David Holmgren (born 1955) is an ecologist, ecological design engineer and writer.
Holmgren was born in Western Australia. He studied at the College of Advanced Education in Hobart,
Tasmania, where in 1972 he met Bill Mollison, who was then a lecturer at the University of Tasmania.
The two found they shared a strong interest in the relationship between human and natural systems.
Their wide-ranging conversations and gardening experiences encouraged Holmgren to write the
manuscript that was to be published in 1978 as Permaculture One.
The book was a mixture of insights relating to agriculture, landscape architecture and ecology.
Holmgren's chief theoretical inspiration was the energy dynamics of American ecologist Howard T.
Odum (Environment, Power and Society, 1971). The same book was promoted by David M. Scienceman
as a platform for a scientific political party.
According to Holmgren,
'The word permaculture was coined by Bill Mollison and myself in the mid-1970s to describe an
"integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man".
A more current definition of permaculture, which reflects the expansion of focus implicit in
Permaculture One, is "Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships
found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs".
People, their buildings and the ways they organise themselves are central to permaculture. Thus the
permaculture vision of permanent (sustainable) agriculture has evolved into one of permanent
(sustainable) culture.' (Holmgren, 2002a: xix)
While Bill Mollison travelled the world teaching and promoting permaculture, Holmgren was more
circumspect about the potential of permaculture to live up to the promises sometimes made about it.
He concentrated his efforts on testing and refining his brainchild, first on his mother's property in
southern New South Wales (Permaculture in the Bush, 1985; 1993), then at his own property,
Melliodora, Hepburn Permaculture Gardens, at Hepburn Springs, Victoria, which he developed with
his partner, Su Dennett (Melliodora, Hepburn Permaculture Gardens - Ten Years of Sustainable Living,
1996a; Payne, 2003).
A recent major project has been the Fryers Forest eco-village, which aims to create a model of
sustainable housing and financially viable sustainable forest management, on a site near Castlemaine,
Victoria (Holmgren, 1996b).
Bill Mollison was born in 1928 and spent his childhood on the beach at Stanley, on the north west coast
of Tasmania. It was probably the 'best place ever' to grow up, he reckons, dodging school to roam the
rock pools with a bunch of mates.
Vinegar, Froggy, Wobbly Duck and me
Often used to wander down along the sea
Chewing on a limpet, eating a green pea
With nothing to remember and all the world to see
Bull and Frog and Vinegar
And me and Wobbly Duck
Climbing up the tea trees
Sometimes getting stuck
Catching wily tadpoles
Paddling in the muck
Nothing to write home about
No need of any luck...
Bill's father owned the local butter factory before building a bakery in Stanley. His spare time was
spent supplying the family with fruit and vegetables from an acre of garden. Son Bill got into
gardening seriously at the age of nine, starting with a crop of radishes that satisfied his appetite and
the need for quick results.
During his secondary education at Burnie High School, Bill's main focus turned to cadets, and the
prospect of flying a Spitfire in the second world war.
He clocked up 60 flying hours in a Tiger Moth bi-plane, but his plans came to an abrupt halt when US
warplanes dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
The prospect of spending his life punching dough into loaves didn't appeal, so Bill went to sea, fishing
the waters of Tasmania for the next decade.
Love lured him off the boats and back onto dry land, but when this affair washed up, Bill headed for
the bush, working for the CSIRO observing wildlife behaviour. It was then that he started to become
vitally concerned about the environment, and humanity's lethal influence on the world he was living in.
Bill Mollison"As a child I lived in sort of a dream, and I didn't really awaken until I was about 28 years
old," he explains. "I spent most of my early life working in the bush or the sea, and it wasn't until the
1950s that I noticed that large parts of the system were disappearing.
"First fish stocks became extinct. Then I noticed the seaweed around the shorelines had gone. Large
patches of forest began to die. I hadn't realised until those things had gone that I'd become very
fond of them; that I was in love with my country."
