Permaculture Principles: Clearing Up the Ambiguity

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Permaculture is a philosophy or design discipline that seems to mean a lot of different things to different people—from a fairly purist focus on 'permanent agriculture', as the term was originally coined, to a broader perspective that integrates permaculture with 'inner sustainability'. It seems to me that in general, this 'broad church' is an asset. Permaculture can evolve to meet the challenges we face. But as with any discipline, there is also a concern about watering down the core content. If it can mean anything to anybody, does it mean anything at all?

My own exploration of permaculture design principles over at Planet Green could be taken as a case in point. The actual principles that I set out (which were adapted from an article on Permaculture at HowStuffWorks), while all being core elements of permaculture, aren't universally accepted as "the principles." In fact, I've seen many different but related versions of what constitutes a principle, what constitutes an ethic, and what constitutes a tool or a technique. As I say, there's nothing wrong with adapting a philosophy or discipline to suit your needs - after all, if you don't evolve, you die. But at some point what was permaculture might need to be called something else.

So it's timely that David Holmgren, one of the co-originators of the permaculture concept, has been putting some time in recently to revisiting and defining what the permaculture principles really mean - and also setting them out in a distinct order (see Paula's interview with David Holmgren on Treehugger for more about this remarkable man). Together with a site called, appropriately enough, Permaculture Principles, Holmgren has also released a DVD about the permaculture principles, discussing and demonstrating each of the principles in turn (see the trailer below). But for the record, here are the principles as Holmgren defines them - I'm embarrassed to note that, while they are related, few match the list that I offered up:

1) Observe and Interact
2) Catch and Store Energy
3) Obtain a Yield
4) Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback
5) Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services
6) Produce No Waste
7) Design from Patterns to Details
8) Integrate RAther than Segregate
9) Use Small and Slow Solutions
10) Use and Value Diversity
11) Use Edges and Value the Marginal
12) Creatively Use and Respond to Change

Many of the principles may sound a little esoteric to the uninitiated, so it's worth exploring Holmgren's descriptions of the principles. Undoubtedly, practitioners around the world, myself included, will continue to adapt and develop the principles to meet their own needs - but I for one found this a useful reminder that this is a discipline, not just a set of observations.