What is permaculture?

Anyone interested in sustainability may have come across the word ‘Permaculture’. Yet most people would probably struggle to give you a simple definition of what permaculture actually is. So what then, is this ‘Permaculture’?

The word ‘permaculture’ itself is a contraction of ‘Permanent’ and ‘Agriculture’- a term coined by two Australians- Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 70’s. These days the ‘culture’ in permaculture is also seen to embrace social culture, another essential pillar for sustainability.

Permaculture combines three key aspects: an ethical framework emphasising environmental sustainability and socio-economic justice, a holistic understanding of the processes and relationships in nature and a systemic design framework. These are integrated with an emphasis on observing before doing to create a ‘permaculture’ design that works with, rather than against, the natural processes around us.

Permaculture recognizes that humans are an essential part of the ecosystem but also that they can be a destructive force, consuming a lot of resources and producing a lot of waste. The principles and ethics of permaculture design give us a framework to make positive choices by observing and learning from nature. In this way, the aim of a permaculture design is to create systems that meet human needs for shelter, food & energy, whilst ensuring the health of the ecosystem.

If you took the example of a farm, permaculture would help you design ‘closed loop systems’ where each element would have many functions. Rather than a monoculture system that is linear in its design, needing a lot of inputs and producing a lot of waste, your permaculture farm would as far as possible make connections between the elements, making whatever was a ‘waste’ a food for another element or useful for another function.

For example, a conventional chicken farm farms only chickens. The chickens are kept packed in a small space which is unnatural for them and comes with a higher risk of disease, so you need expensive inputs such as optimized feeds and antibiotics. The manure from the chicken are not made useful and hence become a waste product. A permaculture chicken on the other hand would be integrated into a system where the food and medicine it needs are grown on the farm. Chickens are kept in the ‘food forest’ where they would thrive because they are forest animals. At the same time the chickens would help fertilize the plants and provide pest control through their natural behaviour. The chicken manure is put on the compost for further fertilization of the plants.  In this way you have minimized your inputs and maximized your outputs whilst ensuring that you have a diversity of yields.  At the same time you have built soil fertility, increased biodiversity and tree cover and hence had a positive impact on the ecosystem.

Though for many the word permaculture is associated with farming, the design principles are equally useful as a metric for sustainability as a whole- helping you to design a project, a community association or a business. 

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