Bill spent the next decade studying possums, rabbits and wallabies in the forests of Tasmania, and
started an external degree in psychology and environmental science.
Within a week of graduating, his career as an academic began, with a position as lecturer at Hobart
University. Bill turned his attention from wildlife to humans, and how they behaved in their man-made
jungle. This resulted in a new course at Hobart, called 'environmental psychology'. But after ten years
of teaching, Bill was fed up and frustrated with the academic system.
"I sort of pulled out for a while in 1972. I cut a hole in the bush, built a barn and a house and planted a
garden, gave up on humanity. I was disgusted with the stupidity of the University, the research
institutions, the whole thing."
This break from the rest of the world gave Bill time to think, and resulted in a life-changing 'Eureka!'
"I started to realise that I knew a lot about physics but wasn't applying it to how I heated my house.
And I was an expert on ecology but wasn't putting that into practice in my garden. I knew that I
needed to convert the principles of environmental science into directives for planning," he says. "And
then the idea of permaculture came to me.
"It was like a shift in my brain, and suddenly I couldn't write it down fast enough. I felt like there was
a roll of carpet tied up with string at my feet. Once I had cut the string, it just unrolled to the
horizon and I could see forever, and nothing that has happened since has ever surprised me."
The term comes from permanent culture, and the concept is to create stable productive systems, both
rural and urban, that harmoniously integrate the land and people. Bill saw permaculture as a positive
solution to environmental exploitation.
Bill Mollison One of his great achievements has been his success in spreading the word. He realised
early on that unless you teach a thing, it doesn't go anywhere.
"So I wrote a two-week curriculum and started teaching. Since then I have had around 80,000
graduates from my permaculture design courses. In the first five years 500 became permaculture
teachers, and now there are thousands of them teaching, as well as designing systems for farms and
Bill has visited and taught permaculture in almost every country in the world. He has never counted on
governments for any support or funding, and his finances have largely come from sales of his
permaculture manuals, with profits of around four million dollars being used for teaching programs in
third world countries.
In many countries, permaculture has been accepted as a viable alternative to chemical-based
agriculture, and its principles are taught in schools in Zimbabwe. The Vietnamese government was so
impressed by the concept, they adopted it as their agricultural policy. Bill's permaculture handbook
was translated into Vietnamese and 130,000 copies printed and distributed to every farmer in the
country. He gave one design course in Botswana and now his students are out in the desert in Namibia,
teaching the Bushmen of the Kalahari how to survive with the resources they have left.
His achievements have not gone without recognition. Bill has won the 'alternative Nobel Prize', the
Right Livelihood Award, for his work on practical solutions to the world's problems. He was named one
of Australia's Icons of the Millennium in the field of ecology, has received the Banksia Environment
Award and been judged an Outstanding Australian Achiever. He was the first foreigner to be made a
member of the Russian Academy of Agricultural Science, and received the Vavilov medal for
contributions to sustainable agriculture in Russia.
After 30 years of travelling the world, Bill Mollison has returned to north west Tasmania to live.
Although he calls himself semi-retired, he still teaches design courses, writes books and spends at
least a couple of months each year working overseas. He recently grew more than 40 varieties of
potatoes in straw beds in his garden.
Bill's land is a permaculture island in a sea of traditional Tasmanian farms, a constant reminder of his
long-held view of modern agriculture.
"Agriculture is one of the greatest contributors to the destruction of our environment. Forty per cent
of the world's soil and water has been polluted by farming," he says. "The great challenge for
sustainable agriculture is to produce the food and fibre needed, while maintaining fertile soils and
clean water, and enhancing the health of ecosystems.
"The impetus for the work I do is to leave our children gardens, not deserts."
