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Tuesday, January 25, 2005

What is Permaculture?

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.


Anonymous said...



Anonymous said...



Anonymous said...


Mmmmoshi moshi.

Your dad

DJEB said...


Tortured LogicMad Bomber

Anonymous said...

Please don't capitilize word "permaculture" unless it starts a sentence or is a specific name, such as the Permaculture Credit Union.

DJEB said...

Will do, anon.

Scott A. Meister said...

Um...I was under the impression that "Permaculture" was a proper name with a copyright/trademark license, or something to that effect...therefore, shouldn't it always be capitilized? Please clarify, so I know how to write about "P/permaculture" in the future.

DJEB said...

Permaculture is a copyrighted name owned by the graduates of Permaculture Design Certificate Course graduates, and, as such, only they can use the name to make money. However, within the permaculture community itself, the word is not capitalised when used. Think of it as a medical doctor's degree. They don't capitalise the word Doctor or the word Medicine.

RDD said...

"permaculture" Buy one to win a trophy.

DJEB said... That has to be the most poorly-written, ranting screed from a neo-fascisti that I have ever had the misfortune to read. Whoever was writing that infanile crap at least had the good sense to stop.

Anonymous said...

Nice little read. I now have a clearer understanding of what PeRmACuLtUrE is...

BTW... is there a rule with regards to using alternating caps for the word "PeRmACuLtUrE", or putting it into "quotation marks" for that matter?


PS. see u next Saturday@Ginza (its ok to use caps for "Saturday" and "Ginza" though, yeah?)

DJEB said...

Emil, I see now that most people don't capitalise the word. I just did it automatically without thinking about it. Alternating caps are fine, though.

Jez said...

PC sounds like a lotta fun. Where does Fukuoka-san come into the equation? Was it not called permaculture in his day?

DJEB said...

Fukuoka's work is very similar to permaculture. Like Bill Mollison, he looked at how natural systems work and used that as a template for farming. Permaculture does the same thing and benefits from Fukuoka's work (the two systems formally arose at the same time, I think). In addition to farming, permaculture looks at all systems for human life including invisible structures like information systems and economics. As far as I know, Fukuoka's work is just about farming in a sensible way.

Anonymous said...

The first four paragraphs reveal the truth: "permaculture" is a delusion, like mood rings.

If you can't define for me adequately what the hell you're talking about, then pardon me whilst I go back to my subsistence farming.

Mike B.

DJEB said...

I guess we've found your bugaboo. For a "delusion," it has had remarkable success - providing drought-free lands, reversing desertification, designing energy efficient homes, providing safe water systems on tropical atolls, creating sustainable pastures and on and on. In other words, it doesn't come close to fitting the definition of delusion.

But if you prefer more work, then please, by all means, go back to subsistence farming. I personally would not want to work that hard, but you might enjoy it.

Scott A. Meister said...

Subsist: To maintain life, esp. at a meager level [Lat. subsistere, support: sub-, behind + sistere, stand.]

Subsidy: Financial assistance given by one person or government to another [Lat. subsidium, support : sub-behind + sedere, sit.]

I personally would rather stand on my own two feet and prosper without a lot of resource or labor input, or the need for subsidies.

The Blind Leader said...

I'm with Mike. If you are not able to define what it is you're on about then one must ask, what the hell are you talking about? Do you actually know or are you, like so many others, just going along with the crowd?

The Chinese have been practising permaculture for centuries, only that it didn't bear this allegedly trademarked name (permaculture is not a trademarked word, by the way and I can use it any darn way I like). Mollison and Holmgren were smart enough to put the ethos into a marketable spin and good luck to them.

But before you go getting all precious about the word in a poor attempt to define what it is, it would help to add credibility of this site for you to know where permaculture actually comes from which is, in fact, generically known as subsistence farming.

DJEB said...

I'm afraid I cannot agree with you on several points, BL.

What is permaculture? I had thought that it was defined simply enough in the piece. It is a design science for designing sustainable human environments. Simple enough.

This leads us directly to the comment on traditional Chinese systems: they were not permaculture. On occasion they did establish elements in systems that were more ecosystemically integrated (ie. they carried out more than one role in the system - they were linked to other parts of the system). This, however, is not evidense of a systemic design science. This should be plain.

