What is Permaculture

on Thursday, November 6, 2008

Permaculture is often referred to as “permanent agriculture.” But permaculture principles have a much wider application. The word, coined by founder Bill Mollison, also means “permanent human culture,” referring to a stable supply of food, water and energy. Care of the Earth, care of people and sharing surplus recourses are basic permaculture ethics.

Permaculture design principles can be applied to a city block, a resort or a farm—and in any climate. The first principle is to work with nature, not against it. For example, if you must build below sea level, you must also plan for eventualities such as flooding. As we witnessed with Hurricane Katrina, nature will more than likely find a way through the levee one day.

Permaculture designer training is extensive and includes information on geological, climatic and natural processes, as well as insights into human needs. When Mollison taught the Maui design training in the early 1980s, we were enthralled by the breadth and depth of his information. His genius applied to teaching common-sense actions that can stabilize our basic needs.

Mollison is a very entertaining speaker. My favorite story demonstrates the principle of finding the solution inside the problem. In Kenya, he said, elephants are a problem for small farmers. A strong fence is expensive, so they built “ha ha” fences, using the elephant’s own intelligence and bulk to stop it from invading farmers’ crops. The “ha ha” fence is simply a ditch too wide for the animal to step across and too narrow for it to turn around in. The smart elephant knows if it gets in and can’t get out, the farmer will stand on the other side laughing “ha ha.”

The goal for a permaculture designer is to create an environmentally sustainable landscape that is economically viable. This is achieved by assembling all the components—plants, animals and buildings—into a complex interactive whole. When working with the principle, think intensively—don’t labor intensively. It is better to design on paper after long thought.

A permaculture design takes into consideration all elements affecting the site—wind, sunlight, electricity and water—and maximizes the productivity of these elements. The outcome is planned to meet human needs: food security, comfortable temperature, a healthy community and maybe urban improvement.

This article originally appeared in the Maui Weekly on 11/06/2008

Maui’s permaculture designers share a common dream—an island organized with all the elements in place. Imagine a valuable hardwood forest on the high slopes and tree crops below renewing the hydrological cycle, sheep and local wool products from Kula, small diverse farms lining the roads from the airport, linen from wet Ha‘iku in hotel shops, handmade chocolates from Kipahulu and olive oil from ‘Ulapalakua. Consider energy harvested from multiple sources, jobs in your neighborhood, less traffic and tourists from all over the world coming to Maui for green vacations.

You don’t need to be a designer to apply permaculture. Everyone can act as a steward of the Earth in their own domain.

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