Surviving and thriving on our planet demands a system that supports interconnectedness, reciprocity, and regeneration.
In this time of disconnect — of peak oil, climate chaos, population explosion, energy crisis, water shortages, mass extinctions, societal disruption — many people are wondering how to get from where we are to where we need to be in order to survive and thrive on this planet. The answer, I think, lies in the promise of permaculture.
What is Permaculture?
The term “permaculture” was originally coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in their book Permaculture One (1978) as a contraction of “permanent” and “agriculture.” By the early 1980s, the definition had expanded in scope to broadly encompass the ways in which people can live on the land and in communities. Now, there are as many definitions of permaculture as there are permaculture designers — it’s like a language, in the sense that it’s constantly evolving as people participate in and contribute to it.
Permaculture Is Design that Considers Whole Systems
A decision as simple as where to site a garden or plant fruit trees involves whole-system thinking. Just bringing a garden closer to the home and making it a central aspect of an outdoor living space can make it easier to tend and better utilized. Going a step further and incorporating the rainwater runoff from the roof and the graywater from the house and a composting system for kitchen waste would create a system that is even more resilient and self-sufficient.
Growing vegetables in your garden will feed you, lower your monthly food bill, and perhaps offer more nutrition than anything you would get in the grocery store, but it also gets you outside, in the garden, hearing, smelling, and seeing the daily activity and seasonal changes around you. When you think of gardening from this big-picture point of view — from a whole-system perspective — you come to realize just how much it builds upon and nurtures our relationship and communion with the world, allowing us to provide for ourselves while acting as co-creative members of a larger system.
The more landscapes, communities, even organizations are interconnected and diverse as a whole, the healthier and more resilient they become, and the less waste they generate.
Permaculture Is a Way for Humans to Be More Resilient in a Time of Climate Instability
Resilience is the ability to adapt to and bounce back from disturbances. There is no way to know what the future holds for us, especially when it comes to climate change. We need to cultivate the ability to adapt to change, to anticipate and account for these fluctuations, and to design resilience into our systems.
Like a building that has been designed and built to move and flex with hurricane winds, a garden that grows a diversity of crops can handle a few pests and still yield well. Better yet, if the plants are healthy and strong and the garden includes plants that actually repel pests, perhaps the pests just pass by. On a larger scale, an uncertain future will necessitate that we support diversity in our infrastructure and resources while allowing smaller regional systems to adapt to local conditions and requirements. At the same time, we can rebuild the social capital that binds together and supports our communities.
Permaculture Is a Positivist Approach to the Challenges of Our Times
Permaculture is “positivist,” which means that we can acknowledge the difficult realities of the world, but it is important to focus on what we can do, not what we can’t do. This is the vision of permaculture: creating a world that we engage with and improve as we live, work, and play. As a keystone species — one that has taken control over vast areas of the planet — we need to become better caretakers, to see ourselves as part of nature, not above it.
Permaculture Is a Way to Regenerate the Earth While We Provide for Ourselves
Living systems are regenerative; that is, they renew themselves. The materials and energy that drive living systems are cycled through that system again and again. But when materials and energy are subtracted from a living system — like fossil fuels being extracted, or nutrients being washed away, or a major species being eliminated — the system’s ability to regenerate suffers a blow. With enough damage, the system loses the ability to regenerate entirely, and a cascade of environmental “crashes” follows.
Permaculture offers one simple principle to combat the entire onslaught of disaster: Support nature’s ability to regenerate. Creating and supporting regenerative systems means moving beyond “sustainability” and actually giving back to the ecosystem around us as we take care of our own needs.
Communities need regenerative work as well. People need connection, to each other and to nature. Reinvesting in communities and rebuilding social networks and social capital bring multiple benefits, like improved education, better health through cleaner water and air, and strengthened connections between elder and younger generations so that, over time, a community holds together and renews itself.
Permaculture Is an Ethical Approach to Living
Ethics are guideposts for what you might call “right action.” Over time, societies develop these guideposts to help people live in alignment with their values. Permaculture has its own set of ethics, and they are threefold: earth care, people care, and fair share. The principle of “fair share” simply refers to recognizing the limits of what we need and not consuming more than is necessary, so that we can allow the excess to flow to others who are in need.
If we can build — or rebuild — connections to each other, to the land, and to the systems that support us, we can, perhaps, contribute to a growing worldwide web of interrelationships. That network, in turn, can become the foundation for a self-sustaining community that interweaves human endeavor with natural systems to support a resilient, prosperous future for all.