The word "permaculture" was coined and popularized in the mid 70's by David Holmgren, a young
Australian ecologist, and his associate / professor, Bill Mollison. It is a contraction of "permanent
agriculture" or "permanent culture." Permaculture is about designing ecological human habitats and
food production systems. It is a land use and community building movement which strives for the
harmonious integration of human dwellings, microclimate, annual and perennial plants, animals, soils, and
water into stable, productive communities. The focus is not on these elements themselves, but rather
on the relationships created among them by the way we place them in the landscape. This synergy is
further enhanced by mimicking patterns found in nature.
What is Permaculture?
The word permaculture, coined by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren during the 1970s, is a
portmanteau of permanent agriculture as well as permanent culture. Through a series of
publications, Mollison, Holmgren and their associates documented an approach to designing
human settlements, in particular the development of perennial agricultural systems that mimic
the structure and interrelationship found in natural ecologies.
Permaculture design principles extend from the position that "The only ethical decision is to
take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children" (Mollison, 1990). The intent
was that, by rapidly training individuals in a core set of design principles, those individuals could
become designers of their own environments and able to build increasingly self-sufficient human
settlements — ones that reduce society's reliance on industrial systems of production and
distribution that Mollison identified as fundamentally and systematically destroying the earth's
While originating as an agro-ecological design theory, permaculture has developed a large
international following of individuals who have received training through intensive two week long
'permaculture design courses'. This 'permaculture community' continues to expand on the
original teachings of Mollison and his associates, integrating a range of alternative cultural ideas,
through a network of training, publications, permaculture gardens, and internet forums. In this
way permaculture has become both a design system as well as a loosely defined philosophy or
WHAT IS PERMACULTURE?
Permaculture is a design science developed by Australian ecologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in
the late 1970's, but as a practice it has been around for much longer wherever humans have chosen to
live in balance with their environment.
Permaculture, as a design system, is unique in that it identifies and integrates holistically all of the
elements that will define sustainability in the years to come. Some of these include the critical issues
like energy use and fossil fuel dependence, climate change and changing species in our environment,
the re-localization of food and resource production, and the ethics involved in all of these questions...
and much more.
David Holmgrens Principles
Principle 1: OBSERVE AND INTERACT
Good design depends on a free and harmonious relationship between nature and people,
in which careful observation and thoughtful interaction provide the design inspiration,
repertoire and patterns. It is not something that is generated in isolation, but through
continuous and reciprocal interaction with the subject.
Within more conservative and socially bonded agrarian communities, the ability of some
individuals to stand back from, observe and interpret both traditional and modern methods
of land use, is a powerful tool in evolving new and more appropriate systems. While
complete change within communities is always more difficult for a host of reasons, the
presence of locally evolved models, with its roots in the best of traditional and modern
ecological design, is more likely to be successful than a pre-designed system introduced
from outside. Further, a diversity of such local models would naturally generate innovative
elements which can cross-fertilise similar innovations elsewhere.
Icon & Proverb
This icon represents a person ‘becoming’ a tree. In observing nature it is important to take
different perspectives to help understand what is going on with the various elements in the
system. The proverb “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” reminds us that we place our
own values on what we observe, yet in nature, there is no right or wrong, only different.
Since 1985 people have come to the annual Tree Bee at ‘Commonground’, Seymour,
Australia to spend the weekend planting indigenous trees, shrubs and grasses.
The property, originally cared for by the Taungurong people of central Victoria, was
cleared to became pastoral land.
Participants are given a brief demonstration on technique, but they are left to themselves
to find their own place and style of planting. Children are often keen to get their hands
dirty and plant something their own way. Some young people compete to plant as many
trees and shrubs as they can, while others are happy to carefully plant out just a few.
People return year after year to check on their efforts and contribiute to the diversity that is
returning to this once barren landscape.
Principle 2: CATCH AND STORE ENERGY
Icon & Proverb
This icon represents energy being stored in a container for use later on, while the proverb
“make hay while the sun shines” reminds us that we have a limited time to catch and store
Aldinga Arts EcoVillage, near Adelaide in South Australia, has some excellent examples
of passive solar passive design.
