The Story of Permaculture – the cautionary tale

The world needs saving! Queue in the superheroes!

The concept that the world is in dire need of saving sounds like the start of an epic Science Fiction story, right. Sadly, this ‘story’ is our reality. Everyone is trying to save the word in one way or another. Stories are spread throughout society conveying peoples’ heroic deeds. Stories are powerful tools. A great story can change and convince people to think differently. The story of Permaculture nearly changed my way of thinking. Permaculture perpetuates an image of an inclusive, do-good, and empowering practice of subverting the dominant economic system. It gives hope to solving the crisis of starvation, climate change, sourcing your food, etc. Looking past the idealistic intentions of permaculture stories, it is evident that there is a darkness creeping into the veins of Permaculture practice. The darkness in Permaculture is caused by people practising and implementing information that is based on folklore. The information in Permaculture has large-scale consequences if mismanaged. Before we delve into the positives and dangers of Permaculture, we need to go back to what Permaculture is all about.

Permaculture and its Origins

Many definitions try to encompass what Permaculture is. The main definition is taken from David Holmgren, co-creator of Permaculture. Permaculture started in 1978 that originated from the scientific discipline of Agroecology, which is “the application of ecology to the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems“. It has since moved away from Agroecology and formed its own framework.

It is best described in the quote below:

Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs. People, their buildings and the ways in which they organise themselves are central to permaculture. Thus the permaculture vision of permanent or sustainable agriculture has evolved to one of permanent or sustainable culture.

– Holmgren Designs

So, Permaculture is mostly ‘designing’ ecosystems that are advantageous to human use. The design of Permaculture systems is based on 12 principles and three ethical points.

Permaculture Ethics and Design Principles
Graphic showing the 12 principles and three ethics of Permaculture. Source: Permaculture Principles

Macquarie’s Sustainability Officer, Belinda Bean, states that the 3 three ethical points are:

  1. The Care for Earth
  2. Care for People
  3. Fair share, limits and redistribution of surplus

Belinda paints a beautiful picture of social cooperatives that ensure that Earth is cared for, people treat each other decently, and there is equal sharing of produce.

So…..what is Permaculture and how is it practised?

Permaculture evidently is a hard thing to nail down! So I think it is best to understand Permaculture in action, and not through theory.

Belinda detailed her personal encounter with how she found Permaculture. She had revealed that she was dissatisfied with the current systems in which society resides. So she became enthralled with what Permaculture had to offer. It is not hard to! From there, she gave us the run down of how you ‘Permaculture’ land. Taking into account the 12 design-based principles, you perform a Sector Analysis. This is when you take into account all the environmental variables and history of the space you are designing new systems for. The next step is to consider Zone Planning. Zone Planning is where you assess the usage and care of the plants you are planting. High use plants are placed closer to residences and those that are of lesser importance/care are placed on the outer edges of the land.


Zone Planning: each zone decrease in the usage and care of plants. Source: Bill Mollison

All of these considerations are summarised in a design plan.

The Intermediary Space Between Science and Permaculture

Now, Permaculture practice has many benefits that empower the average person to source their own food.

The design principles that Permaculture uses are not scientifically based! Meaning, there are a bunch of Permaculture enthusiasts using scientific-like terminology without understanding the implications. Permaculture ties together bits and pieces of science, cultural knowledge and garden speak. However, it removes the ‘bits and pieces’ from the original context, which is extremely dangerous!

A perfect example of this is Tao Orion most recent work, Beyond the War on Invasive SpeciesOrion’s argument, based on the Permaculture framework (specifically Principle 8), is hellbent on trying to reshape how invasive species are viewed. Orion wants everyone to accept that ecosystems change, inherently. Yes, ecosystems do change, but they have balance! Invasive species do not have counter balances, leaving them unchecked and out of control. Potentially destroying the very system, they are trying to save!

Orion exposes a deep ethical corruption at the heart of both ecological science and the environmental movement

-David Holmgren

It takes many years of study to be able to understand the workings of ecosystems. So it is frustrating that people who have never worked in science think they are qualified to pass judgement. Instead of singling out science, Permaculture needs to embrace the credibility science can offer.

Permaculture for the Good?

Science and Permaculture need one another. Permaculture could be the answer to ending small scale starvation. However, the grounding principles of Permaculture need to cement with scientific rigour. Without science, Permaculture Practitioners could potentially cause more harm than good. Belinda stated that Scientists need to put the science into the story (Permaculture). We need to bring credibility back to the Permaculture discourse!

Top 5 Steps to Bring Science and Permaculture together:

  1. Seek out research based evidence to support Permaculture principles
  2. Scientists should help dispell dangerous principles
  3. Permaculture Practitioners should try to reach out to scientist (and vice versa)
  4. Scientists need to show an interest in the growing field of Permaculture
  5. Realise that neither knowledge of science or permaculture is better than the other!

References and Further Reading:

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