Design for living

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Courtesy Bob Flatley


By Steve Hoog

Between climate change, war, social unrest, and the threat of peak oil, our present world situation is so daunting that it’s sometimes hard to even imagine solutions. And when a solution for one issue is found, it’s not unusual for it to compound problems elsewhere. For example, corn ethanol may pollute less than gas, but the production of corn heavily depends on an agricultural system that uses vast amounts of pesticides and fertilizers derived from oil, not to mention the carbon dioxide and other pollutants emitted from the heavy equipment routinely used to plant and harvest crops. Finding solutions that solve multiple problems, without compounding others, is one of the guiding principles behind permaculture which, since its inception in the 1970s, has been gaining popularity around the world.  

The term permaculturewas originally coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren to describe a system of agricultural that would emulate the highly complex interrelationships found in natural ecosystems and would therefore be able to renew and sustain itself permanently. This approach to “permanent agriculture” was first documented in Mollison and Holmgren‘s 1978 book, Permaculture One: A perennial agriculture for human settlements. Although the authors acknowledged organic farming and biodynamics as viable alternatives to the use of pesticides and fertilizers,  permaculture offers a broader and more holistic approach has turned out to be applicable to more than just agriculture. While sustainable agriculture is still a central tenet of the movement, the concept of permaculture was quickly broadened to describe an entire culture that could sustain itself permanently.

Today, permaculture is seen by many as the best antidote to the current system of industrial production and distribution that is systematically destroying the ecosystem we depend upon for survival. The principles of permaculture are now being applied to a myriad of other social issues, including education, economics, health, and community development. The goal of permaculture is to build increasingly self-sufficient and sustainable human settlements that account for the needs and requirements of animals, plants, and our social infrastructure. What began as a modest set of twelve basic principles has grown to thirty as permaculture now draws from a variety of disciplines, including landscape design, ecology, energy conservation, and environmental science.

The most basic of these principles is recognizing that everything is connected to everything else in the web of life. With this in mind, practitioners of permaculture are sensitive to the fact that a change to one element in a system will have an effect on all the other elements. Another basic principle is that diverse systems are more resilient. Unlike monoculture, where vast acreage is devoted to a single crop, farmers who practice permaculture strive to emulate a diverse ecosystem, which is more resilient because when one plant or animal fails to thrive, others with similar functions are able to at least partially replace the role played by the failed species. In addition, permaculture practitioners seek elements that serve multiple functions. For example, a tree is a highly valuable element because it absorbs carbon dioxide, produces oxygen, offers shade, yields fruit and leaf mulch, provides habitat for birds, insects, and animals, and in some cases, supplies food for bees. And, of course, a tree’s wood can also be used for lumber and firewood.

Other key permaculture principles are the use of appropriate technology, making the least change for the greatest effect, using small scale intensive systems, and energy recycling.  These principles can be applied on both a relatively small scale, such as on a farm, or on a broader scale in community development.  For example, a farmer might attach a chicken coop to a green house. The chickens would provide eggs and possibly meat, as well as manure for compost and body heat that could be channeled from the coop into the greenhouse to extend the growing season for the plants. In return, the greenhouse could provide some food for the chickens, as well as for the farmer.  Here we have several multi-functioning units—farmer, chickens, greenhouse—that are mutually supporting each other. Another example would be a forest garden with root crops, a nitrogen-fixing ground cover, annual vegetables or herbs, vine crops, shrubs, midlevel trees and tall trees combined to mutually support each other and create a healthy, productive, diverse environment.

On a larger scale, an energy center like the one currently being planned by The Alliance for Sustainable Communities in the Lehigh Valley will include a number of renewable energy systems, several buildings to house businesses that will use each others waste products, and a permaculture-based food production system to feed workers and visitors. The center will also will be available for educational projects and research. The goal is to create a mutually supportive system that leaves little carbon footprint, makes use of the waste it produces, and sustains itself and its community into the future.  

Water collection, management and reuse are also an important part of permaculture thinking and these ideas can be applied in all climates and in small or large systems. Homes can use berms, swales, ponds cisterns, barrels, and tanks to capture rainwater. They can also use wetland systems or solar aquatic ponds to recapture usable water for irrigation, aquaculture food production, electrical energy production, toilet flushing, cleaning, and with proper filtration and treatment, for cooking and drinking. Municipalities and institutions can also make use of these principles for stormwater management to reduce water use, reduce energy use, and reduce expenses.

In applying permaculture principles to many areas of our lives we can create not only agriculture systems that will support us, but value exchange systems such as local currencies and time dollar exchanges; land tenure systems like community land trusts and eco-villages; places that encourage health and spiritual well-being and that foster home birth, dying with dignity, and holistic medicine; and opportunities for alternative forms of education. The applications of permaculture are vast and after years of extensive use, the principles have been proven sound.

Permaculture recognizes the intrinsic worth of every living thing—and using its principles, we could even address our world’s most severe problems. By studying and applying these ideas to our everyday life, we have an opportunity to change our part of the world for the better and to teach others to do the same. 

Stephen Hoog is on the steering committee of The Alliance for Sustainable Communities-Lehigh Valley.

Published November 2007