Permaculture 101 – Basic Definitions

What permaculturists are doing is the most important activity that any group is doing on the planet. We don’t know what details of a truly sustainable future are going to be like, but we need options, we need people experimenting in all kinds of ways and permaculturists are one of the critical gangs that are doing that.” ~ Dr. David Suzuki, geneticist, broadcaster and international environmental advocate


Permaculture is also a world wide network and movement of individuals and groups working in both rich and poor countries on all continents. Largely unsupported by government or business, these people are contributing to a sustainable future by reorganizing their life and work around permaculture design principles. In this way they are creating small local changes but ones which are directly and indirectly influencing action in the wider environment, organic agriculture, appropriate technology, communities and other movements for a sustainable world.” ~David Holmgren


As I moved to my new workplace, I found a lot of my co-workers, friends and even clients ask me: what is this Permaculture thing you do?

My week-days are full of rewards from work: supporting immigrants and refugees to find a place to call home and figure out how their experience, skills and credentials can translate into a job that can give them a sense of fulfilment at the same time they support themselves and their families.

But my weekends, vacations, days off and some evenings are full with what for many is still a mystery: “Permaculture”…

“Is that related to horticulture?” ask some; “Isn’t that a new way of gardening?” ask others; and even “I’ve heard that is a ‘New Age’ thing of neo-hippies, isn’t it?”

I smile…

Permaculture is revolution disguised as gardening.” ~Mike Feingold, a Permaculture Teacher at Findhorn


Permaculture has always been difficult to define, even for those who “created” it.

It is because Permaculture is the combination of deep observation of natural systems, the awareness of our predicaments as human beings/civilization and the attempt to solve these predicaments through intentional and conscious design….sounds complicated? In a way, it is…

Permaculture is also about healing and regenerating: through deep observation and acknowledgement of “what it is” and “what we have”, we can also design ways to change what is wrong and “feed that we want to grow”

Permaculture starts with gardening/horticulture because we human beings (and all the other beings we share this planet with) have basic needs: we need air and water and food: clean air is produced by trees and green vegetation, water is recycled and cleaned by the water cycle (and vegetation) and food comes (all of it, even “meat”) from vegetation: so we need to start in the garden!

But Permaculture goes way beyond gardening: it includes what energy and resources we use and how, how we live and even how we govern ourselves, make a living and relate to each other: Permaculture is a deep look into real sustainability (the attempt to create a “Permanent Culture: Perma-Culture”) and it means the conscious design of systems, the conscious intervention on systems, so we can live respectfully and ethically in this world.

Permaculture is also the first “science” that starts with ethics. The Ethics of Permaculture are very simple: “Care for the Earth”, “Care for the People” and “Care for the Future”…any technology or design that clashes with any of these ethics wouldn’t work!

Permaculture is also based on principles. Depending on whose book you read and who you ask, the principles go from 12 to more than 20…but they are all based on deep observation and interaction with natural systems: the principles are never a cage, they provide a guide and a structure but are also open to change and feedback: nothing in Permaculture is dogmatic…”all depends” because each natural or human system is different…

What Predicaments?

You may or may not be fully aware (I was not, until a few years ago), but we human beings are in for a really rough ride down the hill of “progress”: all what we know and accept today as “normal” wasn’t here only 150 years ago, even 100 years ago. We have become so used to all this that think this is “normal” and naturally expect the future to be more of “this” or even better…

But what is “this”?

“This” is what some of us (mostly middle/upper class westerners and those who have recently had access to western-like middle/upper class status) have  increasingly become use to: having a big house with a room for everyone and even “visitors”; central air conditioner and heating; food from all seasons and all areas of the planet available through the closest grocery store; a car for every adult; a refrigerator, washing machine, dryer, TVs and video games, a phone for every member of the family, computers, toys and so much stuff that sometimes we have to “throw it away”…

“This” includes using stuff just once and satisfying almost every wish through the magic of online shopping and credit; being frustrated because our shapes and styles don’t match those of the perfect models and divorce each time our partners don’t fit our wildest dreams of the perfect marriage.

“This” also includes increasing obesity, cancer and chronic pain, mental illness and children taking pills so they can stop being children. It includes the dissociation from where our basic needs are being supplied: food no longer tastes as food, water no longer tastes like water and “Nature” is something “out there” where we go hiking or camping once in a while…

The Predicaments

The reality is that almost all what we consider “normal” and “reality” now is artificial and unsustainable: almost all the things we use and have are made of materials that have been stolen from the soil and are non renewable and that the energy that feeds our air conditioners, heating systems, computers and cars is finite and non renewable.

The reality is that mining and digging, manufacturing and transporting those materials and that energy is polluting the planet in such a way that we are not only changing the climate for worse: we are also depleting the soil and culling biodiversity and changing the most basic cycles that sustain life: the cycles of water, nitrogen and phosphorus, for only a start.

In 1804, we reached 1 billion human beings and in 1927, we were 2 billion. In less than 100 years, we have more than tripled that number: we are now over 7 billion…no matter how you see it, there is not enough resources (not even renewable ones) for everyone if we expect all to live as we westerner middle class people live…even if this were solvable, there wouldn’t be enough for future generations (and each time a baby is born, there goes the “future generation”).

It is not only about available or enough resources: the destruction of ecosystems implies that in a few years we may not have clean air, clean water and healthy soils for us human beings to breathe, drink and be fed…each one of “the other” species with whom we share this planet has a place and a function: each time one of “them” goes extinct, we are diminishing our own survival potential….

If these weren’t enough, we are also peppered by social, political and economic issues (“human-specific issues”) that are also threatened to ruin our lives: wars, refugees, discrimination, oppression, slavery of the 21th century, human trafficking, etc.


You should…it is the starting point of being aware and awake and stopping the wheels of denial and delusion: we can only start healing and changing when we acknowledge that we are in deep trouble!

What Can We Do?/ What We Must Do

We could do many things: “sustainability” tells us that we can start by reducing consumption of products and services that damage the Earth and other cultures and human beings. However, this is not enough: you may have already discovered that changing the light bulbs, throwing away all your offending plastics, turning lights off when you leave a room, driving an electric car, buying organic food and recycling are not enough: where do all the old light bulbs and plastics go when you “through them away”? And how much energy does recycling use? Do you know that “recycled” objects end up in landfills most of the time? Why do we need a car per person in the first place? And where do all those cars go when they no longer work? Do you know that the production and transportation of “organic” food damages the environment almost as badly as non organic does?

We not only “can” do more and better: we MUST!

Let me explain…

If we don’t do anything and continue business as usual, we all (humans, non humans, rich, poor, developed, undeveloped, vegans, carnivores, Christians, Muslims, atheists, ALL) go extinct…

But before we all go extinct, we will suffer slow and long: first we have the refugee “crisis” (exacerbated by a drought brought about by climate change and the practices of globalisation and trade market); parallel to that, we are already having species extinction and ecosystems collapses in almost every continent of this planet; eventually we will have fewer and fewer resources and fewer and fewer “peaceful” places to go and things will become really nasty before all goes really, really wrong.

There is only a way…

Being scared, anxious and in despair doesn’t solve anything. The responsible and ethical way to respond to this is to face reality and think: what must be done?

You may find the answers in many places, but I suggest taking a look into Permaculture as well:

