Permaculture is a set of agricultural and non-agricultural practices to live in harmony with natural ecosystems. It appeared for the first time in an EU legislative text on 14.2.19, when the ENVI committee of the European Parliament gave its opinion on the proposal for a regulation laying down rules on support for strategic plans under the common agricultural policy.
This term was subsequently mentioned in further texts developed within the European institutions as part of the preparatory work for the CAP reform for the period after 2020 with specific reference to the agroecological paradigm in the agri-food sector. (1)
What is permaculture
The term 'permaculture' was coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the mid-70s to describe "an integrated system in evolution of animal and plant species, perennial or spontaneously spreading, useful to man". (2)
English 'permaculture' over time it has posed some translation problems as it assumes a double value in the original language which is lost in the transposition into the Italian language. On the one hand, it has a meaning limited to the agricultural context (permacOltura) and, on the other hand, a much more general and philosophical meaning that goes beyond the agricultural context (permacUltura).
A definition more recent of permaculture, which reflects the enlargement of the contents of the concept itself, is proposed by the same Mollison and Holmgren who have shifted the attention on the cultural perspective of the term defining it in the following way:
"consciously designed landscapes, which mimic patterns and relationships found in nature and provide food, fiber and energy to meet local needs". (3)
A conceptual framework
Permaculture today it must be understood as a way of thinking. It is a conceptual framework, born as a response to the environmental crisis, with the aim of designing self-sufficient human settlements capable of adopting production, procurement and construction techniques aimed at limiting the production of waste and pollution and at the same time preserving and naturally increasing the fertility of the land and the biodiversity of the system.
The principles of permaculture are of a general, ethical and planning nature. They are short statements or slogans that can be used to summarize the complex options that are faced when it comes to designing and implementing an ecological system based on sustainability criteria.
The 'flower of permaculture'
The aforementioned principles they constitute the conceptual compass that must guide the actions of humanity within the following areas of permacultural application, which are represented by Holmgren with the illustration of the "flower of permaculture" (4):
- environmental constructions (bio-architecture, passive solar houses);
- tools and technology (renewable energies, recycling);
- culture and education (social ecology, Steiner pedagogy);
- spiritual health and well-being (holistic medicine, yoga);
- economics and finance (community supported agriculture, LETS) (5);
- land tenure and community governance (eco-villages, cooperatives and associations);
- land and nature management (organic and biodynamic agriculture, harvesting of wild products).
Three general rules
The ethical principles of permaculture can be defined as culturally evolved mechanisms that tend to guide human behavior towards ecologically sustainable choices aimed at mitigating the negative impact of individual selfish choices.
They are summarized in three basic general rules (6):
• Take care of the earth (manage the soil, forests and water with sobriety);
• Take care of people (take care of themselves, relatives and the community);
• Sharing fairly (setting limits on consumption and reproduction, and redistributing surpluses);
Such rules of conduct are considered common to all indigenous tribal peoples and permaculture's attention to learning from these groups of individuals is based on the evidence of the ability of these individuals to exist in equilibrium with the environment surviving much longer than any other most recent experiment of civilization. (7)
The principles of design they derive from a way of perception of the world that can be defined as “systemic thinking”.
Systemic thinking it is characterized by the understanding of the mechanisms that regulate the interaction between the elements of reality and is essential to stem the side effects of analytical and linear thinking.
In the pre-industrial era, when the life of most individuals was close to nature and dependent on it, the systemic thinking mechanism was probably more spontaneous, as the direct relationship between natural events and the effect they had on life made it necessary for survival develop a mental process articulated around the concatenations of factors.
The recovery of systemic thinking
With the progressive distancing from nature this direct relationship between elements has gradually been lost, leaving us today often unable to disentangle the complexity of things or allowing us to see only some parts of the whole.
Adopt a circular view, where each element of a system is intimately connected to all the others, it is not spontaneous for those who grew up in the modern world and detached from the reality of nature, but it is not alien to the functioning mechanism of our brain and is a part that would be extremely useful to bring to the surface and apply in everyday life.
The basic principles in 12 points
david holmgren summarizes the basic principles of permaculture in 12 points (8):
1 - Observe and interact (beauty is in the eye of the beholder). You need to understand how nature works if you want to be able to work with it. Observation must be accompanied by personal interaction.
2 - Collect and store energy (prepares the hay while the sun is shining). Collecting and conserving energy is the basis of all human and non-human cultures. By energy we mean everything that can be stored and / or kept in good condition and that is essential for the survival of a community / culture (examples: food, trees, seeds, solar energy).
3 - Secure a harvest (you cannot work on an empty stomach). Permaculture places particular emphasis on self-sufficiency and the ability to meet many of our needs with our resources. We should no longer be dependent on the global food system.
4 - Apply self-regulation and accept the feedback (the sins of the fathers fall on the children up to the seventh generation). Nature tends towards equilibrium and implements systems of control of what happens and therefore of regulation. In permaculture, inappropriate actions must be limited, limited and discouraged. The feedback it is the system's response to our actions. It can be positive or negative. It is our task to analyze it and operate accordingly, with an eye not so much on the elimination or reduction of this symptom, as on the root of the problem, on the primary cause.
