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EarthTalk - What exactly is permaculture?

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Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk:

What exactly is permaculture and how is it good for the environment?

Mary B., New Haven, CT

A buzzword in sustainability circles, permaculture—historically combining “permanent” and “agriculture”—describes ecologically-conscious farming to create sustainable ecosystems for future generations, using methods such as conservation tillage, proper drainage, and polyculture (growing more than one crop species in the same space, at the same time). The Australian organization Permaculture Visions notes that “natural energies… [and nature’s eight] reliable patterns that collect, store and move resources around” make it possible for humanity to use less energy to create comfortable living.”

More recently, the word combines “permanent” and “culture” to describe sustainable land use in general, especially in ways that prioritize the knowledge of indigenous peoples. The podcast Green Dreamer has highlighted numerous indigenous voices offering ways to reframe the discussion of nature, permaculture and humanity’s potential responses to the climate crisis. The publication Tenth Acre Farm describes its aim as “working with nature to be low maintenance and highly productive.”

Simply put, permaculture is a method of cultivation that uses multiple tools to minimize human impact on the environment by mimicking the zero-waste feedback loops of naturally-existing systems. Much of permaculture is guided by three ethics and several major principles that help us to be good eco-stewards and support ourselves with native species, while disturbing the least amount of land. It introduces the idea of human responsibility in maintaining ecosystems, encourages greater consideration of the impact of human activities on the environment, and reduces waste associated with production intended only for sale.

The Habiba Organic Farm in Egypt puts these principles into practice, converting a former desert settlement, where crops are difficult to grow, to arable land on which many desert-viable plants have been cultivated. Similarly, in India, coconut trees, neem trees and legumes were planted to diversify areas that had been subject to slash-and-burn agriculture for 20 years. Among most current permaculture programs, resilience (especially to growing threats of climate change), cooperation and educational/volunteering opportunities are key elements that define the project and connect it to the permaculture ethos.

Designing irrigation that allows water to seep slowly into soil across a large area prevents soil erosion and nutrient leaching. Similarly, composting and reusing “waste” products reduces pollution and improves soil quality. Readers interested in beginning their own permaculture projects (even home gardens) can start by observing their own land to determine land patterns, plant native species, collect rainwater and runoff, and carefully compost their home “waste” (vegetable peels, coffee grounds, eggshells, etc.). “Permaculture site design follows a multi-step process, which starts with observing the landscape through a specific set of both passive and active observations… [and using maps to] think through many possible scenarios and outcomes before [committing] to certain strategies or concepts”, as Tenth Acre Farm puts it.

In a more general sense, permaculture can be incorporated into people’s daily lives in simple ways that identify activities which drain lots of energy and redirecting that energy into productive activities, 


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