Permaculture- Solutions for a Low Energy World
Permaculture – coined from the two words perma-nent and agri-culture- is a system for designing sustainable human settlements by learning from how natural eco-systems catch and store energy.
When Australian ecologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren first devised the Permaculture concept in the mid-1970s they did so knowing that the world would need to adopt a radically different mode of operation once the peak of fossil fuel extraction would be reached two or three decades from then.
That time has now arrived and as we face into the reality of a world with ever decreasing energy supplies, permaculture principles such as “Use small and slow solutions” and “Catch and Store Energy” (1) can offer a much more positive approach than the “shop till you drop” or “get big or get out” mantras of endless industrial growth and consumerism.
By first observing and then interacting with the natural way that elements in eco-systems collect and process the sun’s energy, a permaculturalist designs and refines methods of meeting our basic needs of food, warmth and shelter while preserving as much as possible of the store of natural capital- such as the amount of forest cover, the depth of topsoil and the health of fresh water supplies.
One of the best known examples of permaculture design can be found in the forest garden or food forest. By mimicking the multi-layered system of a woodland, but carefully placing plant and tree species selected for their edible, medicinal or other useful parts in mutually beneficial relationship with each other, a great diversity of fruits, nuts and other produce can be obtained from a small space. Tree crops avoid the need to till the fields each year – which not only requires a lot of fossil energy, but also can lead to erosion and loss of top-soil- while still providing abundant harvests: walnuts can produce up to 7.5 tonnes per hectare, which is comparable with the typical yield of cereals in this climate(2).
Permaculture gardens like this one near Ballingeary in West Cork can give more produce from a small space by use of perennials such as Globe Artichokes, verticle
space and sunny rock surfaces to store heat.
Another classic permaculture approach in agriculture is the use of animals to clear and manure land in preparation for planting. This can reduce the need for fossil-fuelled machinery and artificial fertiliser, provide pest control while at the same time providing fodder for the animals.
Below: a mobile “pig tractor” in Austria clearing the ground beneath cherry trees in preparation for sowing with perennial and annual vegetables.
Above: Pig Tractor at Sepp Holzer’s farm in Austria
In house design, the emphases in permaculture would be the integration of different elements so that each part of the design supports and combines with other elements to give the best results for the least external (fossil fuel) inputs: a conservatory to the south side of the house will help provide passive solar heating; sunny walls of the house can be used to grow climbing fruits or espaliered trees; rainwater collected from the roof can be stored for irrigation of the salad garden, situated for convenience just outside the kitchen door.
Consciously designed settlements such as eco-villages make use of many of these design principles. A cluster of dwellings that are arranged around a common area which integrate local commerce and small workshops for artisans with gardens and space for social and recreational activities can make for a much more convivial lifestyle than the high-energy and car dependent lifstyle prevalent in modern towns and cities.
Catch and store energy: In this garden in Co. Mayo ,passive solar collectors can provide free hot water on sunny days; while a hot composting system warms a small greenhouse to grow melons
Perhaps more than anything, the permaculture vision is to do with being rooted in a sense of place: to take responsibility for the limited natural resources that support us means to manage and husband them in ways that leave them if anything enriched by our presence rather than simply consumed as if there is no tomorrow. To do this we will have to attune ourselves once more to the landscape around us, to learn to read between the lines of what Holmgren calls “the Great Book” of our surroundings- where does the water flow? What will grow on this type of soil? Where is the most favourable location for dwellings for shelter, access and solar gain? As the last of the fossil fuels that have created the madness of modernity are fought over around the world, permaculturalists will be careful to use any to which they still have access to shape the landscape in ways that will make it easier to live in the future when we will have to rely on much more limited and immediate stores of the sun’s energy.
We already have the tools, the technology, the design principles and many working models; all we need now is the wisdom to implement them more widely.
1) David Holmgren, Permaculture Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability Holmgren Design Services 2002
Patrick Whitefield, The Earthcare Manual Permanent Publications 2004
Permaculture Resource List
* Contacts, Centres, Nurseries
Graham Strouts Derrydubh Mor, Coomhola, Bantry, Co. Cork. firstname.lastname@example.org 027-66931
Co-ordinator of Practical Sustainability course at Kinsale Further Education College –further details from email@example.com ; permaculture design and education; public talks and film showings on Peak Oil and Low-energy lifestyles; yurts made to order and yurt/ger-making courses; environmental education.
The Hollies Centre for Sustainability Castletown, Enniskeane, Co. Cork 023-47001
-Permaculture and natural building courses throughout the year.
Sustainable Ireland firstname.lastname@example.org
-Monthly email newsletter, organisers of cutting-edge events on sustainability in Dublin throughout the year.
