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Permaculture : Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability

The following passage is an excerpt from David Holmgren's book Permaculture Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, which can be borrowed from our Lending Library, or purchased from Chelsea Green Publishing

Permaculture in an Uncertain Age

Uncertainty is one of the defining characteristics of our age. Contributions to this state of affairs come from diverse sources.

  • Theoretical science has elevated uncertainty from simply a result of inadequate information to something which is inherent in everything.
  • The clash between the world's multifarious cultural traditions and modernity leaves most people unsure of their values and their role in society.
  • The avalanche of evidence and information about the impermanence of almost every aspect of modern society and economy, especially due to looming environmental threats, undermines any sense of certainty about the continuity of everyday life.
  • At the same time, accelerating technology and the emergence of endless new ideas, ways of seeing and being, movements, spiritual pathways and subcultures have expanded possibilities, hopes and fears beyond previously imaginable horizons.

The permaculture concept and movement are part of this global cultural reality, which some call post-modernism, where all meaning is relative and contingent.

The permaculture concept was a product of an intense but relatively breif working relationship between Bill Mollison and myself in the mid 1970s. It was a response to the envronmental crisis facing modern society. The publication of Permaculture One in 1978 was the culmination of that initial work and a starting point for both the evolution of the concept and the emergence of the worldwide permaculture movement.

Bill Mollison had described permaculture as a "positivistic" response to environmental crisis. That means it is about what we want to do and can do, rather than what we oppose and want others to change. This response is both ethical and pragmatic, philosophical and technical.

Like all ideas, permaculture is founded on some fundamental assumptions that are critical to both understanding and evaluating it. The assumptions on which permaculture was originally based were implied in Permaculture One and are worth repeating.

  • The environmental crisis is real and of a magnitude that will certainly transform modern global industrial society beyond recognition. In the process, the well-being and even the survival of the world's expanding population is directly threatened.
  • The ongoing and future impacts of global industrial society and human numbers on the world's wondrous biodiversity are assumed to be far greater than the massive changes of last few hundred years.
  • Humans, although unusual within the natural world, are subject to the same scientific 'energy' laws that govern the material universe, including the evolution of life.
  • The tapping of fossil fuels during the industrial era was seen as the primary cause of the spectacular explosion in human numbers, technology, and every other novel feature of modern society.
  • Despite the inevitably unique nature of future realities, the inevitable depletion of fossil fuels within a few generations will see a return to the general patterns observable in nature and pre-industrial societies dependent on renewable energy and resources.

The conceptual underpinning of these assumptions arises from many sources, but I recognise a clear and special debt to the published work of American ecologist Howard Odum. The ongoing influence of Odum's work on the evolution of my own ideas will become clear through the numerous references in this book, as well as the articles referred to in David Holmgren: Collected Writings 1978-2000. Some of the predictions of resource decline and economic collapse made in the 1970s have proven to be mistaken, at least in their timing. However, the evidence that natural resources are already constraining human development, after approximately 300 years of growth, and 50 years of super-accelerated growth, is strong and increasing. The evidence that the current oil crisis reflects the permanent end to cheap energy is compelling. Models from natural systems suggest a collapse back to low energy and resource use (mostly renewable), and a decline in world population is likely. Within this broad scenario, an almost infinite array of pathways and local possibilities can be considered, from the benign to the horrific.

On the other hand, technological and economic optimists argue that we are at the beginning of a new industrial/biological revolution which will lead to a golden age of material well-being. Again some of the evidence is compelling. Amory Lovings' ideas of natural capitalism and the dramatic examples of science and industry doing more with fewer resources and less energy are perhaps the most credible.

Although a future of much diminished use of energy and resources seems inevitable, the nature of that world (and its various parts) is uncertain, to say the least. In the emerging energy transition, ideas and models such as those of Lovings' have had considerable influence because they can be applied by business within a capitalist market economy without waiting for fundamental changes either in the political or cultural realm, or the personal behaviour or habits of citizens.


  • gives priority to using existing wealth to rebuilding natural capital, especially trees and forests, as a proven storage of wealth to sustain humanity into a future with less fossil fuel
  • emphasizes bottom-up "resign" processes, starting with the individual and household as the drivers for change at the market, community, and cultural level
  • more fundamentally, was predicated on the likelihood of some degree of collapse and breakdown in technology, economics and even society, which is not envisaged or designed for by the "green tech" optimists but is a current reality for many people around the world
  • sees pre-industrial sustainable societies as providing models that reflect the more general systems design principles observable in nature, and relevant to post-industrial systems.

