Clarifying the Components of Permaculture

As a permaculture teacher one of the very first things I want to offer my students is a conceptual way to understand what permaculture is made up of. I want to answer the question, likely not yet asked, of ‘how do we make organisational sense of all this content that is being or about to be taught in a Permaculture Design Certificate?’.

Permaculture is a vast field of knowledge, there is no doubt about that. There is so much information conveyed in a PDC, and so much more information that needs to be clarified and experienced afterwards. There are potential lifetimes of skills and possibilities to be cultivated. There are ways of doing things that we have not even conceived of yet and perhaps, hopefully, our future generations will discover ways of creating ecologically sustainable human habitations that far surpass even our own wildest dreams at this moment.

The way I like to distinguish permaculture is by dividing it into five major categories. These are: ethics, abstract principles, science & design principles, strategies, and techniques.
I list them in order of fundamental importance to the concept of permaculture.

They are also listed in reverse order of how many there are. Ethics are the most fundamental aspect of permaculture, without them there is no permaculture and yet there are only three.

Techniques are the least fundamental aspect of permaculture in that the technique itself is only enacting permaculture when it comes from an ethical and conceptual understanding of principles backing it, however there is a huge possibility of techniques available and more waiting to be discovered.

1. Ethics

The ethics of permaculture should be well known to anyone who has studied permaculture or taken a PDC. There are three ethics defined by Bill Mollison in the Designers Manual and these underly entirely the purpose and intent of permaculture in general.

These ethics are:

– Care of the earth
– Care of people
– Set limits to population and consumption / fair share / return of surplus

There are three variations, as far as I’m aware, to the third ethic that largely have the same intention behind them. To me, I interpret the third ethic as, in some way, that we need to ensure that firstly there are enough resources to sustain the human population in a place of relative abundance, and secondly that all people have access to that abundance.

The point of my post, however, isn’t to debate on the interpretation of the ethics. What I am most interested in here is that ethics make up the core of what is permaculture. Without these ethical considerations guiding the rest of our understanding, designing and implementing, then we are not truly engaging in permaculture.

These ethics are also, in a way, an ideal. They keep us reaching for something higher than us and striving, constantly, to find a better way for humans to inhabit this earth.

2. Abstract Principles

Bill Mollison’s “Designers Manual” lists five principles. David Holmgren in “Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability” goes on to write about twelve principles. Other experienced permaculture practitioners may also provide their own sets of principles in their teachings.

All of these principles, to me, fall under the category I’m defining as abstract principles. These principles guide us in our thinking about the world as a permaculture designer and provide a mindset that is able to exercise creativity in the application of design onto a landscape. Understanding these principles allows us to shape and continuously adjust design with conceptual tools of thought that can help us to see beyond the surface of what may at first be present. Whereas the ethics give us the core of what is the most important aspect of permaculture, principles allow us to start thinking broadly about how permaculture is applied. While these principles don’t show us any significant practical applications, ensuring that we return to the immense creativity contained within these modes of thinking frees us from being trapped in rote implementation of broad-scale agricultural and urban planning. It’s not hard to see how massively wrong we have gone all around the world with our current modern-day approach to these things!

Bill Mollison’s five principles are described in the Design Manual as:

– Work with nature rather than against it
– The problem is the solution
– Make the least change for the greatest possible effect
– The yield of a system is theoretically unlimited
– Everything gardens

David Holmgrens twelve principles as listed in his book are:

– 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

3. Science & Design Principles

While the abstract principles teach us how to think, science and design principles fill in the blanks with what it is we should be thinking about. The content in this layer is the irrefutable natural laws (as far as we know them) to which we must adhere and build our designs upon (and also test and learn more about). Water flows perpendicular to contour. This is a scientific principle we need to understand as no matter what we do, we cannot change this fact. We can, however, work with this fact and this is where the abstract principles come into play in allowing us to think creatively about utilising scientific laws.

