Live and let die: Permaculture primer

Termite mound inspires home insulationA brief permaculture primer

Permaculture urges humans to imitate nature. It’s an idea worth considering now more than ever.

As we face a triple-threat of James Bond villains — peak oil, climate change, and the Great Recession — many things are clearly going wrong with the industrial world’s plan.

Nature, on the other hand, has been able to run things pretty well on Earth for a few billion years. So, if we’re interested in sustaining our civilization a bit longer, maybe it’s time to pay more attention to nature’s best practices.

Imitating nature is an idea whose time has come. And the good news is that permaculture seems to be breaking out of its straw-bale shell to appeal to the mainstream.

A decade or more before anyone took either peak oil or global warming seriously, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, both Australians, had the prescience to recognize the need for a return to non-technological, non-chemical ways of growing, and of living.


Like any number of radical ideas conceived during the Age of Aquarius, permaculture took time to catch on. For decades, it inspired composting toilets and cob Hobbit-houses in rural eco-villages and on perma-farms around the world. But permaculture had a limited effect on the larger urbanized culture. Now, however, it appears to be coming into its own – and not a moment too soon. This once-fringe movement of homesteaders wanting to live off the grid, could by virtue of sheer necessity become a more conventional way of life in the not-distant future.


Everyone knows that permaculture has something to do with gardening. But its significance is far broader and the discipline has lessons for the whole way that society is organized.

The term first came about by combining the words permanent and agriculture. (Others may tell you permanent and culture; both are right.) If it is difficult to make sense of the idea of permanent agriculture, ponder this: what in the natural landscape could be called permanent?

Before examining that piece of the puzzle, however, it’s important to recognize that permaculture, by design, imitates nature. For this reason, permaculture also makes use of pre-industrial methods of farming, which were better attuned to nature than what we do today on industrial farms. Its originators believe (yes, Holmgren and Mollison are both still with us) that, by imitating nature and old-fashioned ways of farming, we can repair and restore our soils and forests, while at the same time utilizing them in a sustainable manner.

Diamonds are forever

Although permaculture’s founders emphasize the value of permanence, there is actually nothing in the natural landscape that goes on forever. In a relative manner of speaking, though, we could say that trees and perennial plants are permanent, in that they continue growing from year to year.

If we approach the subject more broadly, we come a bit closer to the intended meaning of “permanent.” Forests can be quite long-lived, as can ponds, grasses, and soils. As it so happens, all of the elements just mentioned have a role to play when applying the principles of permaculture.

Way back in 1981, when Ronald Reagan was celebrating “morning in America” and most Americans were just starting to get all their food wrapped in plastic, Mollison wrote that “The systems that are failing are soil, forests, atmosphere, [and] nutrient cycles.” See any overlap between the list of long-lived eco-systems Mollison refers to, and the list of things in nature that we might consider relatively long-lasting?


Soil and forests are, indeed, two very important elements of another radical idea that is part of permaculture: “Landcare,” a term coined by Holmgren, who likes to capitalize it. Landcare means repair and restoration of everything that makes up the natural landscape. The Green Revolution and its technological and chemical solutions for all problems agricultural has resulted in a world of hurt for all of us. The damage needs undoing.

So, permaculture not only mimics nature, but it also repairs and restores natural eco-systems. If this sounds like a rather grand undertaking, don’t be put off by it.  Gaia’s Garden, Second Edition: A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture is a great place to start. The author, Toby Hemenway, teaches permaculture design, and at one time acted as associate editor of Permaculture Activist. Hemenway leads the reader through the ABC’s of practical permaculture application.

Remember that permaculture is a way of life. That in itself tells us it is something to be approached gradually.

The man with the golden homespun

As our nation is forced to transition from buying the vast majority of its food in supermarkets, and Americans realize that good food is close at hand, the new, re-localized economy and permaculture will inevitably intersect.

Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton do a wonderful job of explaining how this will unfold, in a climatically changed world, in A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil. In describing their intriguingly named “Bull’s-eye Diet,” the authors detail how the family garden/farm will be the place where society’s staple foods are grown. Those foods which the family is unable to grow permaculturally in the Home Production Ring of the bull’s eye might very well be obtainable in their immediate neighborhood – the next ring – or their district, the ring outside the Neighborhood Ring.

All of us will need to seek out options, because the transition to a post fossil fuel economy cannot be accomplished by single families or individuals. The transition will be accomplished by individuals working together, as a community. And with permaculture as its inspiration, the Transition Town movement can help mainstream the idea that human culture should imitate nature, making bio-mimicry as well known on the Upper East Side or around Dupont Circle as Manolo Blahniks, credit default swaps or Red Bull.

Additional Resources

Image Credit, CC Attribution License 3.0: Image of termite and termite mound as example of insulation and internal climate control of housing, and how people can use similar natural techniques to create efficient climate control in their own dwellings. Drawing by April Sampson-Kelly at

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