What is Permaculture?


by Matthew Stephens
March 2015


I have encountered this question on many occasions since I made my commitment to the permaculture way of living. Once I told an elder in my community, the hyde park neighborhood on the southside of chicago about permaculture. He looked at me with a befuddled expression, and almost as quickly responded, and I quote here, “Permaculture? What the fuck is that?!” I have come to expect that from almost everyone I meet in Chicago, and even around the world, most that I encounter, have never heard of it, or never quite understood the full meaning of permaculture in its truest essance. As a result, I have also, sometimes loathingly, accepted that as a result of my commitment to living a permaculture life, and my commitment to spreading the gospel of permaculture living, that it is my duty to explain to those who do not know, but are willing to listen, if even for a moment, what exactly permaculture is. I have explained what I was taught by my teacher, and the man who created the word permaculture in the early seventies, the meaning and various definitions, and explanations of what that word unknown to most speakers of the english language is in its very essence. The word can, and is, and must be defined in many different ways. It covers many things. Perhaps it represents more information than any other word in the the english language, with the exception of the obvious ones: God, Nature, Love, Earth, and the Universe. Interestingly enough, permaculture deals with in many ways, these concepts. If Permaculture was defined by only one word, which would be a diservice to say the least, I would have to say, without a second thought or doubt, that word would be design. For design is the essence of permaculture. As defined by Bill Mollison himself, the father of permaculture, Permaculture is a Design System. It is a system of Design. Permaculture is a Systematic Approach or Method of Applying Design to Human Settlements. Permaculture is taking what we know, our knowledge and information that is available to us, and applying that knowledge and information to our homes, our gardens, and our communities, so that they cloth us, shelter us, and feed us and one another, for the least amount of energy input, while resulting in the maximum yield or energy output. Permaculture is a philosophy as well. It is a concious choice, of an individual, or a community of individuals, to work with, rather than against nature. Permaculture is working in harmony with the Earths natural rythyms, processes, and patterns, as opposed to working to try to dominate the natural forces of earth and nature, and attempting to bend them to our will, and desires, in order that nature provides for us on our terms. Permaculture is a way of working with the land and its natural processes, in order to create homes, gardens, and communities, as well as man and woman, and animal assisted ecosystems that create abundance, as opposed to drought, famine, and ecological disaster and destruction. Permaculture is sustainable design. In order to define permaculture, one must first define sustainable. Bill Mollison defines sustainable, as being any system that produces more energy than is required to set up and maintain that system over its lifetime. Model systems of design include, but not limited to, Waterwheels, Passive Solar Homes, Gardens, Forests, Trees, Wind Generators, Windmills, Sailboats, Bicycles, Fruit and Nut bearing Trees, Solar Ponds, Drip Irrigation Systems, Lifeforms, Prairies, Dams, Cooperatives and the like. Systems that are not sustainable, and hence do not exist in permaculture systems are lawns, broadacre mechanized monoculture farming, nuclear power plants, automobiles, coal power plants, oil, newpapers, unlimited economic growth, walmarts, war, militarization industries, centralized control of vast populations and information, disinformation, slavery, oppression, violence, gas, fracking, pesticides, herbacides, biocides, and industries and societies built on fossil fuels. Permaculture is about solutions applied to the problems that problems that confront humanity, and all of earths inhabitants. Permaculture is the active process of applying solutions available to all of us, to our communities to make them sustainable, productive, abundant, and so that they provide us with our daily needs, while reducing the need to work needlessly in order to survive on a daily basis. Permaculture is about becoming active participants in and creators of our reality and experiences, through conscious design, and proper placement of the components that make up the systems in which we live out ou daily lives. Permaculture is taking responsibility for our existence, and for the world we affect by our everyday choices, habits, and investments of time and energy, knowing that the state in which we leave the earth, is inherited by our children, and there children, problems and solution alike. Permaculture is conservation. Permaculture is the right and responsible use of natural resources, so they are not squandered and eliminated for personal gain at the expsense of the greater good, and the generations that will follow ours. Permaculture is planting a tree, knowing that it will not be cut, and that our great grandchildren will be able to pluck fruit from that tree long after we ourselves our long gone. Permaculture is not only planting trees, but planting forest, and the planting of food forests, and forest gardens, first to feed us, but also to honor the land that allows us to be fed from its soil. Permaculture is a design system that is based on ethics. Permaculture is an ethical design system. Permaculture is an earth care system. It is in its very essence and philosophy, a way to care for the earth so that the earth can continue to care for us as it always has done. Permaculture is understanding that if we do not care for the earth, first and foremost, that she will innevitably be unable to sustain our species and the species we depend on to live. Permaculture is choosing survival and quality of life, as opposed to poverty, pollution, and extinction. Permaculture is maximizing diversity in the landscape as opposed to minimizing it as we do in our lawns, farms, and daily living routines. Permaculture is going for a walk around the block and being unable to count the number of species of life within it as opposed to driving a car to a job that we detest, and working with people we cannot work with to create our dreams, in order to simply make enough money to get buy, or not, and polluting our childrens planet in the process. Permaculture is riding a bicycle through our neighborhoods, stopping by our community gardens to talk with our neighbors, and trade turnips for greens, and beets for carrots. Permaculture is living lightly on the land, so our needs can be met with little effort. All of our needs. Not only us as individuals, but us as a community, both locally, and globally. Both within our species, and across all species.