This terrace house has a bluestone ‘Trombe’ wall on the inside of the building, which
stores heat from the sun while it is low in the sky (during the cooler months). Cool air from
inside the house flows in through a vent at the base, heats up and returns inside via a vent
at the top. The one-way flaps in the vents can prevent cooling at night and are closed off
in the summer when the heat is not needed.
Another example of this principle is the catching and storing of rainwater from the roof of
the house into the tank on the right of the picture. This tank is tall, so that gravity can
provide water pressure, and it is placed near the garden to reduce the hoses and pipes
needed for irrigating. The garden itself stores energy too, in the form of food, which can be
eaten straight away, or preserved for later on.
We live in a world of unprecedented wealth resulting from the harvesting of the enormous
storages of fossil fuels created by the earth over billions of years. We have used some of
this wealth to increase our harvest of the Earth's renewable resources to an unsustainable
degree. Most of the adverse impacts of this over-harvesting will show up as available
fossil fuels decline. In financial language, we have been living by consuming global capital
in a reckless manner that would send any business bankrupt.
Inappropriate concepts of wealth have led us to ignore opportunities to capture local flows
of both renewable and non-renewable forms of energy. Identifying and acting on these
opportunities can provide the energy with which we can rebuild capital, as well as provide
us with an"income" for our immediate needs.
Some of the sources of energy include:
* Sun, wind and runoff water flows
* Wasted resources from agricultural, industrial and commercial activities
The most important storages of future value include:
* Fertile soil with high humus content
* Perennial vegetation systems, especially trees, yield food and other useful resources
* Water bodies and tanks, * Passive solar buildings
Principle 3: OBTAIN A YIELD
Icon & Proverb
The icon of the vegetable with a bite out of it shows us that there is an element of
competition in obtaining a yield, whilst the proverb “You can’t work on an empty stomach”
reminds us that we must get immediate rewards to sustain us.
The Fryers Forest Community Woodlot, in Central Victoria, is being husbanded to
encourage the growth of larger retained trees by thinning smaller and stunted trees.
David Holmgren, a co-founder of both the community and the permaculture concept, is
with his son Oliver, thinning a stand of trees. By debarking the fallen timber, valuable
nutrients are left at the source, and the poles can be sold at a higher price.
After cutting out the coppiced growth, the stumps are neatened up so that the bark will
grow over the wound, eventually leaving large, sawlog quality timber.
This long term sustainable management provides immediate yields of firewood, durable
posts and pole timbers, while improving the ecological and timber assets of the communal
The previous principle focused our attention on the need to use existing wealth to make
long-term investments in natural capital. But there is no point in attempting to plant a
forest for the grandchildren if we haven't got enough to eat today.
This principle reminds us that we should design any system to provide for self-reliance at
all levels (including ourselves), by using captured and stored energy effectively to maintain
the system and capture more energy.
Without immediate and truly useful yields, whatever we design and develop will tend to
wither while elements that do generate immediate yield will proliferate. Whether we
attribute it to nature, market forces or human greed, systems that most effectively obtain a
yield, and use it most effectively to meet the needs of survival, tend to prevail over
Principle 4: APPLY SELF-REGULATION AND ACCEPT FEEDBACK
Icon & Proverb
The icon of the whole earth is the largest scale example we have of a self regulating
‘organism’ which is subject to feedback controls, like global warming. The proverb “the
sins of the fathers are visited on the children of the seventh generation” reminds us that
negative feedback is often slow to emerge.
The islands of Uros in the Lake Titicaca, Peru, are made from floating reeds. The totora
reeds which grow in the lake are continually added on top of the islands to replace the
rotting material below. The reeds have many other applications too. They are a food
source; they provide the building materials for houses and boats; they are used for
medicine and as fuel for cooking.
Historically there has been a balance between the rate of nutrient input to the water from
human waste and the rate of of nutrient uptake by the growing reeds. Increased numbers
of people through tourism have upset this balance, contaminating the lake water which is
the drinking water and supplies a great deal of the local food.
