Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.

- Bill Mollison, co-founder of Permaculture

All the world’s problems can be solve in a garden.

- Geoff Lawton

To meet the water and food needs of local communities, a new agricultural revolution has been proposed (IAASTD 2008). The plea is for fundamental changes in farming away from industrial, energy-intensive agriculture that strongly depends on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides toward small-scale and agro-ecological farming including low-cost water management options and indigenous methods. From a hydrological perspective there may indeed be enough rainfall to significantly increase yields even in semiarid regions without large-scale irrigation (Rockström et al 2007) 1.

- Rockstrom et al



In the Agricultural Challenges page of this website, we see the many serious problems that our current food production system poses to the world:

  1. It is the single largest emitter of Greenhouse Gases
  2. It is the single largest consumer of freshwater
  3. It is the single largest cause of destruction of biodiversity
  4. It is not clear how it will scale to feed the growing planetary population


The current problematic food production paradigm pits Agriculture against Conservation, both whose effects are necessary for our long term well-being. The flower diagram below shows the contradiction between these two:


Figure 1: Flower Diagrams of Agricultural Route vs Conservation Route

By supporting agricultural production, we are simultaneously causing a lot of other harm. On the other hand, if we support conservation, we minimize agricultural food production. Where is the solution to this vexing problem?

Within this dualistic paradigm, we are forced to choose one or the other, yet it is portrayed as a Zero Sum game. If we increase one, it’s at the expense of the other.  As long as we restrict ourselves to this paradigm, there can be no viable solution. As in all such dualistic quagmires, the solution is to leave the paradigm and find a new way of seeing.  If we begin by asking the question “Is there is a way to combine the positive features of both the agricultural system with conservation?”  we will receive an affirmative answer in the form of a worldview called permaculture.

This view is an authentically holistic one that simultaneously meets the needs of both humans and the natural ecosystem.

Table of Contents


What is Permaculture?

Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of economical agriculturally productive ecosystems that have diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. Hence, it incorporates features from both opposing poles of the standard dualistic paradigm. Permaculture was founded by two Australians: Bill Mollison and David Holmgren and is described as:

  • the requirements of a Permanent Culture
  • a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; a way of looking at systems in all their functions rather than asking only one yield of them & of allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolutions.
  • an abbreviation for “Permanent Agriculture”
  • the harmonious integration of landscape, people & appropriate technologies, providing food, shelter, energy & other needs in a sustainable way.
  • a philosophy and an approach to land use which works with natural rhythms & patterns, weaving together the elements of microclimate, annual & perennial plants, animals, water & soil management, & human needs into intricately connected & productive communities.
  • a practice that seeks to develop the natural resources of a place & integrates the human community into Nature’s design. A successful permaculture design provides us with shelter, energy, food, water, income, & aesthetic & spiritual fulfillment within a balanced & healthy biological community.
  • an ethical philosophy of earthcare & peoplecare supported by the distribution of surplus goods; wealth, labor, attention, information
  • a condition of abundance in nature marked by cooperation, diversity of species, occupation of essential ecological niches, & stability over time, in contrast to the conditions of competition, scarcity, monotony, &^ imminent decay which predominate under hierarchical social conditions.
  • a productive system of human design based on maximal beneficial connections between the elements thereof.
  • a global grassroots movement for self-reliance, community responsibility, decentralization of social, political, economic, & technical authority.
  • interactive, recombinant ecologies marked by elegance of principle, efficiency of function, appropriateness of form, & astonishing beauty.
  • the maximum satisfaction of needs for all living beings employing the minimum area of built space with a high density & quality of biological information
Permaculture offers a very different model to the industrial, monoculture, agri-business dominated agricultural monopoly of today. It is a decentralized and distributed model of food production that promotes a sustainable lifestyle centered around food growing that is based on plant diversity and much smaller production level of an individual family or community.




