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Permaculture & Sustainability

What is Permaculture? 

By Laura Williams

The term permaculture was coined in the 70s by Bill Mollison and his then student David Holmgren as a contraction of ‘Permanent agriculture’ and was a response to the new and rising awareness of global environmental degradation newly heralded by books such as Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring. People were suddenly faced with the fact that the fantastic advances of the industrial revolution and the bright promise of the 1950s ‘Better living through chemistry’ came with a price attached and the natural world was already starting to pay that price. For the first time in modern history the seemingly inexhaustible supplies of earth’s resources were being recognised as finite and this was being brought into the public awareness by the oil crises of that decade. The ‘permanent’ was meant as antithetical to modern industrial systems, including food systems, that, through their dependence on fossil fuels were revealing themselves to be unstable, unresilient and polluting.

Bill Mollison and his then student David Holmgren responded to the growing awareness of these crises by creating a new design science whose principles are distilled from those found operating in natural systems, like forests. These principles can then be applied to the design and re-design of human systems to make them sustainable and resilient with the least environmental impact possible. Simply put a permaculture system strives to leave the environment in a better state than which it was found whilst at the same time providing abundantly for human needs. It is based on three ethical values; Earth care, People care and Fair share.

As permaculture spread and developed people discovered that they could apply the principles to activities and systems other than agricultural ones and it seemed more appropriate that Permaculture stood for Permanent culture. Despite the fact that permaculture design can be applied to more than agriculture most people associate Permaculture with land-based activities such as farms and smallholdings. It must be stressed however that Permaculture isn’t a set of gardening techniques. It is a set of design principles or, as I see it, a lens with which to view the world, your life or problems and creatively seek solutions.

The most popular route to discovering and then applying permaculture to ones life is by taking the 2-week permaculture design course (link to Permaculture Association’s website). This is a mostly theoretical course designed by Bill Mollison as an accessible way to propagate and spread permaculture whist keeping faithful to it’s origins. The two-week course is intensive and the design element is emphasised with the last week culminating in a group design exercise and presentation. It is stressed in the course, literature and magazines that permaculture is about design. It is recommended that one should spend as long as possible observing ones system, e.g. land, preferably for at least a year before intervention. Then one should, survey, map and decide what elements (things e.g chickens or houses) to include. Then using the principles one should produce a master design and strategy with the elements placed intelligently and in connection with one another. Permaculture emphasises that a successful system is not just about the elements in one’s system but how they are related and connected to one another, one should aim to create beneficial relationships.

My own experience with permaculture did not follow this recommended route, even though I was lucky enough to end up with land to practice on. I didn’t wait a year to get started, to observe, design then implement. I simply took what I knew and applied the principles as I went along, observing and interacting certainly, but operating without an overarching ‘on-paper’ design. It could be said that design at the level outlined in the PDC and designers manual is suited to land use professionals or farmers, people who are already familiar with how land lies, the elements and sectors. To people with little or no background in these things it can be overwhelming and daunting. After three years living, working and observing the land here I can tell you where the sun shines at different times of the year and day but even with a background in ecological research I still don’t feel confident to articulate it on a sector map as recommended in the permaculture design process!

My real journey with permaculture was far more of a gradual internalising of the principles which started from an early age, 20 years, in fact, before I came across the term permaculture. Through a deep and abiding passion for wildlife I observed how nature took care of itself, providing everything that is needed for its elements to thrive and evolve. I was especially fascinated with the fact that natural systems produced no waste, that every ‘output’ was someone or something’s ‘input’. I would marvel at the exquisite design of the banana’s fruit encased in a skin, which would allow the fruit to ripen to perfection, allow me to hold, transport and eat it and then it would become food for fungi and other decomposers. Everyone happy and fed and NO waste. A far cry, I observed, from a packet of crisps! It seemed intuitive to me that humans should try and mimic nature’s efficiency and ability to evolve and renew. Through this process of internalisation, by observation, study, contemplation and practice, permaculture’s principles have become a lens with which I can choose to look at the world. I can use this lens to look for solutions or inspiration usually though not exclusively when I am managing the land; forest, forest garden, or garden.

My lack of aptitude for design-on-paper and a desire to ‘get on with it’ made creating a formal design unappealing and a source of guilt for some years that I wasn’t “doing it right”. My conversations with other people reveal a similar story, mainly that they got their land and they also wanted to get on with it. After a period of research and inspiration with or without a PDC course they felt inspired and ready enough to get out there and experiment! Peter Bampton, co-founder of the Awakened Life project was the same. After a PDC course and with no previous experience he bought Quinta da Mizarela and started planting trees and making beds!

