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How Permaculture Works

The Permaculture Movement

While it's a far cry from viewing the environment as a hostile foe to be conquered, permaculture also shouldn't be confused as a return to the days of scavenging for berries. Think of an ecological system as a river. The aim of permaculture is not to swim against the current or let it sweep you powerlessly down the stream. Like a boat floating down a current, permaculture, ideally, is sustained by the system it navigates without letting it dictate every detail of its course.

community farm
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images News/Getty Images
A woman harvests organically grown eggplants on a New York community farm, which is based around the principles of sustainability and environmentalism. 

Permaculturists push for integrated farming and ecological engineering which, in theory, allow farms and communities to pursue their own ends in a way that works with, not against, their environment.

Australian ecologist Bill Mollison and his student David Holmgren introduced the word "permaculture" in 1978 [source: Diver]. The duo developed the concept as a new, self-sustaining alternative to conventional agriculture, which typically involves focusing large amounts of resources on the mass production of a single crop.

The permaculture movement follows three basic ethics:

  1. Care for the Earth: This recognizes the importance of all living and non-living components of a planet, from plants and animals to minerals and air. It also entails a basic life ethic, which recognizes that every living being has value in that it fulfills some basic role in the ecosystem.

  1. Care for people: This advocates the importance of community involvement and that access to resources is a basic human right.

  1. Setting limits on population and consumption: This recognizes the importance of reinvesting surplus labor, money, information and energy into care for the planet and the human populations living on it.

While the term may be less than a century old, many of the ideas behind permaculture have been around for thousands of years. Ancient civilizations practiced such growing strategies as planting multiple crops, forest farming, crop rotation and composting long before environmentalism came into being. In this sense, permaculture isn't as much a radically new way of farming, as a melding of traditional, commonsense agricultural methods with modern ones.

Since the late 1970s, the permaculture movement has expanded out of Australia. Enthusiasts continue to push for mainstream acceptance of permaculture values throughout the world. Today, efforts range from the small-scale implication of permaculture design principles in household gardens to wide-scale, full-farm initiatives and permaculture communities. A number of permaculture programs and institutes boast their own functioning permaculture farms, as well as offer texts and classes for interested farmers.

Permaculturists pursue their ideals by following a number of key design principles. Read the next page to learn all about the different strategies that go into building a permaculture farm.