The Permaculture Journey

Permaculture is an ethically based system for designing sustainable lifestyles. Wherever you live you can, by applying the Principles of Permaculture, working with, rather than against nature, actually improve your quality of life, while reducing your impact on the eco-system of which you are a part.

The ethics of Permaculture are simply stated: to care for the earth, to care for people, and to use all surplus for these two purposes.

Such a manifesto might well create scepticism, or feelings of guilt, anxiety, & fear of deprivation, if Permaculture required people to make radical changes based purely on faith. But Permaculture is not a belief system. It is the practical application of design principles derived from the observation of natural systems. Bill Mollison, the co-originator with David Holmgren, of the Permaculture concept, says: 'We can teach philosophy by teaching gardening, but we cannot teach gardening by teaching philosophy.' And in the garden, on the balcony, in the home paddock, or even on a pile of dirt in a neglected corner of a city street, is where Permaculture begins.

The Mandala Garden

The technique most people immediately associate with Permaculture is No-dig gardening. This, & other techniques, are not exclusive to Permaculture design. Ruth Stout (Rodale Press, USA) & Esther Dean (Australia) published books many years ago documenting their success with this growing method. Using it, people who have never before grown a plant rapidly become confident gardeners. Not only do we gain much pleasure & fulfilment from the process, but by producing good food for our table, we improve our nutrition. Over time, we become more aware of the weather, the seasons, & other natural cycles.

Using No-dig methods, & also applying the principles of Permaculture design, we can develop a Mandala Garden. Originally designed in the tropics, this popular first step on the Permaculture journey has since been adapted for sub-tropical & warm temperate climates.

The garden is laid out in a pattern which enables the whole garden to be watered from one central point, allows access to all parts of the garden while maximising growing space, is aesthetically pleasing, and, by facing the entrance to the East, optimises subtle energy flows. Plantings are planned to allow light & air to reach all plants, & to take advantage of nature's methods of 'pest' control,e.g.scattering plants of similar species, attracting & providing habitat for natural predators, & companion planting. The cabbage butterfly, often a problem in the conventional organic garden, feeds the cheery little flycatcher, while that pesky sparrow soon gobbles up the tender green caterpillars.

Developing & contemplating such a garden, & the processes that evolve in & around it, creates in the gardener a level of awareness which is fertile soil for the seeds of change. At the same time, the inner peace & intense joy which is experienced leaves little room for fear of such change. Energy is used creatively in the garden, not wasted on sustaining feelings of guilt & anxiety.

As the garden develops, so does the gardener, becoming a healthier, happier, more realistic person. By working & living with the tangible wonders of natural systems, pilgrims on the Permaculture Journey gently initiate change in themselves, their backyards, & eventually, the world.


'The philosophy behind Permaculture is one of protracted & thoughtful observation.........rather than protracted & thoughtless action.' Nowhere is this more true than when seeking to create the conditions in which community can develop.

The joy of food production, & increased awareness of natural systems generates a desire to share the experience of Permaculture. But, though others may find your garden interesting, & enjoy receiving gifts of produce, this seldom leads to involvement, & enthusiastic Permies often feel frustrated when attempting to enlarge the scope of their activities

When Permaculture design is restricted to growing annuals, results are dramatic, but short-lived. When the design is extended to include selected food fodder & fuel trees, & perennials, it becomes a long-term, & potentially sustainable enterprise. But trees take time to grow, & patience is required. Designers can deal with the temptation to intervene unnecessarily by developing habits of intelligent observation, & working on other applications of Permaculture design.

Permaculture is about caring for people, not just providing their food. Design principles need to be applied to social & economic structures. While waiting for trees to grow, we begin learning to create community. For Permaculture is about self-reliance through community, rather than mere self-sufficiency.

