Permaculture is Not Just for Farmers

Andrea Dennis, right

The 1970s birthed many inventions, including permaculture—a design principle based upon sustainable farming techniques. This fusion of “permanent plus agriculture” was developed to mimic naturally occurring systems in the environment. Two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, coined the term to provide an alternative to mass-scale agribusiness, known to reduce crop diversity, deplete soil nutrients and use an inordinate amount of natural resources.

Today, permaculture has flowered into a holistic approach to “permanent plus culture”, expanding beyond the bounds of sustainable agriculture to a design approach for living. It’s not just for farmers anymore. When the ethics and design principles are applied to specific aspects of our lifestyle, permaculture shapes just about every decision we make. To understand how we can apply permaculture to daily life, let’s take a look at its anatomy.

The Ethics

At the core of the modern interpretation of permaculture are three ethics that constitute the underlying moral philosophy: Earth care, people care and fair share. We care for the Earth because it is our home, so the basics: no pollution, respect of biodiversity and organics. The second ethic, people care, relates to respecting each other as co-collaborators in this existence, focusing on relationships, community building, fair trade, self-reliant communities and a new value system based on connection over materialism. The ethic of fair share translates to avoiding overconsumption, sharing in times of abundance and respecting appropriate limits to growth. In total, the ethics are a natural check and balance system for living in harmony, and lie at the core of applying permaculture to real life. Permaculture is a design method, and that means in addition to the core ethics, there are guidelines to help us implement them.

The 12 Design Principles

Because the ethics are the foundation of permaculture, the 12 design principles, as laid out by Holmgren, shape the way we apply the ethics to live more sustainably. Mimicking the natural processes of nature, the 12 design principles are applied to different aspects of life as basic checkpoints and benchmarks to view a part of our life from a whole-systems way of thinking. Let’s outline the 12 design principles.

1. Observe and interact
2. Catch and store energy
3. Obtain a yield
4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
5. Use and value renewable resources and services
6. Produce no waste
7. Design from patterns to details
8. Integrate rather than segregate
9. Use small and slow solutions
10. Use and value diversity
11. Use edges and value the marginal
12. Creatively use and respond to change

Permaculture for the UrbaniteChicago Permaculture

As a city dweller, I don’t have the luxury of a backyard for an urban garden, so I try to do my part in other ways by working for a nonprofit, eating local, shopping at farmers’ markets, recycling, riding a bike and attending informative events on environmental happenings in the city. So how does permaculture, as a way of living, apply to my life? When I first became acquainted with the ethics and principles, it illustrated the “why” behind these choices and how I could infuse them into other aspects of my life. It was invigorating to be given tools for analyzing how my life worked as a whole. By virtue of how these principles mimic nature, it felt that the choices I could make to be more sustainable were also a part of the natural rhythms of nature.

Looking at the different domains of life like finances and healthcare, I started applying some of the principles. For example, did I want to conduct my banking with a large bank that didn’t properly self-regulate? By considering the self-regulation permaculture principle, a smaller credit union revealed itself as a better option.

Another example I’ve experienced stems from principle number seven: design from patterns to details. I had been volunteering with a lot of organizations and feeling a struggle surrounding a busy schedule without being able to adequately appropriate time to these various worthy projects. By stepping back, taking a look at the pattern of my schedule and seeing where and how time was spent, I was able to redirect my energies in a more meaningful way. This meant cutting back on some activities, but in doing so, being able to make a deeper contribution to others.

Of course, the number one principle, to observe and interact, is perhaps the most applicable. We choose the life we want to live, and we have a billion inputs sent to our brain every day. Without observance and interaction in the world around us, synchronicities, opportunities and epiphanies may be lost on us. Slowing down to witness the world around us, even for a moment, never goes unrewarded.

Like many of the 70s inventions, from Ethernet to the Internet and the Walkman to the iPod, permaculture has evolved. It started with a goal for sustainable agriculture and now is a vision for permanent human culture. There is no end to the transformation we can undergo individually and collectively to create a more sustainable present and future. Why not adopt the same ethics and principles that could bring about this change more rapidly? Even if you’re not a farmer in the woods growing your own food, permaculture can speak to you the way it does to me.

Andrea Dennis is the International Outreach Director for Greenheart. For more information, visit, and

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