This week, at our biweekly meeting of the Permaculture Community Classroom (the community self-education group from which the Growing Perspectives sprung) a new member joined us and asked a simple question: what is permaculture? We decided it was fitting to inaugurate this blog by recording our collective view of what permaculture is and why it matters.
Our meeting made it clear that permaculture is a concept in dialogue, constantly being negotiated by those who follow and use it. As we discussed, some pointed to its importance as a movement which we are all part of. Others suggested its value as a vision that motivates them personally and offers a viable alternative to the current system.
Ultimately, we agreed that its foundation is in the design process created by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Australia in the 1970s. The term came from the ideas of permanent agriculture and permanent culture aimed at creating truly sustainable systems in agriculture and wider society with a basis in a set of principles, ethics, and approaches.
We all agree that permaculture goes beyond a purely practical approach. Instead, it rests upon three crucial ethical principles: Care for the earth, care for people, and fair share. The principles stand in stark opposition to the current capitalist agricultural system, which is based on individual self-gain and profit.
The ethics are based on research into indigenous knowledges from around the world which have formed the bedrock of long-lasting cultures. They assume that the health of the planet is integral to our survival. Beyond simply sustaining our system, we must actively regenerate the soil, the air, the water.
Our new member asked the question: Doesn’t history tell us that it’s human nature to want to expand beyond our limits? After all, who wants to go back to hunter gatherer societies even if we were more in tune with nature? Others replied that there are so many limits to explore – human relations, philosophy, science, spirituality – which don’t undermine our ecological systems. Permaculture offers a vision of humans as a nurturing force. Peoplecare is the recognition that we are both social being with needs and have a vital role in regenerating the planet’s ecology. As such, we need to regenerate and support one another alongside the planet.
Ecological limits aren’t restraints. Instead, they are the walls that allow natural processes to function. The Fair Share ethic recognizes the great abundance of nature and the need to share it among all. No one should own the seeds, the water, the trees. This challenges our societies, divided by the haves and have-nots. It also challenges our global system, divided by the consumption and power in the global North and the production and servitude in the South.
Design Principles and approaches
Permaculture is based on twelve design principles, which can be found on the Permaculture Principles website. Each principle outlines a different aspect of design, based on ecology, natural systems, and the three ethics.
These principles are not dogmatic, they are emblematic. They originate from knowledge of sustainable food growing systems, but they work for any system, even the ways we organize our lives and movements, as Looby Macnamara has shown in her book People and Permaculture.
As we went through these principles, our new friend asked a practical question. If we are supposed to be letting nature do it’s thing without intervening, what do you do if you have a slug infestation? In fact, slugs offer a great example of how to apply the principles. Slugs are a notorious problem for gardeners. They are usually viewed as pests, an inconvenience to be exterminated. However, permaculture encourages us to see the problem as the solution. Rather than too many slugs, quips the permaculturalist, the grower has too few ducks. By inviting ducks into the system, the grower could transform the problem into a yield of duck eggs.
Along with this example, other people offered other approaches they had encountered. Some brought up hugelkultur, others brought up forest gardens and organic. However, permaculture can’t be broken down into any set of practices. If we observe, make small and slow solutions, and accept feedback, we must design according to the environment we find ourselves in. What works for a white, middle-class student in the global North may not work for someone in the same city of a different race much less for a producer in the global South. It’s a reminder not to impose systems on others nor accept solutions that don’t fit our environment.
How is it relevant to Growing Perspectives?
This blog is not just about permaculture, in a way, it is permaculture. It will be a dialogue—a place where we will aim to value and connect diverse knowledges: indigenous, community, marginal, radical, personal, regenerative. We strive to observe and understand but also obtain a yield. We want to contribute to change, we need to design new systems at every level if we hope to avert a crisis. But we know we can only start from where we are—here in Edinburgh, writing about issues, projects, and solutions, both local and global.
Modern agriculture, monocultures and mechanization, have led to more frequent and stronger pests, diseases, soil erosion and so much more. Like slugs tell us that the system is out of balance, the systemic crisis we face is a sign that we are doing something wrong. Instead of trying to exterminate the problem, double down, or try to increase control, permaculture encourages us to heed the warnings and create solutions with active hope.