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Monday, February 02, 2009

The Goals of Permaculture

The Goals of Permaculture Design
by Douglas Barnes

What are the goals of permaculture design? What are we trying to do? The goal of any design is to provide a solution to a problem. The problem permaculture addresses is the maximization of human welfare achieved in a sustainable way. To put it another way, we are trying to ensure long-term survival in a way that does not make us all miserable.

When the term “sustainable” is used, we are really talking about energy budgeting. In a closed system like the Earth (or even in our finite galaxy) there is a maximum amount of energy available. To be able to survive long term means not spending more than you save. A designed human environment is sustainable if, over its lifetime, it captures more energy than was required for its manufacture, implementation and maintenance and provides a surplus for human use. Considering the current industrial model for food production, in which one calorie of food energy is created at the expense of 10 calories of input energy, this definition shows us that our food systems are not sustainable. Similar accounting for other human activities shows that sustainable activity is actually the exception these days.


With the problem defined, we can work out a solution. Keeping sustainability in mind, we can set a guideline for design: Design action around energy, not the other way around. A given bioregion has a limit to how much energy it can capture and store for our activities. To go beyond this limit is to push the costs of those activities off onto others and future generations. We are not interested in a sociopathic approach to design, so we want to avoid doing this outcome.

One way to design around energy is through the permaculture technique of setting up zones for activities. Activities that require regular, daily attention should be located in a place close to where the people are. While I am always pleased to see people producing their own food in gardens, those gardens are unfortunately usually located at the farthest point in the backyard from the backdoor. Incentive to trudge all the way out there is reduced by its relative distance and it requires more human energy to get out there. How likely are you to go out to the garden to pick fresh herbs for your breakfast if it’s raining and the garden is 10 metres or more from the door? Not very likely. As the attention required by the elements in the design decreases, their distance from the most trafficked areas increases. Animals, if they are incorporated into the design, are a little farther out, perhaps with fruiting perennials. Nut and timber trees are farther out still. With elements placed geographically according to frequency of use, the energy required to tend to them is minimized.
To maximize energy efficiency, we can also mimic nature. Living and nonliving elements in ecosystems are interconnected, so should the elements in our design be. While the approach of compartmentalizing each element makes for simplicity in the minds of men, it is unnatural and creates more work than is necessary. One could set up an area for one set of crops, then another set of crops, another for trees, another for poultry, and so on. It looks simple – everything in its place. But to do this is to simultaneously ignore beneficial interactions between elements and to create more work for ourselves. If crops such as onions and others from the lily family are planted with apple trees, for example, they would provide a non-competing groundcover (unlike grasses) and flowers to attract pollinators and a host of other beneficial insects that show up with them. Compartmentalized, however, this mutually beneficial arrangement is lost. Poultry let into the garden in a controlled manner provide pest control, weeding and fertilization with minimal losses of garden vegetables. Poultry under perennial fruits clean up fallen fruit, breaking pest cycles. Separated and compartmentalized, these elements cannot mutually interact and start to generate waste. This means more work is left up to the people on site. We can match up these elements by noting their characteristics and matching them with other needs. Chickens love scratching, for example. Pigs love rooting. If you have either animal, why damage soil life by cultivating the ground with an expensive and unsustainable machine in preparation for a garden when you can pen these animals in to the future garden site to do a better job without hurting the soil life and fertilize the soil at the same time?

We can also make note of harmful interactions as well. For example, some plants, like sunflowers, are allelopathic, meaning they put out a chemical that suppresses the growth of most other plants. While they might not make a beneficial companion for your other plants, they could be used as living barriers to prevent the spread of plants you are growing but don’t want to invade other parts of the garden. Ignoring this use of the characteristics of allelopathic plants means that the gardener must now expend energy to put in some sort of artificial barrier – one that has its own embodied energy cost.

Inorganic elements on site are also a consideration. A sun-facing rock will store heat, for instance, making it sometimes possible to grow plants in the microclimate around it that would otherwise not survive or thrive in that climate.

Returning to the goal of permaculture design - creating sustainable environments to meet human needs – we need to look at just what human needs are. Fortunately, we are the most studied species on the planet. There is plenty of information available on the physiological, social and psychological needs of the species to make a very detailed set of species characteristics. Furthermore, the area of happiness has also been studied showing us what makes us genuinely happy and what does not.

