Permaculture: A Science of observation

Without permanent agriculture there is no possibility of a stable social order.


Representational Image (Photo: Pixabay)

Permaculture is becoming an increasingly popular buzzword and tool box of ideas for farmers and gardeners but what exactly is it? According to Bill Mollison co-founder of the movement – permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. Permaculture has been called "a science of observation" as it relies upon Biomimicry; observing nature and then designing a system in a way that allows nature to do much of the work for you. The design system with the official title of "Permaculture" got its start in the 1970s in Australia. Permaculture’s original meaning was a contraction of the word "Permanent + agriculture’’ meaning that if we design agricultural landscapes, especially our home landscapes in a way that improves and supports the local ecosystem they could be life-giving for generations. Permaculture integrates resources, people and environment through mutually beneficial synergies- imitating the no waste, closed loop system seen in diverse natural ecosystems. Permaculture studies and applies holistic solutions that are applicable in rural and urban contexts at any scale. Regenerative permaculture systems which are helping to shape the forms of the future are capable of being created in every habitable part of the world benefitting not only humans but many different plant and animal species in the process. It is a multidisciplinary toolbox including agriculture, water harvesting and hydrology, energy, natural building, forestry, waste management, animal system, aquaculture, appropriate technology, economics and community development. And while it has some similarities to organic farming, it’s much different (and better) in many ways too. The first pioneers to establish and practice permaculture design voiced concern about the high cost conventional agriculture revolved around, maximising production while destroying biodiversity and soil health. Permaculture supporters worried about the impacts of using chemical fertilisers, pesticides and using very large amounts of water- all hallmarks of conventional agriculture. This type of conventional farming or agriculture is neither sustainable nor respectful of the planet and its diversity. Permaculture is viewed as one inclusive, holistic solution of this problem, since it both benefits the environment while helping to maintain valuable and often scarce resources.

Permaculture is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way. Without permanent agriculture there is no possibility of a stable social order. Permaculture design is a system of assembling conceptual material and strategic components in a pattern which functions to benefit life in all forms. The philosophy behind permaculture is one of working with rather than against the nature of protracted and thoughtless action; of looking at systems in all their functions rather than asking only one yield of them and allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolutions. As the basis of permaculture is beneficial design, it can be added to all other ethical training and skills and has the potential of taking a place in all human endeavors. In the broad landscape however, permaculture concentrates on already settled areas and agricultural lands. Almost all of these need drastic rehabilitation and re-thinking on certain result of using our skills to integrate food supply and settlement to catch water from our roof areas and to place nearly a zone of fuel forest which receives waste and supplies energies will be to free most of the area of the globe for the rehabilitation of natural system. These need never be looked upon as "of use to people’’ except in the very broad sense of global health.

The real difference between a cultivated (designed) ecosystem and a natural system is that the great majority of species and biomass in the cultivated ecology is indeed for the use of humans or their livestock. We are only a small part of the total primeval or natural species assembly and only a small part of its yield are directly available to us. But in our gardens, almost every plant is selected to provide or support some direct yield for people. Household design relates principally to the needs of people, it is thus human-centered (anthropocentric). This is a valid aim for settlement design but we also need a nature-centered ethics for wilderness conservation. We cannot however do much for nature if we do not govern our greed and if we do not supply our needs from our existing settlements. If we can achieve this aim, we can withdraw from much of the agriculture landscape and allow the natural system to flourish. Recycling of nutrients and energy in nature is a function of many species. In our gardens, it is our own responsibility to return waste via compost or mulch to the soil and plants. We actively create soil in our gardens, whereas in nature many other species carry out that function. Around our home, we can catch water for garden use, but we rely on natural forested landscapes to provide the condenser leaves and clouds to keep rivers running with clear water to maintain the global atmosphere and to lock up our gaseous pollutants. Thus, even anthropocentric people would be well advised to pay close attention to and to assist in conservation of existing forest and to assist in the conservation of all existing species and allow them a place to live.

We have abused the land and laid waste to systems we never need have disturbed had we attended to our home gardens and settlements. If we need to state a set of ethics on natural system, then let us be:-                                                                                                                                                                            Implacable and uncompromising opposition to further disturbances of any remaining natural forests where most species are still in balance. Vigorous rehabilitation of degraded and damaged natural systems to stable states. Establishment of plant systems for our use on the least amount of law we can use for our existence. Establishment of plant and animal refuges for rare or threatened species.

Permaculture as a design system deals primarily with the third statement above but all people who act responsibly in fact subscribe to the first and second statement above. We believe we should use all the species we need or can find to use in our own settlement design, provided they are not locally rampant and invasive. A primary goal of permaculture is leaving the planet in even better condition than how it was found.

( The views expressed are personal)

First Published:Sept. 27, 2021, 1:12 a.m.

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