On this blog I’ve presented a simple definition of permaculture and tried to unpack what constitutes “real” permaculture and even questioned the very sustainability of permaculture. In my recent research survey of individuals practicing alternative agriculture in Western Canada (find posts analyzing the results here and here) I asked: ‘How do you personally define “permaculture”?’ As said in the podcast linked at the bottom of this post, “If you ask 100 different permies to define permaculture, you’re going to get 200 different definitions.” Here are some of my favorite definitions from the survey responses submitted by a range of food production people, permaculture devotees to those not so convinced:
“Fun! & A design methodology and practical lifepath for regenerative human settlement patterns”
“Viewing the agricultural landscape as an ecosystem and understanding its ecology.”
“Permaculture is a holistic and solution-based approach to landscape design and human culture. The harmonious integration of mankind with nature to provide water, food, energy, shelter and community. Observe Nature, and follow its example.”
“Working with science and nature to make this world a better place for all”
“permanent agriculture: using the land to naturally replicate and emphasize agricultural growth with materials and systems naturally available.”
“The $64,000 question. I have not found a definition that I agree with. I do not even like that word! I am an old fart and was brought up by my grandfather who gardened before the days of NPK and petrochemicals. When faced with an agricultural decision, I ask myself “What would the boy Sid do?” I would define permaculture as what the boy Sid would do. But I am sure that you do not comprehend the nuances of what I mean by the term “the boy”. History is a foreign country and we spoke a foreign language.”
I don’t know if this response was indicating the respondent didn’t know what permaculture was, or if it was a statement of protest, but it make me laugh: “no”
“Permaculture is a design science, which can provide all of humanity’s needs while benefiting the environment. The framework is based on three ethics: care of Earth, care of people, and return of surplus to the system.”
“Sustainable agriculture that encompasses social and environmental values using nature as our greatest teacher”
“It is using a variety of methods to tilt the ecosystem and infrastructure that exists at any given site towards the best potential that it has to support a human habitat (in many different ways). It is imperative to not harm the Earth, but instead aim towards increasing regeneration/recharge patterns then was present before the project began. Permaculture=Permanent Culture. ”
I think this definition is very elegant and concise: “Permaculture is the science (study) and conscious design of connections.”
“A philosophy and set of tools that enable people to work with natural systems and local assets to design and practice applied sustainable living across a wide range of human and non-human needs at that site and the larger community”
“I avoid defining it.”
“Design respecting the natural flow of energy and materials in and out of a space. Generally agriculture related but can also be applied to energy, housing, water, and cultural systems. Restorative in nature while offering abundant yields.”
One of the more prominent permaculture teachers in the province, if not all of Canada, offered a two tiered definition of permaculture being a mental paradigm shift and also a design system: “Design system for the paradigm that humans can have a positive impact on the planet while meeting our needs. For permaculture to work must have mental paradigm that we can have a positive impact while meeting our needs. Once you have that paradigm it’s a design system.” (this is not a direct quote, as I was quickly taking notes over the phone.)
I love this: “Hippies dancing naked in the mud and way too much talking”
“Providing my own self sustaining garden ”
“Working in harmony with nature, instead of fighting it”
“Mine is an old-fashioned and increasingly unpopular definition. Permaculture is the miracle of food growing everywhere.” I don’t personally see why anyone would dislike that definition. I think it’s wonderful.
“a holistic system created to best serve each site’s individual needs and features”
I received over 100 responses to this survey. This small sampling gives an idea of the diversity of definitions that exist in the community. In some ways this diversity is wonderful as it challenges those in the community to constantly rethink their values and consider what permaculture means to them as they are frequently presented with new definitions. It creates a dynamic social environment. On the other hand, this incoherence makes it very challenging to explain permaculture to an outsider, teach it to the masses, or to quantity the impacts of a “permaculture” system.
If you’re interested in digging deep into the critique of what permaculture actually is, I suggest you listen to the two podcasts linked below. While I don’t agree with everything said, and some of it is a bit harsh, I think the critique of the movement/philosophy/design system called “permaculture” is important and needed. If you’re not a podcast buff like myself, my responses after each recording will give you a taste of the material the podcaster Diego presents.
Diego sees the lack of one coherent definition of permaculture a problem. I think the most important thing Diego touches on here is the fear mongering inherent in permaculture, especially early Mollison-era permaculture. My background in environmental activism and work in the academic critique of environmentalist movement has taught me that behavior change strategies based on fear simply don’t stick. The best example is how Al Gore and “The Inconvenient Truth”riled up a lot of people, but it didn’t result in much, if any, significant policy or culture change. I think one of the greatest potentials of permaculture is the message of self-empowerment. The rhetoric is slowly shifting away from “surviving the collapse” and towards a vision of a future that generally increases harmony. Harmony between people and the earth and harmony within and between communities.
This second podcast touches on what I see as permaculture’s PR problem and the pseudoscience that is pervasive in the design theory. One of the most significant things I’ve realizes so far in my research is that permaculture can be very alienating the farmers. Overzealous fresh graduates with their PDC course disparage mainstream agriculture while the majority of the calories they consume come from these systems. I think most permies need a large dose of humble pie. Permaculture people must understand that farmers need to make livings and they play an indispensable role feeding the masses. Farmers function within systems that make trying new strategies very very risky especially if there isn’t reliable data to back up the claims behind those strategies. For many farmers permaculture hasn’t been proven worth the risk yet. The best thing permies can do, rather than bashing farmers, is demonstrating possible better ways of doing things and testing out the permaculture tactics. As Diego says, “drop the dogma, go for it, and realize what you’re doing might not work.”
In terms of permaculture as a movement (instead of a landscape design system), I think it is fine that Diego sees permaculture as the draw to get people involved. It draws people into the garden. It introduced them to system thinking strategies. It puts them in touch with their food systems. If they aren’t exclusively married “permaculture” forever, Diego and I agree that that’s fine. At least they are at the table working towards the same end goals. Picking apart permaculture as a design science and permaculture as a social movement will be an interesting challenge as my research continues.
Personally, I like “permaculture” even with all of its ambiguity. It’s the best way for me to find like minded-people who care passionately about restoring the earth and creating a better society than we have now. It inspires people and then those people inspire me. I also think many of the practical design strategies in permaculture make sense and have a lot of potential, but I still think we need the research to prove it all works, or disprove it so we can find the next best thing.
Share your thoughts in the comments. I would love to hear other perspectives!