What is permaculture?

Pacific Edge Permaculture + Media pacedge at magna.com.au
Sun Dec 23 18:49:13 EST 2001

> From: Toby Hemenway <hemenway at jeffnet.org>
> Reply-To: "permaculture" <permaculture at franklin.oit.unc.edu
> 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?

What makes permaculture so hard to explain and comprehend is its sweeping
breadth... its inclusiveness. Unlike other fields of knowledge, permaculture
is not a single, defined entity. It has leaky margins... it spills from
pieces taken from one body of knowledge into those of another body of
knowledge; this makes classification along conventional disciplinary lines
very difficult.

Permaculture design has no clearly visible, firm boundaries, intensifying
the difficulty of classification and definition. It is not a 'bounded
system' in the sense that other disciplines are. Most bodies of knowledge
have boundaries which, although they may 'leak' a little onto other areas,
serve to make the discipline comprehensible... to make it understandable and
able to be taken in more or less at a glance  because starting and finishing
points - their borders or margins - are clearly marked.

To explain what I mean, imagine you are standing on a hill, looking over
some vista... here we see forests bordered by cultivated fields, there we
see a village enclosed by fields, there smaller fields as clearings bounded
by the forest, there a river meandering through the imaginary landscape,
enclosed and confined by borders of steep cliff in places, farmer's fields
in others... near the railway line a concentration of processing facilities
for the farmer's produce bordered by the farmer's fields themselves. What we
see as we look out are areas set up for different sorts of practice (bodies
of knowledge) all bordered and confined (classified) by their surrounding
activities. That's like classifying bodies of knowledge in the conventional
sense, all within borders and all, to some degree, self-contained... and all
comprehensible because we can see their boundaries... how they are
deliniated from one another

Permaculture, because it was set up as an integrative system of design, is
less clear and comprehensible because its margins, its borders, are fuzzy
and leaky... less visible and less clearly defined. It's harder to see where
permaculture starts and ends, where it rubs up against the margin of some
other body of knowledge and where it leaks into or draws sustenance from
that body of knowledge.

To use our vista analogy, when we look out from our imaginary vantage point,
instead of comprehending the separation of field, village, processing
plants, river and so on, we see a landscape of related activities, each in
some input/ output relationship with each other and each exerting some
influence on the other. We comprehend our landscape as a whole, consisting
of interrelated activities. When we look for borders and margins clearly
delineating the separate activities we find them fuzzy and permeable and
difficult to describe. With a high degree of interrelationship, where does
one begin and another end?

Because of these characteristics, permaculture can be described only with a
broad, sweeping definition such as the one I make use of: 'Permaculture is a
system of design for sustainable human settlement'.  That doesn't explain
much and is, in reality, a statement of concept... it begs further questions
that can serve as a way to explore the field if there is time

It is because of this multi-disciplinary nature of permaculture, its
borrowing of knowledge and practices from different bodies of knowledge and
blending them into a system of its own, that people grab pieces of
permaculture and represent those as the entirety. That's why gardening
programmes on television portray permaculture as organic gardening, for
instance. In the case of television, how does a gardening programme deal
with urban design components, local economics and other permaculture
content... it simply does not fit into their frame of reference for
programme material and is necessarily excluded.
> 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. 

This is precisely the problem - permaculture is too broad an idea for people
to deal with mentally, for them to understand because it brings in bits from
other areas such as farming, town planning, architecture, economics,
development practice etc. It's broadness makes description difficult and
understanding unlikely.

> 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.

I know of instances where permaculture has been described by pemaculture
teachers as a lifestyle, which it must become if people are to integrate it
into their lives. To take a critical tack, however, permaculture only
accomplishes this partially because insufficient emphasis has been put on
things that would truly allow permaculture to become a lifestyle, such as
livelihood creation.

I do not deny that there has been some work in this area, but to tell urban
people (the vast majority of Australians) how to farm organically within
landuse zones does little to stimulate sustainable urban livelihoods; nor
does permaculture's dominant rural ethos. These people work in education/
finance/ info-tech/ tourism and so on... they are not farmers.

