Permaculture – a primer

Hi, on a couple of occasions people at the Transition Poole meetings have asked about Permaculture and its relevance so here is an attempt to shed some light.

First a direct quote from the Transition Handbook,

“One of the foundations of the Transition concept is permaculture.  Permaculture is something notoriously difficult to explain in a single sentence: it resists an off-the-cuff definition that would enable an accurate mental picture to be formed.  In essence, it is a design system for the creation of sustainable human settlements.  When designing the transition that our settlements and communities will inevitably have to undertake, we need a design template with which we can succesfully assemble its various components – social, economic, cultural and technical – in the most efficient way possible. 

Permaculture can be thought of as the design ‘glue’ and the ethical foundations we use to underpin Transition work, to stick together all the elements of a post-peak settlement.  The reason that people with a permaculture background tend to ‘get’ the Transition concept ahead of most other people is that it is based on permaculture design principles.  I have spent the last ten years teaching permaculture, and its ethics and principles very much underpin my thinking.” 

Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the Transition concept  – “The Transition Handbook” page 136-137

Permaculture as a concept was developed in the 1970’s at the time of the first oil crisis by Bill Mollison & David Holmgren – Bill could see the way civilisations had marched across a green and abundant world and left desert in it’s footprints was unsustainable and the sudden explosion in population, technology and pollution brought about by the discovery and burning of fossil fuels was speeding this up.  He and David spent a long time looking at natural systems and found that there are some universal principles that enable these systems to perpetuate themselves without the need for any assistance from man.  They came to the conclusion that if these principles could be utillised to design human settlements deliberately then we should be able to grow all that we need in a way that builds in resillience.  Further study of living indigenous peoples confirmed this.

The Ethical Principles,

All Permaculture design is based on 3 simple Ethics,

  • Earthcare – rebuilding natural capital
  • Peoplecare – Nurture the self, kin and community
  • Fair share – Redistribute surplus.  Set limits to consumption and reproduction

These principles can be seen as common to all tribal indigenous peoples who often have very strict taboos on any member of the tribe who breaks them (See Rebecca Hoskins “A Message in the Waves” for an example of this).

The Design Principles

Depending on which permaculture books you read you will get a variety of listed principles that can be observed in nature, however this is largley down to semantics and our love of lists.  In the original Bill Mollisons “Permaculture Designers Manual” (which is now like goldust), a weighty tome of 500 pages none were really listed but the underlying message was “work with nature, not against her”.   Bill later brought out a slimmer “Introduction to Permaculture” with Reny Mia Slay which listed 10 design principles, the 3 ethics and some attitudinal (mental approaches eg ‘the problem is the solution’).

In 2002 David Holmgren published “Permaculture – Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability” and was based on the principles he had been teaching for 20+years mostly at the home and small holding he had designed and built himself.  These are the priciples shown in the Transition Handbook on pages 138-139.  It is worth noting that the 1 – 6 relate to elements organisms and individuals whilst 7 – 12 are the patterns and relationships that tend to emerge from system self-organisation and co-evolution.

Permaculture design, as hinted at by Rob Hopkins is the template for creating sustainable closed loop systems that do not exhibit the following, (from Bill Mollison)

  • Unmet needs = work
  • Unused outputs = pollution

We could not say that about our present settlements, but it is what we are aiming for with conscious design.

So, we have our ethics and natural principles, we then use the following acronym, OBREDIMET in the planning and implementation,

  • Observation – surveys, questionaires, base maps, soli sample etc
  • Boundaries – what visible and invisible limiting factors are there to our site? (eg visible = next doors smelting works, invisible = legislation)
  • Resources – What do we already have?
  • Evaluate – what, based on the above do we need by way of systems and elements to meet the needs of ourselves (or our clients)
  • Design – What does it look like on paper?
  • Implement – Put the design into practice
  • Maintain – carry out any works that are needed
  • (re)Evaluate
  • Tweek – adjust as needed based on continual re-evalution

There are other design acronyms but they all follow the above order – the final design should evidence the ethics, so I would not be implementing something that would harm the  earth, myself or neighbours, nor create a surplus that would end up wasted (see allotment skips for the opposite of this!), the design principles (or at least some of them) eg “use and value diversity” not relying solely on one crop , but a variety that also utilises natural pest control maybe.

This very short introduction may illustrate why Rob does not dwell on it in great depth in the Handbook – Permaculture design has the benefit of allowing us to make our mistakes on paper and to save considerable amounts of time and energy – The observation stage is really, really key to success – there is no point in my growing tons of gooseberries in my garden, even if the conditions are ideal, if I cannot persuade my children to eat them!

Gary Finch

Oakdale Permaculture Pathways

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