Community means a group of people having something in common. It does not require intimacy, uniformity of belief, or the loss of privacy or personal autonomy. Since Permaculture is about permanence (putting down roots) community in Permaculture is principally defined by locality. 'The golden rule is to develop the nearest area first.' Building community begins where we live. Getting to know our neighbours is the foundation step on this journey. It is more challenging than creating a Mandala Garden, but the skills required are similar. Just as we develop confidence & awareness when we make discoveries in the garden, so we develop confidence as we discover how much we have in common with the people around us. As awareness increases, we let go of the concept that only some plants are useful. 'Everything is of use.' Similarly, we learn to let go of our prejudices, & celebrate diversity in people, as in plants. We learn that :'Everything works both ways.' We work with people where & how they are, & let natural processes take care of their growth, just as we learn to do in the permaculture garden. We cannot hurry these processes, any more than we can make a tree grow faster. But in allowing full value to each person. we create conditions where real communication can develop.

Communication leads to trust, trust to sharing, sharing to practical co-operation, & the accomplishment of tasks we are unable to undertake alone. In time, the community of which we are a part will discover itself, & it's members decide how best to work together to create our common future.

Energy Accounting

To design for sustainability, we must use energy, a true currency, as the basis for our accounting systems. Since energy can neither be created nor destroyed, & all forms of energy can be measured in terms of the heat it can produce (calories or kilojoules) it is a stable form of measurement.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the tendency of energy is to degrade in quality, & lose it's ability to do work. This is called entropy. All living systems have developed the capacity to resist entropy. Life could be defined as the instinctive development & exercise of this capacity, & the degree to which any life form possesses this capacity used to determine its success.

Over geological time, complex systems involving large numbers of different life-forms have evolved, enabling widely varying life-forms to interact, & achieve a greater degree of sustainability than an individual life-form or species. We call such systems Eco-systems, & now realise that diversity is essential for sustainability.

Permaculture design aims to balance the energy inputs & energy outputs of a system; and to make the energy entering a system do as much work as possible before leaving it. Bill Mollison has said: 'Any (truly) sustainable system produces the energy (needed) to establish & maintain itself, & doesn't lay waste to any resources.' Over time, if the energy leaving a system is less than the energy entering it, the system becomes disordered, or chaotic. E.g. too much food in, & too little waste coming out = constipation. If the energy leaving a system is greater than the energy entering it, the system will rapidly succumb to entropy. E.g. not enough food in, while the body continues to function = starvation.

Natural eco-systems are effective & well-balanced systems for using natural energy inputs. Therefore the principles of Permaculture design are based on long & patient observation of natural systems. The single most energy efficient element of any such system is a plant; & the most effective form of renewable energy that can be generated by it is human or animal labour. So we design systems that use large numbers & many varieties of plants, to produce, store, & recycle energy, and animal & human activity, combined with simple & appropriate technology, to gain as much yield (work) as possible from that energy before it leaves the system.

Working constantly to recycle energy within such systems leads to new personal & community priorities. Food is produced close to where we eat it, & menus drawn from seasonal foods grown in the region. Resources, work, and tools are shared, reducing energy consumption, & increasing interaction with family & community. Feet, bicycles, community & public transport replace the private car. All 'waste' is seen as a resource, & used appropriately. Distinctions between work & leisure blur, as the need for money lessens, & enjoyment of meaningful & productive activity increases. We take pleasure in simple things, living according to the natural cycles of sun, moon, & seasons. We reclaim our humanity, & rediscover our place in the ever-changing, finely-balanced Web of Life.

Designing for Catastrophe

One important aspect of Permaculture is designing for catastrophe. To define catastrophe, we need to examine our desire for safety & security, & what we mean by those terms. In Permaculture we recognise that 'Everything works both ways'. So it is not seen as negative when people adopt Permaculture practice because they fear for our future.