Wonderful!! Permaculture inspires people with previously no experience of land imparts confidence to people in this way is one of its greatest strengths. Most people want to get practical, they, like me, want to get their hands dirty and find out how things work, or not, as is often the case and great learning mistakes are too! In fact this learning through experience is called Action Learning in the permaculture world and is recognised as a most valuable way to learn.

In view of this I originally designed the Integral Permaculture Internship as an opportunity for people who had taken the PDC but had no land of their own. I thought there would be many people out there who would be keen therefore to put theory into practice on someone else’s land with guidance. However most people who apply have no PDC, but are really keen to learn and practice at the same time. People seem for the most part not that interested in a whole lot of theory independent of the practical. We had a similar story running Introduction to Permaculture courses, people would come to the mostly theory and design based courses and just want to know how it to apply the principles to get started in their own gardens. So we started Permaculture Gardening courses instead and these remain ever popular.

Having said this and despite my enthusiasm to get my hands dirty I have, over the years, evermore, recognized the value of (as Bill Mollison wisely puts it) protracted and thoughtful observation, at the expense of protracted and thoughtless action. It is one of the things I have learnt along the way as I dove into the practical. He describes the kind of big, irreversible mistakes that we make when we dive in too quickly without enough planning or observation ‘Type 1’ errors, those that we have to live with everyday.
In Permaculture: A Designers' Manual, Bill Mollison suggests:
• That the systems we construct should last as long as possible, and take least maintenance.
• These systems, fuelled by the sun, should produce not only for their own needs, but the needs of the people creating or controlling them. Thus they are sustainable, as they sustain both themselves and those who construct them.
• We can use energy to construct these systems, providing that in their lifetime they store or conserve more energy than we use to construct them or to maintain them.

Even though I never got an all-embracing design on paper, it is increasingly taking shape in my mind. There is a great article here from Permaculture magazine about why design is so important.

Of course the longer I am immersed in this land, living, breathing, observing and allowing it to enter my very pores it starts to reveal its secrets and I am increasingly able to see how to create beneficial relationships between elements, key leverage points become more obvious and I work much more efficiently with space and time.

Therefore when I teach permaculture I really emphasise two aspects. The first is observation, observation, observation. One can’t get enough of this and we don’t need to wait to get started to observe either, it is a continuous life long love affair with the world around you and it gets more profound and rewarding the longer I practice it. Only through systematic and curious and surrendered observation (though not at the same time), can one truly align with the direction and movement of one’s system, recognise the leverage points and embrace it as a glorious, interacting whole.

The second is what I am discovering to be the true heart of Permaculture; the ability to give people a very practical and pragmatic lens with which to view the world and their systems and therefore inform their designs whether formal ‘on-paper’ or more informal planning. That lens includes this toolkit of practical principles to inform one’s decisions about how to live more sustainably and turn all manner of problems into solutions.

So when I teach I stress the benefits of internalising the principles of permaculture. Many people have a head start in this as the principles are naturally intuitive, particularly those who feel a connection with nature or have some environmental awareness. Even those who have been exposed to a more frugal pre-war mindset like my Grandmother had, where one reused and recycled not because it was the environmental thing to do but because money was tight and resources were scarce, will recognise the common sense of Permaculture. In addition, the more people come to appreciate the awe-inspiring intelligence and efficiency of natural systems the more a desire to protect and improve their environment increases. As this desire and the principles are internalised it becomes natural to take time and care and joy in creating intelligent design.

I don’t think that the initial formal design element is redundant in permaculture, far from it, I heartily encourage anyone with the aptitude or desire to create a formal design to do so, but perhaps permaculture is naturally evolving to the point where the formal design is only a part of living permaculture and the internalisation of and then direct application of the principles to people’s lives, whilst including paper design and strategy doesn’t always mean these.

Permaculture and it’s principles are utterly life affirming, life positive and completely rooted in empowering action. They are an antidote to the despair that can arise when we find we are immersed in huge, unsustainable human systems where it seems we can’t intervene. Permaculture says there IS a different way of doing things that we can do right now so let’s DO IT! This is why I love it and why I am passionate about sharing it.

Being Nature: Pure, Wild & Free by Laura Williams



Some videos with Laura & Annelieke describing permaculture practices and principles at the Awakened Life Project...


About the project

The Awakened Life Project is situated in a beautiful and wild ecological reserve in the mountains Central Portugal. We offer volunteer programs, courses, events and retreats to support the liberation of the human spirit in a context of evolutionary emergence and communion with the ecological web of life.


Quinta da Mizarela
3305-031 Benfeita
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