oh, it’s sustainable’…it’s not all that good!” (6)

Definition of the word Sustainability in a dictionary

He sees “sustainable” as the mid-point between degenerative activities and regenerative activities. If we wish to truly utilise permaculture to design systems within which we are using resources but also giving back to the land around us then a much more useful term to describe it is as “regenerative” rather than “sustainable”.  

“Nature of course is the ultimate model of regenerative- things that make things better for their having been there” (6).  

Just this simple adjustment of our language when it comes to permaculture can help us to take our design skills and ideas as improvers of our environment rather than simply helping it to continue as it is.

Describing a system which inherently recognises the web of energies and “potentized… intelligence” that are a part of our experience on this planet as “self-sufficient” also seems to be slightly missing the point.  With our permaculture designs we may be attempting to extract ourselves from some types of degenerative system, but if we wish to engage in life we are engaging in constant reciprocal exchange with the things and beings around us so to describe ourselves as “self-sufficient” would be to disregard this, and thus bring us more in line with the degenerative systems we are trying not to be like. A tree in a forest is not “self-sufficient” but neither does its life degenerate the lives of the other things around it.

Humans can be the same; the only difference seemingly being that we have somehow evolved the ability to choose to be out of balance with our environment if we wish to. “Self-sufficiency” has grown to mean many things but if we are to really use permaculture in a way which encourages regenerative systems it may be helpful to describe these systems in a different way. Perhaps as “positive-return” or “positive-spiral” systems as Hemenway suggests (6), or using instead of “self-sufficient” the word “abundant” which implies generating more than enough for all involved.

Farming in paradise?

So we have an idea of permaculture as giving a potential for regenerative systems which are reciprocal or in balance with the other systems around us. But how do we apply it? Here we come to what Hemenway sees as one of the main issues with the way in which our food systems function right now. Permaculture is seen usually as an amalgamation of the words “permanent” and “agriculture”; yet is it even possible to use agriculture as a system in a way which can be regenerative?

People following many disciplines, from anthropology to comparative mythology, and ethnobotany to biomimicry, have studied the way in which human society changed once we began practising agriculture, and have theorised about the possible detrimental impacts it is having on human culture. These range from comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell pointing out that the rise of agricultural societies probably helped to give rise to class systems and institutionalisation of religion, thus discouraging individual freedom (7), to the slightly more extreme works of Jared Diamond, who generally seems to argue that agriculture is the cause of all of our current societal problems (see for example 8).

Toby Hemenway rather concisely brings these ideas together to question our concept of culture being synonymous with agriculture. Firstly, he points out the many societies which existed or have existed for thousands of years without or before farming became a common practice, demonstrating with the useful visual aid of his “time machine” (a ball of yarn) (6).

However, the key ideas we can take from Hemenway’s talk which can really help us to evolve as practitioners of permaculture is that farming, or agriculture, by its nature is detrimental to the systems around it.

The development of agriculture has helped us to develop many things, from the division of labour and the rise of specialisation – as it is not really possible to grow grains to make enough food for people unless some people devote all of their time to farming the grains, and thus others need to specialise in other things to keep the society going- to exploration and large-scale city-states, as farming societies have traditionally been on the move, since eventually the agriculture they use to sustain themselves degrades the land so much that they have to find different land to farm.

Specialisation, cities, and exploration are not necessarily in themselves damaging things, so we can thank our agricultural pioneer ancestors for helping to create them. However, it seems as though if we are to continue as humans on this Earth we cannot continue using such an inefficient and energy-costly system as agriculture, however “sustainable” we are trying to make it. So do we need to go back to a hunter-gatherer way of life, as Diamond seems to suggest? (9) This may be difficult in the concrete-paved forests we have created for ourselves. Hemenway has a different idea; pointing out that as well as hunter gatherers and agricultural societies we as humans also have another type of food system: that of horticulture, or gardening.

Garden Mosaics

Hemenway explores a number of human cultures who have been gardening for thousands of years, some in such a subtle way that our modern agricultural eyes perhaps do not even recognise it as a food production system. For example, he mentions studies into the plants in North America, which when European colonists first arrived were seen as simply a “savage wilderness” but which had actually been carefully selected and tended for centuries by the native peoples of the area, some of whom are still engaged in these practices (6). Another example is the Amazon, which represents more than half of our planet’s remaining rainforest and which is often described as “virgin” or untouched by humans, yet which has been gardened by societies living among the trees for probably around 1000 – 1500 years (6, 10).  

Hemenway suggests that the very word “agriculture” implies monoculture as it comes from the Latin for “field”, which is generally an area of land reserved for one crop. By contrast the horticultural root is the Latin word “hortus”, meaning “plant”. A gardening society is one which grows many different types of food in a small space and on a smaller scale than modern agriculture. There is also less emphasis on growing grains, which as Hemenway points out, form the “heart of agriculture” (6).  Similarly, a couple of international reports from 2012 (11) (12) point out that we are producing enough food to feed around 12 billion people (11), using systems so inefficient that around 30 – 50% of it is thrown away annually before it even reaches a person’s plate (12).

