Permaculture: designing for a sustainable future
What permaculture is and what it is not
Article – Dr Ross Mars
Permaculture deals with our existence on this planet and it encompasses many different aspects of this. Firstly, permaculture is about producing edible landscapes, mirroring the natural ecosystems in their diversity and production. Permaculture is primarily a design system. This is the main difference between it and all other agricultural and horticultural practices. Permaculture designs endeavor to integrate all components of the ecosystem in a holistic approach to sustainable living and practice.
Permaculture started out as permanent agriculture and thus focused on the growth and development of perennial food crops. Annuals and biennials do have their place, but the use of long-living food crops, such as fruit and nut trees, is the priority. Some areas of the garden need to be devoted to annuals and in most cases they can be inter-planted between the perennial herbs and other trees as companion planted guilds. Too often, annuals are taken for granted in food production and they should be used in the system within the framework of perennial production.
Permaculture is not just about gardening, although its origin of permanent agriculture suggests this. Nowadays, permaculture is thought of along the lines of permanent culture, incorporating all aspects of human beings and human settlements.
Gardening, however, is one simple way in which people can take some responsibility for their own existence and begin to care for the Earth. Helping yourself and others to build gardens in your own backyard, in an effort to drastically reduce the need to buy produce from someone else, is one of the most environmentally-responsible things you can do to help reduce our consumption of resources and to heal the planet.
Since the late seventies the concepts of permaculture have also developed, such that it encompasses finances, water harvesting, communities, buildings, and alternative and appropriate technology. For many of us, permaculture is a framework that unites many disciplines, and so the subjects of aquaculture, ethical investment, horticulture, solar technology, soils, and many others can be integrated together, each contributing as part of the whole.
This framework permits many different forms of knowledge to be interwoven – all relative to one another. It is not a set of techniques per se, but rather how a number of techniques are employed to build a system in which energy is harvested, directed and allowed to flow. Permaculture is also different from both organic gardening and forest gardening in that both of these are techniques of garden construction and composition. Permaculture is more than this. It is a design strategy.
Design for living
Permaculture is the harmonious integration of design with ecology. The ethics of earth care, people care, limits-aware and surplus-share are common to all permaculturists, even though the design strategies and the techniques they employ vary widely. We design for long term sustainability, and this is why a design is a harmonious integration of landscape, plants, animals and humans, as well as the placement of components or elements in recognizable patterns.
Truly successful designs create a self-managed system. A large amount of what we call permaculture is really just commonsense, using human intuition and insight to solve problems that confront us.
The outcomes of good design should include:
• sustainable land use strategies, without wastes and pollution.
• established systems for healthy food production, and maybe some surplus.
• restoration of degraded landscapes, resulting in conservation of endemic species – especially rare and endangered species.
• integration and harmony of all living things on the property – all things live in an atmosphere of co-operation or interact in natural cycles.
• minimal consumption of energy.
The ultimate design, if there is such a thing, is the marriage of what is best for the land and what is best for the people who live there. What we call a “design” is really only a pictorial representation of the implied inter-relationships between objects, structures, plants, animals and humans. The drawing only gives information about placement and types of species and nothing about their interaction, which is the most important thing about any ecosystem.
Again, permaculture is not just about designing gardens. It is about designing human settlements. It is a plan that endeavors to maximize and enhance human interaction with the environment that surrounds them. This plan considers all facets of human existence. Coming to the realization that changes are needed to the ways humans live, and then facing the bold step of acknowledging that we should do something about it, is crucial for our own survival on this planet.
Many people find it difficult to accept these ideas and change their outlook. But to embrace permaculture you have to change because it requires you to look at your life and lifestyle from a different perspective. It is a life-long journey of change and growth.
Furthermore, permaculture designs are based on broad, universal principles which allow for local knowledge so that local species can be incorporated. This makes sense. Wherever possible, local resources and species, found in that soil type, climate and area, should be used. This is both economically and ecologically responsible action.
In designing, we repackage or re-assemble components already existing on the property and incorporate new ones. Components are assembled and elements placed according to the function they perform. We use insight to develop unique and effective strategies. The design may examine many options and some decisions of particular options are taken so that they are definitely included.
Each permaculture design is tailor-made. It is the marrying and blending of what grows best in the particular area and soil with what the owner or gardener wants. Permaculture empowers people to solve their own design problems and apply solutions to their everyday situations. Designers have a responsibility to recognize which permaculture principles need to be applied to a specific problem or situation. Solutions may include the use of edge, patterns or guilds, and good designers see every difficulty as really an opportunity.
A permaculture design is more than just a landscape plan. Maps, plans and overlays do not indicate or suggest the interconnectedness between things, nor can they deal with other aspects of permaculture such as the social and financial aspects of human settlements. However, a landscape-style plan does give some indication about dam and house placement, and the future location of swales and orchards.
You might think about the design as being a visual representation of the concept. Implicit in any design should be a number of energy harvesting and modifying strategies, a number of soil, water and land conservation strategies, a number of food producing strategies and a number of human settlement strategies, such as housing, shelter, village development and so on.
Designs always change and hopefully for the better. The design is the beginning point of the journey, and as new ideas and experiences develop, the design evolves as well.
How relevant is permaculture?
Permaculture is certainly about growing enough food and having a lifestyle which will enable you to become self-reliant and less dependent on the marketplace and agencies outside of your control. But it is more than this: it is about how we live, the type of houses we build, ways in which we can live more sustainably and how we deal with water, energy, soil and living things. Permaculture is fundamentally a way of life. It is about taking responsibility of your life and doing the things you feel are important for your own well being, for the well being of others and to help the environment.
In recent years there has been much talk about global warming, climate change and peak oil. Each of these will have major impacts on our future survival. Permaculture is seen by many people as providing strategies to enable us to adapt to a challenging future. How important it will be to us, only time will tell, but there is a huge re-interest in permaculture throughout the world as people begin to understand how our environment is changing and how we are totally dependent on oil.
Permaculture designs do take time to establish, but once they are implemented they become more and more productive. A larger range of useful products become available, the level of maintenance decreases and the system becomes more complicated. Permaculture, and the framework it embraces, will give people hope and enable them to develop skills to allow us to rise to the challenges of a changing world.
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