Permaculture is a design system which aims to create sustainable habitats by following nature’s patterns.
The word ‘permaculture’, coined by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren during the 1970s, is derived as a contraction of permanent agriculture, or permanent culture. The idea of permaculture is considered among the most significant innovations developed by Australians in the century since Australian federation . However like “nature”, the permaculture concept evolves with time making its definition difficult. For example, consider the words of Bill Mollison,
I guess I would know more about permaculture than most people, and I can’t define it. … I’m certain I don’t know what permaculture is. 
Nevertheless, today permaculture can best be described as an ethical design system applicable to food production and land use, as well as community building. It seeks the creation of productive and sustainable ways of living by integrating ecology, landscape, organic gardening, architecture and agroforestry. The focus is not on these elements themselves, but rather on the relationships created among them by the way they are placed together; the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts. Permaculture is also about careful and contemplative observation of nature and natural systems, and of recognizing universal patterns and principles, then learning to apply these ‘ecological truisms’ to one’s own circumstances.
In the mid 1970s, two Australians, Dr. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, started to develop ideas that they hoped could be used to create stable agricultural systems. This was a result of their perception of a rapidly growing use of destructive, industrial-agricultural methods. They felt these methods were poisoning the land and water, reducing biodiversity, and removing billions of tons of soil from previously fertile landscapes. A design approach called ‘permaculture’ was their response and was first made public with the publication of Permaculture One in 1978.
The term permaculture initially meant “permanent agriculture” but this was quickly expanded to also stand for “permanent culture” as it was seen that social aspects were an integral part of a truly sustainable system. Mollison and Holmgren are widely considered to be the co-originators of the modern permaculture concept.
After the publication of Permaculture One, Mollison and Holmgren further refined and developed their ideas by designing hundreds of permaculture sites and organizing this information into more detailed books. Mollison lectured in over eighty countries and his two-week Design Course was taught to many hundreds of students. By the early 1980s, the concept had moved on from being predominantly about the design of agricultural systems towards being a more fully holistic design process for creating sustainable human habitats.
By the mid 1980s, many of the students had become successful practitioners and had themselves begun teaching the techniques they had learned. In a short period of time permaculture groups, projects, associations, and institutes were established in over one hundred countries.
Permaculture has developed from its origins in Australia into an international ‘movement’. English permaculture teacher Patrick Whitefield, author of The Earth Care Manual and Permaculture in a Nutshell, suggests that there are now two strands of permaculture: a) Original and b) Design Permaculture. Original permaculture attempts to closely replicate nature by developing edible ecosystems which closely resemble their wild counterparts. Design permaculture takes the working connections at use in an ecosystem and uses this as its basis. The end result may not look as “natural” as a forest garden, but still has an underlying design based on ecological principles.
The term ‘Permanent agriculture’ was first coined by Franklin Hiram King in his classic book from 1911, Farmers of Forty Centuries: Or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan. In this context, permanent agriculture is understood as agriculture that can be sustained indefinitely.
This definition was supported by Australian P. A. Yeomans (Water for Every Farm, 1973) who introduced an observation-based approach to land use in Australia in the 1940’s, based partially on his understanding of geology. Yeoman introduced Keyline Design as a way of managing the water supply of a site.
The work of Howard T. Odum was also an early influence, especially for Holmgren . Odum’s work focused on system ecology, in particular the Maximum power principle, which examines the energy of a system and how natural systems tend to maximise the energy embodied in a system. For example, the total calorific value of woodland is very high with its multitude of plants and animals. It is an efficient converter of sunlight to biomass. A wheatfield, on the other hand, has much less total energy and often requires a large energy input in terms of fertiliser.
Permaculture is a broad-based and holistic approach that has many applications to all aspects of life. At the heart of permaculture design and practice is a fundamental set of ‘core values’ or ethics which remain constant whatever a person’s situation, whether they are creating systems for town planning or trade; whether the land they care for is only a windowbox or an entire forest. These 3 ‘ethics’ are often summarised as;
Earthcare – recognising that the Earth is the source of all life (and is possibly itself a living entity- see Gaia theory) and that we recognise and respect that the Earth is our valuable home and we are a part of the Earth, not apart from it.
Peoplecare – supporting and helping each other to change to ways of living that are not harming ourselves or the planet, and to develop healthy societies.
Fairshares (or placing limits to consumption) – ensuring that the Earth’s limited resources are utilized in ways that are equitable and wise.
Everyone needs to eat, and it is the issue of food production where permaculture had its origins. It started with the belief that for people to feed themselves sustainably they need to move away from reliance on industrialized agriculture. Where modern farms used fossil fuel driven technology specialising in each farm producing high yields of a single crop, permaculture would stress the value of low-inputs into the land and diversity in terms of what was grown. The model for this was an abundance of small scale market and home gardens for food production.
The permaculture design innovation
The core of permaculture has always been in supplying a design toolkit for human habitation. This toolkit helps the designer to model a final design based on an observation of how ecosystems themselves interact. A simple example of this is how the Sun interacts with a plant by providing it with energy to grow. This plant may then be pollinated by bees or eaten by deer. These may disperse seed to allow other plants to grow into a tall tree and provide shelter to these creatures from the wind. The bees may provide food for birds and the trees provide roosting for them. The tree’s leaves will fall and rot, providing food for small insects and fungus. There will be a web of intricate connections that allow a diverse population of plantlife and animals to survive by giving them food and shelter. One of the innovations of permaculture design was to appreciate the efficiency and productivity of natural ecosystems and seek to apply this the way human needs for food and shelter are met. One of the most notable proponents of this design system has been David Holmgren, who based much of his permaculture innovation on zone analysis