What permaculture isn’t

Meg and Graham wearing permaculture t-shirts

This article is published with permission from Meg McGowan. It was originally published on her Smarter than crows blog.

It’s an exciting time for permaculture. More and more people are discovering this endlessly useful, ethically based design pattern. We live in a time when creating and evolving systems that increase ecological health is suddenly becoming a priority, and something that allows us to combine that with providing for human needs seems like a bit of a dream. But it’s real.

Those of us that have been inhabiting the permaculture world for many years are both delighted and relieved to suddenly be so popular. Courses fill quickly. Friends that have possibly considered us to be their weird, greenie friends are suddenly asking if they can learn from us. Sadly, it took the entirely predictable consequences of the climate crisis to bring many of these people to the garden, but better late than never.

There is a risk when anything gains popularity. The band wagons are circling and the word ‘permaculture’ is turning up in some questionable places. Sometimes it’s easier to define something by explaining what it isn’t. Here’s my best attempt at that. It’s possible I’ll ruffle some feathers. Please feel free to disagree with me in the comments.

It isn’t organic gardening

I have heard this said by someone in charge of a permaculture event, when asked for a definition.

Look, it’s just organic gardening really.

No, it really isn’t. It’s true that if you are going to design a garden using permaculture then it’s likely you will avoid synthetic chemicals because they are inconsistent with the ethics of earth care and people care. I have also known people defend their occasional use using the same ethics. A bush regenerator defended ‘cut and paint’ methods, where large woody weeds are poisoned, on the basis that she couldn’t think of any other way to save a badly infested area of bushland. I’m still not sure about that one, but I can appreciate the fact that there may be circumstances where the limited and judicious use of a chemical might be the more earth-friendly and human-friendly option to the alternatives. So not organic.

I’m also unlikely to use many organically approved substances in my garden. I prefer to practice integrated pest management and allow the system to achieve balance. If you want what eats aphids you need aphids. It turns out that leaving the aphids for a few seasons will dramatically increase the presence of tiny birds in your garden. Tiny birds are pest managers, pollinators and fertilisers (by way of their droppings) so the loss of a few chewed leaves to aphids is a small price to pay.

I have never used dipel to kill caterpillars because I want butterflies, and the birds that eat the caterpillars. I have never used a beer trap to kill snails because it will also kill the native snails that eat the European snails. When it comes to many organic methods, the solution is the problem. Permaculture is about designing integrated systems where the relationships between things matter. You can use organic methods to grow a monoculture of organic food but this wouldn’t be a permaculture system. You can also use permaculture to design systems that have nothing at all to do with gardening.

It isn’t self sufficiency

This is a common misconception and people are genuinely surprised to learn that I would prefer to purchase most of my organic fruit from local growers than to grow my own. It’s a much more efficient use of my time and energy and the professional growers are vigilant about preventing fruit fly and other pest infestations, whereas I might be too busy in some other part of the garden to notice. I would also prefer to buy just a few apples when I need them than to process a glut. I do have a few apple trees and make a highly prized fruit jelly every year before the king parrots happily devour the rest. You can’t buy king parrots.

Self sufficiency is hard work, and not appealing to most people. It can also be a poor use of energy because some things are more efficiently produced on a larger scale. Permaculture is about getting that scale right using the core ethics. I avoid imported foods because of concerns about production and the energy used to transport them. I support local regenerative farmers because their work builds biosecurity locally and provides a food production model that increases ecological health. They also use less land to feed more people because of their established distribution networks and full time attention to production.

Permaculture is seeking to define a permanent model of human culture that includes interdependent communities. People specialise in the things they enjoy and share with each other. I don’t have bees or chickens, but I am rarely without eggs or honey. Bee keepers are welcome to put their hives in my garden and friends gift me eggs when they visit. People rarely leave here empty handed, cherishing a home grown pumpkin, some finger limes or warrigal greens, or whatever else I have in abundance.

