What is Permaculture?
The short (and shallow) definition of permaculture is that it lets you cultivate the soil, produce crops, and raise livestock without affecting the next iteration or generations. I discovered it some time ago while the idea of moving (or running away) from the city popped into my mind.
I’ve always been amazed by the zero-energy solutions humans have developed around the globe. To solve the challenges habitats strike upon their dwellers, from the simple igloo of the Inuit to the more complex Earthships in New Mexico, from the early Aztec aquaponic chinampas or the clever Bolivian walipinis.
All these required no power tools or complex machinery to be developed, only the materials from the land itself, imagine the first person.
You should know Industrial agriculture is based on a vicious circle of soil impoverishment and the spread of harmful chemicals polluting the air, the water and breaking the balance between species. But wait, someone had a simple and bright idea.
This idea belongs to practical permaculture, so what is permaculture anyway?
During the 70s, Bill Mollison stated this definition of permaculture:
Conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs sustainably.
So as you can see, this is a way of living, a holistic overview of the way we live and our relationship with our world.
Permaculture’s not a gardening technique but a design system, a system which includes all the “inputs” available in our environment, ironically no garden but all living creatures and plants, as well as wind and water.
Did you know Feng Shui means water and wind, and it was used to determine where to build settlements? But this is not tied to only one culture, you can find those same principles in the Hindu Vastu shastra, and in the work of the enigmatic Roman architect Vitruvius, to name a few. All these examples integrate architecture with nature, with mutual benefits.
A permaculture system is a closed loop. It’s a system that provides its energy.
Experts say you must achieve “a system that doesn't need you to be maintained”.
For example, instead of buying fertilizer, this system should be designed to provide its own fertility needs, and if you’re raising livestock, you should desire to provide all their food from on-site.
This is something really hard to do, so inside the permaculture toolbox, we have Regenerative Agriculture (there’s a great podcast about the topic) which is the core agricultural practice with permaculture in mind.
Therefore, in opposition to seasonal crops, permies choose perennial crops, so there’s no tilling. Tilling the ground exposes the beneficial underground bacteria which keep the soil fertile.
Also, there are some plants (called green manure) sowed for the sole purpose of being chopped and dropped. This generates a bunch of nutrients for the soil, others have roots that go deep underground and help build a structured soil, aerating and contributing nitrogen to the ground. This on a higher scale is usually called a guild, with different plants contributing harmonically to their benefit.
The best example is the three sisters guild. Corn, peas or beans, and squash-like plants.
These are some mantras that hold the essence of permaculture:
Observe, then act, then observe for the changes.
Go with nature, not against it.
Start at a small scale, then go big.
Everything is connected (for good or bad)
The problem is the solution.
Only the approach is the limit, the system is limitless in performance.
Minimum effort, maximum performance.
Make conditions to interact.
Make spaces for new things.
With these in mind, we can start to catch a glimpse of what permaculture means and how to interact with our environment.
But permaculture is also about people, the ethical side of permaculture suggests you care for the earth but also the people. You, your family, your community, and so on (remember, think small, then big).
At this moment you might see what’s cooking, no, it’s not a revolution but a subversion, remember the old joke “why a cyclist is a disaster for the economy?”
Let’s say you want to practice some permaculture principles around your community.
First, you should think about yourself, the resources you consume, your house, and how your life can be more sustainable. Reducing, reusing, and recycling is a good start. Then engage your community to do the same.
You can start an eco-circle. Members address the energy and water consumption in their households, their eating habits, their use of chemicals, as well as the environmental impact of their waste generation and transport habits, among other things. Then they brainstorm, experiment, and share their experiences (including failures) together, thus inspiring and helping each other.
Union makes force, and the internet has plenty of success stories.
Whether it is setting up a community compost or collecting and recycling plastic to build stuff (Precious Plastic) or buying solar panels at a lower price to build a small solar plant.
Get some abandoned plots and start a community-supported agriculture space.
Climate change is still happening, faster than ever, and other factors like the war and pandemic have exacerbated the global food crisis. Permaculture may be the start that can help us be self-sustaining and be one with our planet and people.
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Thank you and take care!
Rodrigo Encinas is a Software Engineer, Musician, Tinker, and Permaculturalist based in Barcelona, Spain. He is also a contributing writer at the International Youths Organization for Peace and Sustainability.
Inputs and Edits by Aswin Raghav R.