What is permaculture?

What is permaculture?


"What is permaculture?"


The most common question I am asked if I mention leaving my 13-year career as a fine jewellery designer, to retrain as a permaculture designer is “What is permaculture?”
This question comes so frequently that I often will omit it from descriptions of my design skills or from FoodScape, as the response usually garners glassy-eyed confusion and uncertain nods.

My sound-bite response is

“Permaculture is a style of design which follows a set of ethics.”

People understand what design is (usually) and they understand what ethics are. Designing with ethics is a graspable concept, yet still, a difficult concept to wrap ones’ mind around.  Currently, we live in a world where designs tend to focus on cheap, mass-produced, just beautiful enough for consumers to feel it’s worth whatever the final cost.

Designing with ethics may contradict those norms and although it can be difficult to understand the motivation for this design style, it is of paramount importance.  Permaculture design ethics are relevant as we increase our momentum towards a future on a planet with 9 billion humans, billions more plant and animal species, and whatever else may come.
If we aren’t able to design with an ethical awareness of the long-standing impact we create, we will continue to cause more harm than good.

This is why it becomes significant to fully and properly answer the question
“What is permaculture”?

The long answer as per Wikipedia

“Permaculture is a system of agricultural and social design principles centred around simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems.”

The struggle most permaculture designers find in using this description is that many schools of design have been teaching students differently, they are taught in a direction which views earth’s natural systems or ecosystem as inferior to human’s systems of design. 

Some designers may not have been trained to be wholly aware of how self-regulating ecosystems generate an abundance without human assistance, that many of those systems far surpass the sustainability of human designs to date. Even our best computing science observes the interacted workings of DNA and cellular regeneration.

Bio-mimicry is gaining speed but without an awareness of some of the self-regulating ethics which exist in the design of natural systems, our human designs will cause more harm than good. Wielding all of the natural power and none of the ethical responsibilities which come with that power.

The 4 Ethics of permaculture are

  • Earth Care
  • People Care
  • Fair Share/ or Future Care
  •  and Transition

Most schools of permaculture design recognize the first three – the fourth ethic “Transition” has been championed by Kym Chi of permaculturedesign.ca, the visual images you see here created by Shannon Reinholdt. (with permission)


Earth Care

Earth Care recognizes the delicate earth systems of plant, animal, water and air must be respected and protected.  Ethical design requires successful regeneration or basic maintenance of the health and wellbeing of the Earth’s. 

You can’t place a skyrise condo in the middle of a wetland and be surprised when the migrant birds nest on your balcony, because the architecture didn’t take the earth systems into consideration with their designs.  We can all fawn at the videos of good Samaritans catching ducklings as they jump off rooftops. Before that event occurred was a fundamental design flaw, which didn’t consider animal life which already exists in that space and has existed for generations of evolutionary programming. We might even call those ducklings “pests” because we are blind to the hundreds of years the ducks safely sustained their young in that wetland before it turned into a profitable development property. 

If we want to consider the wetlands with property development we may consider designating a protected natural park with the condo property. Living roofs, avoiding hard concrete walkways, or choosing forms which discourage roosting might be considerations for permaculture designs for architecture.


People Care

People Care recognizes the human needs for health, community, dignity as well as the basic needs for living as an ethic which must be upheld. Ethical design in permaculture also pays attention to patterns of movement and the human history of the land as elements which will be considered in designs.

If a company is designed to pay workers the least amount of money to perform a mentally unstimulating task for 8 hours a day, requiring the worker to leave their home and family each day, and punishes them for poor attendance if their family is in crisis and needs the worker to stay home – this businesses design is fundamentally flawed in respect to caring for people. This is the standard model for employment in most industries, and the creative gifts of individuals who are in those jobs are all but crushed if they do not serve the financial interests of the company owners or shareholders. 

Even those who have conformed to higher education and taken positions of teaching and leadership are regularly scolded for questioning the status quo.  There is still a vibrant social culture of shaming those who have new progressive ideals, which is frankly no different than those who would execute Galileo.

Social permaculture designs human systems of business, education, governance, finance and spirituality which consider those human needs to be paramount in the function of society.  A design must yield as much care for the people in the community or system as it yields financial or social gains.  These social designs are regarded as the cutting edge of permaculture currently. 


Fair Share

or Future Care

Fair Share /Future Care asks if the designs equally distributed to all members of the community, if everyone is given a fair share for their contributions and if that share takes into account the future use of the product or design. This ethic comes from the belief working together is more prosperous than the individual achievement, yet still recognizes if an individual does the lion's share of the work, they deserve to be honoured for that contribution.  It also recognizes many resources are finite and the future use of the design must care for the equitable use of those resources.  This ethic also recognizes humans as a valuable resource, which must be cared for into the future.

Co-operatives have focused on shared prosperity for all members who contribute. In regards to agriculture we see systems where farmers distribute their crops together; sharing the costs of marketing and sales rather than attempt to accomplish all those tasks alone, including the labour of farming.

Industrialized farming has a single owner of the land, many labourers and distributors who are paid a small percentage for their efforts. The land is usually exploited with mono-crops, which damage the land and deplete foods nutrients. 1/3 of most crop yield goes to waste and staff are still expected to buy their own food from the distributor. While the single owner – be it a corporation or individual – sees only the profits, with none of the harms caused by taking the lion’s share of those yields, although they have likely done none, if any, of the work.

A permaculture farm cooperative which uses a regenerative food forest design will yield a fair share to all members long into the future. In contrast to the industrial monocrop depleting the soil health for sole owner profits, while additional resources need to be spent in order to maintain the crop yield in the future.  These two contrasting designs paint a clear picture of some of the future of food access if our current course is maintained. 




Transition, we have a vision of a world in which design ethics honour the earth, people and yields in a fair and equitable way long into the future.  We imagine architecture which nurtures plant and animal life, rather than impedes upon it.  Or products which are made in such a way that they regenerate the supply rather than deplete it to exhaustion.

However, the steps we must take from here to there will involve accepting that the way things are currently, is not the way they will be tomorrow.  If we spend the majority of our time focused on the elements of currently existing designs which run countercurrent to a regenerative system we may miss the opportunities to design a new solution.

We design to the best of our ability today and seek out the best practices available while supporting those who innovate towards new concepts which can fulfil the grand goals we have in our vision for a greater tomorrow.

What is permaculture?

Permanent agriculture” was the original concept which invited us to design agricultural systems which could grow food in a permanently regenerative way. 

Permanent Culture” now challenges us to design human systems with an empathetic awareness, what we are designing is a culture of interaction and consumption in partnership with every living thing on this planet.

Our design ethics ask us to be aware that as designers,
each design we create has a long-lasting impact on Earth.
The impact is permanent; thus we must design wisely.


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