[permaculture] What is permaculture? PC Defined (compilation of posts in the 1990's to various lists)

Lawrence London lfljvenaura at gmail.com
Thu Mar 28 15:52:35 EDT 2019

(can anyone add to this? - start a thread, reply with quotes)

What is permaculture? PC Defined (compilation of posts in the 1990's to
various lists)

>From kowens at teleport.com Mon May 24 16:31:57 1999
Date: Mon, 24 May 1999 08:10:11 -0700
From: Jeff Owens <kowens at teleport.com>
Reply-To: ecopath at csf.colorado.edu
To: ecopath at csf.colorado.edu
Subject: [ecopath] What is Permaculture (long)

Angel wrote:
>hi, i'm one of those new members.  got a question though, being new.
>what is permaculture?

Angel, here are some definitions of Permaculture.  My definition
is slightly different and tries to explain why there are so many
different definitions around, but we don't need to go into that.


By: Deborah L. Butler
What is Permaculture?

The word is a contraction of "permanent agriculture" (and to some extent
"permanent culture"), and was coined by an Australian named Bill
Mollison, who along with a considerably less gregarious colleague more
or less (re-)invented the ideas it embodies.  The manner of action of
permaculture is to observe and learn from the natural systems that we
are a part of and apply those learnings to our creating of systems.
"Protracted and thoughtful observation before (instead of) protracted
and thoughtless labor" is another way of putting it...it's a way of
thinking, rather than a specific technique, tradition or method.

The envirolink library says:


Permaculture enables people to establish productive environments
providing for food, energy, shelter, material and non-material

Long Description:

Permaculture is a practical concept applicable from the balcony to
the farm, from the city to the wilderness.  It enables people to
establish productive environments providing for food, energy,
shelter, material and non-material needs, as well as providing the
social and economic infrastructures that support them.

Permaculture means thinking carefully about our environment, our
use of resources and how we supply our needs.  It aims to create
systems that will sustain not only for the present, but for future
generations.  Permaculture encourages the individual to be
resourceful and self reliant, and become a conscious part of the
solution to the many problems which face us, both locally and
globally.  "


Rene and Lorraine van Raders
Malanda, Beautiful Far North Queensland, Australia.

One of the beauties (and weaknesses perhaps) is that pc can be defined in
so many different ways.  It seems to mean different things to different
people.  As has been pointed out when talking to others about pc it is
important to frame your information so that it can fit in with the others
perception of the world.  Here's our viewpoint on the subject in no
particular order of

Pc presents a vast range of possibilities and techniques (some
contradictory) leaving it up to the individual to choose the best solution
for his/her particular situation.  One fundamental being that every
situation is unique thus every design should be unique (taking into account
what the land/situation has to offer and what the people want and can

Pc is a design system, but also a new way of thinking and looking at the
world.  To a very great extent it is not prescriptive, but helps you to ask
the right questions so that you can choose yourself from the infinite
ethical solutions.  Which brings us back to the simple ethics of earth and
people care.. if we live by these ethics are we  doing permaculture?  I
think in one sense we are, but without a pdc experience many people are
still very restricted in their thinking and knowledge.

We don't think it is necessary for everyone to live a perfect lifestyle for
sustainability, but if every individual would become conscious of his/her
impact and start to make positive changes that is enough... the world would
get better and better every day!

If permaculture is design and planning how can it be impractical.  Part of
the design process is surely to make it practical.   Permaculture isn't
about everyone returning to a farming/gardening subsistence (Bill Mollison
stated that only one gardener per hundred people was needed to provide all
the food needs... even if this is overstated the principle is clear).
Permaculture is not about being poor... it is looking at ways to subvert
the grip of the money system, but at the same time can work within it.  A
farm design would usually involve a transition period to maintain
profitability and practicality!  Permaculture designs ideally design for
profitability. Let us know how permaculture is seen to be
impractical and we'd love to comment further.

  1.  Energy usage and the definition of sustainability
  2.  Natural systems and the holistic view.  A historical
      view of the world help here.
  3.  Cycles and closed loops.  Community and a forest
      make good examples.  I suppose economics could
      fit here also." from Jeff Owen's original query.



Permaculture emulates ecosystem design principles to design
provision of human needs and amenities: food, water, shelter,
energy, income, community, aesthetics, etc.  By applying ecosystem
design principles, permaculture designs achieve the same efficiency
and elegance that enables mature ecosystems to thrive and make
maximum use of available resources in the face of often adverse and
sometimes calamitous circumstances.

Permaculture also contains an ethical component--permaculture
designers do not prioritize between profit, people, and the Earth.
As part of the Earth, the well being of people is intimately
involved with the health of the planet.  Because environmental
destruction is virtually ubiquitous, permaculture designs
invariably include activities that restore natural systems.
However in permaculture design, the restoration is always an aspect
of self-serving human activity.  Besides its design philosophy and
ethics, permaculture has accumulated a large tool box of basic
strategies and particularly appropriate technologies.

Design Principles

1) Restraint.  Conservation.  Do only what is necessary.  Seek the
maximum benefit for minimum change.  "If it ain't broke, don't fix

2) Stacking functions.  Achieve multiple benefits from every action
and design element.

3) Repeating functions.  Secure necessary resources (both
regulatory and material) in more than one fashion.  Design for
smooth shifts from one resource to another as circumstances
require.  Design multiple pathways for every essential flow.

4) Design on appropriate scale.  Scale is inappropriate if a screw
up will cause a catastrophe.  Murphy is everywhere.  When mistakes
can be regarded as educational and even entertaining, scale is
appropriate.  However, scale can be so small as to be trivial or
insufficient to persist in the face of pressures from the larger

5) Focus design activity at edges, interfaces.  Energy flows across
a gradient.  Amplify edges to increase energy flow.  Restrict edge
to minimize energy transfer.  Introduce edge species or other
elements to regulate and harness edge transactions.

6) Encourage functional diversity.  Functional diversity differs
from raw diversity.  A great many design elements may contribute
instability or may simply fail to function as a dynamic system (be
dead).  Carefully matched and well-designed elements however, that
form many useful connections among them, need not be numerous.  It
is the number of useful connections among elements that defines
functional diversity.  A system with highly integrated functional
diversity becomes alive and spontaneously develops additional
functional connections.  It becomes increasingly stable and
efficient and begins to look after itself.

7) Reciprocity.  Everything works both ways.  All gains have costs
and many problems present opportunities.  Awareness of reciprocity
permits design to account for it.

8) The Law of Gifts.  Every element in the universe receives input
from other elements and transforms that input according to its own
nature.  In functional systems, the transformation includes
delivery of the changed input to the right place at the right time,
to benefit other elements in the system.  The competent designer
must be acutely aware of the transformational nature of
elements--how they affect what they encounter--and the needs of
elements--to design patterns where the waste or disturbance created
by one element is resource or benefit to others.

These principles apply in all spheres of design:biological,
physical, and social (including economic).

Permaculture Economics
Economic arrangements are of vital concern in permaculture.  Much
of contemporary economic activity is based on the economics of
scarcity.  In this economic values system, players seek to control
resources so that they are unavailable, or scarce, to others who
may need or desire them.  This resource advantage results in
control, to various extents, over those who want the resources that
have been made scarce.  Such conditions result in scarcity
psychology.  Insecurity that there will not be enough to go around
feeds a desire to control as much valued resource as possible and
thus exert economic control over others who wish to use the
resource or to have access to it.  This drives the scramble to
accumulate resources far beyond one's need.  Astonishingly,
economics of scarcity have led to the ownership of nearly
everything on the planet and the assumption that it is natural for
people to own everything.

In the economics of scarcity, generally the scarer something
becomes, the more economic value it accrues.  Abundant resources
have little value.  Their usefulness may be ignored, as in the case
of kudzu, or the resource may be wantonly utilized, as is being
done with forests.  In the case of forests, wholesale destruction
for short term gain makes residual forests scarce, therefore of
greater economic value.  The continued existence of forests is not
a concern to investors, who take their profit principally in money
that can be invested elsewhere when forests run out.

Money provides as a symbol of economic power and those who can
command the most money (by controlling a large share of vital or
highly desired resources) reinvest that money to control a still
larger share.  This cancerous consumption, manipulation, and
control of the environmental context in which we live causes most
of the environmental crises we confront today.

Capitalism, socialism and communism are but variants of this
control game.  Bouncing from one system label to another will not
address underlying problems of scarcity economics.  The economics
of scarcity is self-fulfilling.

Permaculture provides a context wherein the economics of abundance
can prosper.  Fortunately, the economics of abundance can begin to
function within existing systems, although legal structures may
make this more or less likely in various countries.  The economics
of abundance rests on the belief that a great deal of resource is
available if one is willing to accept what the universe offers in a
particular place and time.  The economics of abundance also
embodies ethical strategies for the genuine scarcity that does
exist in certain cases from time to time.  Then, our responsibility
is to protect scarce resources from any exploitation and to try to
nourish their recovery.  The scarce resource becomes sacred in a
highly specific way, placing limits on its economic uses.

