Permaculture Principles

The latest issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society ( attempts to sound a wake-up call to the world about climate change just as the latest round of talks opens in Cancun, Mexico. Due to the extremely slow, and low, level of response to the crisis from the governments of the world, we now have no chance of keeping temperatures below the critical level of 2C above pre-industrial levels. For anyone following what the scientists have been saying, this is hardly surprising. Indeed, the report says, it’s even possible that we will see increases of 4C within 50 years. This, of course, is an average, so some places – parts of Africa and southern Europe are mentioned – will have considerably higher temperatures, maybe 6-8C, making those areas uninhabitable. One can only hope that this will shake up a few people with the clout to do something substantial to put the brakes on climate change, but does anyone really expect the politicians to come up with anything useful? Are they going to ration oil and put a rapid deadline on the extraction of fossil fuels, so that in, say, 15 years there will be no more drilling for oil or gas or mining for coal and tar sands? Are they going to put all the bankers and economists and big biz execs to work in the fields growing organic vegetables? I don’t think so. As long as there’s money to be made out of screwing the planet, then we’ll screw the planet. So, if there’s no hope of the politicians showing the slightest concern for the planet, what are we to do?

I suppose the first thing is to keep ourselves informed of the situation and to keep others informed, assuming they’re prepared to listen. Then we need to consider what are the absolute essentials that we need that we can provide for ourselves or from some local source. Food and water, shelter and companionship seem to me to be pretty basic. When you look around parts of Lantau, such as here in Mui Wo, you can see long-abandoned plots of farmland, and orchards which have been left untended for years, and it doesn’t take much imagination to realise that a great deal of food could be grown locally, as indeed it was in the past. As food security is so fundamental, and as climate chaos is likely to seriously disrupt harvests, it seems to me a no-brainer that we should be trying to revive the skills of growing food organically on whatever scale is possible. If you have a rooftop, try to learn about growing food on it, perhaps in a square-foot garden; if you have a garden, then plant fruit trees and vegetables instead of ornamentals; if you can rent a plot of land, start a farm, or pay someone else to farm it for you. Alongside this we need to be thinking of ways of harvesting rainwater so that we can water our plants throughout the year, including the dry season. Permaculture tackles these issues and many others, and it really ought to be the starting point for our endeavours.

Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, two Australians, were the co-originators of the permaculture concept, which was originally about creating ‘permanent agriculture,’ I think. However, it has now become a means to create a ‘permanent culture’ insofar as it now looks at all aspects of the way we live in an attempt to bring us back into line with the confines of the natural world so that we can live sustainably and indefinitely as a healthy part of the natural environment rather than a cancerous growth on the face of the earth, which is what we seem to have become. David Holmgren’s Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability outlines 12 permaculture design principles:

1 Observe and Interact – learning from nature is a fundamental tenet of permaculture.

2 Catch and Store Energy – build up nutrients in the soil, store water, capture carbon.

3 Obtain a Yield – this is a more immediate aim, and it’s the only one that modern agriculture seems interested in, at the expense of soil quality and water supplies.

4 Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback – learn from nature’s positive and negative feedbacks and aim towards self-regulating systems. I guess a food forest would be an example.

5 Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services – use renewable resources wherever possible, although non-renewables may be necessary to establish such systems.

6 Produce No Waste – much more than using recycling bins, this aims for making all outputs productive.

7 Design from Patterns to Details – getting the big picture first; recognise patterns in nature.

8 Integrate Rather than Segregate – building systems of cooperation which are mutually beneficial.

9 Use Small and Slow Solutions – small-scale and local farming and businesses, working in harmony with nature’s time instead of our own manufactured urgency.

10 Use and Value Diversity – diversity brings with it resilience; don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

11 Use Edges and Value the Marginal – edges, such as of a wood, bring different ecosystems together; this is where the unexpected can occur, and the creative.

12 Creatively Use and Respond to Change – we’re going to see an awful lot of change in the future, so let’s start now to develop the ability to respond to it to enhance the positive aspects.

It’s easy to see how these principles apply to so many different areas of life. I think they are worth exploring in depth, and seeing how we can apply them to our lives as individuals and as a community. They offer a very positive way forward through the hardships of global warming and peak oil. However bleak the future may seem, we cannot be certain about what lies in store for us, and so we really have no excuse for not continuing to strive for a better world, and trying in our own lives to leave things in a better state than we found them. David Holmgren’s Principles seem to offer a really useful way to start building that future.

Don Latter


About transitionsl

I've been an English teacher for the best part of 30 years, teaching in England, Tanzania, Brunei, Australia and Hong Kong. I've always been interested in nature and environmental issues, but it was the discovery of Peak Oil about five years ago that galvanised me into trying to help my local community to prepare for what will be a dramatically different world to the one many of us have been used to. I've been helping to run a transition group, following the guidelines created by Rob Hopkins's Transition Movement in the UK. This blog is an attempt to engage in discussion with a wider group of people in Hong Kong on the ways to transition from our current oil dependency to a state of fossil-free local resilience.
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