This principle deals with self-regulatory aspects of permaculture design that limit or
discourage inappropriate growth or behavior. With better understanding of how positive
and negative feedbacks work in nature, we can design systems that are more self-
regulating, thus reducing the work involved in repeated and harsh corrective management.
Self-maintaining and regulating systems might be said to be the 'Holy Grail' of
permaculture: an ideal that we strive for but might never fully achieve. Much of this is
achieved by application of the Integration and Diversity (Permaculture design principles 8
& 10) but it is also fostered by making each element within a system as self-reliant as is
energy efficient. A system composed of self-reliant elements is more robust to
disturbance. Use of tough, semi-wild and self-reproducing crop varieties and livestock
breeds, instead of highly bred and dependent ones is a classic permaculture strategy that
exemplifies this principle. On a larger scale, self-reliant farmers were once recognized as
the basis of a strong and independent country. Today's globalize economies make for
greater instability where effects cascade around the world. Rebuilding self-reliance at both
the element and system level increases resilience.
Principle 5: USE AND VALUE RENEWABLE RESOURCES AND SERVICES
Icon & Proverb
The horse icon represents both a renewable resource (it can be consumed) and a
renewable service - pulling a cart, plough or log (a non consuming use). The proverb “let
nature take it’s course” reminds us that control over nature through excessive resource
use and high technology is not only expensive, but can have a negative effect on our
Gustavo Ramírez, a co-founder of Ecovilla Gaia in Argentina, demonstrates a solar cooker
which, when orientated towards the sun, concentrates the sun’s rays on the pot to heat
water or cook. Although resources have gone into making the cooker, it consumes very
little, just the energy to move and maintain it.
The building in the background is made from a cob mix of earth, straw, sand and water on
a cement floor base with an earthen floor top coat. The roof is made on a framework of
eucalypt poles and bamboo with a thatched straw roof. The overwhelming majority of
materials used to build this house are renewable resources available locally.
Renewable resources are those that are renewed and replaced by natural processes over
reasonable periods, without the need for major non-renewable inputs. In the language of
business, renewable resources should be seen as our sources of income, while non-
renewable resources can be thought of as capital assets. Spending our capital assets for
day-to-day living is unsustainable in anyone's language. Permaculture design should aim
to make best use of renewable natural resources to manage and maintain yields, even if
some use of non-renewable resources is needed in establishing systems.
Renewable services (or passive functions) are those we gain from plants, animals and
living soil and water, without them being consumed. For example, when we use a tree for
wood we are using a renewable resource, but when we use a tree for shade and shelter,
we gain benefits from the living tree that are non-consuming and require no harvesting
energy. This simple understanding is obvious and yet powerful in redesigning systems
where many simple functions have become dependent on non-renewable and
unsustainable resource use.
Principle 6: PRODUCE NO WASTE
Icon & Proverb
The icon of the worm represents one of the most effective recyclers of organic materials,
consuming plant and animal ‘waste’ into valuable plant food. The proverb “a stitch in time
saves nine” reminds us that timely maintenance prevents waste, while “waste not, want
not” reminds us that it’s easy to be wasteful in times of abundance, but this waste can be
a cause of hardship later.
The BikeShed at CERES in Melbourne, Australia, provides training to members from
volunteer mechanics who teach people how to fix their own bikes using on-site tools. By
helping people become more self-reliant, and keeping costs down, people can keep their
bikes well maintained - and ride more often.
The group collects abandoned and donated bikes which are dismantled for parts, or
repaired and sold at a minimal cost to raise money for tools and equipment at the shed.
When people buy a recycled bike they are asked to allow a few hours to modify it and fix it
up before they take it away.
