I don’t define Permaculture.

Historically, Permaculture as a design system has been around for over 40 years now, a product of the collaboration between Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. In terms of strategies and techniques there was very little that was new, in fact I understand that Mollison himself is known to have said repeatedly, “There is nothing new in Permaculture!” Indeed these strategies and techniques have been around for a long time, often centuries or millennia.

It’s an age old question that has been floating around for perhaps as long as has Permaculture itself. An one that is nigh impossible to answer.

What was and still is new about Permaculture is the bringing together of all these strategies and techniques into a Functional Design system. But even then, defining Permaculture is a nigh impossible task.

It is often said that if you ask Five Different Beekeepers exactly the same question, you will get six different answers. We beekeepers are certainly an opinionated lot, such that I say if you are only getting six different answers, then you are asking the wrong five beekeepers. But perhaps that is a discussion for another time. Yet, if you ask five different permaculturists from anywhere on the planet exactly the same question, chances are you will get exactly the same answer – It Depends! Not always of course, but mostly.

So it’s not surprising that when you ask people new to Permaculture what they think it is, you get a whole range of answers, including organic gardening (a popular answer), sustainability, eco building, self sustainability, solar energy, off grid, and so on.

Indeed, there is even a Facebook Page dedicated to that eternal question “What is Permaculture?” It is now deprecated, but reading through some of the responses gives a very good idea of how wide the views are. What is Permaculture?

Some colleagues and I were pondering the question, “How would you explain Permaculture to a non Permaculture type person?” Discussing this it became evident that there are indeed many viewpoints as to the make up of Permaculture, each predicated on an individual’s needs and experiences. Permaculture is such a flexible design system that it presents what is needed to each situation and thus also presents differing experiences to individuals. Much like a multi-faceted jewel, where what you see is dependant upon through which facet you are looking.

And therein lies the challenge – how to express such a versatile and powerful concept to those with no Permaculture knowledge or experience.

A solution was offered – “It’s how you think.” Hmmm, ponder, …

Permaculture changes the way you think.
image – Jesper Sehested@Flickr

And that is the key.

Permaculture is a design system using Ethics and Principles to formulate a series of Tactics, Strategies and Techniques to achieve the desired result. It’s a way of designing and building Systems around Patterns to provide an outcome with minimal footprint, hopefully leaving the scenario better as a result. BUT, it requires a different way of thinking. The world is still following one form of thinking; economy, fossil fuels, compartmentalisation, and so on. To change, we need to change our thinking. As they say, “The definition of insanity is repeating the same action expecting a different result.” You only have to look at the decisions and actions of most governments around the world …

Permaculture is often seen as a way of gardening, which is quite understandable as Permaculture started out primarily as an agricultural design system based on observing and using nature’s processes. Also, all life on earth is dependant on energy that ultimately comes from the sun. Extremophiles aside, plants and gardening are a vital link in the chain of converting the sun’s energy into a form that we can integrate – fruit, herbs, vegetables, and so on.

But the Permaculture Design System is capable of much more than that. The underlying concepts haven’t changed – observing and using nature’s processes – but the scope of usage has changed and is continuing to change and expand as we gain more insight into the possibilities of this system. As such, it can also be used to design tangible structures such as houses, infrastructures such as transport and communications, and intangible structures such as communities and financial systems.

This challenge, that of defining Permaculture, has been much upon my mind of late. And after considerable consideration, I have decided to stop trying to define what Permaculture is, rather talk of what it is about. But that’s the same thing isn’t it? Well, no, not really. Whereupon we end up in Alice in Wonderland territory. To paraphrase “So that is what the book is called.” “No, that’s the name of the book, we call it something else.”

However we come in to Permaculture, through a PDC (Permaculture Design Course), through reading, watching videos, via mentoring, permablitzes, hanging out with permies, or any combination of the above and more, the way we think and the parameters we use in those thoughts are changed forever.

No longer when designing do we think only of the financial bottom line – profit.
No longer when designing do we think only of making a product that increases consumption for the sole purpose of increasing the company bank balance.
No longer when designing do we think only of the end product and not all the costs.
No longer do we employ reductionist thinking, rather holistic systems thinking.
No longer do we do things that have been accepted as the norm for so long.
For as Rear Admiral Grace Hopper said, the most dangerous sentence in the English language is ‘It’s always been done that way.” Or words to that affect.

Rather, when designing, we think of the energy flows, inputs and outputs, nutrient cycles, characteristics, behaviours and benefits, consequences and ramifications, both intended and not, succession, complexity, relationships, and much, much, more.

So, what is Permaculture? I won’t tell you that, but I will tell you what it’s about.

Permaculture! It’s about DESIGN, and it changes the way you THINK!