Insofar as permaculture is an effective response to the limitations on use of energy and natural resources, it will move from its current status as "alternative response to environmental crisis' to the social and economic mainstream of the post-industrial era. Whether it will be called permaculture or not is a secondary matter.

The permaculture concept and movement have already changed the lives of thousands of people and affected perhaps millions in a myriad of ways. All this has occurred without any substantial support from powerful institutions, corporations or governments. Some would attribute its influence solely to the tireless energy, intellect and charisma of Bill Mollison. Although his role in permaculture's initial global spread is unquestioned, its persistence, evolution and influence must be attributed to its relevance to people's lives and situations.

Having pinned the relevance of permaculture to a future with less energy, what might be its relevance in some brave new world of abundant energy and resources (nuclear, genetic engineering, space colonies, or any of the other hoped-for or feared possibilities)? I suspect that the impact of permaculture would contract to influence the lives of relatively isolated individuals and groups who hold to minimal energy and resource use for ethical reasons.

The question of defining what permaculture is and isn't troubles some people. Its multifaceted character has allowed its progressive evolution into a catholic integration of "ecological alternatives". I have contributed to this expansive evolution, but I also recognise there are dangers in attempts to develop "a theory of everything", and in being "a jack of all trades and master of none" and in "reinventing the wheel". Nevertheless, I see the progressive evolution of permaculture as a strength in influencing the patchy and pulsing nature of social change.


Third Wave Environmentalism

The emergence of environmental awareness and innovation in the last quarter of the 20th century an be seen as clusters of intense activity followed by longer, slower phases of consolidation. These phases of new activity tend to coincide with recession in the mainstream economy. Permaculture was one of the environmental alternatives which emerged from the first great wave of modern environmental awareness, following the Club of Rome report in 1972 and the oil shocks of 1973 and 1975.

After the economic growth of the Reagan-Thatcher revolution in affluent nations during the 1980s, the public awareness of the greenhouse effect in the late 1980s triggered a second wave of environmentalism, which accelerated interest in permaculture. In the 1990s, as new technology and the global economy diverted attention, there was another phase of consolidation. By 1999 the signs were in place for a third wave of environmentalism. In this new phase we can expect public interest to lead to the mainstreaming of many of the innovations of the second wave. But past experience suggests that each new phase also throws up new insights and innovations that challenge the assumptions of the previous wave. This book is my contribution to that third wave.


Beyond Sustainability

The lack of any reasonable definition of sustainability has left it open to inevitable appropriation by the corporate spin doctors. But even the most genuine and useful sustainability concepts including permaculture contain an ambiguity about sustainability as a state or a process. Once we accept the reality and magnitude of energy descent, we begin to ask what "sustainability",  "sustainable systems" or "sustainable system design" might mean. Even the idea of permanence at the heart of permaculture is problematic to say the least.

For any human culture to be considered sustainable it must have the capacity (proven only with historical hindsight) to reproduce itself down the generations while providing human material needs without cataclysmic and long-term breakdown. If it is energetically impossible for high energy society to be anything more than a pulse in the long run of human history, then it cannot, by this definition, be sustainable, no matter how much we shuffle the technological chairs. In articulating Permaculture as the Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, I am suggesting that we need to get over our naive and simplistic notions of sustainability as a likely reality for ourselves or even our grandchildren and instead accept that our task is use our familiarity with continuous change to adapt to energy descent.


From the mountain peak

When we picture the energy climax as a spectacular but dangerous mountain peak that we (humanity) have succeeded in climbing, the idea of descent to safety is a sensible and attractive proposition. The climb involved heroic effort, great sacrifice, but also exhilaration and new views and possibilities at every step. The are several false peaks, but when we see the whole world laid out around us we know we are at the top. Some argue that there are higher peaks in the mists, but the weather is threatening.

The view from the top reconnects us with the wonder and majesty of the world and how it all fits together, but we cannot dally for long. We must take advantage of the view to chart our way down while we have favourable weather and daylight. The descent will be more hazardous than the climb, and we may have to camp on a series of plateaus to rest and sit out storms. Having been on the mountain so long, we can barely remember the home in a far-off valley that we fled as it was progressively destroyed by forces we did not understand. But we know that each step brings us closer to a sheltered valley where we can make a new home.