Note: We do not offer Permaculture Design Courses. Why? Read here: About the PDC
What is permaculture?
There is no simple answer to this question, since permaculture is such a complex aggregation of ethics, ideas, techniques, beliefs, designs and methods that any definition will lack at least some of its crucial aspects. Yet there are a few basics that should give you a good idea about the general direction permaculture takes.
Bill Mollison, the “Father of Permacture”, defined it as follows:
“Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems, which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”
Another definition, used by the inventors of the concept Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in their book Permaculture One, defines permacultures as
“Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fiber and energy for provision of local needs.”
Holmgren adds elsewhere that
“Permaculture is not the landscape, or even the skills of organic gardening, sustainable farming, energy efficient building, or eco-village development as such. But it can used to design, establish, manage, and improve these and all other efforts made by individuals, households and communities towards a sustainable future.”
Permaculture is, in a way, a counter-culture that runs contrary to many beliefs that the dominant culture of techno-industrial consumer capitalism is built upon. That the dominant culture doesn’t work, neither for humans nor for the environment, shouldn’t need further explanation. Holmgren adds that
“Permaculture has provided a holistic framework for reorganizing the lives and values of a small minority ready for more fundamental change. This has been particularly so for the minority of young people disillusioned with the conservative consumer youth culture of the late twentieth century [and, we might add, the early twenty-first century].”
Permaculture is a response to the environmental destruction this planet has suffered over the last few millennia (but especially the last few centuries and decades). It seeks to undo the damage inflicted upon the land by the dominant culture.
The so-called Agricultural “Revolution”, and why we need Permaculture
Ever since the very beginning of civilization, when some people slowly transitioned from a semi-nomadic foraging lifestyle to a sedentary farming lifestyle in the Fertile Crescent between 10,000-5,000 years ago, those people had a hard time adapting to agriculture (growing all your food, not only some) as their new way of life.
Agriculture, it seemed, and permanent human settlement itself was tantamount to starting a war against Nature. Author Daniel Quinn wrote:
What man build up, the wind and rain tore down.
The fields he cleared for his crops and his villages, the jungle fought to reclaim.
The seeds he sowed, the birds snatched away.
The shoots he nurtured, the insects nibbled.
The harvest he stored, the mice plundered.
The animals he bred and fed, the wolves and foxes stole away.
The mountains, the rivers, and the oceans stood in their places and would not make way for him.
The earthquake, the flood, the hurricane, the blizzard, and the drought would not disappear at his command.
Because of this endless battle it seems obvious to us here at Feun Foo that humans are not the ‘divinely appointed rulers’ of this planet and can’t do with it whatever they want. The world doesn’t meekly submit to human rule, it defies us – which is why we think it is wrong to do gardening “against” Nature (like f.e. conventional agriculture which uses chemical poisons against it’s ‘enemy’). It is futile to think this battle can ever be won.
Permaculture is gardening with Nature, learning and understanding how Nature works, what she wants, accepting her, and trying to compromise and work together so that the both of you are happy.
What Nature wants
In any place with enough rain it is easy to find out what Nature really wants. Leave a piece of land untouched and observe for some decades or centuries, and you will see that Nature always thrives to be rainforest. If you leave any piece of land untouched, it will eventually turn into rainforest, so we can say that this is what Nature wants – and what she does, if we leave her alone. First come the pioneer plants that improve the soil, then, when enough biomass is accumulated, small shrubs and trees will begin to grow, that will make way for ever bigger trees and an ever bigger variety of living beings in general. Even lakes turn over centuries and millennia into forests again – first organic material fills the lake up as sediment, and turns it into a swamp and then a moor, which is extremely rich in soil nutrients, making it the optimal place for a new forest to evolve.
We like Nature’s plan, and we can not only live with it, we want to help her achieving it! Permaculture means working hand in hand with Nature, so we help turning our piece of land into a stable ecosystem (=a forest) even faster, and in exchange we will have an extraordinarily high presence of fruit trees and edible plants in general.
We are not alone on this planet, there are billions of other species that all want to live and be part of this great adventure that we’re all partaking in. We don’t try to reduce the number of those fellow species, we don’t try to wipe them out or banish them from our garden. We are willing to share with them, so that they, too, can continue to coexist with us and preserve the abundance of life on this planet.
Agriculture makes those ‘competing’ insect and plant species an enemy to be stamped out with chemical warfare, just to gain 5-10% more profit. We give the insects their fair share and take for us what’s left – which is usually more than enough.
Because of the environmental destruction agricultural and, later, industrial societies caused during the last 8,000 years, we don’t think sustainability is enough – we have to heal, to restore our environment, our actions have to be increasingly regenerative. We are trying to create a regenerative lifestyle and culture that heals the Earth – as opposed to the high-tech consumerist lifestyle in industrialized nations.
The popular solutions offered so far are not promising. Most rely on the same faulty thinking that got us into this mess in the first place, such as the clearly well-intentioned, but under close inspection rather unimpressive oxymoron of “Sustainable Development” proposed by the United Nations.
The lifestyle in so-called “developed nations” is far from sustainable. We like and appreciate many features of civilization, but that doesn’t change the fact that civilized life is a very destructive and wasteful way to live. The Earth might be able to support some people living in a destructive and wasteful way, but she definitely can’t support all 7.5 billion of us living like that. If the world population continues to grow while everybody strives for a westernized industrial standard of living, all the problems we have right now are going to get even worse. Industrial agriculture devastates the planet, deforestation and topsoil erosion are among the biggest problems that we create with monoculture farming. There is no “one right way” for people to live, but we believe that some ways are inherently wrong. Compulsively destroying your landbase – gaining monetary (read: imaginary) profit from destroying the soil that grows your food, spoiling the water you drink and polluting the air you breathe is one of them. Permaculture, on the other hand, is not about profit. In ‘Permaculture – A Designers’ Manual’, Bill Mollison explicitly stated already in the preface that financial profit is not the primary aim of permaculture, “which seeks first to stabilize and care for the land, then to serve household regional and local needs, and only thereafter to produce a surplus for sale or exchange.” [emphasis added]
What is needed are not only alternative ways of living, but a lively culture of opposition to civilization, inspired by the many indigenous cultures around the world that haven’t yet been exterminated by progress and development.
