This is a partial reprint of an article that was printed August 1994, in the Tucson Food Co-op News.
©1994 Katherine Wasser
"Permaculture...I know I've heard that term before; doesn't it mean doing organic gardening, or living off the land?"
Such comments typify the reactions of many people I've mentioned Permaculture to; they often think it's just a new name for old techniques or life-styles. In a way they are right, because permaculture design does incorporate many time-honored techniques. But they are also wrong, because permaculture goes far beyond mere techniques, just as it applies to far more than agriculture. The intent of this article is to briefly outline the essential basics of permaculture design.
The term permaculture, meaning "permanent agriculture" was coined in the 1970's by Australian Bill Mollison:
As I saw permaculture in the 1970's, it was a beneficial assembly of plants and animals in relation to human settlements, mostly aimed towards household and community self reliance, and perhaps as a "commercial endeavor" only arising from a surplus from the system.
However, 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.
Permaculture, then, is a design system that encompasses both "permanent agriculture" and "permanent culture." It recognizes, first, that all living systems are organized around energy flows. It teaches people to analyze existing energy flows (sun, rain, money, human energy) through such a system (a garden, a household, a business). Then it teaches them to position and interconnect all the elements in the system (whether existing or desired) in beneficial relationship to each other and to those energy flows. When correctly designed such a system will, like a natural ecosystem, become increasingly diverse and self-sustaining.
All permaculture design is based on three ethics: Care of the earth (because all living things have intrinsic worth); care of the people; and reinvest all surplus, whether it be information, money, or labor, to support the first two ethics.
Practically speaking, a successful permaculture design is based on three guiding principles. First, each element of the system performs multiple functions (for example, an orange tree in my yard supplies fruit for food and a cash crop, rinds for compost, leaves for mulch, dead twigs for kindling, and shade for me, my cat and other plants).
Second, each desired function of the system is supported by multiple elements (further shade in my yard comes from an overhead trellis with grapevines and several native trees).
Finally, and crucial to permaculture design, everything in the system is innerconnected to everything else. This is vital, because the susceptibility and output of a system depend not on the number of elements it contains, but rather how many exchanges take place within the system (think of an old growth forest vs. a monoculture tree farm).
For more information regarding permaculture in Phoenix call or email Greg Peterson, 602.279.3713.
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