I have taught permaculture for the past 20+ years and the question of what is permaculture is the hardest I am asked to answer; because the depth and breadth of permaculture is virtually infinite and the questioner is always primed with toe tapping impatience for the quick sound bite – I usually take the easy way out.
The easy answer is that permaculture is a design discipline based on the foundational ecological principles of nature. One then takes one’s observations of natural systems and applies the lessons learned to the human based environment. This easy answer is rife with further questions and implications and generally doesn’t satisfy the questioner nor does it instill in them a desire to learn more, even though it is a fairly good definition of permaculture.
Ethics, Spirituality, Politics
I, personally, think of permaculture as a system of ethics and ecological principles that, if thoughtfully pursued, leads to a regenerative living system that supports the environment and social justice. You could say it is a guide to understanding and practicing spiritual Animism.
I know that one of the cardinal rules of permaculture, as taught by Bill Mollison, was no “woo-woo”, (read spiritualism), and no politics but I have found that if one follows the basic ethics and principles of permaculture the outcome is to run, smack dab, into spirituality and politics. Not that I am going out to form a church or political party, because to me, these two institutions have to bear the major responsibility for the deteriorating situation we find ourselves in today.
Certainly most religious organizations find Animism an alarming concept, even though it is imbedded in their teachings, and it is, after all, only teaching that “all” things are sacred. How do you argue with that? The incredible lack of will to end wars, hunger, poverty, environmental destruction, and all the other horrors can be laid directly at the feet of the political systems and their cozy partnership with corporate profit. The religious establishment tends to walk in lock step with the political direction rather than providing a moral and ethical anchor.
Are Gardening and Ecological Agriculture Permaculture?
The purview of permaculture is often reduced to simply a method of gardening, or to ecological agriculture, or organic farming with a twist. These elements are only a very small part of designing, creating and inhabiting a resilient sustainable environment.
Gardening is definitely one of the tools of permaculture, and so too is home building, forestry, soil creation, sustainable waste management and so forth. It boils down to those many skill sets and technologies we use to create our living environment. What is often left out of the answer are the “invisible structures” of economics, legal structures, and social behavior. Mollison taught that the visible structures (gardening, building etc.) were those things we needed to do to be regenerative and the invisible structures taught us how to do it. In discovering both the “what” to do and “how” to do it we use the ethics and principles of permaculture to guide us. My friend Larry Santoyo says that, “permaculure is something we “use” to discover what to “do“.”
The bottom line is that permaculture is a road map to finding our small place in the world as an integral part of the whole planetary system.