The Nature of Permaculture

Nigel Crawley – Tring in Transition

Permaculture seeks to avoid the problems of unsustainable systems by working with, instead of against, Nature.  For example, current industrial agriculture is an incredibly inefficient system.  It takes ten calories of energy input (mainly from fossil fuels) to produce one calorie of food output.  This is only one example of our current high-input systems that are only possible while we have access to cheap fossil-fuel energy.

The word Permaculture is a portmanteau word originally derived from ‘Permanent Agriculture’.  Nevertheless, due to the universality of Permaculture principles and their application in the design of other human activities, it has since been expanded to ‘Permanent Culture’.

Permaculture is a system of agricultural and social design principles centred around simulating or directly utilising the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems.  For example, sheet mulching is an agricultural no-dig gardening technique that attempts to mimic natural processes occurring within forests.

The design principles, which are the conceptual foundation of Permaculture, have been derived from the science of systems ecology and study of pre-industrial examples of sustainable land use.  Permaculture practitioners are also guided by an ethical framework of ‘Care of the Earth’, ‘Care of People’ and ‘Return of Surplus to Earth and People’.

The first use of the term ‘Permanent Agriculture’ was probably by J. Russell Smith in his book ‘Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture’.  Originally published in 1929, ‘Tree Crops’ was J. Russell Smith’s reaction to witnessing the environmental destruction caused by an industrial agriculture based on growing grains – or, as he summarised, “Forest-field-plow-desert”.  In ‘Tree Crops’ Smith advocates development of a permanent agriculture based on perennial tree crops both for livestock feed and human food.  It’s fair to say that the ideas in ‘Tree Crops’ inspired Permaculture’s early pioneers and are still extremely relevant.

However, the Permaculture movement as we know it today started with an Australian called Bill Mollison.  In 1959, while studying marsupials in their natural environment of the Tasmanian forest, Bill wrote a seminal note in his journal: “I believe that we could build systems that would function as well as this one does.”  He continued to work on his idea for the next twelve years by observing natural ecosystems and the practices of indigenous cultures.  In 1972 David Holmgren, a student of Bill Mollison’s, wrote an undergraduate thesis based on Bill’s ideas that later became the basis for the first Permaculture manual: “Permaculture One”.  Subsequently, Permaculture has spread globally due to Bill’s clever strategy of teaching the teachers via a 72-hour Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course.  The PDC is a life-changing two-week immersion in Permaculture’s whole systems view of the world.

Permaculture seeks to minimise waste, human labour, and energy input by building systems.  Forest gardening, for example, is a labour-saving three-dimensional food-growing ecosystem designed to mimic natural forests.

The focus of Permaculture design is not on each separate element, but rather on the relationships created among elements when they are placed together so that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.  Within a Permaculture system the resources generated by all the elements are engineered to supply their respective needs, mimicking the complex relationships found in natural ecosystems.  When a certain threshold of this complexity is reached, new beneficial properties start to emerge from the system, such as self-regulation, feedback loops, self-organisation, and resilience. By working in this way we can create a low-input food garden where  nature takes over most of the maintenance work for us.

There are a number of unique techniques employed by Permaculture designers when assembling complex systems including: input-output analysis, zone analysis and sector analysis.  Input-output analysis looks at the outputs of elements within a design and attempts to match them to the inputs of other elements.  For example, one of the outputs from chickens is heat and a greenhouse requires heating on frosty nights.  So why not build the greenhouse around the chicken shed?.  Zones are areas around the main centre of human activity.  Elements in a design that require regular attention are placed in the zone nearest the centre and elements that require minimal attention in the zone furthest away.  A Permaculture sector is any influence arriving from off the design site that you have no direct influence over (e.g. sunlight, wind, water, etc.).  Sectors can either be caught and used, deflected/blocked or left to pass by unaffected.

Above everything, Permaculture is about protracted and thoughtful observation instead of prolonged and thoughtless action.  By slowing down and observing natural ecosystems we can learn valuable lessons that will improve our lifestyles.  After all, Nature, having done 3,500,000,000 years of Research & Development, is our best teacher.


Two films about climate change which couldn’t be more different!

John Ingleby – Chair, Transition in Kings

My wife and I went to see the film “Tomorrow” by Cyril Dion and Mélanie Laurent, and then four days later we saw “The Age of Consequences” by Jared P Scott.  Both films are about climate change, but they couldn’t be more different.

The Age of Consequences” is one of several films about climate change, including Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and others, such as “Years of Living Dangerously” by James Cameron.  These films are all well made and lavishly presented, with the theme best described as “Stark Warnings to Humanity”.  They graphically illustrate how, if we don’t change our ways, our planet Earth is becoming more dangerous and less habitable.

My problem with “The Age of Consequences” and similar doom-laden films is that they don’t give any clues about what we could possibly do to avert disaster.  After watching pictures of devastation from droughts, storms, melting ice, warming oceans, mass migrations and so-on, the cynic in me begins to notice how parts of the film are actually computer special effects.  Small wonder that so many are persuaded this whole issue is a carefully choreographed “hoax”.

So I want to explain why “Tomorrow” is so different from many other films dealing with climate change.  To begin with, “Tomorrow” was crowd-funded from the inspiration of Cyril Dion and Mélanie Laurent when their first child was born.  Where could they find real-life examples of people and communities today, who are creating practical solutions for a more sustainable, equitable and just way of life?

