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What is Permaculture? by Adrian Buckley August 10, 2010

Posted by gfsa in The How To's.

It is very common to hear people talk about how humans are a cancer to this earth, particularly those people in the environmental movement. I felt this myself for a large period of my life, and currently so do many of my good friends. We all hear stories about human greed, destruction of ecosystems, climate change, political injustice, and most recently BP among others. This amounts to a lot of pessimistic energy. Personally speaking, I went through school and work constantly hearing about these stories, and I just felt more and more dis-empowered. I just wanted to start fighting back, but something deep inside me was telling me that fighting would just make the problems worse.

Then two things happened. I took an introductory course in permaculture, and second, I watched a video on youtube called Greening The Desert. I came out of these experiences with information on how to put my personal energy to meaningful and productive use toward these issues. The key word here is information. I quickly realized that there are relatively simple design solutions to the world’s problems, and that most of us are simply not aware of them. I have also realized that the environmental and social problems facing us and ecology are symptoms of a society that no longer has the information needed to take care of itself.

Here’s what I mean: Right now, our grocery stores only can hold about three days worth of food for our society at any given time. If the power were to go out tomorrow, we would quite literally starve. On top of that, for every calorie of energy we get from our food in industrial countries, 9 calories of energy have gone into brining it to us. So if you were a wolf expending 9 calories of energy to hunt for 1 calorie back in food, you would quickly perish. There are uncountable communities that are suffering from lack of clean water in North America. Yet in these same places, rain is falling regularly. We simply don’t know how to clean and store water on a local scale and therefore must rely on large utility companies for our water that comes from unsustainable sources.

Even the food that we do grow through industrial agriculture is unhealthy. I was really sad to hear the other day that a tenant who lives above me was just diagnosed with cancer, and she’s in her early thirties. We are continuously eating toxic pesticides through the food we eat, and it’s no coincidence that these deadly diseases are on the rise as industrial society proliferates. Think about that red pepper you bought from the grocery store. It came from a monoculture agriculture where it is sprayed down with chemical insecticides and fertilizer macronutrients. Such chemicals effectively kill the biology in the soil. Soil biology is extremely important in that it converts minerals in the soil into a form that can be uptaken by plants in exchange for starches provided by the plant. If no soil biology exists, the minerals are not available to the plant, and hence are not available to us when we eat them. Without the soil biology, more and more fertilizer has to be applied and the cycle just goes down from there. So without minerals in much of our food, it’s no coincidence that a whole new host of diseases are on the rise these days.

Here’s the good news: You can very quickly learn how to design a household that takes care of your needs, those of your children and your family through the acquisition of simple but powerful information. Permaculture is a design science for creating and maintaining sustainable human settlement where our communities themselves provide for our needs, including clean water, healthy food and renewable energy. Permaculture design allows people like you and I to become producers in our communities, so that our food, energy, and clean water needs, among others, are sustainably and securely met continuously and indefinitely, without the need for destructive industries and rising prices. And don’t be scared off by the notion of producer – permaculture is about the design of human systems where a maximum output of energy and resource is produced through a minimum of energy, work and time inputs. There’s a common mantra among permaculture designers: “Work is a failure in design!”

Who knew that we could actually provide for our heating needs in a harsh Alberta winter using cob furniture and a rocket stove that costs all of $100.00 to make? Or that we can meet all of our water needs entirely from rainwater even in a semi-arid region like Okotoks that commonly receives less than 500 mm of rainfall per year? We can do all of this and still have our quality of life! You don’t need to be an engineer or a plumber or an architect to do any of this. You simply need to know a little bit of information about various elements in our landscapes and how to functionally connect them. This is what design is.

How Permaculture Works
So here’s how permaculture works. Permaculture design is the practice and science of patterning human settlements so that they produce as much, if not more, resources and energy that they consume. Permaculture design essentially applies the key patterns of functioning ecologies to the design of human settlement. Think about a forest for a minute. When was the last time a forest needed somebody to water it? Or provide insect control? Or even needed someone to fertilize it? I can’t think of one! Forests have evolved over billions of years to take care of all their needs within themselves. More specifically, forests are an assembly of different living and non-living things that together act to fulfill all the needs of everything living in that system. Everything in the forest system is assembled into a pattern where the needs of one component is met by another component, where it’s needs are provided by yet another component and so on. Permaculture design therefore is the science of patterning human settlement in the same way, so that all of our supply line needs are available within our communities. Through permaculture design, we transform our properties and land into entities that produce for us instead of things that consume from us. See before and after below.

Have you heard about an ancient plant guild called the Three Sisters? When corn, beans, and squash are planted in the same hole together, all three do quite a bit better than if they are planted in isolation. It all starts from how we understand yield. Turn your attention to the corn for a minute and ask yourself the question: “what is the yield of corn?” “Well, that’s easy, corn kernels!” you might think. That interpretation of yield is the familiar product yield used in agriculture. But what I want to make clear to you now is that there is another extremely important yield provided by corn that is not commonly considered: trellis services! Think now about what the bean needs to live. It needs something to climb on, which the corn provides. The bean grows nicely up the corn stalk. Other than beans, what do you think the bean yields? That’s right, the bean is a legume, and legumes fix nitrogen from the air into the soil and therefore fertilize the ground around them at the end of their life cycle (or when you selectively cut them). Finally, what is the yield of squash? Shade and water retention! Squash has big leaves but also hugs the ground and benefits the system by shielding the soil from the drying rays of the sun. But it needs good nitrogen content for all that growth. So you see, all three plants are beneficially exchanging services, and all are better off! This guild was created simply by knowing the different needs of each plant, and arranging them to their yields. All the needs of the system are in fact provided by the yields in that system, and therefore don’t require human effort and fossil energy to provide them. Now, perhaps the biggest barrier to yield is our own imaginations – there is no physical limit to yield.
Excitingly enough, this concept of needs and yields can be applied to the redesign of our communities too, and even the planning of ethical businesses that turn waste streams into opportunities, ensuring for our economic security too. This is smart design, and smart design will save this world and guarantee our food security forever!
About the Author:
Adrian Buckley is an active permaculturalist and founder of Big Sky Permaculture, a Calgary-based permaculture education and consulting organization. Adrian regularly teaches courses and workshops in permaculture design, and plans and installs food forests and edible landscapes for homeowners and community organizations. To find out how you can become involved in permaculture, visit Big Sky Permaculture’s website at www.bigskypermaculture.ca. Adrian would be pleased to answer your questions and can be reached by email at adrian@bigskypermaculture.ca



1. gfsa - September 2, 2010

Wow, great post Adrian. Thanks for clearing up some of the mystery around “permaculture”. Makes me want to sign up for a course right now! – Angie Dedrick

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