This principle brings together traditional values of frugality and care for material goods, the
modern concern about pollution, and the more radical perspective that sees wastes as
resources and opportunities. The earthworm is a suitable icon for this principle because it
lives by consuming plant litter (wastes), which it converts into humus that improves the soil
environment for itself, for soil micro-organisms, and for the plants. Thus the earthworm,
like all living things, is a part of a web where the outputs of one are the inputs for another.
The industrial processes that support modern life can be characterized by an input-output
model, in which the inputs are natural materials and energy, while the outputs are useful
things and services. However, when we step back from this process and take a long-term
view, we can see all these useful things end up as wastes (mostly in rubbish tips) and that
even the most ethereal of services required the degradation of energy and resources to
wastes. This model might therefore be better characterized as "consume/excrete". The
view of people as simply consumers and excreters might be biological, but it is not
Principle 7: DESIGN FROM PATTERNS TO DETAILS
Icon & Proverb
Every spider’s web is unique to its situation, yet the general pattern of radial spokes and
spiral rings is universal. The proverb “can’t see the forest for the trees” reminds us that the
closer we get to something, the more we are distracted from the big picture.
Parts of Morocco are very dry, but the low-lying areas hold the water and nutrients needed
to sustain life.
Where the water and nutrients are most abundant, on the flood plains, short-lived
intensive crops are planted. Moving further away from the river, longer-lived hardier
varieties are planted out. Houses are built higher again where the risk of flood damage is
lower, but there is still access to mud and other building materials as well as to the fertile
lands below. The more modern house further up the slope appears to be built from
imported materials and accessed with a vehicle, I wonder if the idea will catch on?.
The first six principles tend to consider systems from the bottom-up perspective of
elements, organisms, and individuals. The second six principles tend to emphasis the top-
down perspective of the patterns and relationships that tend to emerge by system self-
organization and co-evolution. The commonality of patterns observable in nature and
society allows us to not only make sense of what we see, but to use a pattern from one
context and scale, to design in another. Pattern recognition is an outcome of the
application of Principle 1: Observe and interact, and is the necessary precursor to the
process of design.
The idea which initiated permaculture was the forest as a model for agriculture. While not
new, its lack of application and development across many bioregions and cultures was an
opportunity to apply one of the most common ecosystem models to human land use.
Although many critiques and limitations to the forest model need to be acknowledged, it
remains a powerful example of pattern thinking which continues to inform permaculture
and related concepts, such as forest gardening, agroforestry and analogue forestry.
The use of zones of intensity of use around an activity center such as a farmhouse to help
in the placement of elements and subsystems is an example of working from pattern to
details. Similarly environmental factors of sun, wind, flood, and fire can be arranged in
sectors around the same focal point. These sectors have both a bioregional and a site
specific character which the permaculture designer carries in their head to make sense of
a site and help organize appropriate design elements into a workable system.
Principle 8: INTEGRATE RATHER THAN SEGREGATE
Icon & Proverb
This icon represents a group of people from a bird’s-eye view, holding hands in a circle
together. The space in the centre could represent “the whole being greater than the sum
of the parts”. The proverb “many hands make light work” suggests that when we work
together the job becomes easier.
This is a compost-making workshop, run at Carters Road Community in Margaret River,
Western Australia, by Gwyn Hitchin and Tim Lane.
Compost is made up of a collection of various elements: food scraps, water, plant matter,
manure, ash, etc, which when added individually to the garden are of limited benefit.
When these items are brought together in the correct proportions it becomes rich source
of food that can readily be taken up by plants.
Working together towards a common goal provides the motivation lacking in individual
In every aspect of nature, from the internal workings of organisms to whole ecosystems,
we find the connections between things are as important as the things themselves. Thus
the purpose of a functional and self-regulating design is to place elements in such a way
that each serves the needs and accepts the products of other elements.