Our physiological needs include clean food, clean water, clean air, warmth, and shelter. The physiological does not stand alone, however. The social and psychological are also a part of the requirements for physical health, though they themselves are intangible.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a pretty good model for determining human needs, and the diagram below is patterned in large part, though not exclusively, from it. I’ve put together some of the needs that I’ve seen have empirical evidence to back them and avoided the influence of spiritual, political or economic ideology as best as I could. For simplicity’s sake, the needs here are not meant to be an exhaustive list of human needs, just a sampling of important needs.

Next, we can ask what the aim of the current status quo system is.

Is the aim of our society long term sustainability/survivability? Not by any stretch of the imagination. We are living well beyond our needs with the dream that some wondrous technology will come and solve this problem for us. There is no better recipe for collapse of civilization than that.

Is the aim of our society personal or community happiness? Again, no. We have data consistently showing that while personal wealth has, on the whole, increased, happiness has decreased. Communities, too, are becoming less integrated and interdependent than they once were. This is not a good outcome for a tribal species.

Is the aim to maximize human potential? No. The concern of our society is not to get as many people as possible to experience the maximum personal growth possible. National funding on mental health is enough to indicate that this is not a serious aim.

Is the aim simply to meet material needs for clean, healthy food, clean water, clean air, shelter and energy for warmth and cooking? The food we eat holds less nutritional value now that we’ve industrialized food production. Furthermore, biocide use contaminates not only the food, but more importantly and more severely the farmers and environment that produced it. There is no clean air unpolluted by man-made chemicals anywhere on Earth. There is no clean, uncontaminated water left, save for what is available in glaciers. Shelter is available, to some at least. Looking at homeless populations, it appears that over-priced shelter is available, provided you are both mentally fit and gainfully employed or with sufficient financial reserves to provide you with a roof over your head. And energy to stay warm and cook food? The same conditions seem to apply as for shelter. So, no, this is not the aim of the current system. If it were a serious concern, it would meet these needs better, assuming we are not all outlandishly incompetent.

Looking at the outcomes, it appears as though the aim of the current system is to accrue and secure financial power to those clever enough, educated enough, lucky enough and/or devious enough to get it and hold on to it. Again, I base this on observation, not ideology. I am not making an argument for or against markets here, I am only looking at outcomes. I know of situations where markets work brilliantly and others where they fail miserably. I am only interested in reality, not ideology, because reality always gets the last punch.

Knowing this, we can ask how well the current system works at delivering our identified human needs. Well, some are met, others are not; and those that are met are almost never done in a sustainable way. Our physical needs are not fully met and to the extent they are, the process of meeting them is eroding our capacity for survival in the long term. Our social needs are not met. The consumption of ever more gadgets is not strengthening families or communities, nor is it cementing real friendships. Too many home buyers are looking to move into a good marketplace as opposed to a good community – one with real bonds between people. Connection to a geological site is not an important factor anymore with many or perhaps most people. Our needs for connection and spiritual and personal growth are not met.

In fact, you can go through the needs in the diagram point by point and find that the current system does a poor job of delivering them and completely overlooks some needs altogether. So there exists a gap between what the system can deliver and what humans need. Filling in this gap is the task of design: identifying the needs and meeting them sustainably in the most efficient way.

Interestingly, the people who are doing this now and living in these designed systems are usually reporting increased happiness as well (happiness that can’t all be solely attributed to Mycobacterium vaccae, the soil bacteria that has been found to boost mood when in contact with human skin). And why wouldn’t they be happy? Their physical needs are getting met. They require less time to acquire food when compared with the need to work for money to then walk or drive to a market to pick out food to then carry home and unpack and load into the refrigerator. They require less energy and money to stay warm or cool in their homes. Their homes are designed around function and not architectural fashion. They are usually folks who are involved with establishing connections in their community. So, many of their intangible human needs are addressed by their systems.

That said, the work we are doing is not reweaving the threads of the tapestry of society. We are just tying up the first lengthwise wrap threads of the tapestry to be woven in the future. We have yet to find all the answers, and the real work is ahead of us. But the choice is sustainability/survival or adherence to a system that we know doesn’t meet our needs. Which path to take seems clear enough.


Scott A. Meister said...


This is probably the best article you've written to date (solo, of course). It is also probably one of the best definitions of sustainable design I've seen. Puts the one I did on facebook for my friends to shame. The only thing I might do is hotlink the word sustainable to the definition article we wrote...the points, and discussion in the comments section are quite applicable.

Sandra Storr said...

How refreshing to read an article on permaculture design that addresses the fundamental issue of human happiness.

