What is permaculture? This is the sort of question that those who have known about permaculture for years have a hard time nailing down. The problem is that permaculture is a multidisciplinary study combining elements from fields such as ecology, geology, agriculture, anthropology, architecture, botany, landscaping, chaos theory, soil science, marketing, international aid, and community building.
See the problem? What is this thing called permaculture that combines the elements of all these disciplines and more?
A lot of people have an image in their head that permaculture is gardening. But gardening is one narrow element, not all of permaculture. Nor is it “subsistence farming” as the British government recently tried to define it. Something they are not entitled to do as the term permaculture is legally owned by those who have taken a Permaculture Design Certificate Course. No, it’s not a system that condemns its implementers to a meager existence in which they just scrape by. If fact, it is quite the opposite. Permaculture systems are, together with chinampa systems, the most productive agricultural systems in the world.
Well, what is it then? Permaculture was given its name by Bill Mollison who, together with David Holmgren, developed a system of sustainable agriculture. In order to express its sustainability, Bill Mollison christened it perma as in permanent or sustainable and culture, meaning not only agriculture, but broader culture as well.
Unfortunately, this does not really give an idea as to what permaculture is. For that, I will draw upon one of my teachers, Geoff Lawton, who defines it as “a design system for sustainable human habitats that supply human needs in an environmentally sustainable way.” He even goes a step further to say that it is designing in “an environment enhancing way.”
Permaculture is more than just gardening, more than just agriculture. As Geoff told me on the first day of class, the university lecture hall in which we were studying could be designed in a permaculture way (and we all wished it had been: the airconditioner was set on kill and there was no control panel to change it with). One could be designing all of the human environment using permaculture principles. The potential is limited to the imagination of designers.