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Sustainability in Action: Principles of Permaculture

Blake Burrett


#2 from a series of TEND THE EARTH articles on permaculture.
By: Marianna Burrett

In my previous article, the ethics of permaculture were introduced. The principles of permaculture put these ethics into action and provide us with guidelines that are ideal for designing sustainable systems. So what exactly do we mean by sustainable? The word sustainability seems to have lost its original meaning in a cultural morass of hype and consumerism.  What does this word really stand for?  Sustainability implies a system of balance in which inputs are squared with outputs, thereby providing the capacity to endure and remain viable over time. It also implies stewardship which focuses on partnering with and learning from Nature’s patterns and designs. Sustainability reflects a long view that seeks to provide for future generations.  

The 12 Principles of Permaculture to keep in mind and practice are:
1) Observe and Interact
Permaculture design requires the key element of still observation, paying attention with deep focus on Nature as our guide. The very act of thoughtful attention detecting Nature’s patterns slows down our fast paced world, thus allowing us to notice subtle and sometimes not so subtle influences and changes happening in Nature. We take note of the lay of the land and the patterns of sunlight, wind and water flow over the span of the seasons.  This allows for better care of the earth, planning and design for our environments. 
2) Catch and Store Energy
Through observation of Nature, we can seize opportunities to capture on site energy resources.  This means being aware and taking advantage of sunlight, water flows, micro climes, and cycles as an opportunity to increase yields and become more self reliant.  By becoming more resilient and utilizing energy efficiently, we become less reliant on having to outsource externally for our energy needs.  
3) Obtain a Yield
As we strive towards self-reliance, it is imperative to ensure the viability of the systems we have put in place for the short term as well as the long run. Remember the adage: “One cannot work on an empty stomach”.   Finding flexibility and creativity in generating new ways to obtain yields ensures the viability of the systems designed.
4) Apply Self-regulation and Accept Feedback 
What appears to be a mistake is actually a useful tool for learning and adaptation.  Accepting feedback is the ability to effectively evaluate what is working and what is not working, connect the dots and act accordingly and responsibly.  Planet earth (as the Gaia hypothesis) is seen as the archetypical, self-regulating whole system; a living organism that provides an excellent example of this principle. Nature responds, corrects and adapts to ensure viability over time without regard to preference. 
5) Use and Value Renewable Resources and Service
Permaculture favors resources that can be renewed over non-renewable resources and resource depletion.  Renewables generally refer to living systems and their products that assist with yield, reproduce and build up over time.  The goal is to conserve our demand for nonrenewables (eg. oil, coal) while simultaneously making the best use of local, renewable resources (solar, wind, geothermal, biomass) available.   
6)  Produce no Waste 
“Waste not, want not” is a proverb that speaks to frugality as well as care and maintenance of material goods.  In times of abundant consumerism, an inclination to be wasteful can become prevalent. However this waste becomes pollution when there is no use for this output. With Nature as our guide, nothing is wasted. 
7)  Design from Patterns to Details
The emphasis here is on “big picture” thinking.  Attention to details follows a more holistic understanding of the entire eco-system.  Workable complex systems emerge from simple ones that work, so discovering these macro patterns precedes deciphering the details.  
8)  Integrate Rather than Segregate 
Emphasis is placed on relationships that weave elements together forming integrated systems.  The connections formed amongst elements are as beneficial as the individualized element itself. This is as true for people as it is for our gardens, our businesses and our communities.  The emphasis is on mutually supportive relationships over competitive and predatory ones.
9)  Use Slow and Small Solutions
This principle speaks to small scale, local systems of operation. Many small and diversified local gardens are seen as more resilient and sustainable than large agribusiness practices reliant on fossil fuels for application and transport of long distances. When we engage in self reliant practices and shop local we are applying this principle. 
10) Use and Value Diversity
The familiar proverb: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” insures viability over time, as we hedge our bets against the trials and tribulations that life presents. Healthy ecosystems are created when biodiversity is present. 
11)  Use Edges and Value the Marginal 
Edge used here refers to the intersection or blending of two different environments. An edge in Nature for example is where river and ocean meet and create estuaries.  This inter-relationship between the elements creates edges that increase opportunity for unique life to emerge, thus fostering more diversity. 
12)  Creatively Use and Respond to Change
Comprehending change is much more than understanding linear statistical projections and trend lines.  The dynamic balance of Nature teaches us that the seeds of change are inherent within the overall design. As observers of Nature, we do well to take our cues from Nature and adapt to fluctuations and changes as they become apparent.  

These principles of permaculture, based on the works of Bill Mollison, David Holmgren and others, indicate the degree to which true sustainability is achieved when applied and practiced.  Permaculture’s ethics and principles encourage us to follow the wisdom of the natural world. If we observe Nature closely we witness extreme efficiency at balancing the inputs and outputs, and keeping equilibrium within systems. As we seek to rebalance our own lives and livelihoods, we would be wise to experience Nature as our guide.