That is why, when promoting permaculture ideas in the city where I live, I
try to make it relevant to contemporary urban concerns by focusing on where
to buy local and/ or organic foods, where to find food co-ops, community
food gardens and farmer's markets as well as how to make compact, high
productivity container and courtyard gardens (there is a lot of interest in
gardening, even among the city's growing number of apartment dwellers and
there is a growing interest in food itself); then there's the situation of
Sydney's urban edge market gardening industry; waste reduction and
conversion; conservative water use; involvement in local government; ideas
for finding affordable (that's the key word in this city) shelter - just
finding affordable shelter, irrespective of its energy efficiency, is a
growing challenge here  -  and how to save energy and money by reducing
energy use (let's consider money, in this case, as a form of energy and thus
in need of conserving so it can be put to others uses); how to define
values, set goals and plan their time to achieve those goals; how to use
different thinking tools (such as those of Edward de Bono) to create and
model solutions; how to work successfully in groups (the key to even the
most basic community endeavour and useful in the workplace). These are tools
by which urban people can take control of their lives.

As for the slow acceptance of permaculture mentioned above, it is simply the
confusing embrace of multiple practices that prevents professionals in their
particular discipline identifying with permaculture.

For instance, within sight of where I live, a construction site will soon
become a seven-level apartment block for 600 or so people... passive solar
design, producing rooftop photovoltaic power to sell to the grid, treating
its own wastewater and with commercial premises at plaza level and so on.

I have spoken with the local government ESD planner who made this project
possible through innovative legislation and much skilled negotiation with
potential developers... but he does not consider himself a 'permaculture
planner'. In fact, his position on council as ESD (ecologially sustainable
development) planner subsumes what we would know as permaculture... it
includes much of it without being a conscious part of permaculture.

For instance, when I met with him, he brought in council's chief planner who
showed me plans for a wastewater treatment system for a park to clean up
pollutants using a very large reedbed/  gravel system... and explained how
the incoming council several years ago wanted to move on ESD and join the
state government's Energy Smart Homes scheme, which stipulates a minimum
performance standard for all residential buildings of
three-and-a-half-energy stars.

So, what we consider permaculture has become normal practice for people in
such positions, yet they do not know permaculture. And for permaculture,
this is  positive (because it mainstreams permaculture ideas) and negative
(because it takes away 'territory'  from permaculture, thus weakening it as
a concept and practice - it puts bits of permaculture into boundaries
comprehensible to people in those industries).

In this sense, the inability to clearly and succinctly define permaculture
is its weak point.... bits of it have been broken off and included in the
ambit of ESD planning, leaving the rest out. Rather, this would be true if
the starting point had been permaculture, if the bits had been deliberately
broken off the whole. But they weren't... they came from the planner's
background and education and from the concerns and foci current in that
industry, not from training in permaculture. And why not? Because
permaculture is not taught as such in training institutions and, where it
does form university-level education, it is found in agricultural courses.
It is too 'woolly'  a concept to slot into academic classification by

The only sign of change that I can foresee in this situation is the current
Permaculture International Ltd project to have permaculture training
accredited with Australian national training authority,
(www.nor.com.au/environment/perma  -  Permaculture Education Forum) however
if the qualification becomes something like Certificate Four in
Horticulture/ Permaculture, then the link with horticulture will serve to
further the pigeonholing of permaculture as an agrarian practice divorced
from the urgent need and current trends in sustainable urban design, which,
of course, includes a great deal more than food and how it is produced.

What the above example does have, though, is clear boundaries - architecture
with economic considerations (ground-level shopping/ cafe plaza to bring
people onto the streets after working hours) plus treatment of the
resident's waste products. The margins are more extensive than those of
conventional medium density residential development but remain
comprehensible because the visibility of their relationship is high.
> 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. 

In a sense it is a moral attitude. But it's also a practical one too.

What I do is to link it with Abraham Maslow's heirarchy of needs, explaining
that permaculture is a practical means of assisting people achieve, first of
all, their basic security needs of food (including clean water), sanitation
(public health) and shelter (first, access to shelter... then, shelter
suited to climate...  then, shelter built with the use of ideas such as
energy efficiency, lifecycle assessment of materials and so on... the
particular focus falls on what is financially and technically achievable
with the particular group being addressed).

These basic needs secured, you can move on to satisfaction of higher order
needs such as education/ DIY community services, local economics (to
increase people's quality of life and standard of living and to create
livelihoods and spin income so that other things like education and medical
services become accessible) and opportunities to encourage conviviality.

I also say that 'care of people' and 'care of the earth' are co-dependent.
Unless you set up systems by which people can meet, first of all their basic
needs and, after that, their higher order needs, then it is inevitable that
they will have to overexploit the natural environment as a source of
materials and fuel. We enact the third ethic to assist people to do these
things and to become more self- and community-reliant.

The first two ethics are simply statements, comprehensive thought they might
be, of what we have to do to live sustainably; the third is the ethic of how
we can enact the first two.

Russ Grayson
Pacific Edge Permaculture + Media
Sydney, Australia

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