Tomorrow” was produced in France, and first shown to wide acclaim at the Paris Conference in December 2015.  It took just over a year to add English sub-titles, and the Transition Network (based in Totnes) is arranging UK screenings for a minimal charge of £100 per event.  Most of these are being organised by local Transition groups, and shown to small audiences in town and village halls.

The story of Cyril and Mélanie’s journey is different because climate change is rarely mentioned.  Instead, their story illustrates the human activities which produce climate change alongside alternative approaches, to show how destruction caused by those activities can be avoided, and even reversed.

Did you know, for example, that while small-scale farming obviously involves much human effort, each acre produces on average five times more food compared with today’s large industrialised farms?  Moreover, small-scale farming is better at preserving soil structures and absorbing rain and nutrients.  How did we come to accept industrialised agriculture as the natural and inevitable way to produce food, with its demands for ever-growing inputs of water, fertilisers and energy?

The term “permaculture”, meaning permanent (i.e. sustainable) agriculture, describes modern approaches derived from the study of age-old methods of food production.  Cyril and Mélanie’s journey shows how permaculture methods are being used to grow food in today’s urban environments.

Tomorrow” is a positive, affirming and inspirational film, exploring creative solutions in the fields of food, energy, transport, economics and education.  In their travels to many different parts of the world, the couple visit permaculture farms, urban agriculture projects, community-owned renewable-energy schemes, local currencies, creative schools, and an ambitious recycling project.

If you search YouTube for “#Tomorrowfilm“, you will see how this film leaves people with a more optimistic and positive outlook for their future.  It is opening eyes to new possibilities for our own communities.

Future screenings of “Tomorrow” can be found by Googling “Tomorrow Transition” followed by the town name below.  So far, I only know about these dates and places:

Tulse Hill – May 2nd;   Wembley – May 5th;   Letchworth – June 20th;   Brighton – June 21st

Churches, politics and the good life

Titus Alexander


Titus Alexander lives in Kings Langley and was an active participant in TiK during its early days, with a major role in founding Grand Union Community Energy.  Titus is committed to making democracy the cornerstone of healthy and sustainable communities.  He founded Democracy Matters, the alliance for practical politics education.  His book, Practical Politics: Lessons in Power and Democracy (2017), is published by the UCL Institute of Education Press. You can download free extracts from

Churches have always been involved in questions about what makes a good life and therefore politics.  Aristotle described the aim of politics as ‘the highest of all goods achievable by action’ and called it the ‘master science’, because politics is about deciding priorities between everything else.  The general election was a vivid battle between competing priorities and visions of the good life.  But politics are not just about elections.

Churches grapple with their own internal politics, over issues such as the ordination of women, gay marriage, the practicalities of running a parish, the business of church investments, maintaining buildings and vicars’ pensions.  Churches have also played an active role in big social issues, such as abolition of slavery, Jubilee 2000 debt campaign, relief of poverty and living-wage campaigns.  Some political parties even have confessional origins, notably the Democratic Unionist Party, now in discussions with the Government.  It was founded in 1971 as the Protestant Unionist Party by the Reverend Ian Paisley.

Politics affects all areas of our lives, from the state of our roads and price of goods to our climate, health and security.  Politics is not just an occasional referendum and election, but a ceaseless process at every level of government, from school governing bodies and parish council to meetings of the World Trade Organisation, NATO and agencies of global governance.  Most decisions which affect our daily lives are not taken in Parliament, but in government agencies, local councils or international bodies to which power is delegated.

Modern politics is complicated and difficult, like a multi-level game of chess, involving numerous players, not just political parties.  Pressure groups, businesses, trades unions, foreign governments, charities and churches all seek to influence decisions that concern them.  The competition for influence is intense and the outcomes unpredictable, but the impact on our lives can be huge.

Pluralistic political education

The impact of political choices and complexity of politics makes it essential to learn how the political system works, understand the issues and develop skills to do politics better.

As a society, we encourage people to learn how to play sport and do business, which are highly competitive activities that create winners and losers.  But we are remarkably reluctant to encourage people to learn how to take part in politics, even although its impact on our lives is greater than sport or business.

In this context, faith communities can promote democratic understanding and engagement by:

  1. Creating safe spaces where people can reflect on issues that concern them and affect their neighbourhood as well as the wider world. Churches should not be afraid to promote discussion of big issues that affect people’s lives, such as Brexit, climate change, the plight of refugees and poverty.  Churches often host hustings at election times, a vital part of the democratic process, and can create opportunities to discuss issues between elections as well.
  2. Encouraging people to understand how the political system works: Parliament Week every November is an invitation to run events about Parliament at a local level, and the Parliamentary Education and Outreach teams can support educational events throughout the year (search the Parliament website for more information).
  3. Campaigning on issues about which church members feel strongly, following discussion and study of all sides of the argument.

Churches should not take sides between political parties, but there are times when church members need to speak out about issues that reflect their core values.  The world has changed for the better because people have acted on things that matter.  At one time people were burnt at the stake for heresy, witchcraft or even translating the Bible into English. . Today we see freedom of speech, pluralism and democracy as fundamental values.  People can debate differences and campaign for what they believe is best without fear of persecution, because we recognise that democratic politics is essential to improve society at all levels.  But for democracy to be effective, everyone needs to know how the system works and have an effective voice.  Churches can play a vital role in this.