Our local produce share event is just one way for people to practice the third permaculture ethic of ‘fair share’ and people get more from this event than just the free food. They also build friendships and networks within the local community. These bonds are at the heart of permaculture. Communities where everyone must provide for their own needs would be lonely, as self sufficiency usually demands most of your waking hours to manage. It also disadvantages those without the land, ability or skills to be self sufficient. David Holmgren’s epic book, Retrosuburbia, imagines future communities of cooperation rather than isolated hubs of self sufficiency.

It isn’t permaculture just because someone calls it permaculture

This one is starting to turn up more and more as permaculture goes mainstream. It has the potential to derail permaculture. If you sign on to do a course and find it’s just a front for someone selling you something entirely different, or if you read about a ‘permaculture project’ and find the ethics behind it questionable, you might draw a line across the whole movement, and that would be a pity, because there is so much within permaculture to improve the planet and our lives.

Here’s the best test to apply; does the thing claiming to be permaculture demonstrate alignment to the three core ethics of earth care, people care and fair share (or future care if you’re in that part of the world)? It’s important that it demonstrates alignment to all three ethics and not just one or two. Next, measure it against your favourite set of permaculture principles. David Holmgren’s set have become deservedly popular and Bill Mollison’s are also a worthy yard stick. Run through your principles and ask, “To what extent does this………?” for each one.

I’m particularly concerned here about technological ‘solutions’ to the problems facing humanity. Solar panels are a great example. A well designed permaculture home would seek to use energy at its highest level, so clothes would be sun dried rather than put in a solar powered electric drier, and the house would be insulated and ventilated before resorting to solar powered air conditioning. Solar energy remains a superior alternative to fossil fuels but in it’s current form it should be considered transitional technology and not an answer. It continues to require mined products and fossil fuels for production and transport. It has the potential to contribute significantly to the waste stream, particularly if the life of solar panels is cut short by hail storms, as happened to us recently. Yes, install them if you can afford them, add your own battery too, and continue to treat electricity as a second or third level form of energy, to be used only when natural energies can’t be used directly.

As a species, we often seek a technological solution to our problems. I have recently seen a scheme for pumping cooler water up to the ocean’s surface as just one example. What happens to the ocean floor and the indigenous life when we do this? How will creating tiny pockets of cooled ocean resolve the broader problem of it warming up? What materials will be used to construct these systems and to power them? What happens to them when they no longer function? Has anyone done the maths on the CO2 produced compared to the CO2 released? Shouldn’t we be focusing on reducing and removing the causes of global warming instead?

If all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail. Permaculture challenges us to first consider low tech alternatives. For all our cleverness, a leaf is still superior to a solar panel. When we can create a self-replicating solar panel that efficiently produces energy and decomposes to nourish the creation of the next one we’ll be getting close to as clever.

It isn’t perfect or dogmatic

Permaculture could have been embedded in academia and preserved in its original form for the benefit of future students. Instead, the co-originators, both academics, decided to set it free. They saw their initial work, impressive as it was, as the foundation of something that would continue to grow and evolve over time. And evolve it did.

This decision almost certainly contributed to the rapid spread and broad adoption of permaculture as a design model. Anyone completing a 72 hour design course could teach it and anyone could practice it. You will now find practitioners, designers, teachers and advocates of permaculture on every continent. In some countries there have been attempts to restrict and regulate the model but it will always be wild and free to anyone choosing to study it.

Both David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, the co-originators, redesigned the model a number of times and David continues to do so. In recent years when Dan Palmer decided to focus his considerable energy on making permaculture stronger he was actively encouraged by David and the two of them now teach together.

The nature of an evolving system is that it never claims perfection. Permaculture in its current form is its best self and still allows room for improvement. I believe this is one of the model’s great strengths. It invites me to engage with it, to consider how I might improve it and to justify any changes I make to it. It continues to be an evolving, diverse forest of knowledge rather than a brick box. From time to time it experiences weed infiltration, but the strength of the underlying model is naturally resilient.

