What is Permaculture?

“The harmonious integration of landscape and people, in a way that provides food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”

-Bill Mollison (co-originator of the Permaculture concept)

The term “permaculture” has been defined in many ways. Some of these definitions are helpful, while others tend to be less so. In fact, some of them are downright awful. And worse than a poor definition, of course, is a bad example. Sadly, as permaculture has grown in popularity, it has also been adopted by many who are all-too-eager to apply the latest popular technique, or who are a little too ready to become teachers, or who have chosen to rely on cliches and unsubstantiated claims rather than experience and careful interaction with the living landscape. As a result, some folks now fear that permaculture has been so misrepresented by inexperienced or unskilled practitioners that we should discard the term altogether and opt for something else.

While we share these concerns, we feel that permaculture is still a term worth using (or at least arguing over), however clunky it may sound and regardless of how badly the most recent online charlatans may be representing it. To be sure, words are not the most important thing in the world, but they still matter a great deal, and for now, we still find this one useful.

For us, permaculture is fundamentally a design discipline. But what we mean by “design” is not the kind of top-down, overconfident, and academic approach that has given the world interstate highways and carcinogenic buildings. To the contrary, permaculture is an approach to design that begins and ends with recognizing the genius of wild ecosystems. The regenerative intelligence of natural patterns and processes is both its starting point and its measure.

At it's core, permaculture is concerned with designing human habitats that are consciously nested within the ecosystems they depend upon, and cultivating harmony between the social, biological, and built dimensions of our lives.

In its most mature forms, permaculture design is driven by a whole-systems approach to meeting human needs; it is rooted in pattern literacy; and it’s marked by the marriage of beauty and utility. While it remains focused on addressing human interests, it does so only by addressing the needs of the wider community of non-human organisms (and ecosystem processes) that both surround and uphold the human community.

Finally, it's important to acknowledege that there's very little within the permaculture discipline that is novel, or that originated exclusively in conjunction with the term or it's founders. Since it's inception, permaculture has been about synthesis, about gathering up that which is useful for a principled and ethical approach to designing human habitats. The "natural farming" approach of Masonobu Fukuoka, for example, as well as the Keyline Design framework of P.A. Yeomans, both played a major part in the earliest articulations of the permaculture paradigm. Perhaps the most significant inspiration comes from the many generations of indigenous people the world over that have charted the path for regenerative land use. Contemporary practitioners of permaculture, particularly in the Global North, would do well to remember that many indidgenous communities around the world continue to preserve, practice, and model profoundly ecological lifeways, even as they face increasing challenges from the forces of colonization and "development." 

For more on the theory and practice of permaculture design consider checking out our permaculture related programs here.