What is permaculture?

Toby Hemenway hemenway at jeffnet.org
Sun Dec 23 10:55:21 EST 2001

 S.K. Harrison at skh23ca at yahoo.com wrote:
> I challenge you to reformulate
> the subject line without using any form of 'to
> be'. 
and Jeff wrote:
> "This question "what is permaculture" sometimes
> carries with it the assumption that there is one
> common definition or a "right" definition."

I wasn't looking for yet another definition of permaculture. My question
was, Where does permaculture fit into our system of knowledge? meaning, What
makes it so hard to define, explain, and comprehend?

> Toby, I'd like to hear why these questions
> concern you, since it seems like a query that has
> emerged from your private deliberations.

Good question. I've spent most of my adult life either solving problems as a
scientist or explaining things to people as a science writer, journalist,
non-fiction author or teacher. I've found that permaculture is incredibly
different to explain compared even to complex technical subjects like
molecular genetics or psychological theories. There's no sound bite that
begins to do it justice. For other fields I can give a one-sentence
description and can see comprehension in the listener's eyes. For Pc, I see
confusion, followed by more questions, and after several minutes I see
they've grasped a small bit of Pc but no more. And most everyone has this
problem.  So I'm puzzled by this and would like to understand why it

The fact that there are dozens of definitions of Pc, and nearly everyone in
the field feels it necessary to attempt one at some point, suggests the
problem. Pc doesn't fit neatly into a knowledge category. A practical result
of this, I think, is a very slow acceptance of Pc by the larger culture.
that's a problem that concerns me too. I've heard permaculture referred to
as a belief system or a lifestyle.
> If in fact nothing lies outside the domain of
> permaculture, it would have as little use as the
> word 'spirituality'--it means everything, so it
> means nothing.

Yeah, some people are sloppy thinkers. In my recent PDC, when we were
talking about using biological resources, one student said "Native Americans
believe rocks are alive, so rocks are biological resources too." So much for
the renewable resource concept.

> In short, pc doesn't fit into knowledge
> structures--it doesn't need to. Rather, it takes
> those structures, makes a roughshod summary and
> gives it to us for *living as a human on this
> planet in the 21st century*.

I like that. It's just coming to terms with it that is hard. Won't such
hubris bring down the wrath of the gods?
> One question Toby. Would you specify what you're
> talking about when you speak of moral beliefs?

When Pc says things like "care for people" there are some assumptions that
seem to me to fall into moral grounds: questions of what behaviors are right
and wrong. E. g., some feel that caring for people is best done by a
totalitarian state to provide the strict guidance people need. Or that a
child is best cared for by sparing the rod--or not. So a design system whose
first precepts use the word "care" seems to involve moral choices, or at
least an assumption that we know what good care is. And don't get me started
on "share the surplus:" My rich brother-in-law doesn't feel that $10 million
leaves him much surplus. Permaculture seems to treat these words the same as
art or porn: we know it when we see it. But we don't agree on what they are.

> Are you referring to academia when you use
> 'mainstream'? The entire local population? Some
> other recognizable majority?

I guess I'd define the mainstream as people who don't know where their water
comes from, don't wince when they fill their car with gas, and who can
stomach network television ("The Simpsons" excepted, of course). Most of
academia fits that (Pc isn't taught in many schools), as do most of any
local population.

John wrote:
> How about we just let it lie there and flop
> around vigorously, not fitting in.

Great idea! (if I have the patience for it)

Thanks very much for these ideas. Good food for thought. But enough; time to
prune some fruit trees.

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

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