Agriculture Pros

  • Can grow enormous amount of crops
  • Is the dominant way of feeding the planet
Agriculture Cons

  • Is centralized and controlled by large Agri-businesses which promote dependency on their products
  • Uses extensive amounts of in-organic fertilizer
  • Uses extensive amounts of harmful pesticides
  • Degrades the soil Does not produce much oxygen
  • Does not sequester much CO2 Decreases biodiversity
Permaculture Pros

  • Is decentralized and used at community level
  • Promotes autonomy and local control of one’s future
  • Uses natural fertilizers
  • Uses no pesticides
  • Builds the soil
  • Produces oxygen
  • Sequesters CO2
  • Increases biodiversity
Permaculture Cons

While agriculturalists can grow large amounts of the same food in one field, permaculture is not disadvantaged by not doing this because it inherently uses a distributive approach which, by definition means it is not meant to grow enormous amounts of food in one place. When families and communities take care of their own need, they grow small gardens. The food from many small gardens is equal to or greater than the yield of enormous monoculture fields.

The Permaculture Flower

Permaculture principle’s are embodied in the famous flower diagram created by Permaculture co-founder David Holmgren:


an Interview with Bill Mollison, by Alan AtKisson


Putting the Green Revolution in Perspective

  • During the 1970’s, there were dire predictions that hundreds of million were going to starve.
  • The Green Revolution was modern industry’s response and has been hailed as the great savior of humanity. Norman Borlog got a nobel prize for this.
  • Wheat yields match oil production and population very closely. Food is proportional to oil.
  •  Former green revolutions fields: now completely salted because of 30 years of fertilizer use.  In those places where there is no  mulch or fresh water, this salted soil cannot be desalted and is effectively dead
  • Oil production has remained flat since 2005. Peak oil is here.
  • Won’t be investing much oil in food anymore.

Civilization went through a Peak Energy crisis thousands of years ago during the metal ages. Large forests were cut down as a fuel source to smelt metals. This was done to such an extent that whole forests vanished.


Myths about Agriculture

Hobbs: The life of those savages before civilization is nasty, bruttish and short. Not true. Life has always had its challenges, including pre-agricultural people but…

  • Archeological Sites in Abu Harira Turkey, and Illinois show the opposite. Clear sequence of agriculutrual remains were discovered before and after agriculture appearred 20% drop in lifespan. Lifespan was 35 before agriculture and dropped to 29 after introduction of agriculture.
  • Increase in degenerative diseases. Grain was ground by rolling grain on a curved piece of stone on the ground 8 hours a day. Knees, spines and wrist, degenerative disease like arthritus showed up.
  • Most epidemic diseases come from domesticated animals such as chicken pox from chickens, smallpox from cattle, measles/mumps/swine flu. (source:  Guns, Germs & Steel, 1997, Jared Diamond, professor of geography and physiology at the University of California, Los Angeles)
  • Physical stature change: average height at these sites were found to decrease after the dawn of agriculture: 5’9” to 5’5”
  • Agriculture creates a surplus and allows leisure time. Wrong. Culture existed before agricultural society.
  • Famine was common throughout modern agriculture. Most foragers can find food under most conditions while modern french historian Fernand Braudel recorded in European agriculture that there were up to about 50 major famines in the time period between the 15th to 19th century, each of which reduced the population anywhere from 10 to 30 percent each time one occurred.
  • Once animals are used in agriculture, the animals caloric intake must be considered. Point of diminishing return occurs when animals are brought into work. A forager requires about 3 hours to accumulate a week of food while an early farmer required 2 to 3 days


The Inherent Unsustainability of Agriculture

Agriculture is inherently unsustainable because it does not support ecosystem functionality. Successful practice of agriculture has the following ecological impact:
  • erodes and degrades soil
  • decreases oxygen creation
  • reduces biodiversity
  • does very little CO2 sequestering
Even sustainable agriculture requires 2 to 3 times the land in addition to the land which the crop is grown on in order to:
  • grow biomaterial for fertilizer and compost
  • support the life of animals for their manure
  • house farm workers
  • grow timber for construction and fuel to smelt metals to make tools
Agriculture is a way of turning natural ecosystem into artificial human systems. While natural ecosystems that support foragers provide  immediate feedback if there is overharvest, agricultural systems have no such instant feedback mechanism. It takes decades before farmers realize the soil is no longer functional and by that time, it’s often too late or prohibitively expensive to do anything about it.

