What is Permaculture, and why is it important?

What is permaculture, and how is it different than organic gardening? Here is an introduction to what permaculture is and does.
illustration of connection between ourselves, our community and the earth
What is permaculture? Learning about permaculture means empowering ourselves to heal and regenerate ourselves, our communities and Earth. Some courses are certified and some aren’t, but this understanding is at the core of all permaculture education.  Artwork by KT Shepherd.

​Permaculture is community, human and non-human, interconnected.

Whether this is the first time you’ve heard of permaculture, or you’re sure you already know what it is, it’s important for us to launch our course with this fundamental inquiry, and investigate the ways in which we can agree on our basic purpose while still holding space for a diversity of attitudes and approaches.

What is permaculture?

The short answer:
It’s ecological design.

The long answer:
“Permaculture” as a practice, simply means observing nature, researching tools and techniques used by indigenous people in your bioregion, and engaging in a diligent, daily practice of balancing the needs of yourself and your family with those of the other species all around you.

Nobody owns “permaculture.” All of us have this knowing inside of us, and the ecological design process is about uncovering that knowing, and applying it to our physical, social, and emotional landscapes, with the goal of creating living, evolving systems that mimic nature, produce food and energy, and regenerate, rather than annihilate, the Earth.

But it’s still got something to do with gardening, right?

Yes, gardening is part of any ecological design, because plants are a part of life. Without them, we die. So, if we are creating systems in which we can thrive and be of help to other species, then we have to include plants! But we must never stop there. The garden inspires us, feeds us, connects us to nature…and then we have to get to work on the rest of the system.

Why Permaculture?

Ecological designers transform scarcity into abundance.

The ecological design process balances human needs with the needs of other species.

An ecological design creates systems made up of organisms, mechanisms, and feedback.

Plus, it’s super fun and personally rewarding. You can:

  • Heal the planet
  • Give back what you take
  • Create solutions to problems on any scale
  • Manifest your personal potential
  • Improve your day-to-day experience of life
  • Unleash your inner geek!
why permaculture pie chart

Who invented permaculture?

Bill Mollison, often credited as the “founder of permaculture,” was an Australian traveler, scientist, baker, fisherman, gardener, autodidact, and writer who researched and published extensive genealogies of Indigenous Australians, and through this work he became inspired to dedicate the rest of his life to learning and teaching integrated ways for humans to live on the planet without destroying it.

Mollison worked with many people and wrote, co-wrote, and inspired many books, organized hundreds of courses, and traveled all over the world collecting and sharing information about ecological design. He was especially enchanted with the notion of agricultural systems working together with human home systems so that each meets the needs of the other, and collaborated on a huge array of visionary design drawings with his then-colleague and illustrator, Reny Slay.

Mollison was also influenced by writers who had come before him, such as Rachel Carson (Silent Spring, 1962), Ken & Barbara Kern (The Owner-Built Home, 1961), P.A. Yeomans (Water for Every Farm, 1965), and J. Russel Smith, who wrote Tree Crops for a Permanent Agriculture (1929), the title credited with sparking the idea to call it “perma-culture.”

And guess what? Many of the exact ideas Mollison presented in his early books can also be found in the above four books. Read them and see for yourself. He did NOT invent this concept!

Indeed, throughout his life until he died in 2016, Mollison consistently pointed back to his sources and reiterated that he did not “own” any of these ideas, and that this type of knowledge can not and should not be owned.

In all of his work, we see an ethical and practical reliance on a fairly short list of ecological design principles, summarized here from his early writing:

  • Work with nature, rather than against it.
  • The problem is the solution. “You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency.”
  • Make the least change for the greatest effect.
  • The yield of a system is limited only by the information and imagination of the designer.
  • Everything gardens, and is in relationship to its environment.
  • It is not the number of diverse components in a design that leads to stability, it is the number of beneficial connections between these components.
  • All design is ecological design, in that all designs, whether intentional or not, affect their environment.​

We’ll come back around to these principles and many more, but for now can you see how these ideas could help you to design not only a garden and homestead, but also a social and emotional landscape that is more resilient, abundant, and safe than the current (degenerative) systems in which most of us now exist?

To understand better what permaculture is and isn’t, watch this video:

What Permaculture Is & Isn't, w/Heather Jo Flores (Food Not Lawns & Permaculture Women's Guild)

Whatever direction your learning journey takes from here, know this: I am not the authority!

Permaculture, by definition, defies both ownership and large-scale leadership. Permaculture is a set of actions and strategies based on site-specific, climate-aware, community-invested ecologies. In this sense, leadership beyond the immediate stakeholders is not practical nor is it possible. Permaculture is about personal responsibility, thoughtful action, and careful, ecological design. It is about science, evidence, and results.

Your teachers are just the messengers, and a good design needs no teacher’s approval, because a good design validates itself through the integrity of the ecological systems it perpetuates.

Want to learn more about this and other topics related to permaculture, sustainability, and whole-systems design? We offer a range of FREE (donations optional) online courses!

Relevant Links and Resources

This beautiful documentary explores some of the ideas about where permaculture techniques came from and reminds us how much we can learn from some indigenous cultures, about caring for nature.

Tending the Wild (Hour Long Special) | KCET

Maddy Harland, permaculture pioneer, author, publisher, and founding editor of Permaculture Magazine UK, interviewed by Cassie Langstraat of Permaculture Magazine USA

Permaculture Voices 2015 - Interview with Maddy Harland (Editor of Permaculture Magazine)

Here’s an awesome 90 second introduction to permaculture with Xochiquetzal Salazar.

What Is Permaculture?
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