Permaculture is a term used to describe an intentional system of agriculture and settlement that aims to reflect the interrelationships and sustainability of natural ecosystems. Permaculture can be seen in contrast to intensive agriculture, which eventually leaves land unfit for farming, gradually reducing the amount of land suitable for human habitation. Permaculture is an attempt to best use land so that generations in the future can continue to make use of the land in productive manners, allowing for personal subsistence. It draws from several disciplines including organic farming, agroforestry, integrated farming, sustainable development, and applied ecology.
Permaculture was coined as a term in the 1970s by David Holmren and Bill Mollison, two Australians dedicated to the sustainable use of land. Although they were the first to use the word, the ideals of permaculture in the modern sense have been around since at least the early part of the 20th century, and the practices that make up the core of permaculture date back thousands of years.
At its most basic, permaculture is just a form of agriculture that can be practiced forever. Industrial farming techniques are seen as inherently limited, with an eventual wall past which a piece of land can no longer be used. High-density crops and the use of single crops over large expanses of lands strips away necessary nutrients as generations pass, eventually leaving the land barren. At the same time, artificial fertilizers can build up salts over time, making the soil inhospitable to plants.
Permaculture tries to look at a piece of land in a holistic manner, integrating every animal and plant living on it, and combining that with social structures designed to foster long-lasting agriculture as well. Each element of a food cycle is broken down into what it requires and what it contributes, and then each element is pieced together to form a dynamically self-supporting whole.
Permaculture lies on three ethics: care for the earth, care for people and fair share. They form the foundation for permaculture design and are also found in most traditional societies. At the same time, permaculture moves beyond simply being a mechanical set of principles for management of all cultures that can be used in designing sustainable systems.
Here are few principles of permaculture as described by David Holmgren:
- Observe and interact – by taking the time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation
- Catch and store energy – by developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need
- Obtain a yield – ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the working you are doing
- Apply self regulation and accept feedback – we need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well
- Use and value renewable resources and services – make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources
- Produce no waste – by valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste
- Integrate rather than segregate – by putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other
- Use and value diversity – diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides
As industrial food systems begin to appear threatened by a myriad of factors, from pests attacking monocultured crops to increased prices and dwindling supplies of the fossil fuels necessary to create industrial food and transport it, permaculture is gaining more and more support. Communities are looking to permaculture as a way to ensure not only that the land they are on will remain healthy well into the future, but that their food supply will be sustained even through potential global crises.