Successful Horticultural Societies in History

  • Hopewell People of New Jersey, Pennsylvia – existed for 4,000 years
  • Northwest BC, US coast
  • Indonesia Nuaulu & Ceram
  • Ancient Oaxaca
  • Owens Valley Paiuete
  • Kumeyaay in Southern California


The Four Possible Scenarios of our Energy Future

In his groundbreaking 2003 book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, David Holmgren states unequivocally that the illusion that we can continue with a business-as-usual scenario “appears only to have substance because generations of the world’s more affluent urbanites have been disconnected from nature”.

Holmgren’s book discusses four possible scenarios for our energy future:

  1. “Techno-Fantasy” – the Business-as-usual technology model – unrealistic energy consumption (from fantasy sources) continuing to rise steeply from here into the future.
  2. “Green-tech Stability” – the mainstream environmentalist model – A plateau at our current rate of energy consumption. Man-made machines and contraptions would be the saving grace – hydrogen cars, solar panels, etc. Holmgren described this as “least likely”. Realize that this scenario attempts to merely substitute “green” tech for our conventional, with the ultimate goal being to perpetuate our current (extreme) level of consumption
  3. “Massive Crash” – survivalist model – Begins with the techno fantasy, then descends into chaos, with very little salvaged out of global civilization
  4. “Earth Stewardship.” – the permaculture model – The future well-being of people will depend upon a renewable resource base (water, soil), with less and less energy required as we move into future generations. Permaculture would be the “technology” for this descent culture – a gentle decline “like a balloon.” The symbol of this solar age would be a tree (Permaculture) rather than a solar panel (green stability version)


Figure 2: Future Energy Possibilities from a Permaculture Perspective (Source: Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, David Holmgren)

Holmgren’s book eliminates the first three from the sphere of possibilities and provides a pathway for the fourth, Earth Stewardship that will provide a graceful descent from our unsustainable energy society.

Holmgren has little faith that scientific breakthrough can come fast enough to save us from peak oil. For example, according to Holmgren, PV panels are a waste of time in any situation other than off the grid tropics, citing the amount of energy to produce them makes them an unrealistic option for a reduced energy future. Holmgren contends that trees are the world’s most efficient solar collectors, having developed over millions of years to transform solar energy into usable energy, for fuel and so on, far more effectively than any solar panel we could ever make.

The problem with scientific research is that it is unpredictable. Nobody really knows when the next big breakthrough will come. That being said, this is not much reassurance for a society desparately looking for answers to stop an energy dependent society from plummeting into a free-fall in the next decade or so. The nonlinear nature of scientific research, however, has already yielded surprising results as scientist continue to reduce the amount of energy required to produce PV’s and important progress is being made in artificial photosynthesis. Holmgren’s advice, however is to not rely on the unpredictable nature of scientific research but rather to begin on a pathway that is already assured to predictably wean us off non-renewable energy and the centralized system it has created.

The Way Forward

  • Creative Descent is the only way to truly reduce our ecological footprint
  • Gardening instead of farming
  • small handtools instead of large tools / equipment
  • mixed crop / small scale
  • Polyculture instead of monoculture
  • Agriculture is the annual setting back of the 1st step towards a forest ecosystem: the weed stage
  • Forest ecosystem is the natural propensity of land that is watered; agriculture is clear-cutting each year to return back at day 1
  • Biodiversity is encouraged for pollinators and need seeds from other places
  • Head person is accessible, unlike non-horticultural societies
  • Ecosystems are allowed to be


1 Global potential to increase crop production through water management in rainfed agriculture, Environ. Res. Lett. 4 (October-December 2009) 044002, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/4/4/044002, Stefanie Rost1, Dieter Gerten1,4, Holger Hoff1,2, Wolfgang Lucht1, Malin Falkenmark3and Johan Rockström2,3

1 Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Research Domain of Climate Impacts and Vulnerabilities, Telegraphenberg A62, 14473 Potsdam, Germany
2 Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), Kräftriket 2B, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden
3 Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden

4 Author to whom any correspondence should be addressed


Received 23 February 2009
Accepted 25 September 2009
Published 9 October 2009