Whole Systems Approach — Permaculture design system

Excerpt from the ‘Ecological Dimension’ of Gaia Education’s online course in ‘Design for Sustainability

Gaia Education
7 min readNov 17, 2020

Permaculture history and context

The term Permaculture was created by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1978 in Australia, to describe a design-based approach to creating a permanent agriculture as a system that can support cultures with permanence. In its widest sense, it is an approach to creating sustainable and regenerative socio-ecological systems. As such Permaculture can be understood as conscious design of a sustainable future, based on co-operation with Nature and caring for the Earth and her peoples.

Permaculture draws together knowledge and skills from many ecological disciplines — old and new — to meet our basic needs for food, shelter, holistic social structures and sustainable economies. Permaculture is a design system for creating sustainable human environments. The word itself is a contraction not only of permanent agriculture but also of permanent culture, as cultures cannot survive for long without a sustainable agricultural base and land use ethic. On one level, Permaculture deals with plants, animals, buildings, and infrastructures, as well as water, energy & communications. However, Permaculture is not about these elements themselves, but rather about the relationships we can create between them by the way we place them in the landscape.

The aim is to create systems that are ecologically-sound and economically viable, which provide for their own needs, do not exploit or pollute, and therefore are sustainable in the long term. Permaculture uses the inherent qualities of plants and animals, combined with the natural characteristics of landscapes and structures, to produce life-supporting systems for city and country, using the smallest practical land area.

Permaculture is based on the observation of natural systems, the wisdom contained in traditional farming systems, and modern scientific and technological knowledge. The old motto “Natura mater et magistra” — Nature is both mother and teacher — applies yet again. Based on ecological models, Permaculture creates a cultivated ecology, which is designed to produce more human and animal food than is generally found in Nature.

When the needs of a system are not predominantly met from within the system, we pay the price in energy consumption and pollution. A fundamental change is necessary. To live a good and healthy life human beings need more than communication technology devices and virtual reality. Our very being and sanity depend on frequent contact with sun, wind, people, buildings, stones, sea, birds and plants around us. To feel fully alive, we need to feel our interconnection with all life around us — our intimate interdependence with the human and the more than human world.

Our role as change agents in the transition towards a permanently transforming and evolving culture of sustainability is to aim to integrate human systems into the regenerative cycles of nature by design. To do this successfully we have to become apprentices of nature’s wisdom again; realise our fundamental interconnection with the patterns, networks and cycles by which “life creates conditions conducive to life” (see Janine Benyus); and humbly aim to co-design regenerative systems based on symbiosis and cooperation within both the human family and the family of life as a whole.

The impulse behind Permaculture is to provide tools for people to promote their creativity and power to build a better future. To this end, the Permaculture movement’s greatest achievement is probably the creation of a self-developing global network of Permaculture teachers that share best practices. Its ideas about food production are focussed on imitating natural systems with their innate stability but low productivity and then finding ways to increase that productivity. Organic farming by contrast has tended to take the very productive but less stable agricultural systems that exist and try to build more stability into them. For example, Permaculture tends to suggest mixed species cropping whilst organic farmers achieve biological diversity more through crop rotation so that they can keep the high labour productivity achieved by growing larger areas of one crop.

The Ethical Foundations of Permaculture Design and its Biomimetic Attitude

According to Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay, 1994, “Permaculture is about designing sustainable settlements. It is a philosophy and an approach to land use, which weaves together microclimate, annual and perennial plants, animals, soils, water management, and human needs into intricately connected, productive communities”. This definition resulted in decades of research by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, commencing in the 70s, in response to soil, water and air pollution by industrial and agricultural systems, loss of plant and animal species, reduction of natural, non-renewable resources and destructive economic systems. They reassembled old wisdom, skills and knowledge of plant, animal and social systems while adding new ideas — and Permaculture was born.

Although many aspects of Permaculture were familiar, it was the overall interlocking pattern which was different. Unlike other modern agricultural systems, Permaculture — has been placed squarely on the shoulders of ecology — the study of interrelationships and interdependence of living things and their environment. While many traditional agriculture systems also have co-evolved with natural systems and aimed to adapt to and learn from their patterns and cycles, permaculture has a more scientific underpinning of ecology as the whole systems discipline of biological sciences. Permaculture is informed by what we know about how life works. The result is Permaculture’s underlying intention to find a new way of sustaining and enriching life without environmental and social degradation. The foundations of Permaculture are its interrelated Ethics, which straddle all political divides, all racial barriers, and all cultural differences, as reflected in Figure 3.2a.

Figure 3.2a: Permaculture Ethics

Supporting the Permaculture Ethics are the Permaculture Attitudes (see Figure 3.2b), which provides a critical eye for lateral thinking out of the box instead of treading the usual conventional mainstream. For example, a favourite quote is: “one does not have a slug problem, but rather, a duck deficiency”, to explain “the problem is the solution”. “Everything gardens” implies that all living beings affect their environment one way or another. Once we understand this, we can choose to have a regenerative rather than a degenerative influence on the systems in which we participate. If we choose regeneration as the goal, we have to learn to think and design like Nature. The Principles of Ecoliteracy, the Life’s Principles of biomimicry, or the Principles of Permaculture all aim to offer guidance to those who aim to design with and as nature.

Figure 3.2b: Permaculture Attitudes

The main features of Permaculture can be summarised as follows:

  1. It is a system for creating sustainable human settlements by integrating design and ecology.
  2. It is a synthesis of traditional knowledge and modern science, applicable to both urban and rural situations.
  3. It takes natural systems as a model and works with nature to design sustainable environments, which will provide basic human needs as well as the social and economic infrastructures which support them.
  4. It encourages us to become a conscious part of the solutions to the many problems which face us, locally and globally.

Permaculture Design Principles

The Permaculture Design Principles are based upon a holistic and integrated approach to sustainable design solutions. Co-founder of the Permaculture concept, David Holmgren, has developed these Design Principles in great depth in his book, “Permaculture — Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability”. The principles and ethics are summarised in Figure 3.2c, and explained by David Holmgren in ‘Permaculture Ethics and Design Principles with David Holmgren’.

He stresses that applying just one of these principles on their own could create problems, the art of good Permaculture is to be informed by a whole systems thinking approach creating integrated design solutions inspired by these principles.

Figure 3.2c: Permaculture design principles, by David Holmgren

Permaculture Design Tools

Holmgren’s Permaculture Design Principles augment the Permaculture Design Tools outlined in Table 3.2a. The Energy Efficient Planning criteria informs the basic framework of a Permaculture design scheme; the Resource Planning components informs how resources are harvested and integrated into a scheme; whilst the Design Planning items influence how the scheme is assembled and compiled.

Table 3.2a: Permaculture Design Tools

Permaculture Zones

A key concept in Permaculture design is zone planning. The concept of Permaculture zones for a typical homestead (see Figure 3.2d) can easily be stretched to cover related more expansive zones for a village or town, as outlined in Table 3.2b.

Figure 3.2d: Permaculture zones for a smallholding/farm

Table 3.2b: Permaculture Zones

This is an excerpt from the Ecological Design online course of Gaia Education’s Design for Sustainability programme.

If you would like to learn more and acquire the skills to become an ecological design, then you should join our Ecological Design course.

The Ecological Design dimension of the Design for Sustainability programme will start on 11 January 2021 and there are still spaces left, so sign up now! If you register early, you are able to get a discount. Find out more about our discounts on the course page here.

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