Permaculture

A design system that offers a radical reimagination of the possible

by Rebecca Ellis

Permaculture is a design system that mimics the patterns of flourishing ecosystems to create ecologically regenerative human societies.  First developed by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s, permaculture takes inspiration from Indigenous and ‘traditional’ agrarian practices. Mollison and Holmgren created a philosophy and a set of principles for producing diverse and dynamic ecosystems in which humans play a positive role. 

Permaculture is strongly associated with specific practices, such as planting perennial polycultures. However, its most distinctive aspect is a focus on ecological design that is based on careful observation and deep interconnection. Through this design process, permaculturalists co-create, with non-human nature, spaces and lives that restore soil, build biodiversity, and allow for the flourishing of multiple species, including humans.

Permaculture emphasises that the Earth is full of abundance, not in commodities, but in energy from the sun, wind, water, food, and life itself. According to permaculture ethics, this abundance should be shared with other people, non-human animals, and the Earth. Permaculturalists do not view humans as inherently destructive or greedy. Within healthy ecosystems, animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria form cooperative, rather than competitive relationships, and humans can be an integral part of these ecosystems. As a system based on cooperation and solidarity among humans and non-human nature, permaculture offers a radical reimagination of the possible.

As a system based on cooperation and solidarity among humans and non-human nature, permaculture offers a radical reimagination of the possible

Permaculture has spread from Australia throughout the world and been interpreted in a variety of ways. This has led to some important debates within the international permaculture movement. Some proponents of permaculture aim to keep it de-politicized and professionalized as a system of ecological design only, while others seek to align with other social justice movements. The established way to become a permaculture practitioner is to attend a Permaculture Design Course (PDC). PDCs in North America are typically $800-1500 16-day immersive programs. People usually travel to attend PDCs and often live on-site for the duration. This limits PDCs to people who can afford the fee, the travel costs, and to be away from family or work for more than two weeks. After passing the course, one of the ways to be a permaculture practitioner, strongly emphasized in PDCs, is to start an ecological design business or farm. 

Some argue that permaculture should be professionalized in this way to establish mainstream legitimacy, respectability, and influence for a movement which has often been on the fringes of society. However, if only those with the time and money to obtain PDCs can practise, promote, or teach permaculture, then the transformative potential of the movement is greatly limited. Most working-class people do not have the capital to start small businesses or buy increasingly expensive farmland. Permaculture has thus been criticized for excluding racialized people, the poor, and the working class, as well as for the presence of sexism, especially since permaculture certification relies heavily on a teacher/student model with potential for serious abuses of power.

Lack of access to land can be a barrier to participation in permaculture. Land ownership in many parts of the world—both rural and urban—is prohibitively expensive.  Creating perennial gardens, food forests, major earth works such as berms, swales, and cob structures, all require land ownership or, at least, long-term land access. In urban centres, where public land can be sparse and highly contested, the creation of such projects necessitates sustained activist campaigns grounded in the complex connections between urban land, race, class, and gender. There is also the danger that such permaculture projects could displace long-term residents from their neighbourhoods. 

Permaculture has also been criticized for playing a role in continued colonialism toward Indigenous people and the Global South. Mollison and Holmgren, by their own admission, gleaned knowledge and skills from Indigenous and ‘traditional’ communities to create the principles of permaculture. Some of the knowledge and skills they gathered were developed by specific, identifiable communities and people, who are rarely acknowledged by practitioners. Practices and ideas associated with permaculture can then become commodities that are sometimes sold back to the Indigenous groups they were borrowed from. And when White permaculture practitioners from the Global North set up businesses and farms in poorer countries of the Global South, there is a danger that these initiatives will contribute to the dispossession of local people, a very similar danger to the urban projects discussed above. It is essential that permaculturalists acknowledge the origin of practices associated with permaculture, and support struggles for Indigenous land rights, globally and within their own region.

Permaculture has transformative potential when practitioners move away from promoting it as a depoliticized set of ecological design practices and principles. It should, instead, be viewed as a dynamic social movement that can provide a vision for radical transformation of human societies. The permaculture movement must explicitly concern itself with social and environmental justice, actively confronting racism, colonialism, classism and sexism within dominant society and within permaculture communities. The permaculture movement must find ways to become accessible and participatory. This entails decreasing the emphasis on land ownership and entrepreneurship. 

Permaculture should be viewed as a dynamic social movement that can provide a vision for radical transformation of human societies

There are already many initiatives that attempt to do this. Some of the most promising involve attempts to reclaim the commons, spaces governed collectively and democratically for the use and benefit of all. These include community food forests, community gardens and urban farms, reclaiming abandoned buildings as solidarity spaces, neighbourhood-based mutual aid and sharing initiatives, and worker-owned and neighbourhood-based cooperatives. These projects and initiatives can complement and strengthen activist organizing, creating what Adrienne Maree Brown describes as communities that are ‘miles deep and inches wide.’

A useful permaculture principle for understanding social change and transformation is ‘use edges and value the marginal.’ When applied to ecosystems, this principle reminds us that marginal life such as ‘weeds’ can play a role in healing soil and nurturing our bodies. It also highlights how ecological change often happens in the spaces in which two ecosystems meet and overlap. Within human societies, ways of living and organizing that have transformative potential are often marginalized when they threaten dominant power structures. These marginal spaces, the edges of capitalist society, are often where activists organize against capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. It is scary to be at the edges of society, risking or facing marginalization. It seems safer to be viewed as respectable and unthreatening by the status quo. Yet it is at the edges that the permaculture movement can have the most impact, joining with other social and ecological movements to create joyful and vibrant spaces in which people experience what it feels, sounds, smells, and tastes like to live differently with one another and the Earth. It is in these spaces that people can collectively imagine radical possibilities beyond capitalism, an essential step in allowing other worlds to take root and flourish. 

Further resources

The Earth Path: Grounding Your Spirit in the Rhythms of Nature by Starhawk (HarperOne, 2005).
This is the book that introduced me to the concept of permaculture. Starhawk gives a description of permaculture philosophies and principles that is grounded in activism and feminist spirituality. 

Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2009).
One of the most useful and practical books for designing permaculture spaces in urban and suburban areas.

Farming while Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land by Leah Penniman (Chelsea Press, 2019)
An essential resource for anyone interested in socially just farming as well as a much-needed correction to attempts to ignore the contributions of Black farmers and farm workers in the creation of agricultural knowledge and innovation. Penniman makes very important critiques of racism and colonialism within permaculture. 

Embers of Hope: Embracing Life in an Age of Ecological Destruction and Climate Chaos by Bonita Ford (LivingEARTH, 2020)
A meditative book that gives guidance for creating a permaculture life within the uncertainty of ecological destruction and climate breakdown. 

The Re-enchantment (formerly Permaculture for the People)
This is my podcast and blog, where I present permaculture as part of a larger political project.

Rebecca Ellis is a permaculture practitioner, community activist, and beekeeper in London, Ontario, Canada. She is currently completing her PhD dissertation in Geography at Western University and working on a book about capitalist agriculture and pollinator health. In her spare time she likes to play the banjo, ride her bicycle and commune with bees.