This principle focuses more closely on the different types of relationships that draw
elements together in more closely integrated systems, and on improved methods of
designing communities of plants, animals and people to gain benefits from these
By correct placement of plants, animals, earthworks and other infrastructure it is possible
to develop a higher degree of integration and self-regulation without the need for constant
human input in corrective management. For example, the scratching of poultry under
forage forests can be used to harvest litter to down slope garden systems by appropriate
location. Herbaceous and woody weed species in animal pasture systems often contribute
to soil improvement, biodiversity, medicinal and other special uses. Appropriate
rotationally grazed livestock can often control these weedy species without eliminating
them and their values completely.
In developing an awareness of the importance of relationships in the design of self-reliant
systems, two statements in permaculture literature and teaching have been central
1. Each element performs many functions.
2. Each important function is supported by many elements.
The connections or relationships between elements of an integrated system can vary
greatly. Some may be predatory or competitive; others are co-operative, or even
symbiotic. All these types of relationships can be beneficial in building a strong integrated
system or community, but permaculture strongly emphasizes building mutually beneficial
and symbiotic relationships. This is based on two beliefs:
1. We have a cultural disposition to see and believe in predatory and competitive
relationships, and discount co-operative and symbiotic relationships, in nature and culture.
2. Co-operative and symbiotic relationships will be more adaptive in a future of declining
Principle 9: USE SMALL AND SLOW SOLUTIONS
Icon & Proverb
The snail is both small and slow, it carries its home on its back and can withdraw to
defend itself when threatened. The proverb “the bigger they are, the harder they fall”
reminds us of the disadvantages of excessive size and growth while “slow and steady
wins the race” encourages patience while reflecting on a common truth in nature and
High in the Andes, Peru, this small camping location services hikers on their way to
Choqek’iraw. Fodder is grown amongst the fruit trees to feed the donkeys that service
these small outposts, and is harvested as needed using the small sickle hand tool shown.
Though it may be slower to use than a machine, this tool is actually the perfect solution to
the job at hand. It uses no fossil fuels, can be serviced on site, is relatively cheap and can
perform many tasks.
The very small areas of flat land in this mountainous region makes growing space
precious. This tool allows every bit of fodder to be easily harvested to be taken away.
Systems should be designed to perform functions at the smallest scale that is practical
and energy-efficient for that function. Human scale and capacity should be the yardstick
for a humane, democratic and sustainable society.
For example, in forestry, fast growing trees are often short lived, while some apparently
slow growing but more valuable species accelerate and even surpass the fast species in
their second and third decades. A small plantation of thinned and pruned trees can yield
more total value than a large plantation without management.
Principle 10: USE AND VALUE DIVERSITY
Icon & Proverb
The remarkable adaptation of the spinebill and hummingbird to hover and sip nectar from
long, narrow flowers with their spine-like beak symbolises the specialisation of form and
function in nature. The proverb “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” reminds us that
diversity offers insurance against the variations of our environment.
The markets of Ollantaytambo in Peru are very popular for both tourists and locals alike.
Local people from the region come to trade seeds, fresh produce and dyes, while the
tourists come to visit the ancient city ruins and purchase textiles, arts and crafts.
Maize is a staple food for local people and the rich diversity in varieties available ensures
good crops during the fluctuating natural cycles, each variety having its own specific
qualities and climatic preferences.
Maintaining a pure strain of maize (unlike many other vegetables) requires the highest skill
of the seed saver. These techniques have been perfected by the Andean peoples over
hundreds, if not thousands of years.
The great diversity of forms, functions and interactions in nature and humanity are the
source of evolved systemic complexity. The role and value of diversity in nature, culture
and permaculture is itself complex, dynamic, and at times apparently contradictory.
Diversity needs to be seen as a result of the balance and tension in nature between
variety and possibility on the one hand, and productivity and power on the other.
It is now widely recognized that monoculture is a major cause of vulnerability to pests and
diseases, and therefore of the widespread use of toxic chemicals and energy to control
these. Polyculture (the cultivation of many plant and/or animal species and varieties within
an integrated system) is one of the most important and widely recognized applications of
the use of diversity to reduce vulnerability to pests, adverse seasons and market
fluctuations. Polyculture also reduces reliance on market systems, and bolsters household
and community self-reliance by providing a wider range of goods and services.
