Permaculture – discovering the new and formalizing the old

Permaculture is both very new and very old to me. It is new in that I only began to visit websites and read books about permaculture fall 2013. It is old in that I recognize in it a formalization of many of the principles that are a part of my family and religious heritage.

The Permaculture Flower

The Permaculture Flower

Permaculture is a vision of a consciously designed landscape ecology that includes garden and farm, buildings and neighborhoods, and indeed our cultures so as to mimic the patterns found in nature. It is also practical “the use of systems thinking and design principles that provide the organising framework for implementing the above vision [1].” And it is the network of individuals and groups developing and implementing permaculture design solutions.

The concept was developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the mid-1970’s in Australia based on their observations of natural occurring patterns and their consideration of how to mimic those patterns by using perennial and self-replicating plants useful to humans to create what would later be called guilds of integrated, evolving plant systems. But it was quickly realized that humans are also an integral part of the natural system, as were wildlife, bacteria, and other living organisms. It is to enter into a lifelong discovery of ways “that any gardener can be a positive asset to the interconnected web of life [2],” But it is to also look at how our interactions with the zones from home and family, to our backyards, to our immediate neighbors and neighborhood, to our local community, and outward more broadly can be designed so as to work strategically to descend to a low-energy culture.

The core ethics of permaculture, “Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share”, is accomplished through 12 core principles:

  1. Observe and interact
  2. Catch and store energy
  3. Obtain a yield
  4. Apply self-regulation and respond to feedback
  5. Use renewable resources
  6. Produce no waste
  7. Design from pattern to details
  8. Integrate rather than segregate
  9. Use small and slow solutions
  10. Use and value diversity
  11. Use the edges
  12. Creatively use and respond to change

Action Learning Loop

Permaculture Action Learning Loop [3]

While these principles arise from top-down systems thinking, they are implemented from a bottom-up action learning loop. We begin with a very simple understanding of the local ecology and use cycles of action and reflection to slowly build a more complex and complete understanding of that ecology. As we work, we are informed by our observations of nature within other contexts, the general design principles of permaculture, and our conversations with others. For this reason, books on permaculture do not dedicate pages to specific, universal gardening do’s and don’ts, but instead to methods for observation, learning, and refinement of general principles to the local context.

A core tenant of permaculture is that there are pulsing patterns of rhythmic changes punctuated by more dramatic episodic changes. These pulsing patterns are overlapping and include both short- and long-timeframe cycles. Periods of stable conservation and build up of biological capital are followed by a short term period of disturbance and release of that capital. This leads to a highly unstable phase of reorganization, when energy is tapped or lost. Building from the reorganization phase, fast-growing pioneer species enter into a phase of exploitation to catch and store energy quickly, leading eventually to a more gradual build-up and eventually a new conservation phase.

We work within these overlapping patterns in our daily lives, but our dependence on high-energy fossil fuels to simplify the world has divorced us from these realities. My climate controlled house, office, and car, my ability to eat foods out of season through the global economy, and many of the other conveniences I enjoy because of cheap and (currently) abundant gas, coal, and oil reserves allows me to live as if these cycles do not exist. Even with growing concerns regarding climate change, our belief in science and technology give us (probably) false hope that our high-energy, stable lifestyle can be sustained indefinitely.

No other cycle in history has proved everlasting, and so permaculture emphasizes the need for us to strategically enter into a designed, intentional descent into a low-energy phase. But rather than denigrate our predecessors for reckless and unethical behavior, permaculture suggests a more useful approach is to recognize past choices and behaviors as an action of release, reorganization, and exploitation from which we can capitalize by identifying the best ideas that can only come from high energy, creative periods. To be intentional, though, we must recognize that the best ideas are ones that translate into a new, low-energy period of conservation. And that requires we see systems instead of individual elements, complexity instead of simplicity.

Much of permaculture is scientifically oriented, with some vehemently opposed to spiritual considerations. But this, too, is evolving, and some are now challenging the hegemony of western science as the only way of knowing. Instead, we all stand to benefit when the permaculture principle of using and valuing diversity is extended to the pluralism of knowledge societies. Christopher Shein speaks of his interactions with indigenous populations in Africa in which both are students and teachers considering ways to practice sustainable living in the current, local context [4]. In considering the principle of self-regulation and accepting feedback, Shein notes that the native American concept of the 7th generation not only can mean planning for seven generations forward, but also can mean to think back to our great-grandparents, our grandparents, our parents, ourselves, our children, or grandchildren, and our great-grandchildren [5].

What I am coming to understand as permaculture I first learned through my own family and Christian heritage that was rooted in concepts like shalom and the social gospel. I learned more through reading about organic and sustainable gardening. Many of the principles also have been refined in my work around community engagement and digital justice. My brother has worked extensively to practice these principles, even though he’s not read a single work about permaculture, in his life with people, nature, and his garden. As my sons study plant and soil science and zoology, their insights are further adding to my ability to see the patterns and systems that permaculture identifies.

Thus, permaculture is an old friend. But as I’ve read more formally about permaculture, I am finding new strategies for design that will hopefully further elevate my ability to live in a way that shows greater care to the earth, to my fellow humans, and to live in a way that better takes only my fair share and gives back surplus to others and to nature.

Want to learn more? Here’s some resources I’ve used in order of approachability vs. depth/philosophy.

  • Sustainable World Radio: Permaculture & Ecology Podcasts
  • Shein, C. and Thompson, J. (2013). The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture: Creating an edible ecosystem. Portland: Timber Press
  • Hemenway, T. (2009). Gaia’s Garden: A guide to home-scale permaculture, 2nd edition. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing Company
  • Holmgren, D. (2002). Permaculture: Principles & pathways beyond sustainability. Hepburn, Australia: Holmgren Design Services.


  1. Pages xix and xx in Holmgren, D. (2002). Permaculture: Principles & pathways beyond sustainability. Hepburn, Australia: Holmgren Design Services.
  2. Page 9 in Shein, C. and Thompson, J. (2013). The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture: Creating an edible ecosystem. Portland: Timber Press
  3. Page 16 in Holmgren (2002).
  5. Page 24 in Shein and Thompson (2013).

About mwolske

I'm a Senior Research Scientist in Community Informatics at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois.
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2 Responses to Permaculture – discovering the new and formalizing the old

  1. Pingback: Our Urban Farm, Spring 2014 | Angie and Martin's Side-yard Urban Farm

  2. mwolske says:

    Reblogged this on Martin Wolske's Weblog and commented:

    Here’s a post I wrote for the Wolske Urban Farm blog, but which came to mind this week as I read the Introduction to the book “Public Libraries and Resilient Cities”, edited by Michael Dudley. I believe there’s quite a bit of crossover between ideas.

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