Permaculture – a fusion of “permanent” and “agriculture” – is arguably Australia’s brightest star in its contributions to the world’s sustainability challenge.
Following its development in 1978, the essence of permaculture has remained the same; to design an ecologically sound way of living on and with this Earth, in our gardens, farms and communities. As a science of observation, it encourages us to think carefully about how we use our resources to get more out of life by using less — and ultimately reap the benefits for the environment and ourselves with less effort and no environmental destruction.
It should be no surprise that the natural world provides everything we need. If we look after it by only taking what we need and giving care back, nature will continue to sustain us. But, unfortunately, the systems we have in place now will not sustain us. Since the industrialisation of agriculture, we have seen a rapid increase in deforestation and large volumes of chemical fertilisers and pesticides used on food crops. The issues are numerous, and the impact is severe. They include loss of biodiversity and habitats to expanding farmlands, poisonous runoff due to supplementary chemicals used on crops to increase yields, soil degradation and more.
To feed the ever-growing population using these farming techniques, places like the Amazon (which provides us with air to breathe) will need to be cleared to raise and feed livestock. Should we carry on down this destructive path, we will face the looming mass extinction of global ecosystems, and not long after, us.
This is where permaculture can change the course of our future. This circular system of care is not some arbitrary gardening technique – it is the much-needed subversion to our flawed society and one of many answers to the immediate climate emergency.
One of the best ways of igniting change in our world is through consistent acts of kindness.
“When it comes to the ground that gives us food, shelter, water and energy — our acts of persistent kindness should not flicker out.”
Permaculture: A Sustainable Movement
Permaculture is a set of techniques innovated on the shoulders of indigenous cultures everywhere, organised by Bill Mollison and David Holmgreen into a systematic strategy naturally applied to our landscapes — whether your backyard or a large farm.
Whittling it down to just gardening undermines what it truly is: harnessing the forces of nature for the benefit of us and the environment. It’s giving yourself the time to witness the patterns in nature that sustain ecosystems and mimicking them in your backyard. Most importantly, it’s about working with the natural world, not against it — something our society has largely forgotten how to do.
At its core, this indigenous science involves working in partnership and reciprocity with the land and cycles of nature – not trying to control and exploit the land into obedience that the industrial revolution forced upon colonised civilisations.
Mollison outlined the core of permaculture perfectly when he spoke on the question of relationships with humans and the Earth;
“‘What can I get from this land, or person?’ or ‘What does this person, or land, have to give if I cooperate with them?’ Of these two approaches the former leads to war and waste, the latter to peace and plenty.”
Permaculture is based on three main principles; Earth Care, Human Care and Fair Share.
How can we build organic horticulture or agriculture that sustains the land for the ecosystems that inhabit it and for future generations to come?
This is the question we all must ask ourselves, not just budding permaculturists. While we can’t all have access to land to grow our produce, Earth Care flows into all the decisions we make daily: the clothes we buy, the businesses we invest in, and everything in between. Even growing a few vegetables and fruits in your city container garden can have a necessary impact in the scheme of things – including nurturing your mental health and the local bees.
When permaculture as a system was developed, the concept of permanent culture was fundamental to its success. How can we create permaculture if people are expendable and uncared for? The principle of Human Care asks that we meet our basic needs for food, shelter, education, employment and healthy social relationships. Genuine Human Care can’t be exclusive in a tribal sense. There can be no elites here – we must take into account all members of the community.
In a city or suburban setting, we could all benefit from deepening our sense of community. For example, you might not have the skills needed to renovate your house to be more environmentally friendly or grow your food. Still, by increasing our community network and working with each other, we can improve our ability to be self-reliant and live far more sustainably than before.
This last ethic is effectively the fusion of earth care and human care. It acknowledges that we only have one Earth, and that it must be a safe and sustainable home to humans and all living species — as well as those still to come. There is no point in designing a sustainable community or nation if others are condemned to live without clean water, clean air, food, shelter, ethical employment, and social contact. Permaculture calls for a change in this imbalance we see across the world, where some industrialised nations use the resources of almost three Earths and others are left in poverty not of their own making.
Roots of Permaculture
What followed Mollison’s and Holmgreen’s success was a global movement en-mass. This rapid spread of awareness was partially due to divine timing. The sustainable movement gained traction in the political agenda, but mainly because Mollison made the study of permaculture open to everyone worldwide – not just elites at university.
Above all, permaculture is an indigenous science. And, to not risk appropriating the practice in a reductionist nature, it’s important to remember that what we now label as permaculture stems from origins far beyond our time. Mollison recognised this and acknowledged the teachings from Aboriginal communities in Tasmania and Indigenous cultures worldwide, from which his practice finds its roots.
Permaculture Designs Are As Unique As You
There is no one way that permaculture looks. You cannot cut and paste one permaculture designed plot of land and place it in your garden — because not all land is the same. Integrating permaculture into your environment takes patience and being present to your garden’s environmental factors.
Rather than bending the environment to suit our will, implementing a permaculture system asks you to look at what is already there and see how your vision works with it.
Is there an abundance of sun on your property?
Will you need windbreaks (e.g. large shrubs) to protect from harsh elements?
What is the soil naturally like?
How will you implement a compost system?
Building Your Permaculture Space
There are many techniques and systems that permaculture gardens can incorporate.
A key system involves creating zones working outwards from your residence. For example, you want the plants that need the most attention, the ones you wish to access the most, closest to your house. From there, you work with what the environment has to offer and move outwards.
Another commonly used technique is companion planting. It involves the placement of various plants close to one another to complement each one’s growth symbiotically. For example, Native Americans pioneered the companion planting of corn and pole beans together. The cornstalk would serve as a trellis for the beans to climb.
“You use everything, nothing goes to waste, and every decision is a conscious decision.”
It’s inevitable that once you use a system that incorporates ecological principles, you will come head to head with governing power and how society is designed to work. For generations, people were raised as consumers above all else. So it is incredibly subversive to live your life the way permaculture teaches — you become self-reliant and discover a deeper consciousness.
In a society that has increasingly made us rely on outside sources for survival, learning permaculture is, as Bill Mollison liked to say, peaceful sedition.
“I teach self-reliance, the world’s most subversive practice. I teach people how to grow their own food, which is shockingly subversive. So, yes, it’s seditious. But it’s peaceful-sedition.”
Permaculturists to Follow
The following Instagram accounts are rooted in sharing a more sustainable way of life to the world – one that lives and breathes the three principles of permaculture.