Permaculture- Solutions for a Low Energy World

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by Graham at Zone5.

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.

Pig Tractor

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.

Further reading:

1) David Holmgren, Permaculture Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability Holmgren Design Services 2002

Patrick Whitefield, The Earthcare Manual Permanent Publications 2004

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