Obviously, in most societies, mixtures of the economic philosophies
of scarcity and abundance co-exist, often even in the same persons.
Where belief in abundance is the main view, abundance tends to
manifest.  Scarcity economics produce scarcity.  Absolute scarcity
can exist under either situation.  When that happens, human
conflict is unavoidable and we may consume one another until the
pressure on the environment is eliminated.  SNIP Here we go into
application of this info in practical ways to sop up the abundant
benefits that rampant kudzu presents.


By James Mumm

Permaculture, the contraction of permanent agriculture as well as
permanent culture, is a design system for constructing sustainable
human settlements that focus on the functional connections between
species, and between humans and their environment.  Permaculture
design incorporates utilitarian, intrinsic and cooperative values
of biodiversity.  To a permaculturist, indigenous ecosystem
integrity and species richness are secondary to the functional
relationships between species in a consciously designed system.
Deliberate attention is paid to minimizing energy budgets and
building small-scale intensive systems because of their
manageability and efficiency.  Permaculture designs can be
implemented in virtually any environment, from desert to city, and
with people of limited resources.  As such, permaculture offers a
cooperative means of subsistence that integrates humans with their
environment to create a sustainable human and non-human ecology.

What is Permaculture?

Permaculture is tightly linked to the concept of biodiversity.
Biodiversity is a human concept which relates to the assessment of
all life on earth.  Although it contains many ambiguities,
biodiversity is useful way of conceiving life on all of its levels
-- from genes to biomes.  An explanation of biodiversity requires a
thorough examination of the values and context in which it is

Permaculture also benefits from a holistic explanation.
"Permaculture is a design system for creating sustainable human
environments," states Bill Mollison, who co-founded the
permaculture movement in 1974 with David Holmgren (Mollison and
Slay).  Permaculture itself is a combination of permanent and
agriculture, as well as permanent and culture.  This dual
definition reflects permaculture's emphasis on constructing a
diverse and cooperative environments within the context of
sustainable human settlements.  According to the Permaculture
International webpage, permaculture is "the conscious design and
maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the
diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems.  It is
the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their
food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in
a sustainable way." (Permaculture International) (Figure 1)

Mollison deliberately emphasizes permaculture as a philosophy of
design.  The key is to use the inherent qualities of plants and
animals in combination with landscapes and structures to create
enduring and productive environments in both urban and rural areas.
Deliberate attention is paid to minimizing energy budgets and
small-scale intensive systems because of their manageability and
efficiency.  As a cultivated ecology, a well designed permaculture
will produce more food than is found in nature.  According to
Mollison, "Although the yield of a monocultural system will
probably be greater for a particular crop than the yield of any one
species in a permaculture system, the sum of yields in a mixed
system will be larger." In most cases more food is grown than can
possibly be consumed on the site by either humans or animals.  Over
12,000 people across the world have competed certified Permaculture
Design Courses, and their work can be found on every continent and
in every ecosystem where it is remotely possible to grow
vegetation.  Crops include any subsistence or energy product that
is useful for humans or animals.  (Mollison and Slay)

Permaculture is predicated on maximizing functional diversity.
Every element of a species assembly should support at least two
other elements and be supported itself by two elements.  One
interesting example is using flat slats for the floor of an animal
pen to allow manure to fall into a pond below, providing valuable
nutrients to fish and plants.  This type of design teaches that
functional interactions are critical in species assemblies and
human habitats.  As a design system, permaculture focuses on
conserving and restoring the earth in a way that also allows humans
to live in harmony with their environment.

Deliberate attention is paid to the minimizing the energy budget of
a design.  Energy needs should be provided by the system itself.
Constructing a design that integrates sun, wind, and land resources
with species and habitats results in an energy efficient design.
Non-sustainable agriculture requires an immense amount of
non-renewable resources and energy inputs in the forms of water,
fertilizer, and labor.  Permaculture strives toward energy
efficient and closed-loop designs.  "I'm lazy," quips Mollison in
his video Global Gardener, "that's why we put the garden next to
the kitchen.  I can throw my scraps out the window." (Mollison)
(Figure 2)

Small-scale intensive systems means that the land will be used
efficiently and carefully managed, producing a wealth of resources.
This is not a return to peasant agriculture and drudgery, rather
permaculture designs are built to require a minimal amount of
energy input, as in the animal pen example above.  Labor and other
material inputs are reduced as the functional connections in the
system increase.  (Figure 3)

The concept of biodiversity is tightly linked to permaculture
design through the conscious attempt to increase functional
diversity in species assemblies and in the emphasis placed on the
construction of energy efficient ecosystems.  According to Maddy, a
permaculture activist, "Biodiversity is a key principle in
permaculture design and influences all aspects of permaculture
thinking." (Maddy) Such a recognition of biodiversity is reflected
in the intentional design of permaculture sites.  Careful attention
is paid to the construction of functionally useful species

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