Permaculture is a holistic design system that emulates systems that exist in Nature to create sustainable human settlements and food production systems which integrate harmoniously with the natural environment.
This is planet Earth. As far as we know it is the only place we can live. Somewhere along the way though, it seems we—humans—have detached from it in an unsustainable way. Unsustainable in that it cannot sustain us forever—or even for too much longer—or, as the Brundtland Report defines it formally “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Our Common Future, 1987). The fact that, as a species, humans are not sustainable is reflected in almost every step of most people’s everyday life’s. Even in the smallest things, our whole day is mostly dictated by the systems that surround us. For example, how many times a week do you drive, or even take a bus that runs on petroleum? How many times a day do you throw trash in the landfill bin, or even in the recycling bin? How many times a day do you eat? These are very basic every-day activities: we need to drive to get to work, or school; we do not want to see trash surrounding our immediate environments, so we use trash cans; and we need to eat to survive. But how we approach these every-day activities is, many times, in our hands. I have one more set of questions for you, do you think of yourself as a part of nature…or separate from nature? How many times have you acted as if you were NOT part of nature?
Many of our day-to-day activities prevent us from interacting with questions like these. But there are some people that believe in and carry a life that is not as impactful on our natural environment and even taking it a step further and helping the environment regenerate. What I am talking about is permaculture: as a friend quickly explained to me: “it’s a lifestyle”. Permaculture takes sustainability to the next level, considering the system in a more holistic manner. Because, as Christopher J. Rhodes explains: “that which is sustainable maintains what already exists, but does not restore (eco)systems that have been lost” (p403, 2015). Sustainability, then, tries to keep things going for as long as humans can last, while permaculture, in the other hand, interweaves microsystems so that they work together in the most ecological and efficient process. With permaculture we still want to be sustainable, but not be so anthropocentric about it. It’s a lifestyle, as my friend said, because it takes into consideration the whole spectrum of systems that run the natural world. Permaculture is mainly “guided by three principal ethics, often described as Earth care, People care and Fair shares” (Rhodes, 405, 2015). When one of these principles is out of balance the whole system suffers. The Earth has to be healthy to properly sustain people, who should only get their fair share of materials in order for everyone to have what they need—and by everyone I do not only mean people, but every part of Earth’s system.
Rhodes wrote that “All sustainable solutions are unsustainable over the longer term, if they are not also intrinsically regenerative” (Rhodes, p403, 2015). And that is one of the keys to permaculture: it is regenerative. It is not only sustainable, but also restores natural lost systems to some degree. Most people in modern times think in a linear way (meaning there is a beginning a middle and an end), while in permaculture we want to think of the environment in a circular way. The Helix of sustainability shown in FIG 3 gives an example of what a circular way of thinking of the environment works.
Fig 3: The Helix of Sustainability shows the circularity of a sustainable system where there is a minimum environmental impact in the lifecycle (manufacturing and product use) of materials. Rhodes also explains here that for this to be a “regenerative” system, and not only a “sustainable” one, this helix needs further elements to be added.
Credit: Design: Lynn Tucker; Graphic art: Astrid Erasmuson –The New Zealand Institute for Crop and Food Research.
(Rhodes, p.408, 2015)
Angelo Eliades, offers a list of Permaculture Design Principles in his blog, in which he explains in detail all about permaculture and even offers a do-it-yourself (DIY) section in which he gives step by step instructions on how to make a sustainable garden. The principles of design for permaculture lists: relative location, each element performs many functions, each important function is supported by many elements, efficient energy planning, using biological resources, energy cycling, small scale intensive systems, accelerating succession and evolution, diversity, edge effect, and attitudinal principles” (Eliades, 2016). Every single one of these principles is crucial to the harmonious functioning of the system. These are by no means the only ones, nor the most effective in every situation, but are definitely important elements to keep in mind. These principles are all interconnected. Each element of the system should be placed where it will be the most beneficial in performing many functions and where it is supported by other elements.
Another benefit of permaculture is that it brings us closer in a different way to nature. As Rhodes puts it, permaculture can and should “Reconnect humans with nature to bring forth abundance by regenerative means” (Rhodes, p405, 2015). Part of that reconnection includes understanding that nature is not only about hiking, camping and being in the wild, it is also inherently about food. For permaculture, it is imperative to understand how each system works with each other and how we can harness these natural partnerships in an undisruptive, regenerative way.
Fig 4: Photography by A. Odoul of hands holding healthy soil. (FAO, 2016)
Permaculture tries to mimic and learn from nature’s natural ways of cycling through material. Composting, for example, is an important part of a permaculture system because it recycles plant base wastes by putting nutrients back into the soil system for the new generation of plants to use. In nature, when a tree “loses” a leaf to the wind, it falls on the ground right beneath it. As time passes, the leaf decomposes, and returns the nutrients that the tree used to produce it, to the earth. Thus, the tree can access these nutrients again to make more leafs. This is a simple example, but when many of these micro-systems are put to work together they can become very productive without much energy input.
Permaculture reminds me that we should work with nature, not against it, nor ignoring its cycles. To be abundant, in a sustainable, holistic, and regenerative way, can be helpful in restoring the balance between humans and the natural cycle of material in the world. Think of trash. Is there such thing as “waste” in this world? The straightforward answer is: no. Remember the law of conservation of mass, from chemistry class? —mass can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed. It, more or less, is the same with the entire Earth’s system. So in reality there is no such thing as “trash”. So this, at least to me, proves that in the Earth’s system nothing is linear, a permaculture system can help us see our other systems in a more natural and circular way, while in the process: reconnecting us with nature.
As a Planet Earth – Pics about space. (2016). Retrieved from http://pics-about-space.com/as-a-planet-earth?p=1#img294452223830327544
Eliades, A. (2016). Permaculture Design Principles. Deep Green: Permaculture. Retrieved from https://deepgreenpermaculture.com/permaculture/permaculture-design-principles/1-relative-location/
Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. (1987). Retrieved from http://www.un-documents.net/our-common-future.pdf
Rhodes, C. (2015). Permaculture: regenerative – not merely sustainable.Sci Prog, 98(4), 403-412. http://dx.doi.org/10.3184/003685015×14467291596242
FAO. Soils and Biodiversity. (2016). Rome. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/3/a-i4551e.pdf