This in turn leads us to the term permaculture. You are right, it is not trademarked. It is copyrighted. Mollison kept this control over the word so unscupulous types couldn't come along and slap the word onto their unsustainable projects in an attempt to capitalise off of permaculture. You certainly can use the term in your own business without being a PDC graduate - just as you can sell a soft drink and call it Coca Cola. The catch is, if Coca Cola catches you, they can sue you. As has been pointed out, the British government faced legal action in their attempts to brand permaculture. Go for it if you like. Just don't be shocked if you find a lot of people objecting.

Finally, if you are coming here to be pissy, I recommend keepiong your posts short because I will be more than happy to send them into the void. Blind, just because this is the internet it does not mean that social skills do not apply.

DJEB said...

Just a little addition here from my partner Scott Meister:

"I'd like to ask why they felt a need to attack/flaunt attitude toward the word "permaculture?" Was there something that needed to be attacked there? Or are these people hunting through the blogger hinterlands, and just targeting any and everything that is associated with a "leftward" bent, and just blindly attempting to strike out at them?

"Sheeeeeeeee-it, I were simply trying to clarify a rather deep concept. Nothing to get cranky about there man...

DJEB said...

For those interested in leaving an on-topic comment, do so politely and you may keep it. Type a rant and you will lose it. Choose how to spend your time wisely.

DJEB said...

Although some seem to have an incredibly difficult time understanding this, I'll repeat it in the hopes that comprehension will come with repetition. If you want to leave a post, please do so. But do so in a polite way or you will be doing nothing other than typing into the void.

It's really not that hard to understand.

DJEB said...

Although the exceedingly disrespectful comments that were deleted deserve no response, other readers might be interested in seeing existing techniques for providing safe water systems on tropical atolls (1,2) providing drought-free lands and reversing desertification (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), and designing energy efficient homes (1, 2).

Anonymous said...

hi guys-this is Wil here-i have designed-built and electrically wired all sorts of greenhouses and cellariums in the leamington -kingsville area of ontario canada-these guys are using cutting edge technowledgy-and i think that if we could find a way to put this application to an economical and low impact product to be introduced into the everyday household there would be a calling for its enviromental friendly results-i only heard of this permaculture just a few hours ago and will research it further--what do you guys think?

DJEB said...

Hi Will,

The thing is to assess the embodied energy of any undertaking to see if it is truly sustainable or not. You know, of course, that I am from the same town and have seen the greenhouses in Essex County. The first step would be to change the design of the greenhouses there. I've seen some serious problems with Ontario's (and North America's greenhouses). A huge number of the ones I see are not even oriented to the sun. This and the addition of glass (or poly) on the east, west and north sides leads me to suspect that many of the builders have little or no understanding of solar gain.

For most places below the 50th parallel (or above the 50th for those in the southern hemisphere), it is possible to heat a house passively by collecting sunlight through properly oriented windows along with a heat sink to store the heat gained. Building a properly functioning greenhouse is even easier. There should be one wall with glass, and that is on the sun side with that wall 90 degrees with due south. The other 3 walls should be insulated (straw bale is a quickly renewable insulator with decent insulating value once rendered) along with the roof.

Only on the rarest of occasions should Essex County be cold enough as to require additional heating (like the cold snap of 1994). And this heating can most sustainably be met with wood heating fueled by a coppice crop.

Technology can be a great thing, if applied appropriately. But most of the time, low-tech approached (what was high-tech once upon a time) suffice to do the job and are sustainable.

corneilius said...

The whole point of permaculture is to create a food production environment that constantly produces food in pretty much the way nature does, at no other words food is a by product of healthy growth of a diverse range of organisims, from the micro to thr macro.

Or at least that's what I get from Bill Mollisons Video "In Danger of Falling Fruit"...

When I was training as a healer, many years ago, I got the wierd idea that to 'heal' someone who would go back to thier 9-5 job on the following monday and continue that 9-5 existence, continue driving that car, a little happier was pointless.

And smacked of 'making a living'. Which is why I stopped any attempt to 'earn' a living as a healer. I completed my training because those were very useful skills to acquire and practise.

Permaculturists have to get that 'making a living' is truely a wrong meme, for nature does nothing of the sort and still manages to provide everything in it with what it needs to reach it's full potential. If we want to ensure a future for our children, and for their children we MUST WORK AS NATURE DOES.

That was the genius if Bill Mollison!

DJEB said...

Hi Corneilius,

Thanks for your comments.

I'd just like to point out that the video you refer to is somewhat limited in scope and does not paint a complete picture of permaculture. There is a lot more to permaculture than just food production.