What Is Permaculture?
I suspect we all begin our journey by stepping to the edge of the permaculture body of knowledge and asking that question. We ask because we identify that current systems of agriculture and society are not sustainable. We see exposed, depleted soil and bear witness to the degraded condition of living systems and sentient beings. We step to the edge of permaculture with a deep knowing that there’s a better way. Therefore, we ask, “What is permaculture?”
To quote Bill Mollison, “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.” In other words, permaculture isn’t about composting, swales, and no-till gardening. Those are merely outputs of design.
Permaculture is a philosophy. It’s a thinking tool.
The value of this thinking tool is that is presents a way of designing that uses the principles of nature as a model. It is the very tool we need to heal the land, living systems, and ourselves. It offers to us the ability to create fertile and productive landscapes and healthier, more resilient communities.
What Are the Permaculture Ethics?
There are three core tenets upon which the philosophy of permaculture is built.
- Care of the Earth
- Care of People
- Return of Surplus to Earth and People (Fair Share)
What Do They Mean?
Care of the Earth. Care of earth is a straightforward concept. It means that, in our designs, we make provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. The magnitude and gravity of this first ethic is undeniable. Without regard for it, we implement processes and systems that choke off life and life-giving resources. We cannot simultaneously destroy ecosystems and obtain from them healthy and sustainable yields.
Care of People. This second ethic also reaches to the core of our existence. In our thinking and designing, we make provision for all people to access the resources necessary for their existence. Otherwise, what is the value of our designs? We design systems that foster inclusion and provide for our collective well-being.
Return of Surplus to Earth and People (Fair Share). This last ethic aims to moderate our consumption so that we take no more than what we need. By taking no more than our fair share, we are left with a surplus to reinvest. This ethic urges us to return the surplus to the Earth and people.
How Do I Apply These Ethics?
Care of the Earth. When I think of earth care, I consider all life systems, including the soil, watersheds, woodlands, and prairies. Next, I consider what’s necessary for them to continue and multiply. To do this, I observe systems in my environment and document what I learn. Sometimes, what’s necessary for them to continue is obvious and it often begins with my individual choices.
For example, as I design a farm system that makes provision for a healthy watershed to continue and its supported life systems to multiply, I design a system that nourishes plants with natural, biodegradable matter. My individual choice is to recycle foods, leaves, straw, and clippings into compost and feed it to the soil.
Perhaps this ethic also creates in me a responsibility to speak up for the protection of living systems. The more I learn, the more responsibility I have to share knowledge and aid in the re-design of unsustainable systems.
Care of People. To understand and internalize “care of people,” I begin by identifying the resources necessary for meeting our basic human needs. Our basic needs include: love and a sense of belonging, adequate shelter, clean water, clean air, nutritious food, and a safe environment. The resources that meet or support these basic needs include: family/community, healthy soil, sustainable building materials, and an equal enforcement of just laws/rules (agreements).
As I internalize “care of people,” I am prompted to design systems that provide others with access to these resources. For example, my home is heated by an outside wood furnace that emits considerable amounts of smoke. As I re-design a system for heating my home, I will make plans to better safeguard clean air. Clean air is a resource that supports our basic human needs.
Return of Surplus to Earth and People – Fair Share. This last ethic reminds me that this is our one and only beautiful Earth and it must be shared with all living beings, for generations to come. This ethic calls me to take only my fair share, and to control or regulate my consumption so that a surplus remains. It reminds me to return that surplus, to the Earth and to people.
Once again, I find an ethic that roots itself in personal choice. For example, when the apples trees are in fruit, I can choose to not preserve and keep to myself more apples than I will use. This refrain leaves me with a surplus to share with people. I can also leave some on the ground and share with animals and the soil.
Chew on This
Built upon these three ethics, permaculture is a philosophy that values us all. That’s important enough to say it again. Permaculture is a philosophy that values us all. It is a philosophy that calls on us to use our powers of observation first, then design healthy and sustainable systems that make provisions for Earth and all of its inhabitants.
It is a tool which, when implemented, has the capacity to make obsolete unsustainable systems of agriculture and the inequity of late-stage capitalism. From this perspective, permaculture is the radical and insurgent philosophy we have longed for.
 Bill Mollison was a co-creator of permaculture. The term permaculture was developed and coined by David Holmgren, then a graduate student, and his professor, Bill Mollison, in 1978.
 Mollison, B. (1991). Introduction to permaculture. Tasmania, Australia: Tagari.