The recommendation from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development for how to solve this problem is similar to Hemenway’s: what we need is “a paradigm shift…from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of…regenerative production systems” (12)

This quote shows that even such large-scale supranational organisations as UNCTAD are in accord with permaculture and horticultural-based food systems – in words, at least. Whether or not UNCTAD is putting their recommendations into action remains to be seen, though I shall explore it in part 2 of this article.

Evolution of culture

So what does all of this wordiness mean for how we apply permaculture in our day-to-day lives? We have looked at the term “self-sufficiency” and how it is illogical when we consider that we are thoroughly interconnected with the world around us and it is more important to consider how best to weave ourselves into this web than to extract ourselves from it.

We have explored the potential dangers of abstract ideas as propagated by phonetic language and how we can regain sensuous control of our language in order to fully realise our place in the interconnected web.

We talk of “Earth Care” – yet how does the Earth feel when we press our toes into it? Do we explore with our words the soft sensation of walking on muddy ground, or the deep, sweet-ish scent of the world after rain? While we are walking our city streets can we sense the immense Earthy vitality of the rocks from which our buildings originate, and which maybe still resides within them on some level?  Abram’s recommendation that we connect to our senses goes much deeper than language but reaches into the core of our awareness, without which, perhaps we cannot be fully conscious of how the actions we engage in are affecting other creatures or the “animate landscape” around us.

“The invisible shapes of smells, rhythms of cricketsong, and the movement of shadows all, in a sense, provide the subtle body of our thoughts” (3)


The first permaculture principle is Observe and Interact, and we can utilise the ideas of Abram and others to understand what it really is to interact with our environment, not only in a theoretical or diagnostic manner but in a deep communication with the landscape itself. There is nothing mystical about this; indeed it can be seen as the opposite of mystical as it involves becoming more aware of our own bodies and senses.

Finally, there is the term “permaculture” itself. A fantastically effective word for describing our regenerative actions and projects. Yet perhaps how we relate to this term can help us in subtle but powerful ways to re-imagine our world and our designs, and help to take them to a whole new level. If we are to conceptualise “permaculture” not as “permanent agriculture” but as “permanent horticulture”, the whole emphasis of permaculture farming subtly shifts.

To explain “permaculture” as being a tool for helping to create gardening societies or communities can perhaps aid its propagation as not merely an alternative form of agriculture, but an alternative to agriculture. In this respect it is much more than food systems we can create and so maybe it would be better to see it simply as “permanent culture”: a culture which can endure and which can be flexible with the systems around it.

There is much more language that could be explored but it is not always the right time for words. In part 2 of this article I shall explore how we can apply this terminology to our designs and our lives in order to create a positive and regenerative practical impact.


1. In Context – Making it Happen, 1991. ‘Permaculture: Design for Living’. – retrieved 26/11/16

2. Fuller, R.B, 1981. Critical Path. St Martin’s Press: New York City

3. Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage: New York City

4. Ashwanden, C, 2016. ‘Tuning Into Nature’. Abundance Garden, 31/5/16. – retrieved 26/11/16

5. Google search, 2016. ‘What is Permaculture?’. – retrieved 26/11/16

6. Hemenway, T, 2010. ‘How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Earth, but not Civilization’. Talk given at Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, North Carolina, USA and uploaded 9/2/13 to Films For Action: – retrieved 26/11/16

7.Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books: New York City

8. Diamond, J, 1997. Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W. W Norton & Company: New York City

9. Diamond, J, 1987. ‘The Worst Mistake in Human History’. Originally published in Discover Magazine, May 1987 and available online here: – retrieved 26/11/16

10. Highfield, R, 2008. ‘Amazon rainforest was giant garden city’. Telegraph, 28/8/08.

11. Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 2012. ‘Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not’. Imeche: London. Available as a PDF here:—waste-not-want-not.pdf?sfvrsn=0 – retrieved 26/11/16

12. UNCTAD, 2012. ‘Wake Up Before It’s Too Late: Make Farming Truly Sustainable Now’. UNCTAD: Geneva. Available as a PDF here: – retrieved 26/11/16



3 thoughts on “Language and Permaculture, Part 1: Why we need to focus on Terminology to take Permaculture to the next level.

  1. “If we wish to truly utilise permaculture to design systems within which we are using resources but also giving back to the land around us then a much more useful term to describe it is as ‘regenerative rather than ‘sustainable.'”

    Having recently guest lectured at a local college on sustainable vs. regenerative vs. permaculture, this article really resonated with me! This is a very good write up. Well done!

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