8 Understandings Missing from Permaculture Designers Manual

PERMACULTURE – A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison by 1988 illustrated by Andrew Jeeves, is a masterpiece. But it has 8 understandings missing from the text that are vital for permaculture design today.

The definition of Permaculture has evolved

Initially Bill Mollison and David Holmgren defined permaculture as an ‘alternative, sustainable agriculture. David commented that it has evolved to one of permanent or sustainable culture.’

Later, Graham Bell wrote, “Permaculture is a way of life which shows us how to make the most of our resources by minimising waste and maximising potential.  Conscious design of a lifestyle which is highly productive and does not cause environmental damage.  Meeting our basic needs and still leaving the earth richer than we found it.”  

Below is a Photo of Graham and Nancy’s site

The definition will continue to grow and develop whilst ever people are working at it.
In this era of climate uncertainty, the definition would read:
Permaculture is a designed, sustainable way of living
where we align with nature
to minimise waste and maximise potential’.

Original mission of the Permaculture Designers Manual

Page 1 states the book aims to cover aspects of:

  • Designing and maintaining a cultivated ecology in any climate (but this does not include arctic and not climate change adaptation nor catastrophe hardiness)
  • Principles of design (however, the original text does not list the principles or detail them). Later on, David Holmgren develops a set of permaculture principles. But the principles need to remain open to development as the practice of permaculture design evolves.
  • Design methods in chapter 3 are a collection of approaches with some details (but not a clear process)
  • Patterns in nature and some ways to apply this
  • Climatic factors (but there is an assumed level of knowledge of how energy works and how to choose the best technology or strategy. And this is what people really need in the climate crisis to cut their energy usage and waste)
  • Water
  • Soils
  • Earthworks (but there no discussion about impact of earthworks on soils. Also, there are few alternative earthwork strategies for urban sites)
  • Aquaculture (not value of oceanic carbon sink)
  • Social, legal and economic design aspects. (These are limited and based on western systems).

So, lets unpack some of the areas lacking for the modern Permaculture designer.

1. Catastrophe hardiness – now our top priority in era of climate change

Designing and maintaining a cultivated ecology in any climate is the first mission stated in the book. But it doesn’t tackle very cold climates. And it was not able to predict the extent of climate change adaptation needed today. Nor would any of us have appreciated the impact of associated catastrophes. Today, we need to design beyond resilience and for catastrophe hardiness.

Also, since the Designers Manual was written, Permaculture has developed better social structures. Because it recognises that destruction caused by wars and pollution can only be addressed by ethics. Social design is crucial for humanity to live in harmony with nature. We all need to see and feel connection with our environment. This is the first step in respect for the world and others.

2. Permaculture Design Principles

The principles are not listed together or detailed in the designer’s manual. In following years, David Holmgren develops principles however, Mollison’s principle of multiple function and multiple elements for each function is not longer a high priority. All philosophies benefit from further discussion. The principles are not hard and fast. They are to treated as a knowledge base that is constantly collaboratively evolving.

3. Chapter 3 Design methods lack example processes

The ‘inputs and outputs’ thinking is part of the era of mechanistic thinking. In order to observe a system, we often zoom in to see the details. But this thinking can tempt us into seeing each detail as a component, independent of the whole system. The text can lead us to reductionism: where we reduce everything to parts. We start to measure inputs and outputs. This is simplistic science and we need to move toward holistic thinking. Today designers use alternative terms ie. ‘environmental participants’ [Stuart Hill] or ‘kin’.

Now, we also recognise the need to develop the design process as cyclic. As Transition Design lecturer Cameron Tonkinwise warns us, we need an attitude of staying with the design challenge.

Also, the experimental approach to design that was briefly mentioned is sometimes misunderstood by Permaculture designers as lack of planning and development. Adam Grubb of Verge and Permablitz said he stays involved to ensure that the implementation is fitting with the goals of the design. An essential part of the process lies in educating and empowering the users.

Since the Designers’ Manual was written a lot of good examples of cyclic design systems have developed including Bunya’s System of agroforestry, Synergistic farming, Transition towns, Transition design and engineering.

4. Energy and Technology Options

There is an assumed knowledge of how energy works. And now, more than ever, energy has become an important issue. Energy use is fuelling our climate uncertainty. So, each individual person needs to get skilled at managing their energy use.  Furthermore, there is no guidance on how to choose the best technology or strategy. Instead it shows details of particular technologies ie. 2 person shovel. What future generations need are tools on how to measure the efficiency of a technology. They need to know how to invest time and money for their future.

harvest and store water in urban design

5. Earthworks and Alternatives

This chapter is lacking a need for discussion about impact of earthworks on soils [this has being developed by Darren Doherty], Furthermore, we need ideas for alternative strategies for earthworks and water management for urban sites. This includes wicking systems, and using pathways and gutters to allow rainwater to do the work.

Despite Mollison’s repeated suggestions that we design to suit the landscape, many permaculture designers are still changing the soil and landscape to impose an ecosystem with their favorite species. Instead, we need to observe and accept conditions, then make slight modifications in order to grow what suits the site. This includes native foods.

This limited design perspective is in part due to the approach to the design process. We need to stop asking our clients what they want, like asking them for a shopping list. Instead exercise observation and experimentally. Then design to amplify the good stuff.

6. Our Modern Context Acknowledges Broader Value

Today, many permaculture sites have wider potential than first expected. This includes carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, and many other community and research benefits. The science has grown. Aquaculture and food forests also yield valuable carbon sequestration. Martin Crawford of the Agroforestry research trust says the first task of his food forest is carbon sequestration. For him, food is a bonus. Mollison wrote that the yield is, theoretically unlimited. And future research will reveal how many other bonuses fall into that yield.

Lizzy Smith (Queanbeyan) has Kangaroos free to roam through her Permaculture garden.

7. Zones 0 and 6 Now on Map

Since Mollison’s writings, the concepts of Zone 0 and Zone 6 have emerged. Zone 0 boosts indoor growing (ferments, sprouts, indoor plants) and activities such as recycling, repairing and retrofitting. And Zone 6 acknowledges and develops connections with the wider community.

We now know that mature urban permaculture spaces grow more than food and fibre than can be recycled on site. Urban sites often become islands of wildlife habitat, social connection and food sharing points. Also, Zone 5 deserves to be designed not just as a secluded patch but as a wildlife corridor, linked with parklands, waterways and street verges.

King parrot eating pears
Some of the residents on our demonstration site

8. Social Design Aspects

The few Social aspects mentioned in the text are based on western systems. Rowe Morrow warns that western culture constantly talks about the self rather than our community. She points out that our social systems are inherently violent. And we need to design to support our core cultural values and practices to achieve a thriving perma(nent)culture.

Books for a better future

According to Richard Telford of Permaculture Principles, books will become more expensive to produce. However, books and courses will always be a valuable resources because they provide expertly guided learning as opposed to randomized surfing of information.

Texts for a better future

Text books will always be useful because they guide the learner. Better still, some empower choice. Rather than recommending specific technologies, we need to show readers how to make better choices. We benefit from expert guidance on the finer details to select tools, investments and species. No book can keep up with technological changes. So, the books of the future will only stay relevant if they empower choice.

Authors of inspiring texts, such as Albert Bates, happily accept and respond to feedback. And their texts are easily edited and adapted.

The extra chapters needed today in Permaculture textbooks include: better understanding energy, catastrophe hardiness, sustainable social culture, urban strategies and techniques, and refining of the Permaculture principles.

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