We must…

  • Reduce consumption (of stuff and services, even food)
  • Become really frugal: remember what our real “needs” are and stick to them. Remember how to reject stuff we don’t need, how to repair what’s broken, reuse what has been used once, re-distribute what we no longer need or use, re-purpose what may have other creative uses, re-generate by composting or re-creating things…
  • Become really frugal with our use not only of resources but also energy: become used to NOT use air conditioner (open the windows, use fans, dress accordingly, use plants to cool down the area) and NOT to use heating (wear a sweater, leverage on stove and oven use, insulate the house, have pets and stay all together in one area heated by one single source)…we need to re-learn that we can move around by WALKING and some of us also by BIKING and for long distances use public transportation or carpooling…
  • Re-learn how to communicate with others in non-violent ways: this includes accept that people are not perfect and many may be carrying huge psychological and social burdens; being compassionate and learning to manage meetings and group dynamics in creative ways…
  • Learn and practice how to solve conflicts and deal with aggressive and challenging people and situations: as things become worse and we have to deal with more diversity, we can expect challenging behaviours.
  • Check our own belief systems, our mental models and our resulting behaviours against ethics: how ethical (caring for the Earth, the People and the Future) are those mental models and behaviours? Who says we are right and others are wrong?
  • Create/encourage/support resilient communities, households and individuals: the future will be better navigated by people and communities who know how to be strong and flexible to adapt to challenging situations…
  • Re-localize all our needs and production of goods and services: the more we depend on faraway places and peoples for our most basic needs and wants, the more vulnerable we are. But also by using these faraway goods and services, we contribute to the depletion of resources, the oppression and abuse of other peoples and the pollution of the world! Re-localizing ensures we provide employment and support to local economies and that our efforts stay at home. We also provide the freedom to other economies to re-stabilize themselves and reverse collapses.
  • Re-design where, what, how and why we get the goods and services we get: where our water, energy, food, resources in general come from and how they are produced so we can ensure they are truly ethical and sustainable.
  • Accept life as it is: life includes illness and discomfort, caring for and dealing with the sick, the disabled, the difficult, the aging. Life involves accepting ugliness and death. When we send our children to a “daycare”, our aging parents to “senior homes” and our disabled and sick to “care homes”, we are rejecting our main responsibility, we are being selfish and immature and we are not building resilience because resilience includes acknowledging the imperfections and still enjoying and being grateful for life!
  • Be grateful for what we have and for living in these special times.
  • Be strong spiritually, physically, emotionally and intellectually.

If you want to know more about Permaculture, check the next “free introduction” and contact Delvin Solkinson to register and attend:


4 Comments on “Permaculture 101 – Basic Definitions

  1. Pingback: Permaculture 101 – Basic Definitions | Silvia Di Blasio | WORLD ORGANIC NEWS

  2. When my childminder picks up my daughter from school I am not being selfish or rejecting my main responsibility. If I didn’t work, my daughter and I would be destitute. At this moment in time, buying a strip of land with a caravan and following Mark Boyle’s example (cf The Moneyless Manifesto) would probably be a bit too much of a challenge, all things being equal!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Helen, you are right: I also had to send my children to daycare in order to work. It is not your (or mine or anybody else’s fault): it is the system: the system forces us to live in an artificial way. Daycares are not bad in themselves if run by multi-generational people and are part-time. But children and aging parents are not meant to spend most of their times away from us and we are not meant to spent most of our time away from home in order to feed and roof our families either. This is unsustainable and based on a system that makes things extremely expensive and forces us to acquire certain things and behave in certain ways. Unfortunately, the system is both imposed from above and the result of all its parts (us) interacting and accepting or allowing certain things. Not all of “us” have equal choices available: some have no other option but send their children and parents to daycares and work till they drop dead. Permaculture is not about buying land and going off the grid either: it is about looking and creating solutions wherever we are. Probably unemployed neighbours may act as caregivers (a transitional and temporary solution that keeps the money local and builds relationships of resilience). Your caregiver may be the best person for your daughter and you may be contributing to her/his wellbeing too. Sorry for the misunderstanding 😦


      • Thank you for elaborating on your thoughts, Silvia. In my case, I have a wonderful childminder who lives just round the corner, so it is definitely keeping my money local, from that point of view.

        I don’t think that people need to be looked after exclusively by their parents as it is good for them to get different points of view, for example. However, looking at the bigger picture, our societies are focussing on the money/war machine rather than humanity.

        Liked by 1 person

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