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What is Permaculture?

What is Permaculture?

By Catherine (Catrina) Walker

Permaculture, in its deepest sense, is really a macro-lens for looking at life – a holistically flexible way of seeing and thinking that brings us into deeper connection with the earth.  How awesome that permaculture is simultaneously three things: a design science; a holistic vision for a sustainable future; and a way of working with the earth to obtain abundant yields from our gardens.  Yes, I know…that’s a lot!

Bottom Lining It

Today, worldwide, over 40% of land is now stripped of its topsoil.

Deforestation from mono-crop agriculture has played the largest role in climate change, exceeding that of petroleum-based industries.*  Human populations are currently in excess of 7 billion.

Permaculture Garden - Sonoma County, CA

Let’s get real: the earth’s ‘natural resources’ are finite—they aren’t unlimited. In fact, for 10,000 years, the practice of agriculture hasn’t deviated from its basic pattern since it was invented. This pattern can be described in four steps:

1.  Clear-cutting wilderness

2.  Establishing a cycle of digging or plowing

3.  Seeding with a few useful species, primarily grasses or grains

4.  Harvesting the crop to feed humans and livestock

This cycle is repeated season after season, year after year until the land is depleted. After this, a new area of wilderness is cleared and the entire process is re-enacted. This bad habit is what permaculture is designed to replace.


Nature’s Self-Organizing Design

How to solve such a huge problem?  From a permaculture perspective, layers are introduced—layers that create multi-functional, self-organizing designs. These designs creates permanent, high-yielding and balanced agro-ecosystems, so that humans can thrive on as little land as possible, while allowing as much land to return to wilderness as possible.  

This visionary perspective is encapsulated in the word ‘permaculture,’ a shortened form of ‘permanent agriculture,’ coined by Bill Mollison in 1974, for which he received the Right Livelihood Award in 1981.

Every place on earth is different in terms of climate, landforms, soil, bodies of water, and the unique combinations of species that thrive there.   The needs, preferences and capabilities of local people vary as well. Therefore every place and community requires its own particular design. Viewed and used this way, one could say that permaculture provides a recipe for cultural transformation.


Three Ingredients + You

Let’s take a look at the three main ingredients of permaculture:

1.  A shared ethic of earth care, people care, and care of the future.**

2.  Ecological principles derived from observation of natural systems. There are 12-13 principles (depending on who you talk to) that mimic nature’s patterns, minimizing waste.

3.  Design tools and processes help to conceptualize patterns, create map sections and begin implementation with modest resources.

4.  Your action! We move into action as design principles are applied to every possible ecosystem—from deserts to rainforests and from tropical islands to mountains—working with nature’s self-organizing designs rather than against it. 

Reflecting on how these resources relate to each other within the system gives us a working basis for producing sustainable and effective designs.


Sheet Mulching - Permaculture Gardening - Sonoma County, CAThe Earth’s Future

Through permaculture, we consciously embrace environmental ethics—a new-to-us way of living in harmony with the earth by re-adjusting the way we see and think about life on earth. We are re-designing our relationship with the environment that supports us.  Find others who feel similarly, and watch the world evolve. 

*Jared Diamond eloquently revealed in the May 1999 issue of Discover Magazine; The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.

** The West Coast Women’s Permaculture Guild elected to up-wise ‘fair trade’ to ‘care of the future’ as the latter activates a world wisdom that supersedes—yet embraces—fair trade.

This article is part of a series entitled The Wisdom of Permaculture, by Catherine (Catrina) Walker, CPD.  Catherine lives in Sonoma County, CA, is a naturalist interpreter with the Environmental Discovery Center and communications & grants writer with the Sonoma Humane Society. She is an active member of Daily Acts and community coordinator of the 350 Home & Garden Challenge.

The Wisdom of Permaculture by Catherine (Catrina) Walker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You are welcome to distribute and use any article in this series as long as the appropriate source acknowledgements are made.