Visit Cultivate- The Shop -sustainable living centre. 15-19 Essex Street West, Old City, Temple Bar, Dublin 8 01-674-6415 www.sustainable.ie
Feasta-The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability 159 Lower Rathmines Road Dublin 2 01-4912773/ 01-4912203 mailto:email@example.com
Irish Seed Savers Association- Capparoe, Scariff Co. Clare 061-921866 firstname.lastname@example.org www.irishseedsavers.ie
-heirloom vegetable varieties, old Irish Apples, worksohps, newsletter. Please join and support this essential organisation!!
www.ecologics.ie solar, wind and micro-hydro solutions; located near Bantry, West Cork
Permaculture Magazine Permanent Publications, The Sustainability Centre, East Meon, Hampshire Gu32 1HR England 0845-458-4150
Quarterly magazine, extensive catalogue of books, videos, tools
Permaculture Association(Britain) BCM, London, WCIN 3XX Tel/Fax 0845-458-1895 or 0113 262 1718 www.permaculture.org.uk
Future Foods P.O. Box 1564 Wedmore, Somerset
Wide variety of unusual and edible perennials, fruit and trees
Agroforestry Research Trust 46 Hunters Moon, Dartington, Totnes, Devon, England
Quarterly newsletter, books, seeds and plants
Encyclopaedic information on temperate agroforestry, forest gardens, fruit and lesser-known edibles perennials and tree crops
English’s Nurseries Raheenduff, Adamstown, Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford 054-40504/40984
Wholesale value on soft fruit, inc. kiwis, hardy vines, etc. Mail order available
Cappagh Nurseries -van der Wel Ltd. Aughrim, Co. Wicklow
Good value, huge selection of trees and shrubs
Fruithill Farm, Bantry Co. Cork 027-50710
Innovative garden and farm equipment, juicers, solar radios etc, tools and polytunnels, organic onion sets, seed potatoes- extensive catalogue
The Organic Centre Rossinver, Co Leitrim, Ireland 071-9854338 email@example.com www.theorganiccentre.ie
Extensive range of practical courses throughout the year
BOOKS- Suggested Reading
Permaculture-A Designers’ Manual Mollison et al. The Original Designers’ manual, huge in scope, emphases on tropics and drylands.
Introduction to Permaculture- Mollison, Reny Mia Slay. Good summary, accessible form of the Manual.
The Earth Care Manual- Patrick Whitefield. First Designers’ manual written for temperate zones.
How to Make a Forest Garden- Whitefield
Designing and Maintaining your Edible Landscape Naturally- Robert Kourik Metamorphic Press 1986 The best general landscape/permaculture/horticulture text
Permaculture- Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability David Holmgren 2002 Holmgren was the co-originator, with Mollison, of the Permaculture concept. This is his long-awaited definitive discussion of 12 PC Design Principles, as a response to the coming era of Energy Descent. Academic in tone, deeply rooted in the ecological sciences, essential reading for the serious PC student
Gaia’s Garden- A Guide to Home-scale Permaculture Toby Hemenway Chelsea Green 2001
Plants for a Future Ken Fern Fascinating and practical compendium of edible and useful plants of all kinds with an emphases on perennials. Essential.
The Fruit Garden Displayed Royal Horticultural Society Best general fruit book
John Jeavons – How to Grow More Vegetables than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine – 10 Speed Press
The humanure Handbook- A guide to Composting Human Manure Joseph Jenkins
The Woodland Way- A Permaculture approach to Sustainable Woodland Management. Ben Law
Building a Low-impact Roundhouse Tony Wrench Case study of the more rustic-end of self-build
A Pattern Language-Towns, Buildings, Construction Christopher Alexander et al. A Bible of innovative design principles for buildings of all kinds.
The Passive Solar House James Kachadorian
Spirit and Place Christopher Day Building design that is socially inclusive, ecologically sustainable and spiritually uplifting.
Short Circuit Richard Douthwaite Survey of LETS and other innovative local currency options from around the world
Permaculture Activist- US Quarterly Journal. www.permacultureactivist.net
The Party’s Over-Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial societies and Powerdown-Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World Richard Heinberg Essential Reading on the true state of the energy crises about to kick in in the modern industrial world.
Energy Beyond Oil Paul Mobbs 2005 Matador publishing Good review of current energy situation with UK emphases
Oil Crises Dr. Colin Campbell 2005 Multi-Science Publishing Company Ltd. Semi-autobiographical account of the oil industry and the awakening to global production limits by the world’s leading expert on energy depletion
The Natural Step for Communities- How Cities and Towns can Change to Sustainable Practices by Torbjörn Lahti, Sarah James
Superbia! 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighbourhoods Chira and Wann
New Society Publishers 2003