An Introduction to Permaculture, ethics and principles

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Origins and meaning of Permaculture

The term Permaculture originated from the work of two Australians: Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. The term itself was derived from permanent and agriculture or culture. While not the first to write about permanent agriculture they were the first to develop it as a scientific system. They arrived at the concept in response to the unchecked growth and consumption of industrialized development and the urgent sense that other methods must be revived and developed to achieve sustainable settlement on the earth.

By studying natural ecosystems and the cultures that have remained intimately connected to them, certain principles were recognized. These principles form the foundation of a working relationship with the earth that enables human settlements to flourish without upsetting the natural balance and functions of the ecosystems around and within them.

The objective of permaculture is to design and build human settlements that provide a good life and also work in harmony with nature. This goal is accomplished by applying the principles, strategies and techniques that have been compiled and developed into a scientific system. Many of the techniques and strategies themselves have been employed by people and cultures for millenia.

The unique aspect of permaculture is that it not only compiles and integrates the techniques and strategies for sustainable living on a historical and global scale, but also incorporates the attitudes and motivations as well. These attitudes and motivations are expressed as a trio of ethics which guide the way to action. The ethics themselves are derived from observing people and cultures that have successfully achieved the aims that permaculture later adopted.

Permaculture a Science Based on Ethics

Ethics are sets of beliefs, morals and guiding principles that help people act in accordance with their culture and environment. To select the ethicas of permaculture a lot of travel and study went into looking at where and how people have achieved sustainable living. It was observed that peoples who are able to live healthy and happy lives in harmony with their environment have a similar ethical framework at the core of their cultures. The ethics and codes of these people evolved with them as they lived and were passed down through time. For permaculture, as a system developed for modern people the ethics are stated in the beginning and we learn to increasingly live and design by them.

The ethics of permaculture are:

Care for the earth.

Care for people.

Cycle the surplus.

Each person is already operating by a set of ethics and morals that guide us through the actions of life. These are not laws or obligatory mandates on behavior. They can only provide a sensible map to follow to reach the goals we intend to reach.  When we encounter a difficult situation or conflict it is to these internal resources that we first turn.

It is of interest to see how an ethic might be formed and how we can use it to our benefit. In regards to permaculture with its aim to provide for people and the environment, an important step is to recognize that it is nature that supplies most of our primary needs. What would we do if all natural systems stopped working? We could attempt to re-design and replace the systems that clean and recycle the air, water and earth of our planet, but maybe it makes more sense to responsibly care for and regenerate the natural systems we have damaged.  In fact, we might begin to find that we actually do care for the earth, and genuinely would like to make sure that its systems continue to thrive.

If we express the feeling of care for the earth and combine it with the knowledge that for our continued existence it is necessary to do so, we have arrived at a place where we could make an ethical statement: Care for the earth. This is the first of three ethics at the heart of permaculture.

It is likely that anyone looking into permaculture has already felt some truth of this ethic and wishes to live by it more closely. The benefit of the ethic is that it provides a motivation and framework of thought in which to act. However, simply because we have ethics that tell us the right thing to do does not guarantee that we actually do them, nor does it guarantee that the actions we take will actually achieve the result we are trying to achieve. When adopting new ethics or attempting to live more closely by the ethics we already hold, our will and commitment is required as well as careful observation and monitoring of our results. The ethic does not hold us responsible, we must hold ourselves responsible.

Care for the earth

To elaborate on the first ethic it is useful to know what is meant by caring and what we are referring to when we say earth. The earth is all of its living and non-living occupants and components including ourselves. Each species, its environment, the soil, water and air are all connected. Many of these connections have been studied and are well documented by science. Rather than single connections between isolated elements the eco-systems and earth itself is an infinitely complex matrix of interconnected systems. It is these systems and their components that we must treat responsibly.

To care for the earth as a whole is too broad a task to engage in for a person or community. It must be divided somehow into categories or systems that one can interact with in a meaningful way. It is essential to gain an understanding of local cycles and the small eco-systems that form

Caring for the earth involves understanding this web of connections so that changes we make do not break it apart. Like organs in the human body, the earths systems can sustain a certain amount of stress and still recover. Felling a tree or taking a deer for food at an individual level is not liable to stress the ecosystem to collapse. However, clear cutting or mass killing of wildlife can cause irreparable damage.These actions might not cause trees from stopping to grow or deer from living in the forest. However repeated cutting could cause the loss of diversity of sub-species or soil micro-organisms, or killing too many deer could cause the loss of a predator species that relies on the deer.

From the personal level of common sense to in-depth scientific study, we must use all the means available in order to evaluate the potential effects of our actions.  In the scope of geological time such effects may seem trivial, however permaculture is a human-centric science.  So it is in the scope of human time and survival that we must look and determine what our world our grandchildrens’ grandchildren may inherit.

People Care

The ethic for people care evolves out of earth care. As living occupants of the earth, the foundational needs of people are met by taking care of the earth. Clean air, healthy soil, and pure water are some of the benefits we receive from proper care of the earth. Food and shelter are rooted in the practicalities of material existence. How we provide these basic needs can have a negative influence on the environment around us or align with the first ethic and also care for the earth.

However, human needs go beyond survival. We thrive in networks of social connection and also commonly seek a relationship to ourselves and the world through some form of spiritual understanding.

