“Permaculture has come to mean more than just food sufficiency in the household.
Self-reliance in food is meaningless unless people have access to land, information, and financial resources. So in recent years it has come to encompass
appropriate legal and financial strategies, including strategies for land access, business structures, and regional self-financing. This way it is a whole human system.”

  • BIll Mollison, 2011 “Introduction to Permaculture” 

What does Permaculture mean?

Permanent + Agriculture = Permaculture

The word permaculture was first coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1978, as a composite word of “permanent agriculture”.

In this approach, agriculture is not merely the growing of food, but a lifestyle of sustainability and integration with nature for a healthier world for all living things; not only humans, but animals and plants, as well.

When permaculture design is applied it permeates far beyond growing practices and land use. Permaculture design as a lifestyle and overall perspective also influences water collection, community development, architecture, waste disposal and reuse, and interaction with wildlife in a given area.

Permaculture Design as a foundational perspective should drive one’s lifestyle far beyond growing food, but seek for a harmonious relationship with earth in every aspect of life.

Three Main Ethics of Permaculture

If you think of permaculture as a three-legged stool, it’s easy to see the importance of the three overarching ethics that drive this philosophy:

Earth Care

People Care

Fair Share

Permaculture approaches should respect and restore the ecosystem, honor the people directly influenced by growing practices, all while moving toward sustainable practices that will benefit the next generation and result in a more harmonious world.

These three factors all carry equal importance and should be considered for every permaculture endeavor. Otherwise, the approach will be lopsided, tilted, or not remain true to permaculture design.

Permaculture vs Organic Agriculture

As companies consider organic labels in an attempt to use greenwashing in marketing, it is important to separate permaculture from organic agriculture. Permaculture design is not merely an environmentally friendly approach to agriculture: it’s implementation requires a lifestyle of harmony with nature, that should continue permanently, not be a marketing gimmick.

Permaculture’s approach integrates sustainable and traditional growing methods, social and community factors, and restorative practices for the environment. It requires a lifestyle adjustment to focus on less waste (or even, no waste), and considering all living organisms within an ecosystem, not only humans.

Permaculture approaches to agriculture are more far-reaching and have a greater influence on all aspects of life than organic approaches to agriculture. For example: one could use organic methods but still have harmful irrigation systems, growing practices, and waste-dumping that damage the environment.

Permaculture, when done properly, is beneficial to every aspect of life: humans, wildlife, and the earth. Whereas, organic farming may be harmful to wildlife, have a negative impact on the earth and future of the land, while still being “organic” in nature.

Influencers of Permaculture

Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, two innovative Australians, are recognized as the founding fathers of permaculture. 

However, the concept of ‘permanent agriculture’ or a way of agriculture that restores and heals the earth did not appear out of a vacuum. There is plenty of documentation of suggesting aspects of this philosophy for well over a century before it was defined as ‘permaculture’.  The key principles of permaculture can also be identified in indigenous communities across the globe, either seen by their growing practices or other aspects of their cultures.

Some of the famous minds which influenced modern-day permaculture include: 

George Washington Carver can be credited with advocating for what we now call ‘permaculture’, with his concepts of restoring nitrogen to the earth and crop rotation for healthier land.

Percival Yeomans’ water and land-use approach for dry areas in Australia, back in the 1940s, played a role in advancing the permaculture approach used today.

Franklin Hiram King was also an early pioneer of permaculture, as the author of Farmers of Forty Centuries: Or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan (1911).

Joseph R Smith, who, in 1929, piggy-backed on King’s work, writing about the issue of US deforestation, and proposed an approach of no-waste agriculture and forestry to restore soil health. 

Haikai Tane, of New Zealand, introduced innovative watershed practices and approaches to landscape ecology, environmental planning and community development that later influenced Bill Mollison.

Howard Odum, an American ecologist most well-known for his study of the transition of energy between biotic and abiotic elements in the ecosystem. 

It was Odum’s theory that adjacent ecosystems interact and may be interdependent for a healthy, natural community that influenced Mollison and Holmgren so much that they dedicated their book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability (2002) to Odum, postmortem.

Development of Permaculture

Tasmania’s Rainforests

Bill Millison has cited his work in Tasmania’s rainforests as the muse for a philosophy of permaculture design. The inter-connected ecosystems he observed while working for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Tasmania had a lifelong effect on his view of the world and agriculture. 

From Protester to Promoter

Bill Mollison concluded that most agricultural approaches deplete the soil and harm the earth. Specifically in Tasmania and Australia, Mollison observed that industrial farming techniques were heavily reliant on non-renewable resources, damaging natural ecosystems, destroying topsoil, introducing toxins to the land, and polluting the waterways. At last, he left his job with CSIRO and began to protest against these agricultural practices.

However, he found there was no productive change as a result of his protests.

After some years of reflection, he decided that protesting was insufficient; he wanted to come up with a positive approach to promote and replace the destructive practices currently in operation. Thus, he began to formulate ‘permaculture’; an approach that would not only be sustainable but would be a permanent agricultural system that was adaptable enough to be used anywhere in the world.

A Successful Experiment

In the mid-1970s, Mollison teamed up with David Holmgren (a student of environmental design, at the time) to put this philosophy into practice, starting with trees, herbs, roots, and more. Their experiment was not only successful, but it laid the groundwork of an agricultural approach that was not only sustainable but restorative, as well.

As the approach gained popularity, it became evident that it had much more than only agricultural influence, but that it could have a positive effect on urban environments, forests, land-use disputes, and communities, as well.

A Sustainable Approach to life

Today, we recognize permaculture as a sustainable, harmonious approach to life: for growing food, handling waste, promoting greener communities, and working toward a healthier world to pass on to the next generation.