What is permaculture?

Toby Hemenway hemenway at jeffnet.org
Sun Dec 16 13:58:32 EST 2001

The "philosophical" threads here have gotten me thinking about why
permaculture doesn¹t fit neatly into categories of knowledge. So maybe all
this philosophizin¹ is actually relevant to the topic of this list.

David Holmgren has argued that permaculture is not a discipline in the way
medicine is (or biology, or physics). He said he doesn¹t want to be churning
out permaculturists so much as he wants, for example, architects with a
permacultural perspective.

In "Conjectures and Refutations," Karl Popper raise a similar issue. He says
the question "what is philosophy?" is insignificant; that it is much more
useful to be solving the problems of philosophy, and that there isn¹t really
such a thing as a discipline of philosophy, just a set of problems that we
group under that heading. This got me thinking about permaculture, since
many of us would rather be solving the problems of permaculture than
worrying about what permaculture "is."

Popper says that distinguishing disciplines such as physics or biology
shouldn¹t be done on the basis of subject matter, but on the problems that
we¹re trying to solve. He says disciplines are distinguished partly for
historical reasons and for administrative convenience (teaching,
professorial appointments), and partly because theories for solving problems
tend to grow into systems.

So this brings me to my question:  Why is permaculture so hard to classify?
Where does it fit into our system of knowledge? The problem is like the one
we face on this list: permaculture seems to include about everything from
gardening to economics to gender ethics, so how can we ever say that
something lies outside permaculture?

To ask the question another way, is permaculture an attempt to solve a set
of problems? Are these problems of the same nature as those of, say, biology
(like "how can we design a guild?") or of those of the less tractable, less
scientifically testable, social sciences ("how do we create a sustainable
culture?")? If the latter, that would make permaculture like, say,
economics, which contains both mathematically solvable problems and nasty
problems of politics. But permaculture complicates matters further by
prescribing certain behaviors and condemning others. So is it a system of
moral beliefs? I think not; at least I think it tries to be testable, unlike
Permaculture is called a design system. Does that set it in a different
category from disciplines like architecture or biology? I¹ve argued
elsewhere that permaculture is a "meta-discipline" that organizes other
disciplines, a toolbox that organizes tools such as agroforestry, organic
gardening, solar technology, etc, and tells us when and how to apply them.
But doesn¹t geology or evolutionary biology do the same thing, calling upon
physics or genetics for techniques and theoretical buttressing? We would
call geology and evolutionary biology "disciplines," so why not

I¹m puzzled as to where permaculture fits into our system of knowledge. It
doesn¹t seem to fit very neatly, and that may be why it makes such few
inroads into the mainstream. Or are the difficulties more because
permaculture is badly organized (the way its many principles are a
hodge-podge of statements of different logical types) and a jumble of
mismatched theories, principles, assessments, and data? Sorting this out may
help us explain permaculture better to others, and to locate the problems
most worth solving.

Well, I didn¹t intend to raise quite so many questions when I started this.
But I have hopes that working a bit on this problem might generate that
"light rather than heat" that Souscayrous feels has been missing from these
threads (though, personally, I¹ve gained plenty from these discussions).

For a look at my new book on ecological gardening,
Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, visit

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