Fear can paralyse, confuse, cause panic or become continuous energy-draining anxiety. Or it can stimulate, clarify, act as an agent for positive change, & become a constant source of energy & motivation. Since carrying out a Permaculture design requires a long-term source of personal energy, Permies learn to respond intelligently to fear, knowing that it is, like pain, one of nature's warning signals. They have learnt from observation of natural cycles that disease, injury, & death all have their place in the cycle. These are part of the process of change, & without death there would be no room for new life. The products of decomposition are observed to supply the matter out of which new life arises. So instead of suppressing fear, so that it re-surfaces as blame, guilt, or denial, we acknowledge our fears, evaluate them for rationality & probability, & then develop strategies for managing those which cannot be eliminated. Bearing in mind that Permaculture design is about management, rather than an unrealistic degree of control, we can design for an achievable level of safety & security.

Diversity is one of nature's ways of maintaining stability in constantly changing conditions. The more diverse the means of food production & other life support systems, the less likely that a situation will arise where everything is put out of action. So, in a Permaculture design, every element is selected & located for diversity of function. We know, for example, that to rely solely on mains water & electricity in a bush-fire will not guarantee the effectiveness of our fire-fighting system. So many different sources of water & methods of delivering it to the right places, the identification of fire sectors, & fire-retardant plantings, are all part of the Permaculture strategy to reduce the effects of fire.

Nature demonstrates that highly specialised systems are very vulnerable to sudden changes. And sudden change, when it occurs on a large scale & affects entire systems, is what we commonly refer to as catastrophe.

Designing for catastrophe specifically aims to minimise the effects of disaster, & to maximise recovery & rehabilitation once immediate danger has passed. Those who have the freedom to choose their location wisely can, with good design, minimise the effects of bush-fire, flood, cyclones, & other violent manifestations of natural forces, so that rapid recovery is possible, & permanent re-location unnecessary. Even if you are forced to live in a vulnerable location, good design & forward planning, both as a household, & as a community, will considerably reduce the impact of such events.

When we acknowledge the possibility of catastrophe, we face the fact that life is a risky business. This demands courage, but it also restores the sense of challenge & adventure that makes everyday living so exciting that we no longer need to over-stimulate ourselves by indulging in the 'buzz' of energy-guzzling sports & environmentally damaging leisure activities.

Why 'Permaculture?'

The concept of a permanent agriculture in the context of a permanent culture needs examination if it is to be thoroughly understood.

'Perma'culture appeals to many to whom permanence suggests fixedness, something which seems to offer security & to assuage their fear of change.Others may assume that, once a Permaculture design has been established, little needs to be done except to feast upon its products. People in either category may be bitterly disappointed if they embark upon Permaculture courses or design projects without having first taken time to reflect on the realities of the concept.

The 'Permanence' of Permaculture denotes a state of dynamic stability. This is very different from a state in which no change occurs. It certainly means staying in one place, either as a family or as a community, so that a trust of ongoing stewardship ensures the maintenance & further development of the design. It means settling in a locality & becoming familiar with the bio-region of which it is a part. Tenure is more important than actual ownership of land; renters or lessees committed to a locality look for new accommodation within it if they have to move house. Time is spent putting down roots - forming relationships with other residents, becoming familiar with local businesses & service providers, finding ways of contributing to the community; getting to know the natural history of the region, & seeing particular sites in the context of the wider landscape. All this is essential background knowledge in creating a Permaculture design.

Permanent 'agriculture' & permanent 'culture'support one another. On the agricultural side, planting is polycultural & diverse, so that each tree, shrub, perennial, or self-seeding annual selected assists & is assisted by the others, to fulfil the natural cycles of the system as a whole. When animals, birds, reptiles & insects are deliberately introduced, the system should be well enough established to integrate them without major disruption. Soil is conserved & poor soil re-habilitated. Water is harvested & stored, principally within the soil, & natural energies harnessed. Some management is essential - total control quite undesirable.

A well-designed system can take as long as 5 years to bring about significant changes in the site & lives of the people living on it, & 10. 20. or even 30 years to demonstrate its full potential, depending on climate, soil & available energy.(Time, labour, renewable fuels, money etc.) So we are designing, not just for ourselves (a Permaculture design is an excellent form of superannuation investment!) but for our grandchildren & those who will come after them. Our Permaculture design becomes their heritage.