I mean, happiness is what we're all striving for in the end whether we are aware of it or not or whether or not we have a clear idea of what it is that will actually bring about the state of happiness. For many living in the present system of work and food production, the continual striving becomes a real struggle with no end in sight.

Taking back responsibility for one's own nutriton, finances, health and well-being is very liberating and can bring contentment. The realisation that one can actually regain some control, e.g. watching your first wind turbine rotate to provide power is an ecstatic experience for most. I don't believe, however, that most people want to be happy and contented unless those around them are also doing well.

The dream of downshifting to the country and living a self-sufficient life off-grid isn't necessarily the answer. It can sometimes turn out to be a gruelling and lonely uphill struggle which makes our previous corporate lifestyle seem like a walk in the park.

When we create an integrated design comprising many different interacting elements based on natural systems we can solve many of our problems all in one go. If we further recognise that our neighbours and community are welcome elements in that design then we are on the way to achieving a blissful state of being - community self-reliance.

DJEB said...

Kind words, thank you. I will link up sustainable, that's a good idea.

DJEB said...

Thank you Sandra! You are one of the happy people in the second last paragraph. And your comments here add some really important points to the topic. Thank god for people commenting! One can't cover all the bases without writing an impossibly long article, so the comments really help fill in the holes.

Eric Lim said...

Permaculture and the TransFarmers (半农半X)

Sustainability (use of energy) issue is critical to the future prospect of mankind. In this context, development is more important than growth. Sustainability and Permaculture make a good combination. On individual level, the adaptation of a new lifestyle might just be the change needed to turn a niche idea into the main-stream.

Mr. Naoki Shiomi, is the originator of the "Half-Farmer, Half-X" (半农半X) concept and authored the book carrying the same title, and founded the "Half-Farmer, Half-X Research Center” at Ayabe, Kyoto, Japan. Half-Farming, Half-X Research Center Official Website

The phrase, "Half-Farmer, Half-X" (半农半X) is drawing much attention as the new key phrase for a lifestyle, a way of life, for the 21st century. "Half-Farmer" refers to "a lifestyle with a touch of farming," and the X in "Half-X" refers to an individual's profession / passion / purpose or social mission or natural calling. The synergy is inspiring / enlightening to the individual’s pursuit of wealth / health / happiness, while making real contributions to the world.

This concept can form an excellent alliance with Permaculture (the most famous Australian cultural export, courtesy of Bill Mollison). By the way, someone once said, to the effect, that if you do not know anything about Permaculture, it is high time you get interested, in the coming convergence of three crises: Food / Fuel / Finance!

Due to its transformational nature of the alliance, I would prefer to call those joining in the movement as TransFarmers ….. transforming themselves, the earth and the world.

Can anyone think of a better single English word for the lifestyle so described?

See more details available at

Eric Y.F. Lim

DJEB said...

Thanks Eric! I'd seen the 半农半X book around somewhere, but unfortunately, I abandoned kanji study after about 1000 characters. Thanks for letting us know what it's about. Now that I know, I think that it really is on the right track. Taking responsibility for at least some of your own food production makes a lot of sense for a number of reason.

As for a better name... I'm the guy who named the previous post "Woody Actinorhizal Plants," so I wouldn't even try.

Scott Laing said...

From a layman`s perspective, the article provided a neat (as in clear, informative) introduction to permaculture.

Though I am not at all technically conversant on the subject, it would be interesting to see articles aimed at the social contexts within specific regions/locations ie barriers/opportunities within Ontario, or within certain communities.

Here`s a thought off the top of my head - do you have allies among Amish communities?

DJEB said...

Hello Scott,

Good to see you here!

I personally don't have Amish contacts, but I am rather new to my area. I would like to have a look at their operations and see what can be gleaned from them, though.

I have had a few articles on region-specific design, including some for Ontario. I do plan to have more specifics as I complete our home in the summer. There are some unique challenges here such as being forced into unsustainable design by local building codes.

For example, I was hoping to reduce the region's risk of tire fires and put some of the pollution here to productive waste by building a tirewall home. Despite the fact that there is a precedent for such homes in the county, I was told I would have to have an engineer on site every single day of construction because of Part IV of the building code. But part 4 is about retaining walls greater than 1 metre high - not what I was wanting to build at all. I wanted to build an above-ground structure. Well, not having a million dollars kicking around, that plan is out of the question. So I am forced into conventional and unsustainable methods.

There are community strategies that can be applied here or just about anywhere. I haven't gotten to writing about any of them yet, but eventually I will.

Thanks for your comments!