By Toby Hemenway
The Permaculture Flower, modified from Holmgren.
The petals represent the basic human needs, and we work to
meet them sustainably on the personal,local, and regional levels.
Permaculture is hard to define, but I think of it as a design approach for realizing a new paradigm.
Humans are a problem-solving species. We uncover challenges — How do we get food? How do we make shelter? How do we stay healthy? — and then we develop tools to solve those problems. We live on a planet that for millennia was large compared to the human population, its needs and impact. We could focus for the last 10,000 years on meeting our needs by expanding agriculture’s immense power to convert wild ecosystems into food and habitat for people, and we could ignore ecosystem health. But our industrial civilization of seven billion is chewing up ecosystems relentlessly. Without healthy ecosystems, we now know that humans, along with everything else, suffer. So we cannot focus solely on, “How do we meet human needs?” Now we must add the words, “while preserving ecosystem health.” This is a huge paradigm shift that makes us re-evaluate almost everything humans do in light of how it affects the whole web of life.
It changes the tools that we use and changes the mindset required to develop and use new, appropriate tools. It also restores a relationship between people and nature that agriculture, by treating nature like a mere resource to be subjugated and consumed, had severed. That’s quite a shift.
Many people come to permaculture knowing that there is something wrong with the old worldview, but they don’t yet have a new paradigm to replace it. They are attracted to permaculture as better gardening or as a means of social change, and gradually adopt the new worldview as they see it overcoming the flaws and damage of the old. Others come to permaculture after shifting to this holistic paradigm because permaculture supports it and offers an approach to working within it. In both cases, it takes time to fully grasp the depth of permaculture in part because nearly all of us were raised in the old paradigm. After twenty years of practicing permaculture design, I still have trouble defining it.
Permaculture, then, is not a philosophy or worldview, and it is not a single tool. It is the approach for using the tools — a way of working that is guided by the new paradigm.
The definition of permaculture can be muddled, but the one that must rise to the top is that it is a design approach for arriving at regenerative solutions. In more concrete terms, permaculture tells us how to choose from a dauntingly large toolkit — all the human technologies and strategies for living — to solve the new problem of sustainability. It is an instruction manual for solving the challenges laid out by the new paradigm of meeting human needs while enhancing ecosystem health.
This clarifies the task set by permaculture, and I think it also distinguishes permaculture from the philosophy — the paradigm — required to use it effectively and helps us understand why permaculture is often called a movement. Permaculturists make common cause with all the other millions of people who are shifting to the new paradigm, and it is that shift — not the design approach of permaculture that supports it — that is worthy of being called a movement. Permaculture is not the movement of sustainability and it is not the philosophy behind it; it is the problem-solving approach the movement and the philosophy can use to meet their goals and design a world in which human needs are met while enhancing the health of this miraculous planet that supports us.
Originally printed in Seattle Tilth’s newsletter, Way to Grow, August-September 2013.