Chapter 1 The Origins of Permaculture

Chapter 1 What Do We Remember, What Do We Forget?
6 October, 2020
Chapter 1 Escapism
21 October, 2020
Chapter 1 What Do We Remember, What Do We Forget?
6 October, 2020
Chapter 1 Escapism
21 October, 2020

Chapter 1

In search of meaning

The origins of


The Origins of Permaculture

In November 1959, watching marsupial browsers in the floristically simple rainforests of Tasmania, I wrote in my diary: “I believe that we could build systems that would function as well as this one does.” A casual reflection, not further developed, had broken the barrier between passive observation (in an attempt to understand inter-relationships between browsers and plants) and the active creation of many similar systems that we could construct ourselves. The step from passive analysis to active management, or active creation, was critical.

I was also discovering, over this period (1959-62) that even two of these common browsers and no more than 26 woody plant species could set up a series of very complex interactions. Thus, it was the interactions of components, rather than the number of species that gave the system its flexibility. That flexibility allowed a fairly stable condition to be established through a variation in other influences, in weather and growth. The system constantly changed, but continued to function.

This then, was both the precursor and the core of Permaculture; the realisation that we can create systems, based on analogies of natural systems, or try to improve them for productivity, and then allow the created system to demonstrate evolutions, stepping in at critical stages to manage, to add or subtract species, and observing at all times. These system analogies, if well constructed and recorded, could produce a yield that could be constantly accessed or improved, and would also need minimal maintenance energy, after the establishment phase.

It is true that all my life experiences are expressed in the concept of Permaculture, most fully outlined in the Designers Manual of 1988. And it is also true that intervening work delayed my actual trials of a ‘constructed system’ until 1972, but in that year, I had a ‘crisis of intellect’.

Most people who passed through the sixties ferment – actually, 1966-74 in Australia, were looking for a profound change in the basis of society; from a profit-based to a value-based society, from war-oriented to society-oriented, inhumane to human-centred. The problem was, we knew (and could express) what it was we did not want; we could not really express what we wanted, or how to go about change. Not that we didn’t try; we tried protest, we tried universal love, we tried political party involvement, we tried dropping out, we tried drugs and communal living, and we tried…everything we could think of. It did not alter society, or values. But it irretrievably altered those of us involved.

I spent weeks looking for a positive solution, and over a series of sleepless nights, came back to that innocent note in my diary. If we could create living systems, in which we were a part, then we could have a sort of Garden of Eden. It was as though I had unlocked a door opening on to a new world. I could see it all, for miles ahead and years away. It was like cutting the rope around a great roll of magic carpet. All the rest was ways and means. By 1972, I spent hours with David Holmgren and others trying to articulate whole system designs. There were no precursors.

Yet, I believe society was waiting for something; in one sense, revolution, and in another sense, an increased quality of life. We knew armed revolution to be just a swap-over of nepotic power structures, a fight for the top. The concept of networks was still young, and in any case, what sort of network?

Networks have all the functions of hierarchical systems, but avoid elites. They can do so if each node (or many nodes) takes up a service function. Hierarchies concentrate on control functions; all power, or money, or status, flow to the top of the pyramid. With service networks, information flows in and out; and that information can penetrate the net. Hierarchies impoverish, networks enrich. We even invented the word ‘worknet’ to express service action at the nodes, some form of useful activity. Computers had escaped to the home, and waited for us to set up a global network.

Networks we knew of simply catalogued data or addresses, and all failed because they had nothing to sell that others wanted. Worknets, we thought, produced analysis, literature, educational services, research, cultures of useful organisms, consultancy advice, market opportunities, products, loan centres, repair centres, bulk buying centres…something of use to others. Worknets.

Nodes can offer services to the world, and if the world wants them, the node flourishes; if there is no reaction, there are no returns. It is all self-governed.

Duplications of services and functions, if not identical to others, simply give a set of options. If there are no elections, salaries, or external funds, it is what you do that enables you to survive, or if you lack a good product or a good nature, you can’t relax into an ‘appointed’ position by virtue of your title, and survive. Worknets have to function to survive; they are fundamentally different from bureaucracies, which only persist if they don’t function.

Worknets do not support drones, kings or queens, or administrators. They are economical, lean and tough. Also resilient and near indestructible. You can’t cut the head off a starfish; it just grows more arms and legs. It is like comfrey; the more you cut it up, the more it flourishes.

As for who invented Permaculture, let us quote from Henry James: “First a new theory is attacked as absurd; then it is admitted to be true, but obvious and insignificant; finally it seems so important that its adversaries claim they discovered it.” (With thanks to Kenneth Boche for spotting this passage.)

In fact, Henry James leaves out a few stages, if we take Permaculture as a case history. This is about how it went, from 1975-94, in approximate order:-

- First, it was always a very popular concept at folk level but totally ignored, or rather, ferociously attacked by all the scientific establishments. On the grounds that I was not qualified to produce it; they were.

- Secondly, it was perceived as subversive, because it didn’t have a hierarchy, therefore it was potentially dangerous. And people ‘were not ready for it yet’. At this stage, and until today, many institutions, always at private meetings offer to take it over and give it credibility. I think that they have lost hope of late! Can you hijack a good idea? Can you control a mutinous crew? Where do you get credibility?

- Thirdly, everybody’s grandmother used it, thus it was ‘obvious and insignificant’. Today, everybody knows someone who has practiced it for years, but never heard about it. All I can say is “What a grandmother!” “What a wonder!”

- Fourthly, every institution tried to ignore it, and hoped it would die. It thrived, grew, involved more people. Some scientists thought it had promise; some actually took courses. Some now teach it. They have also imitated it in parts.

- Slowly, establishments set up parallel (well-funded) systems. Names proliferated, appointments were made, money invested. We in Permaculture still grew, flourished, became global, were unfunded, had no salaried people.

- Periodically, attempts were made to take over from within; these too failed, as they lacked any essential service, so they couldn’t self-fund. And because by then, too many people were used to independent (if cooperative) action. Sections of the system began to look like an organic gardening guild; they could indeed join such a society, and forget that Permaculture was whole-system design. Retrograde or simplified nodes developed.

- Services, especially teaching services and journals began to expand; only teaching has an unlimited demand for the foreseeable future. A few individuals tried to mark out territories, but this didn’t last either; they moved, or others came in.

- Finally (today), with hundreds of itinerant teachers turning up anywhere, the system is beyond restraint. Safe at last, and in a geometric growth stage. We won. Permaculture is permanently ungovernable.

Personally, I have been characterised as a fanatical conservationist, an unreal idealist, the guru of the movement, the originator of the idea, as having made a significant contribution to agriculture, or being made a Member or Fellow of august academies, to getting national recognition as an ‘Australian Achiever of the Year’. From madman, to honoured fellow; I have never changed. We are all the same person.

error: Content is protected !!