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Permaculture is a term used to describe an intentional system of agriculture and settlement that aims to reflect the interrelationships and sustainability of natural ecosystems. Permaculture can be seen in contrast to intensive agriculture, which eventually leaves land unfit for growing, gradually reducing the amount of land suitable for human habitation. Permaculture is an attempt to best use land so that generations in the future can continue to make use of the land in productive manners, allowing for personal subsistence.
Permaculture was coined as a term in the 1970s by David Holmren and Bill Mollison, two Australians dedicated to the sustainable use of land. They have continued expanding on their theories, and helping to build a broader permaculture movement, publishing books and running workshops to help propagate their ideals and techniques. Although they were the first to use the word, the ideals of permaculture in the modern sense have been around since at least the early part of the 20th century, and the practices that make up the core of permaculture date back thousands of years.
At its most basic, permaculture is just a form of agriculture that can be practiced forever. Industrial farming techniques are seen as inherently limited, with an eventual wall past which a piece of land can no longer be used. High-density crops, and the use of single crops over large expanses of lands strips away necessary nutrients as generations pass, eventually leaving the land barren. At the same time, artificial fertilizers can build up salts over time, making the soil inhospitable to plants.
Permaculture tries to look at a piece of land in a holistic manner, integrating every animal and plant living on it, and combining that with social structures designed to foster long-lasting agriculture as well. Each element of a food cycle is broken down into what it requires and what it contributes, and then each element is pieced together to form a dynamically self-supporting whole. If a weakness is found in the system, which could eventually lead to a breakdown of the system, then something is either added or removed to mend that weakness and allow for a more fully-sustainable ecosystem.
At the same time, permaculture moves beyond simply being a mechanical set of principles for fostering permanent agriculture, and looks at itself as an ethical structure for building permanent culture, as well. Central to the idea of permaculture are the ideas that caring for the earth is an ethical necessity, that the resources garnered from the earth should be shared equitably among all people and creatures, and that communities of people should help support each other fully.
As industrial food systems begin to appear threatened by a myriad of factors, from pests attacking monocultured crops to increased prices and dwindling supplies of the fossil fuels necessary to create industrial food and transport it, permaculture is gaining more and more support. Communities are looking to permaculture as a way to ensure not only that the land they are on will remain healthy well into the future, but that their food supply will be sustained even through potential global crises.