During the permaculture design certification course I took in 2009 with Bill Mollison, I asked bill, if I did only on thing to live sustainably, what should that be? His response was “Catch the water off of your roof.” The wisdom in this statement is simply, with water you can do anything. Without it you can do nothing, but perhaps die. Water is life. Water is the very essence of life. Water is the sustunance of life and all life forms. Water, properly harvested, stored, and put to good use, provides all the energy you could ever use. The basis of permaculture design is the collecting, storage, and placement of water throught the systems in which we inhabit. Waste not, want not. To put water to only one use, is to waste water and to create waste. Therefore, proper use and reuse of water is central to permaculture design and designing systems and communities that are truly sustanable. Water that is piped from centralized waterworks by oil and coal power sources add polution to the enviroment and are polluted themselves, are not sustainable. Water captured from our rooftops, and stored in rainbarrels are hyper localized and indefinitely sustainable.

Permaculture is a garden outside your doorstep. Permaculture is a garden outside your kitchen that is watered from tanks that hold water that is collected from your rooftop. Permaculture is turning your lawn into a garden so you can eat your lawn, as opposed to watering it for hours only to mow it for more hours while creating noise and pollution, whilst knowing that it will never be used for anything other than as a wasteful false symbol of wealth that promotes poverty and will never bear any fruit that can sustain life in any meaningful way. Permaculture is going out into your garden to grab dinner instead of going to the mcdonalds drive through or driving 3 miles to walmart to buy food devoid of nutrition packaged in plastic and filled with disease causing ingredients that comes from an industry that cares not for your health or that of your children, community, or the environment we all share. Permaculture is taking what we know, both independently and collectively, and putting it to work for all of us in the best way possible. Permaculture is taking care of people, and returning the surplus back to the earth, back to the systems, and back to the communites in which we all live and share. Permaculture is making use of all our resources for the common good, by taking only what we need, and investing the surplus back into the systems that provide for our needs. Permaculture is working collectively as opposed to competing with one another for resources, when there has always been enough to go around. Permaculture is thinking globally while acting locally. Permaculture is a nonviolent creative and cooperative design revolution in you garden as opposed to violent bloody revolution against the systems that oppress us. Permaculture is community interdependence and self-reliance instead of exclusive self interested action regardless of cost to others. Permaculture is careful observation of nature, thoughtful planning, and careful implementation of that plan, with a willingness and desire to work with new information and variables as the present themselves to us. Permaculture, as Bill Mollison states in Permaculture: A Designers Manual allows nature to demonstrate its own evolutions in order to teach us somethng through that process. Observation is the most important practice in permaculture for it is from observation which we can learn the greatest amount of information to be applied to our own designs. Permaculture is a toolbox. Permaculture is a set of tools when approprately used, provide most, if perhaps not all of the solutions to the problems we face collectively as a living earth.

Permaculture is producing the most food possible, with minimal work input, on the least amount of land possible to meet our needs.

Permaculture originates from the words permanent and agriculture. Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture was a book published in 1950 by J. Russell Smith about agroforestry, or growing food from trees. Permaculture is as much centered around the use of trees, as it is based on good garden design and harvesting and storage of water. Permaculture is an intensive tree planting design system that utilizes swales and trees in concert to prevent soil erosion, regenerate groundwater stores and aquifers, reforest degraded lands, create wildlife habitat and refuge, all while simultaniously producing an abundance of food and plant recources for human use. Swales are long trench like ditches that run along the contours of hills and slopes in landscape. Contours are the lines you see on topographical maps that outline the elevations of the land. Will listening to Bill teach about contours, I realized I live in Chicago, which from limited my point of view was entirely flat land, hence I asked naively “what if you live in chicago, where the land is flat?”. He responded without hesitation “There is no flat land.”. No one argued andIndeed he was right. “Water always runs downhill.” Follow the water and you will find the slope of the land.” Swales are water harvesting systems because the infiltrate the soil with water, and when you plant trees in swales they become highly productive tree systems because the trees not only hold the swales and the soils, preventing any erosion whatsoever, but they also benefit greatly from the abundant water stored in the soil from the swales in which they are planted. Swales are tree planting systems. Permaculture is tree systems planted in swales on contour throughout the landscape. “Swale everything.” Bill said. Permaculture is putting swales throughout the landscape and planting trees, preferably useful ones to us, in those swale systems. Permaculture is when we collectively create a culture the exhibits the permanence, resilience, and diversity of natural ecosystems in our communities. Permaculture is acknowledging our interconnectedness to one another, and using that interconnectedness to benefit ourselves and one anothers by promoting and persuing mutually beneficial and decentralize exchange of talents, skills, and resources in our familys, tribes, villages, and bioregions. Permaculture is acknowledging that we have much work to do and that we may not have enough time or ever enogh people to do it. Permaculture is working in small groups to get big results. Permaculyure communities are designed around natural housing from locally available materials. Permaculture communities are designed so all areas of that community are accessible by walking, biking, horesback, and wheelbarrow. Permaculture communities are designed around many small gardens, orchards, forest gardens, food forests, and other sustainable food production systems. Permaculture communities are garden communities that are gardens themselves. Permaculture communities are sustainable communities. Any community design around the automobile, and where the use automobiles, and fossil fuels is essential to the operation of that community is not sustainable in any way. Permaculture is not empowering authority, but become the authority over our own lives, and recognizing that each individual holds authority over their own existence. Permaculture is efficiency. Permaculture emerges in systems that are designed for maximum energy efficiency and operate passively by means of gravity and natural waterflow. Inneficient systems for housing, water transport, human transport, and food production must be redesigned and retrofitted to maximize efficiency in a well designed sustainable system. Restaurants that do not produce at least 30% of their own food, and receive at least as much from their local community food production systems, are not sustainable. Restaurants that use unrecycled paper packaging, styrofoam, plastic utensils, and plastic bags are not only not sustainable, but are highly polluting and energy consuming, both to their local neighborhoods and the global environment. Food transport by trucks over long distances are totally unsustainable and have no place in any sustainable business. Permaculture is growing our food where we live, and where we eat.





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