The History of Permaculture

Permaculture was conceived and developed in the 1970s by co-workers Bill Mollinson and David Holmgren in Australia.

Originally the term was a contraction of “Permanent Agriculture” for that is what it was, the design and implementation of permanent (sustainable) agricultural systems. Systems designed in this way tend to have closed energy cycles, being modelled on natural ecosystems, there should be minimal primary inputs such as chemical fertilisers.

The designed system should also have a high degree of inter-linkage; ”waste” outputs from one part of the system being used as inputs for another part. The ideal is a closed cycle, where outputs become inputs, requiring no primary inputs and producing no waste products. This will not be found in simple (single output) systems, which is why Permaculture design tends to produce multi-layered and highly interlinked systems, echoing natural ecosystems.

It is also useful to recognise the historical soil in which permaculture germinated. It was a decade since Rachel Carson had written Silent Spring with its dire, and subsequently validated, warnings about the threat DDT and other pesticides pose to the environment.

Half a decade after James Lovelock had conceived and published his Gaia theory, proposing that to gain a true understanding of our planet we should view the whole earth as a super organism (which he termed “Gaia”) with the same self sustaining and self regulating feedback mechanisms as are found in all other living organisms.

About the time Mollinson and Holmgren were working on permaculture, a Norwegian philosopher and mountaineer, Arne Naess, first published his concept of “Deep Ecology”. This ultimately calls for each individual to recognise their necessary connection with the world.

Thus Permaculture was conceived at a time when we were just beginning to recognise that our local actions could have a far greater impact on the biosphere than those which we had originally intended. Carson showed us that chemicals originally designed to “kill pests on my cabbages” were less discriminate and more far reaching in their toxicity than we had intended or foreseen.

Lovelock showed how our local actions can lead to reactions on a global scale, due to Gaia”s feedback mechanisms. Naess proposed a philosophical framework by which we could understand our position as part of nature as opposed to the more traditional view of ”Humankind” being in some way separate to ”Nature”. From this it is not surprising to find that Permaculture design tends to produce systems which avoid the addition of synthetic chemicals to the biosphere, look for multiple connections between various elements of the system and attempt to align, as far as possible, with the natural cycles of the world.

However, having said all this, Permaculture is not ”Rocket Science”, it is basically the application of common sense coupled with a few basic design tools.

(Extract from R. J. Bambrey”s article; “Permaculture” What’s That?; Country Smallholding Magazine April 2006)