What is Permaculture??

At this stage I don’t know if I have an answer to that question, or I should say I could answer it but it would be mostly based on my interpretation. I am also hoping that after completing my studies of the Permaculture Diploma that I will still be as vague.  Firm answers can become dogma and can exclude people.

There seem to be many interpretations of .. ‘Permaculture is..’ or,  ‘That is NOT Permaculture…’ I don’t want to add to that debate, but for a definition and explanation from the Permaculture Research Institute in Australia there is this web page;


Reading the definition from the above page could leave a newcomer bewildered and some friends of mine who know nothing about permaculture after having read some books have decided to ‘just stick with what they know’ That is understandable as well.

I don’t think the question “What is permaculture?” is so useful for someone new to the idea, because the answer they receive would often be based on the respondents perception/interpretation, their lifestyle, their personality, their background and their community. Going on a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) is a good starting point and covers a wide range of topics. Then the learning begins… and most people will begin to start looking within as to what permaculture is, and then of course what and how people learn will be very different and individual based on their life circumstances.

The impact of learning about permaculture for a community in Africa (for example) would be very different to the impact on someone’s life from a more affluent country or background. Both learning experiences could be enriching, life-changing, profound and open up a whole new way of thinking, but the needs being fulfilled would most likely be very different. Learning to grow your own food (as just one example) is a very different thing for someone who doesn’t know where their next meal will come from or how they are going to feed their children, than it is for someone who has a good income, can afford their own food but wants to learn how to grow their own and change their habits and impact on the world. Both cases are equally valid, but the needs are different and so therefore what permaculture means to each and every one of us will be different. If you study the course or even get into reading the books it will most certainly change the way you think, it will change the way you look at the world and it will benefit people as  individuals and life on this planet, but the definition and ‘living it out’ will most definitely be different…

What is very in vogue at the moment in the UK is the whole ‘grow your own’ it is even being marketed by the supermarkets… and then there are all the community gardens.. community projects..’think local act global’ slogans. These are all useful and a progression, in fact they are essential in the current climate and our future as a species, but is it permaculture? I don’t have the answer to that. It is definitely a shift in perception about where our food comes from and a realization that our present food supplies cannot support us if we want to continue as a species and care for the planet.

The word Permaculture is fairly new, but if we go a bit deeper we can see that people have been practicing a Permaculture way of living for a very long time if not since the beginning of time. Somehow though,  maybe over only the last fifty years or so we have lost the way, and concentrated on what we can get from nature or how we can manipulate her rather than what we need to give to nature so that she can adequately and safely support us.

“Avoid too much of a good thing”

There has been some criticism from within permaculture ‘cirlces’ about those who claim to be using permaculture – being that they are practicing some permaculture methods but not all. At this stage in time criticism, in my opinion, is not useful to help people grow, change or develop. It is more useful to encourage people to start where they are, do what they can do and begin at least to be more conscious of their actions. We are all in this together, we have all created the world we live in, we are all one at the end of the day.

“Recognise and break out of design cul-de-sacs”

“Failure is useful, so long as we learn”

“Elegant solutions are simple”

Wherever we go and whatever we do we shall encounter purists, extremists and experts, and we can learn from them, but we can also chose our own path, nothing is set in stone, and for me anyway, it is our intentions which are important.

What I am learning about, and what is having the most impact on me are the ethics of permaculture, they seem to be universal and the least controversial. It would be hard to challenge them if we are being honest and true to our nature.

They are; Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share

Some of the useful questions I have asked myself in relation to these ethics are;

earth care

  • Is what I am doing caring about the earth, not just in this moment, but for the future? This doesn’t just relate to gardening or growing your own food.
  • Where has my food been grown and in what conditions, how did it get from seed to my plate?
  • What materials are this product made of, how was it obtained? Do I really need it??
  • What do I give back to the earth in return for what it provides for me?
  • How much waste could I cut down on? Recycling is a move towards ‘caring for the earth’ but reducing our quantity of waste could go a good bit further..
  • How much pollution do I create? How could I reduce that?
  • Am I aware of any ways that I am creating pollution which I could reduce? Should I do more research into these matters?

people care

  • Is what I am doing benefiting others in any way which is meaningful? – This doesn’t mean we all have to change our jobs and do ‘care work’ but how we contribute to our society/community/lives of others
  • Are my actions taking into account future generations? We may not all have children but we have family/friends with children and ultimately ALL humans are our family
  • What conditions are the people working in who made my garments, equipment, new gadgets? Do I really need this? Can I look further into another model, garment or gadget which has cost the earth or humans less damage?

fair share

  • Do I have a surplus of anything which someone else could benefit from?
  • Does anyone else have surplus that I could use instead of buying more stuff?
  • Are the people who made these clothes, grew this food & manufactured these goods being paid fairly and justly? If not, where else can I shop?
  • What skills, experience & gifts do I have that I could share or pass on?
  • Who has skills that they could teach me, to help me be more self-sufficient?
  • What stories do I have to tell that would benefit others? What stories do others have to tell me?
  • How can I support local farmers, craftspeople, business’s and also let them know what I can offer?

Starting from here, from where I am now and thinking of these questions, at times makes me feel uncomfortable or even overwhelmed, but I am learning to face this and change things, even if it is in small ways initially.

“All observations are relative”

“The problem IS the solution”

So what is permaculture?

A word…?

An idea…?

An action…?

A plan…?

A ‘design’ process…?

An evolving concept…?

An answer…?

Whatever you take it to mean, from wherever you are at the moment is likely to be what permaculture means to you or to me, but every conscious decision we take is what is important.

“Top down thinking, bottom up action”


2 responses to “What is Permaculture??

  1. Hi Tracey. My own ‘core value’ of Permaculture is the third ethical principle, in it’s original form. Rather than fair shares, it should perhaps be read as Reduce Consumption in order to redistribute surplus towards Earth Care and People Care. The more that I reflect on what Permaculture means to me, the more that I believe that all of the other principles are just the way that we get to that core. Where that puts the diploma, teaching, courses etc. is a long discussion, which I’m happy to have with you some time.
    Wishing you well

  2. Hi Deano,
    Thanks for your comment, and I am in complete agreement with your core value, without it, I believe, the other ethics just cannot happen. After a discussion with a good friend and fellow permaculture student recently I came to the same conclusion, that the ‘fair share’ ethic is thee most fundamental, and as you say the core of permaculture.

    I’d love to discuss with you aspects of permaculture and in particular diploma studies, teaching and courses. It would be great to hear your views, I will look forward to when we get the opportunity to do just that.
    Take care

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