5 - Use and enhance renewable resources and services (let nature take its course). The use of renewable resources is the key to creating stability: in an attempt to learn from the natural world and replicate it, we should consider that a natural ecosystem rarely uses all its resources to the point of leaving an impoverished and unusable landscape. Wind, sun and water are the main renewable resources that can help achieve sustainability.
6 - Avoid producing waste (Saving is the best gain; one point in time saves a hundred).
Make sure that the systems in the project do not produce anything that is not usable and useful to another system.
7 - Design from model to retail (trees are not the forest). You have to learn to take an overview before diving into the details. It is necessary to use design solutions derived from models observed in nature.
8 - Integrate instead of separate (many hands make the work lighter). The relationships between things are as important as the things themselves. Permaculture allows you to integrate elements in such a way that the needs of one element are met through the other elements and vice versa.
9 - Small and slow is beautiful (the bigger they are, the more they make noise when falling. Slowly and steadily you win the race). Small-scale solutions and activities have a better chance of adapting to local needs, are generally more respectful of nature and able to bring out changes that are more easily understood and monitored.
10 - Use and value diversity (do not put all the eggs in one basket). Enhance animal and plant diversity. Diversity reduces the risks of most threats: getting sick with a plant species is not the end of the harvest. It also helps to benefit from the uniqueness of each territory.
11 - Use and enhance the margin (stop thinking you're on the right track just because it's very busy). In ecology it is defined "ecotone": it is an environment of transition between two ecosystems, and more generally between two homogeneous environments. Ecotones contain species typical of neighboring communities and exclusive species of the ecotonal area itself, and therefore possess a high biodiversity and richness. These peculiarities make the ecotone indispensable because it is through these structures that the connection between very different environments takes place (woods-meadows, lakes-forests, fresh water-salt water). (9)
12 - React to changes and use them creatively (you have to learn to see things not only as they are, but also as they will be). By understanding how ecosystems change over time, it is possible to creatively adapt to changes in the system.
Permaculture and agriculture
According to Holmgren the discourse of "how" to take care of the soil remains a very controversial issue as technical and ethical issues are interconnected since we do not know how far we can go in increasing the yield of the soil to meet the needs of human communities without altering their quality and nature itself. The only sure fact is that the reckless and immoral use of the soil leads, over time, to exhaust the ability of the soil to sustain life. (10)
You can in any case to argue that in the field of permaculture all the cultivation methods used have in common the objective of protecting the soil and naturally restoring its fertility by exclusively resorting to biological practices. Commonly used techniques are Fukuoka's natural farming, synergistic farming, and biodynamic farming. (11)
Future perspectives of permaculture
To date permaculture has had a rather limited diffusion. Holmgren argues that the reasons are mainly to be found in the prevalence of a scientific culture of reductionism, and therefore a cautious if not hostile approach to methods of a more holistic nature, in the domain of a culture of consumerism created by a purely economic vision of health and progress and the fear on the part of global and local political authorities of losing their influence and power if the population followed practices aimed at self-sufficiency and local autonomy. (12)
Despite the aforementioned difficulties, in the European political sphere we are witnessing a progressive (albeit slow and gradual) taking shape of permacultural ideologies: European Green Deal, presented by Ursula von der Leyen on 11.12.19 could materialize in an excellent launch pad for the dissemination of such practices and theories.
1) Most recently: European Parliament amendments adopted on 23.10.20, Common agricultural policy - support for strategic plans to be drawn up by Member States and financed by the EAGF and the EAFRD ***, P9_TA (2020) 0287
2) B. Mollison, & D. Holmgren, Permaculture One, Corgi 1978;
3) D. Holmgren, Permaculture: how to design and implement sustainable ways of living integrated with nature, Arianna editrice, second ed., 2014;
4) D. Holmgren, Permaculture: how to design and implement sustainable ways of living integrated with nature, Arianna editrice, second ed., 2014: the author defines these areas as the seven "domains" necessary to support humanity in the course of the energy descent;
5) Local Exchange Trading Systems: local trading systems;
6) David Holmgren, Essence of permaculture, https://www.permacultura.it/images/documenti/Essence_of_Pc_IT.pdf
7) For an exploration of the evolutionary limitations of tribalism in the modern world see the article "Tribal Conflict: Proven Pattern, Dysfunctional Inheritance”In David Holmgren: Collected Writings & Presentations 1978: 2006
8) D. Holmgren, Permaculture: how to design and implement sustainable ways of living integrated with nature, Arianna editrice, second ed., 2014;
10) D. Holmgren, Permaculture: how to design and implement sustainable ways of living integrated with nature, Arianna editrice, second ed., 2014;
12) David Holmgren, Essence of permaculture, https://www.permacultura.it/images/documenti/Essence_of_Pc_IT.pdf