Soil biology functions in a certain way, trees function in specific ways, the climate follows relatively stable sets of yearly fluctuation, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
A huge range of disciplines are covered in permaculture and range from soil science to biology, mycology, zoology, animal husbandry, botany, chemistry, microbiology, architecture, mechanics, plumbing, sewage engineering, hydrology, forestry, geography, meteorology, horticulture, town planning, engineering, irrigation, construction, ecology, nutrition and so on. Pretty much anything to do with human habitation, which basically includes food, water and shelter of human beings, is included in permaculture study.

In addition to the fundamental scientific principles upon which permaculture is based, there is also a set of design principles upon which we draw in order to make sense of all this knowledge. Some of these principles are covered in another article I have written on design here.

Most of a PDC focuses on this particular layer of permaculture allowing us to gain the requisite knowledge that we can use to then understand and apply design. Without knowing the very real science from which we must draw, permaculture becomes nothing more than a mental fantasy. As a permaculture teacher, and as I’m sure all teachers have experienced, new students are often taken on flights of fantasy as we begin learning all this amazing stuff. There is always a couple in the class who somehow believe that natural laws, as revealed by science, are somehow flexible to the whims of our fancy. Sadly the universe does not simply rearrange itself simply because we wish it to and we need to understand the ways our earth does work, if we want to work harmoniously with it.

4. Strategies

A strategy is a practical application implemented to solve a specific need or problem. Strategies rest upon the basics of science and design principles and draws from the creativity of abstract principles while remaining grounded in the ethics of permaculture.

An example of a strategy that I find highly interesting is the use of rotational foraging or grazing in animals. This can be in the form of cell-grazing for large animals, or tractoring for smaller animals. The concentrated and timed utilisation of animals as a part of a system has many positive beneficial effects. While pure free-range can be a useful strategy in some contexts, tractoring or rotational grazing can be highly effective in others. This strategy draws from principles in zoology, soil science, forestry and more. A large number of abstract principles are also covered in this strategy such as “everything gardens” (as we are using animals to intentionally garden for us), “the yield of a system is theoretically unlimited” (as by stacking animals in time with gardens or pasture we potentially expand our yield), “integrate rather than segregate” (as we are stacking layers of function upon each other), and likely several more.

There are a huge amount of strategies already tried and tested that we can draw from in permaculture, and with the kind of creative thinking offered by abstract principles with a solid scientific understanding, we can come up with many more.

Other common permaculture strategies include swales, contour garden beds, food forests, and so on.

When I teach a PDC I am often using strategies as examples to illustrate the relevant science or design principles I am attempting to address. What I always tell my students, however, is that the strategy isn’t the important piece of information in the teaching, it’s the principles behind it and the conceptual understanding that allows such a strategy to be formed in the first place that we really want to get.

5. Techniques

Lastly are the techniques we use in permaculture. This category has by far the greatest number of possibilities within it. Luckily this is what the internet is for. Techniques can be googled and youtubed with ease in our digital age. We can find how-to videos on anything from grafting to levelling to seed saving. While in some ways the techniques are the feature itself that is going to create a permaculture, as it is through the repetitive application of techniques to a landscape over time that is going to create an ecologically integrated system, what makes them relevant to us is that they emerge from such a thorough understanding of all the information I have discussed preceding it. The application of a technique, like saving a particular type of seed, does not make permaculture. However when that technique sits within a context that is ethically based, arises out of creative principles, grounded in scientific and design understanding and resides within an intentional strategy to solve a specific need of the system… then it becomes permaculture.



4 thoughts on “Clarifying the Components of Permaculture

  1. Interesting article, I’m especially interested in applying permaculture to city planning. You missed a link on design in article. Not sure if that article would cover towns and cities

  2. Lastly are the techniques we use in permaculture

    Brilliant bullseye. I see so many weekend efforts involving herb spirals, hugelkultur beds, sheet mulching by well-meaning and enthusiastic folks. They seem to think this is permaculture. It’s not. These are just tools albeit very good tools.

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