Our primary tool is permaculture, an ethically-based design system for sustainable living and land use.
The term permaculture was coined in the 1970s by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren who created alternatives to industrial agriculture based on perennial polycultures – a diversity of long-lived plants arranged to compliment each other.
The permaculture concept has since been developed by these co-founders and many others into something much more holistic. Today permaculture refers to a design system that mimics successful patterns and relationships found in natural ecosystems to create productive systems for meeting human needs. Permaculturists aim to not merely achieve sustainability, but to actually repair and enhance damaged environments.
Part of the permaculture vision is massively decreasing the distance between where food is produced and consumed. Permaculture food systems work more like natural systems such as forests than industrial agriculture, requiring no artificial inputs and producing no waste.
Suburbia is often seen as the antithesis of sustainability. James Howard Kunstler has called it “the greatest misallocation of resources in human history”. However, suburbia has roughly the population density of some intensive self-sufficient South East Asian cultures, while it also has the benefit of many hard surfaces like rooves and concrete to capture water. While permaculturists do not generally advocate complete self-sufficiency, we can grow a sizable proportion of our food even in small gardens.
In suburban contexts, permaculture design integrates people (their needs, habits, skills, desires, money and time) and place (the physical limitations and potentials of a site such as a backyard) in ecologically harmonious systems that provide a good portion of the needs of residents (which could include water, herbs, vegetables, fruit, nuts and eggs), while minimising inputs of materials, time and labour, and producing no waste. To do this we use design strategies like site analysis, zoning and relative location, as well as a broader set of permaculture principles and ethics.
As an integrated design science, however, food is just one part of the permaculture equation. Permaculture equally addresses water, energy, waste, shelter, community, local economy, governance and community facilitation, and other aspects of sustainable living. It’s broad, it’s exciting, and it’s blindingly relevant to the challenges we all face. The Transition Towns movement is a fantastic example of integrating these facets that has emerged from the permaculture movement.
It is hard not to get excited when you see a good permaculture design in operation. There are now plenty of living examples across Melbourne. We invite you to get involved in Permablitz and see them for yourself!
For a summary of permaculture ethics and design principles see: PermaculturePrinciples.com