Thus, a permanent culture has to develop simultaneously with the permanent agriculture. If we educate ourselves, & inspire our children & our communities to share in, & share with others, the knowledge we acquire, the motivation for maintaining & developing the system will grow, & in time be transformed into a tradition of caring for the earth, of caring for people, & using surplus for these purposes.

Plants made it possible for people to evolve. In the partnership that has developed plants always have been, & must remain, the senior partners. Plants are Permaculture, & we must learn their ways & adapt ourselves to their timing if we are to survive as a species. So the way to develop a Pemaculture is slowly, going joyfully & purposefully hand in hand with plants & people in an endless journey of growth & discovery.


In this series we have so far examined several specific areas of Permaculture design. In this final article, let's take a look at the general claims made in the introductory paragraph.

When we design our lives, instead of just wandering along letting things happen to us, we use many positive strategies to help us implement, maintain, & if necessary, adapt our design. We make decisions on the basis of energy use rather than allowing ourselves to be dictated to by the monetary system. We acquire lots of new skills & meet many interesting people. We develop the habit of seeing solutions, not problems. We learn to think on our feet, gradually becoming poised & confident that we can handle life & adapt ourselves to new demands & developments. Even when life seems completely chaotic, we are able to perceive, by analogy from our observation of natural systems, an underlying sense of order which will surface in time. We learn to use our personal energy to work with things rather than fighting them.

Because the system is based on an Ethic every action, however small, becomes significant, & our life takes on real meaning. We are no longer so impatient of detail, nor do we feel so overwhelmed by the big picture, because we have learned to recognise patterns, & to enjoy experiencing their manifestation in our lives. We know that what we do now is rooted in the wisdom of the past & is actively shaping our future.

When we grow our food, or purchase locally produced foods in season, we eat more healthily, & reduce the non-renewable energy used in food production & distribution. When we mulch, make compost, & use locally produced organic fertilisers, we reduce energy inputs into our system, substantially reduce our water use, & produce less pollution. When we study our use of gas & electricity, we think about how they are generated & distributed to our home, & also about how we cook, process, & preserve foods, & indeed what foods we eat. This reduces our energy bills, & usually results in healthier eating. When we design our garden, so that it not only produces food, but shade & shelter when & where needed, we further reduce our use of non-renewable energy.

When we walk or cycle instead of using the car, we get exercise & relaxation while reducing energy consumption & pollution. If we quietly watch birds animals & insects, or contemplate the growth of plants, rather than lighting a cigarette or popping a pill to settle our nerves, we improve our health, & no longer support the huge, energy-guzzling environmentally damaging multi-national companies that produce them.

When we are no longer slaves to fashion, but dress for comfort, utility & personal pleasure, we need fewer clothes, enjoy them more, & take better care of them, further reducing our impact on the environment.

When we carefully select our household appliances, & learn to maintain & repair them instead of replacing them at the first sign of trouble, we not only save ourselves money, but use much less non-renewable energy. Overall, our household expenses will be substantially reduced in the long term by the application of Permaculture design principles.

We gradually let go of our dependency on high energy use & credit ratings. We start to be instead of buy, to eat instead of re-fuelling. We have real choices to make & real challenges to meet, not artificially created ones, & our self-respect increases accordingly.

Sounds Utopian, doesn't it? We become healthier, spend less money, have a quiet conscience, plenty of personal confidence, & a strong sense of meaning in our lives. It doesn't happen overnight, but the consistent use of Permaculture design really can make all this happen for YOU.

© Margaret RainbowWeb 1994
Adelaide South Australia

Margaret got her Permaculture Design Certificate with Earthcare Education at Crystal Waters Permaculture Village. She also completed their Educator's Certificate, has a Diploma in Permaculture Education, Site Development, and Community Development, and a Community Service Award from the Permaculture Institute of Australia.
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