This article looks into permaculture and sustainability. It examines what permaculture is and asks, how permaculture can inform the current sustainability debate.


Permaculture was developed and codified in the mid-1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. The publication of Permaculture One in 1978 is a major point of departure for the modern incarnation of permaculture.

A commonly held definition of what permaculture is would be the following statement

Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs.

For more information, please visit the link to the video below, which packs lots of information about permaculture into 51 seconds.

What is permaculture?

It is about creating a permanent and sustainable culture.

It is positivistic; it is about what we want to do and can do, rather than being an opposition movement.

Permaculture has a number of traits which I find interesting.

  • It gives priority to using existing wealth to rebuild natural capital
  • It emphasises bottom-up redesign processes
  • It is predicated on the likelihood of some degree of collapse
  • It looks for clues in pre-industrial societies

I am also attracted to permaculture because it makes use of design principles and systems thinking, two areas where much leverage can be gained for sustainability.

Permaculture is also a giant network of likeminded individuals working to build a better world. In the UK it is represented by the Permaculture Association and you can find out more about them by visiting the link below.

The Permaculture Association

How can permaculture inform the current sustainability debate

Permaculture is extremely integrative. I believe this to be its greatest strength and the biggest contribution it can make to modern sustainability challenges.

It integrates ecology, landscape geography animal husbandry, forestry, agriculture, biology and architecture.

Too often modern sustainability problems go unsolved because of excessive silo thinking and a “not my problem” mentality. Permaculture provides a radical critique of these negative aspects of modern societies.

Permaculture also shines a light on the need to build a sustainable future on the solid foundations of a sustainable culture. Changing lightbulbs and electric cars are wonderful things, but if people are not engaged and if the culture still celebrates or tolerates excessive use of non-renewable resources and excessive consumption then nothing will really have changed.

It also offers a radical critique of a weak sustainability approach. Sustainability is meant to be about meeting people’s needs now and in the future. But too often we seem hesitant to ask how much of what is consumed in the present is really necessary and how much is mindless self-indulgence. Permaculture would suggest we could meet our needs far more prudently than we currently do.

Permaculture also offers a more radical critique of weak sustainability, in that it is built on an ecological framework, more akin to ecological economics as opposed to environmental economics, which is based on economic frameworks. This allows permaculture and I would argue ecological economists to see value where environmental economists cannot. You can find out more about environmental economics and ecological economics by visiting the link below.


They way permaculture focuses on non-material well-being is also enlightening. This is similar to cultural ecosystem services and is a radical step change in thinking from anything that weak sustainability can provide. Things such as exercise and the beauty of nature provide enormous value and well-being but are so often unaccounted for.

What you need to know

This article looked into permaculture and sustainability. It examined what permaculture is and asked, how permaculture can inform the current sustainability debate.

We looked into the origins of permaculture in the 1970s and looked at a common definition of what it is.

We looked into the traits that permaculture exhibits and its ability to work as a network.

We also looked into several examples of how permaculture can offer a radical critique of the modern sustainability debate.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. What are your thoughts or experiences of permaculture?

Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby



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