As the climate crisis unfolds it is clear that there are challenges that are beyond the scope of the current permaculture model. Some problems will require new thinking. This doesn’t invalidate permaculture but it does call upon us to evolve it in a way that is ethically consistent so that we can meet these challenges.

It isn’t always called ‘permaculture’

The permaculture model was informed by many different sources. The co-originators acknowledge the wisdom of indigenous peoples, the contemporary environmental movement of the 1970’s, the alternative agriculture movement and the emergent bodies of knowledge around systems thinking, networking theory and ecology as all having an influence upon the model. Permaculture was initially a reaction against broad acre farming and the damage it caused. It was a quest to find a viable alternative and considered not only food production but social models and economic systems. It has never been just about farming.

Because the model is derivative, there are many examples of human endeavour that align with permaculture, even though the people responsible may have never heard the word. Many past and existing models developed by First Nations People will have a lot of things in common with permaculture because of their shared commitment to protecting the earth. Because of this, I have seen people criticise the permaculture as cultural appropriation. I don’t believe that there is evidence to support this claim.

In cases where First Nations methods and technology have been incorporated or referenced as part of the permaculture model they are always acknowledged with deep respect and due credit. It would have been offensive not to include this deep wisdom within any proposal for human existence. There is also much in permaculture that comes from other sources. Permaculture harvests from the rich and diverse veins of human experience and combines that knowledge in new ways. There is no attempt at theft and no claim of credit for anyone else’s work and it is not just a relabelling of something else.

Permaculture was also deeply informed by the lessons gained through observing natural systems and their capacity for dynamic equilibrium. These lessons have always been there for anyone prepared to see them.

Students often comment that permaculture describes what, to some extent, they have already been thinking and doing. This is a good thing. It validates permaculture as a pattern aligned with the human-ness of the human. It doesn’t ask us to push ourselves into awkward patterns, but to return to a pattern inherently human. It is not surprising that there are many models with strong similarities. The Ecovillage pattern, and the Buckminster Fuller design model are both closely aligned. I can remember someone in a permaculture course suggesting that systems thinking had appropriated permaculture (she actually said ‘stolen’) because she was unaware that systems thinking predated it and informed it.

In any field of human endeavour where people are trying to protect and restore the natural world you’ll find a context where permaculture also fits, even though the people involved may never have heard of it. This matters because we should remember that permaculture is just one of many design patterns with similar goals. I could have as easily become a systems thinking designer, or an ecological designer. I happened to come to an understanding of ethically based designing via permaculture so that is where I live.  I care more about the core ethics than what people call it. Anyone caring for the earth, caring for people, caring about the future, seeking to place limits on our growth and redistributing surplus is okay with me.

So another thing permaculture isn’t would be the only answer, or the only way of designing or the only model for human existence. This matters because it reminds us to explore beyond the borders of permaculture for improvements to the model. Our edges with similar models are, like all edges, places where good things accumulate.

So what is it?

My current favourite definition of permaculture (because everything evolves) is this:

Permaculture is an ethically based pattern for designing evolving systems that increase ecological health while providing for human needs.

It’s all in there. The ethical foundation and the fact that it’s a pattern that can be applied in all sorts of different contexts. A statement that we are designing systems and that these systems are not static, but evolving over time. A clear focus on ecological health first because without caring for our planet we will not sustain human life. The provision of human needs as an imperative, because for all our sins against the planet we are also responsible for much that is good in the world.

We alone have the ability among all species to destroy our planet. We alone have the means and the responsibility to repair the damage done and restore the natural world. Deep within each of us is this yearning for a different life, where wealth is measured in good local food, joyful community and connection to the natural world. Where each of us leaves our earth in better condition than we found it. Where our real needs are met. Permaculture provides us with a pattern for heading firmly in that direction.

We are running out of time.