The principles that inform permaculture’s design process can be applied not only to landscapes but also to people and society.
Whereas permaculture ethics are more like moral values or codes of behaviour, the principles of permaculture provide a set of universally applicable guidelines that can be used in designing sustainable systems. These principles are inherent in any permaculture design, in any climate, and at any scale. They have been derived from the thoughtful observation of Nature, and from earlier work by ecologists, landscape designers and environmental science.
David Holmgren recently redefined these principles in his seminal book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability1. With each principle comes with a ‘proverb’ and is followed by my explanation.
Observe and interact. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
For me this element of stillness and observation forms the key of permaculture design. In a world of instant makeovers, of ‘fast’ everything, having the capacity to observe the seasons, watch the changing microclimates on a patch of land, understand how the patterns of wind, weather and slope affect the frost pockets and plant growth is an opportunity to begin to learn the deeper aspects of Earth care on our own doorsteps. It also makes us more capable of making wise decisions about how we design or eco-renovate our houses and plan our gardens and farms if we understand the effects of wind and weather.1
Catch and store energy. “Make hay while the sun shines.”
Intimately connected to observation is the art of capturing energy in a design – so that we minimise the need to seek resources from the outside. In a garden this is about avoiding planting tender seedlings in frost pockets in spring or maximising solar gain by siting a greenhouse/conservatory on the south side of a building so that we can both extend the season and heat a house with passive solar gain. We are attempting to capture water, sunlight, heat, soil, biomass and fertility whenever we can to become more self-resilient.
Obtain a yield. “You can’t work on an empty stomach.”
Food can account for as much as one third of our ecological footprint so it makes sense to grow as much as we can, even if it is tasty sprouted grains on the windowsill in a flat. So a permaculture garden is by default an edible landscape with good floral companion to attract beneficial insects and a building is a potential heat store and structure for solar panels. But the concept of ‘yields’ is not merely about renewable energy or veggies, a yield can be about social capital. For us at Permaculture Magazine, seeing people changing their lives for the better, building community links and reducing their carbon after reading our books or magazines is the ultimate positive yield for a publisher.
Use and value renewable resources and services. “ Let nature take its course.”
Whenever possible, permaculture seeks to use resources that can be renewed. This naturally applies to energy, soil conservation, and the planting perennials food crops as well as annuals and seed saving. It is also a principle that encompasses people care. People, animals, natural resources are not expendable and their well-being and continued survival are primary. Compassion for all things is key to this principle
Produce no waste. “Waste not, want not. A stitch in time saves nine.”
In the UK, we throw away the equivalent of 24 bags of sugar per household per week – 14.1 kg. That’s 29 million tonnes (55% of that is household) for year. I have a favourite saying that the landfill of today will be the ‘mine’ of tomorrow. At Permaculture Magazine we have no waste collection and our business is designed on permaculture principles. We reuse first and then recycle all possible materials – paper, cardboard, textiles, glass – and compost all organic materials, from kitchen waste to shredded paper. The subsequent compost feeds our edible container garden outside our office and provides a medium for growing plants for other projects at the Sustainability Centre. Zero waste means saving money as well.
Design from patterns to details. “Can’t see the wood for the trees.”
This is about looking at the whole picture and seeing how an eco-system, however modest, functions rather than focussing down on little aspects of it. Implicit here is the idea that sustainable design is holistic and therefore must take into account the whole picture, whether it is for a garden, farm or lifestyle.
When Tim and I designed our house and garden, we read up on permaculture design, forest gardening, renewable energy, eco-architecture and eco-renovation as much as we could. We spent a year observing the land before we started planting and a few more thinking about how best to make our house a happy, energy efficient place to live in (whilst saving up as much as we could). We observed the seasons, the climatic variations, the weather, the soil patterns, slope and our own human activities on the site as a family. We also considered the ‘edge’ between house and garden and how we might make this both aesthetic and productive in terms of food crops and energy harvesting.
In other words, we started off looking at the bigger picture – the pattern of what sustainable living might be – with examples from other places and then we refined our exploration into the detail appropriate for our particular site. We didn’t make a ‘shopping list’ of individual items or projects and try and mesh them together in a hotchpotch of what might be regarded as described as ‘green’. Thus there isn’t a micro-wind generator in sight (because it isn’t appropriate technology for us) but there are many other features that you might expect in a permaculture design and even some that you wouldn’t!
Integrate rather than segregate. “Many hands make light work.”
We have a cultural tendency to separate veggie gardens from flower gardens and use hard edges to design our spaces but companion gardeners will know that the more integrated the orchard is with the wildflower meadow or the vegetables are with flowers frequented by beneficial insects, the less pests will prevail. The same is true for people. Cultural diversity brings a robust and fertile culture and rigid monotheism of politics and religion, for example, bring sterility, even social and political repression.
