The Problem with Permaculture

[Permaculture: a design system for creating sustainable human environments. Functional design based on ecological principles and systems thinking.]

Permaculture has a problem. A big problem. One that's diluting the effectiveness of this worldwide movement for sustainable design.

The problem with permaculture is an image problem: Too many people still think of permaculture as just a gardening or organic-farming thing. Despite the best efforts of its teachers and practitioners to promote it an all-purpose toolkit for functional design, permaculture is still too much stuck in the garden.

What's the problem? you might ask. After all, gardening is important! Everyone's gotta eat, right? And more of us should be growing at least some of our own food, or buying it from local farmers. There are many worse things you could do with permaculture than to limit it to the garden. (For example, you could be trying to use permaculture’s nature-based design principles to optimize the efficiency of a weapons factory. But then you’d be violating permaculture ethics, so you wouldn’t really be doing permaculture at all.)

Confining permaculture to the garden may not seem like a big problem. To some, particularly those who’ve witnessed the power of gardens to transform lives and communities, it may not seem like a problem at all.

BUT. Permaculture isn't just about growing food sustainably. It’s about optimizing the design of ALL human environments and activities. By harboring a limited definition of permaculture, we're greatly limiting our power to design the kind of world we want to live in.

We need more permaculture thinking in architecture and the building trades. In government. In the transportation sector. In manufacturing and distribution and retail. In the entertainment industry! And certainly in the nonprofit sector — lots of opportunities to optimize and streamline functions there too. You name an industry or sector — we need more permaculture thinking there.

Sometimes it seems to me that gardeners are just as likely to have this limited definition of permaculture as non-gardeners are.

Many gardeners assume that permaculture has nothing new to offer them because they're "already doing it." By which they mean, already growing food, raising chickens, composting, and so on. But permaculture isn’t homesteading. Permaculture is DESIGN. It’s a creative process of assembling elements to maximize the number of beneficial relationships. Gardeners who fail to see the wider implications of permaculture are missing out on opportunities to make a bigger difference in their communities, in their workplaces, and in the world.

Meanwhile, many non-gardeners write permaculture off because "I don't garden" or "I don't have space" or "I'm a renter." By harboring this extremely limited definition of permaculture, they’re missing opportunities to enrich the world by contributing permaculture designs in their own professions and disciplines.

One of my first permaculture teachers told our class that his favorite permaculture designs are the ones where there “isn’t a *$#%# garden in sight.” Not that he has anything against gardening; just that he’s frustrated that more people aren’t applying permaculture more widely and deeply.

Wherever you live, whatever your interests, permaculture is for you. Whatever industry you work in, the world needs more permaculture-informed design in that industry.

Over the past few months I’ve been highlighting permaculture design principles and ethics in this blog. I'll continue to do so. Also, on Austin Permaculture Guild’s website (linked below) I’ve posted a (really rough, but I hope useful) quick-start guide to the permaculture design principles and ethics, with examples of how to apply them. You can easily come up with much better, more creative examples yourself.



Interview with Michael Corbett, developer and designer of Village Homes (YouTube video).

Development Center for Appropriate Technology (DCAT), an organization dedicated to promoting changes in the building codes to allow more sustainable building and development.

The RESOURCES page on Austin Permaculture Guild’s website includes a Quick-Start Guide to permaculture design principles and ethics.

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