Contrary to popular opinion, permaculture is not only sustainable, it is regenerative. To understand what this means we first have to take a closer look on what ‘sustainable’ means. The Oxford Dictionary defines it with being “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level“. That basically means that you can do something over and over and over again, if the conditions permit it. But it also means that if something is sustainable, it doesn’t get better (or worse). So it is actually not all that good.
Toby Hemenway said about this:
“Just imagine someone asks you, ‘How’s your marriage?’ and you answer ‘Oh, well, it’s sustainable…’. It’s not all that good!”
‘Degenerative’ are destructive things, like factories, dams, cars, airplanes, and civilization itself, that do damage to the ecosystem.
‘Regenerative’, on the other hand, are things that improve the environment, that make things better than they are. Forests are the best example for a regenerative system.
Most of humanity’s actions (apart from the indigenous people ) have been degenerative for the last 8,000 years; basically since we started converting our surroundings into fellow human beings through agriculture. But more on that later. The really destructive phase in our degenerative history began with the industrial revolution and accelerated ever since.
Because civilization has an undeniable degenerative tendency right now, it seems important for us that our goal should not only be sustainability, but to engage in regenerative activities, as to repair the damage we’ve inflicted on the planet so far (or at the very least give Nature some time to recover).
Permaculture in itself is regenerative.
Permaculture uses techniques that take Wild Nature as a role model (you won’t find monocultures in the jungle), and see her as a source of inspiration, the creative force and the ultimate caretaker, and therefore tries to make Nature an ally instead of an enemy.
Permaculture doesn’t “sustain” the land, it improves it. Instead of repeatedly using chemical fertilizers for a short-term boost, it makes the soil itself better, inviting earthworms and using nitrogen-fixing plants to improve soil fertility in the long run.
Permaculture is, in contrast to agriculture, not only about taking, but also about giving.
Industrial agriculture on the other hand destroys biodiversity through monocultures and pesticides, erodes topsoil through tilling and herbicides, stores no carbon since annuals are planted and the soil is ripped open several times a year so that soil carbon oxidizes and escapes, and depends heavily on fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources (to build the machines they use and produce fertilizer and highly toxic agrochemicals) which will soon get very sparse – there should be no need to further explain why this cannot be sustainable and has to be stopped.
We don’t only want to be sustainable, we want to be regenerative. Our last project in Krabi used to be a palm oil plantation, one of the worst examples of a monoculture. Since the beginning of our work there in 2014, we cut down most of the oil palms, dug a fish pond, added organic matter to the previously exhausted soil, planted a huge variety of different plants that benefit from each other and give us back their fruit in exchange, and created a neat little permaculture farm – by now you couldn’t guess that this place once was a palm oil plantation.
One of our long-term goals is the reduction of work. Like the famous permaculturalist Masanobu Fukuoka with his method of “do-nothing”, we want to create a place where Nature is in harmony and only little effort is needed to sustain the farm. We have in mind a form of ‘food jungle’ where the plants are planted in a way that they benefit from each other and maintain a stable food supply. Like Fukuoka, we try to cooperate with Nature rather than trying to “improve” upon it by conquest. When you grow a variety of wild vegetables and greens together with some domesticated produce in a well-balanced environment, not much work is needed to sustain a regular food supply. (The permaculture design of the five zones is a good example for this, with the fifth zone being basically wilderness, allowing hunting and gathering of wild foods.)
We are starting to experience what it really means to supply yourself with everything you need. Whether it is natural building techniques (like adobe or wood/bamboo) or useful handicraft (like roof tiles, woven wall screens or archery equipment), we want to know it all!
Learning and education has reached a level of alienation that leaves the individual utterly doomed in case of a sudden change in our society (like its inevitable collapse), and really useful knowledge is not taught in schools or universities. (read more here)
We have learned everything that we do here on the farm ourselves, by trial and error, by asking others to tell/teach/show it to us, by observing our environment, and by self-conducted reading, studying and research.
One short thing about the PDC (Permaculture Design Course):
While we don’t deny that attending a PDC and acquiring the certificate is very beneficial and gives you a wholesome overview on the topic, we do view this commercialization of permaculture with skepticism.
Some people are turning permaculture into a business and get rich off it, which somehow undermines the very thing permaculture stands for: an alternative way of live, one that lets you rediscover a lost connection with Nature and that shows you the true beauty and inherent value of Nature, disconnected from artificial symbolic concepts such as money. “Green” and “sustainable” are now fancy words that can increase sales if added to product names, so it is no surprise that some clever capitalists try to monetize even the most innocent of all resistance movements. The concept of the PDC was originally not a bad idea, but it has become somewhat of a requirement if you want to call yourself a permaculturalist with credibility – you have to spend hundreds of dollars to become one. There is no factual difference to university degrees, which say similarly little about your actual abilities, but more about the contents of your wallet.
Most people attending those courses are western, mostly white and middle class upwards, so a huge percentage of the population is denied access to this form of education.
We do not have a PDC and do not give PDC courses, since we believe not only the people who can pay $1,000 for two weeks should learn how to do permaculture. After all, the great permaculturalists (like Masanobu Fukuoka) all got by without one.
Here is a PDF file with everything that is being taught in a PDC, for free: