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Students studying details during permaculture workshop

What is Permaculture?

A working philosophy

According to one of its founders, Bill Mollison, permaculture is “a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”1 But what does that mean, precisely?

Permaculture originated as “an integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man,”2 but has expanded to be a holistic or whole-systems approach to designing environmentally and socially sustainable systems of human culture and agriculture, through the replication of patterns and ecological relationships observed in nature – especially those specific to the local design site. Permaculture designers thoughtfully integrate elements within a landscape in ways that create synergy and mutually beneficial relationships among elements, while striving to maintain closed energy and material loops, and minimize the use (and waste) of energy and materials.


Based on principles

Permaculture has frequently been described as revolving around three basic “ethics,” which are the ethics of (1) caring for the Earth, (2) caring for all people, and (3) returning the surplus.3 The third ethic, based on the ecological concept of “carrying capacity” and originally called “Setting limits to population and consumption,” has become the most hotly debated ethic, but the general idea it was meant to convey is that no one should take more than what they need and keep it for themselves before reinvesting surplus time, labor, money, information, or materials towards the previous two ethics of caring for the Earth and for other people.4

In addition to these three “ethics,” permaculture involves many principles derived from systems ecology, environmental science, sustainable development, landscape design, organic farming, and the study of pre-industrial examples of sustainable land use.5 Instead of one single set of principles, there are a few different collections of design principles and other concepts out there, which are generally lumped together as “permaculture principles.”


Solving problems through better design

In their book Permaculture One, Mollison and Holmgren describe permaculture as “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.” The ethical and design principles of permaculture can be applied to “people, their buildings and the ways in which they organise themselves.” Permaculture means not only permanent or sustainable agriculture, but also permanent or sustainable culture: ideas, skills, ways of living, and social structures.2

Permaculture is, to some degree, a response to the environmental and economic crises threatening modern society, including climate change and the overconsumption of resources such as fossil fuels. Although people are trying to mitigate these problems, some of the effects have now become inevitable, and people will also have to adapt. Permaculture offers a holistic approach to doing so by providing a framework for the “continuous generation and evaluation of the site and situation specific solutions necessary to move beyond the limited successes of sustainable development to a reunion of culture and nature,” which can be applied to “fast-track the development of sustainable use of land and resources, whether that be in a context of ecological and material abundance or one of deprivation.”2

Systems-thinking and permaculture design principles can be used as an organizing framework for sustainable development, ecologically sound (and productive) agricultural practices, appropriate technology, and intentional community design.2 Through the body of knowledge available through (and continuously added to by) the global “permaculture” community, people can shift from ignorant consumption and dependence towards responsible production and independence, thus becoming more resilient and self-reliant, and empowering themselves to provide for their own needs, while at the same time preserving, or even enhancing, the ability of (and resources available for) future generations to meet provide for theirs.


  1. Mollison, Bill. Introduction to Permaculture. 1991. Print. Tasmania, Australia: Tagari.
  2. Holmgren, David. “Essence of Permaculture.” Holmgren Design Services: The Source of Permaculture Vision and Innovation. April 2004. Web. Accessed 3 September 2017 at
  3. “Permaculture Ethics.” Permaculture Principles. Web. Accessed 3 September 2017 at
  4. Long, Tobias. “The Controversial Third Ethic of Permaculture.” Permaculture Research Institute. 13 April 2017. Web. Accessed 3 September 2017 at
  5. Holmgren, David. “Weeds or Wild Nature?” Permaculture International Journal. 1997. Web. Accessed 3 September 2017 at
Matthew Adkins

Matthew Adkins

Matthew graduated from NC State University in 2017 with a degree in Environmental Sciences and a minor in Agroecology. For his capstone project, he produced a documentary about permaculture in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. He is now Farm Manager at KoKyu Farm in Cary, NC where he grows veggies, herbs and flowers for local restaurants.

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