Principle 11: USE EDGES AND VALUE THE MARGINAL
Icon & Proverb
The landscape catchment feeding a river at sunrise or sunset evokes a world defined by
edges. The proverb “don’t think you are on the right track just because its a well-beaten
path” reminds us that the most common, obvious and popular is not necessarily the most
significant or influential.
This anti-uranium protest in a Darwin mall in Northern Australia in 1997 was the beginning
of actions that later involved thousands around the country with hundreds of arrests. In
this silent action activists lay in the mall, their outlines traced with chalk, reminiscent of the
‘shadows of Hiroshima’.
The Jabiluka Uranium mine lies within the ecological boundaries of the Kakadu National
Park World Heritage area, on land belonging to the Mirrar Aboriginal people, who
steadfastly opposed the mine. Rehabilitation works to close the mine commenced in 2003
and in 2005 traditional owners were given veto rights over future developments at the site.
The social fringe is where people can express themselves in creative ways to get
important messages across.
Tidal estuaries are a complex interface between land and sea that can be seen as a great
ecological trade market between these two great domains of life. The shallow water allows
penetration of sunlight for algae and plant growth, as well as providing forage areas for
wading and other birds. The fresh water from catchment streams rides over the heavier
saline water that pulses back and forth with the daily tides, redistributing nutrients and
food for the teeming life.
Within every terrestrial ecosystem, the living soil, which may only be a few centimeters
deep, is an edge or interface between non-living mineral earth and the atmosphere. For all
terrestrial life, including humanity, this is the most important edge of all. Only a limited
number of hardy species can thrive in shallow, compacted and poorly drained soil, which
has insufficient interface. Deep, well-drained and aerated soil is like a sponge, a great
interface that supports productive and healthy plant life.
This principle works from the premise that the value and contribution of edges, and the
marginal and invisible aspects of any system should not only be recognized and
conserved, but that expansion of these aspects can increase system productivity and
stability. For example, increasing the edge between field and pond can increase the
productivity of both. Alley farming and shelterbelt forestry can be seen as systems where
increasing edge between field and forest has contributed to productivity.
Principle 12: CREATIVELY USE AND RESPOND TO CHANGE
Icon & Proverb
The butterfly is a positive symbol of transformative change in nature, from its previous life
as a caterpillar. The proverb “vision is not seeing things as they are but as they will be”
reminds us that understanding change is much more than a linear projection.
The Hundertwasserhaus, designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, is an apartment
block built from 1983-86 in Vienna, Austria. It has uneven floors, a roof covered with earth
and grass and large trees growing from inside the rooms, with limbs extending from
windows. The architect took no payment for the design of building, declaring that “it was
worth it to prevent something ugly from going up in its place”.
With a mix of apartments, offices, public and private terraces, a café and 250 trees and
bushes it has become one of the most visited buildings in Vienna. Its vision has become
an inspiration for other similar buildings that have since been built in the region.
Permaculture is about the durability of natural living systems and human culture, but this
durability paradoxically depends in large measure on flexibility and change. Many stories
and traditions have the theme that within the greatest stability lie the seeds of change.
Science has shown us that the apparently solid and permanent is, at the cellular and
atomic level, a seething mass of energy and change, similar to the descriptions in various
The acceleration of ecological succession within cultivated systems is the most common
expression of this principle in permaculture literature and practice, and illustrates the first
thread. For example, the use of fast growing nitrogen fixing trees to improve soil, and to
provide shelter and shade for more valuable slow growing food trees, reflects an
ecological succession process from pioneers to climax. The progressive removal of some
or all of the nitrogen fixers for fodder and fuel as the tree crop system matures shows the
success. The seed in the soil capable of regeneration after natural disaster or land use
change (e.g. to an annual crop phase) provides the insurance to re-establish the system in