Use small and slow solutions. “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”
overloaded by their outputs. The more accessible and fixable our technology and chains of supply are, the more robust the system. This principle speaks of hand tools, of appropriate technology that can easily be fixed, and of relocalisation. Currently we have a three day ‘just in time’ supply chain of supermarkets. If fuel the supply is interrupted, the supermarket shelves will empty at an alarming rate. Better to build resilience into our systems by relocalising our essential needs as much as possible and having technological alternatives that we can fix. Who, for instance, can fix their iPod?!
Use and value diversity. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
Biodiversity makes healthy eco-systems. Diversity in terms of crops, energy sources, and employment, make for greater sustainability. Valuing diversity amongst people makes for a more peaceful, equitable society. Conflict and wars are the biggest slayers of sustainable development.
Use edges and value the marginal. “Don’t think you are on the right track just because it is a well-beaten path.”
Examples of edge in Nature are: when canopy meets clearing in the woodland, inviting in air and sunshine and a profusion of flowers; where sea and river meet land in the fertile interface of estuaries, full of invertebrates, fish and bird life; where the banks of streams meet the water’s edge and fertility is built with deposited mud and sand in flood time, giving life to a riot of plant life; where plains and water meet, flooding and capturing alluvial soils… Edge in nature is all about increasing diversity by the increase of inter-relationship between the elements: earth, air, fire (sun), water. This phenomenon increases the opportunity for life in all of its marvellous fertility of forms.
In human society edge is where we have cultural diversity. It is the place where free thinkers and so-called ‘alternative’ people thrive and new ideas are allowed to develop and ageless wisdom is given its rightful respect. Edge is suppressed in non-democratic states and countries that demand theological allegiance to one religion. Mainstream America with its economic and cultural orthodoxy and China with its religious persecution of the Tibetan people share an intolerance to ‘edge’.
Creatively use and respond to change. “Vision is not seeing things as they are but as they will be.”
In nature, there is a process of succession. Bare soil is colonised by weeds that are in turn superseded by brambles, then pioneers like silver birch, alder and gorse which stabilises the soil, the latter two even fixing nitrogen to create a environment that can host the slow growing temperate climate species like oak, beech and yew. But nature is dynamic and succession can be interrupted by browsing animals, storms that fell trees and create clearings or a changing climate that is less hospitable for certain climax giants like oak and beech. The challenge of a permaculture designer is to understand how all these factors interact on each other in a landscape or on a plot of land and design accordingly. It is no good restoring coppice without fencing out deer or planting trees if they will shade out the solar panel in a decades’ time.
Equally well, we need to appreciate how climate change will affect our agriculture with higher summer temperatures that will burn or blow away the topsoil, greater volumes rain in winter and springtime and more violent storms with higher wind speeds. Hotter summers may allow more vineyards on the gentle southern slopes of the chalk downland. They may also make English oaks less viable in the south. What then do we plant and how to we design in resilience to our settlements? One example is to plant more shelterbelts for farmland as well as housing estates and forgo building on floodplains (or at least designing in wetlands that have a sponge-like capacity to absorb seasonal extremes of rain).
This principle is deeper than this, however. It invites us to imagine a future world, a world without cheap oil, and a world that necessarily radically reduces carbon loads in the atmosphere. By imagining this world, we take the first steps towards creating it. We stand on the bedrock of permaculture ethics – earth care, people care and fair shares – and are empowered by a set of principles that can inform our planning and actions.
There is, of course, more to permaculture design than this but here you have a taster. I hope I have encouraged you to find out more if you are new to this and I hope, if you are a seasoned practitioner, that I have done justice to this inspirational and practical subject. I have a friend, Ben Law, who lives and works in his Sussex woodland, and builds wonderful woodland houses and other structures out of coppiced chestnut and hazel. He writes movingly about his intimate knowledge of the woodland, its flora and fauna and his connection with the land. Yet he is quick to admit that his knowledge of woodland crafts and management after 17 years is still in its youth compared to previous generations who have spent an entire lifetimes living this way of life.
Though permaculture has been around since the 1970s it too is an evolving discipline. There are few, if any, who full understand what all the elements of a sustainable future will look like. There is no sense of ‘experts’ telling us how we should live. Rather there is a journey to be undertaken by us all during which we will hone our skills and experiment with different ways of living more balanced and peaceful lives. This is the adventure that calls to all of us.
1 Patrick Whitefield, permaculture teacher and author, has written a fascinating book, The Living Landscape, that teaches us how to observe and understand the evolution of landscape.
2 Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren.
3 The Woodland Way – a Permaculture Approach to Woodland Management by Ben Law. www.ben-law.co.uk