Current industrial-agricultural methods are often destructive, wasteful and unsustainable; this goes for animal, grain, fruit and vegetable farming practices. These unsustainable methods include:
- Vast clearing of natural landscapes
- Stripping soil of its nutrients, ultimately rendering it useless
- Depleting groundwater supplies
- Using fertilisers that pollute our land, water and air
Consumer culture demands copious amounts of crop and animal products, so we can all go to the supermarket and buy whatever we desire. While this practice may work on a small scale, the global population is growing by the day. Supply will need to increase, and the quickest/cheapest way to achieve this is by using unsustainable methods. This is the basis of our entire economy, so we can safely assume this trend will continue. However, if demand keeps growing and we continue these practices, eventually we will deplete the earth’s finite resources.
How do we fix this? We need to remember that human beings are a part of nature, not apart from nature. We need an agricultural system that reflects our true place within nature. Cue: permaculture.
Photograph courtesy of Srl
What is Permaculture?
Permaculture was popularised in the late 1970s by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. They recognised the unsustainable nature of industrial agriculture and set out to remedy the situation. Thus, permaculture was born.
Permaculture, a contraction of “permanent agriculture” or “permanent culture”, is built upon 3 core ethics:
Earth Care – Restoring the soil, water and air to its best state so that it can continue to support life;
People Care – Encouraging self-reliance, personal responsibility and community growth; and,
Fair Share – Taking only what we need and sharing surplus.
12 Design Principles of Permaculture
Want to know more? Permaculture is a broad field, that cannot be easily reduced to a few paragraphs. That said, the major principles of designing any permaculture system are a great place to start. David Holmgren outlines these principles thoroughly in his book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, but I will just give a brief summary. For more information, click on the icons beside each principle.
1. Observe & Interact
Natural environments are all different. That is to say, there are no blanket rules for sustainable design; we need to observe and understand our personal situation in order to create a suitable design. This principle also encompasses “being one with nature”.
E.g. You may notice that rainwater pools in certain areas of your yard. By this principle, you would use that knowledge to your advantage and plant vegetation there that thrives in such an environment.
2. Catch & Store Energy
There are plenty of free, natural energy sources available to us. This principle highlights the need for harnessing natural power and storing it for future uses.
E.g. Sunny places can utilise solar panels to catch the sun’s energy. Solar power systems also have the capacity to store energy for cloudy days.
3. Obtain a Yield
Make sure you are getting something from your hard work. There is no need to buy something, say tomatoes, from a shop every week if you have the perfect place to grow them for yourself. Of course everyone’s yield will be different, depending on their personal situation. The important thing is to obtain something.
E.g. Someone living in a small apartment can still grow some herbs on the windowsill and obtain their own yield.
4. Apply Self Regulation & Accept Feedback
It is important to constantly assess our impact on the earth, people and fairness. It is equally crucial to be open to feedback about our actions. We look back at older generations and wonder how they could have made such poor environmental decisions, but we don’t want future generations to do the same. We can assess regulate our global impact ourselves.
E.g. Taking note of unnecessary personal energy usage and making a conscious effort to reduce it.
5. Use & Value Renewable Resources & Services
Mother Nature provides us with an abundance of resources, we just need to know how to use them. This idea is about reducing the amount of non-renewable resources we use, and increasing renewables options.
E.g. Horse-drawn ploughs use the horse’s energy instead of burning precious fossil fuels. They also require smaller spaces between rows of crop, meaning less wilderness needs to be cleared for the same yield.
6. Produce No Waste
Essentially the old adage: “waste not, want not.” Why do we throw so much stuff onto landfill when we could use it here and now? Our society is becoming more conscious of this principle but it is still important to remember. Reduce, re-use, recycle!
E.g. Composting kitchen scraps to use in the garden, using food scraps to grow more food.
7. Design From Pattern to Details
Wild ecosystems have evolved in certain patterns, like fractals, that allow them to thrive. We need to replicate these patterns to use as the foundation for sustainable design.
E.g.When walking through the wilderness, one does not come across 100 rows of fruit trees (like we see in agriculture), and for good reason. Ground vegetation and shrubbery are important for returning important nutrients to the soil. It follows that our gardens should follow similar designs.
8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate
In other words, working together to achieve results. Too often, people shut themselves inside their homes, becoming so focussed on their individual existence that they don’t even know their next door neighbour. Community is essential to permaculture.
E.g. Community gardens are the perfect example. Not everyone has the time or space to grow much, but community gardens are the perfect remedy. All it takes is a little cooperation.
9. Small & Slow Solutions
Permaculture cannot be achieved overnight. The idea is to make small changes often. To reference Aesop’s fable, be like the tortoise and not the hare.
E.g. If you start by planting one or two vegetables, soon enough they will be flourishing and you can move on to plant more. Likewise, if your friend or neighbour does the same you can share between the two of you. Soon enough more people will want to be involved and eventually a community may be formed.
10. Use & Value Diversity
Diversity is a natural part of environmental systems. Diverse vegetation safeguards against minor problems having major consequences. It makes sense to include diversity within our own agriculture.
E.g. Consider Mr Brown, who plants only potatoes, and his neighbour Miss Green, who plants potatoes and kale. It so happens that potatoes become infected by Potato Virus Y. In this case, Mr Brown’s entire garden would be fruitless, but Miss Green would still have kale to eat because she incorporated diversity in her system.
11. Use Edges & Value the Marginal
Don’t disregard edges and spaces between fields or wilderness. These areas are often rich in nutrients from both adjoining areas; so may provide the ideal place to grow another plant. Alternatively they may provide protection from the elements or yield food in the off-season.
E.g. If your garden was next to a large meadow, strong winds might blow across the meadow and affect your plants’ health. You could plant trees in the adjoining edges, creating a shelterbelt that would act to slow down wind speeds in your garden.
12. Creatively Use & Respond to Change
“Vision is not seeing thing as they are but as they will be.” Our world is growing and changing, so we need to grow and change with it. As permaculture itself is still so young, we now need to help develop the ideals and help them grow. At this moment we have the opportunity to share permaculture with others and watch it metamorphose into some truly beautiful.
Icons from permacultureprinciples.com. Check it out for more information.