Circulate and Share Surplus & Regulate Consumption

This ethic helps us integrate the previous two ethics. It is both an encouragement toward generosity and abundance as well as a reminder of constraint. In regards to earth care, we apply this ethic as a constraint so that when we harvest from nature, we leave enough for the other people, creatures, plants or systems that may rely the resource. When we achieve surpluses from our own systems, ‘fare share’ reminds us to recycle it back into the system that it came from. It is also the glue that builds happy communities. When pass our abundance on to people it strengthens our relations with them and ensures that everyone’s needs are met.

We live and operate within a finite system, the geography and ecology of the earth. No matter how much we manipulate and modify the earth and its species, we do so within the laws of nature. Whether at the atomic level or ecosystemic level these laws bind us. It is  clear that at some point we will reach the limits of the earth’s resources. This is happening on two fronts, increasing population and increasing consumption. We need only observe what happens to other species in nature when they reach the maximum limits of their population size or resource use to know that these are two of the points where extinction is a real threat. (Underpopulation isn’t a current concern.)

Ethical greenwashing uses a positive ethical statement but at its core has one of the following unsustainable ethics

get as much as you can

maximize profits

infinite economic growth

accumulate wealth

The Principles of Permaculture, applicable to any climate at any scale

The principles of permaculture provide a foundation of concepts that are applicable to a broad range of locations and goals. As reference points, these principles help us start somewhere and also evaluate where we are and what we have achieved. There is no absolute set of principles, rather a living collective drawn from many different sources including landscape design, ecology, energy conservation, sustainable agriculture, etc.

Observe and interact.

To learn about nature we must observe it, not only passively from a distance, but actively from within it, as a participating part of it. It is by observation that the rest of the principles can be deduced. Developing our perceptive ability is vital in order to read a landscape in all its complexity. When we perceive nature, we may first just let it wash over as a whole, but in time will begin to pick out individual elements within it.

Elements and functions

Each ‘element’ or object, tree, animal, plant has unique characteristics. First we acquaint ourselves with the individual elements that are present, and then start gathering external elements that we want to include. For example a dam to catch the water that we see running through a valley. The water is an existing element, the dam is a potential element. Understanding the characteristics or functions of an element is key to using it wisely and to its full potential. Thus when including an element we make sure that it can perform many functions and so maximize its usefulness and productivity in our design. Water is a good example, we can easily see the many different functions it can perform.

Often our design goals revolve around a function rather than an element, for example storing or providing water. Functions such as this that are vital to the success of our design are best provided in multiple ways, or with backup. Considering the example of providing water, in addition to natural rainfall we could use dams, tanks, plants, and the ground itself for storage. Relying on the function of rain alone to provide water is sure to cause people in most climates some apprehension. We can see  how for utmost efficiency and reliability each element provides many functions and each function is supported by many elements. The inter-connectivity of elements and functions leads us to the next principle.

Value  diversity and make connections.

Nature operates as a web of inter-connected and diverse elements. In  systems that we design, a large collection of disconnected elements, while being diverse, does not fulfill the kind of diversity we wish to create: inter-connected diversity.  By making connections between elements and increasing the diversity of support of important functions we start to weave together a system that is more stable and adaptive to change. The term ‘guild’ is often used to describe an assembly of plants that help each other. However when we make connections it is not only about plants, we also make connections between non-living elements. For example, a green-house attached to the house, or chicken yard boarding on the orchard to allow the chickens free range. Making connections between elements leads naturally to the next principle.

Placing things in relationship.

Here we begin to evaluate multiple elements and systems and attempt to place them in relationships that benefit each other and increase efficiency. Some placements are experimental and some are common sense. For example the chicken coop next to the compost pile which boarders the garden on one side, and bordering the orchard on the other side. Placing trees on the north, east and west of a house to provide wind shelter, but not on the south to block solar gain is another simple example. Unless you are in a tropical climate and want to block as much solar gain as possible, while opening the house to cooling wind.

Edges are rich in potential.

When different elements or systems come in contact, inevitably an edge is created. Rich in influence from what lies on either side, edges can be wild and exploding with life. All life on earth happens in the thin edge between solid ground and space. Cracks in the sidewalk burst with weeds, fence lines and road sides appear richer and greener. The forest edge has more sunlight thicker vegetation and species from forest and meadow pass through. The cracks in a rock wall or edge of a garden bed all seem to be places where life is vibrant. We can use this principle to our advantage and extend edges or use existing ones more productively.

Cycle energy – recycle.

Natural systems are stable because the outputs from one thing are the inputs for the next. Nutrients and water are suspended in a constant cycle of life and death. There is no waste. As a design principle we can start by identifying where energy is leaving our system: are we losing soil to erosion, what happens to solid or liquid waste? Kitchen scraps can go to the trash and leave the system, or to compost and then garden, or to chickens then compost then garden. Composting toilets can turn our manure into a useful fertilizer for a bed of comfrey, which captures the nutrients in the leaves and we can use in compost or mulch. This principle can also apply to financial resources, money spent and circulated in a local economy benefits community. As soon as it is transferred away, its benefit is reduced.

Stay open to feedback and allow for change, let the system demonstrate its own evolution.

No matter how well we are able to design, it is nature that makes the designs work. Unexpected results can demonstrate new directions. If the crop we are trying to grow is struggling, while a useful weed is flourishing, it may be a sign to try and make something useful from the weed. A lot of energy is often spent trying to maintain systems in an unbalanced state. We must return to observe and learn from what we have tried.

“The principles are inherent in any permaculture design, in any climate and at any scale.” – Bill Mollison

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