The Transition Towns movement emerged from permaculture, beginning as a class assignment. Permaculture design and practice, applied to communities, help to create the sustainability and resilience we need to get past peak oil, climate change, economic instability, and other challenges we might be facing. The ethics and the principles that are at the core of permaculture come from observing healthy natural eco-systems and understanding how systems work as a whole.
Central to permaculture are three ethics:
Care of the earth, which means actively nurturing the natural systems that support life on earth.
Care of people, which means actively meeting the needs of all people in a socially just way, so that we can all have a good quality of life without damaging the earth.
Fair share or return the surplus, which means accepting limits to growth and to our personal consumption, taking only what we need, and accepting equality for everyone so that all get a fair share.
Bill Mollison and David Holmgren were the first to formulate the principles of permaculture (see links below.) Permaculture principles can be applied to farms or gardens, communities or whole societies, businesses or individuals.
Here are some examples of the principles applied to a community.
- Learn from and work with nature.
Before making decisions, observe which elements are present, what relationships exist between the elements, and how the whole system works. Understand what is already happening in a community before starting a project, and notice feedback. Everything is connected to everything else, and changes made affect everyone, sometimes in unexpected ways.
- Use small and slow solutions.
Start with small and slow changes, and observe the results. Small changes can have great impact, and it is better to learn from small mistakes. Small and slow systems in a community are also easier to maintain, use local resources, and produce more sustainable outcomes.
- Catch and store energy.
Develop systems that collect energy and resources when they are abundant, and re-use them as many times as possible before they leave the system. This provides a cushion in times of need. Examples include water, solar, nitrogen, carbon, wind, and human energy.
- Every vital function is taken care of by multiple elements.
For every vital function in a community, find multiple sources to satisfy the needs. This strengthens built-in resilience. Food, for example, should come from many producers so that if one source fails for whatever reason, other sources can still provide for the needs of the community.
- Every element of the system serves multiple functions.
Every element of the community would serve multiple purposes. For example, people would have multiple skills, buildings would have multiple functions (such as roof gardens, solar panels, living and work space,) parks can grow fruit trees, and so on. This ensures that there are enough skills, resources, and energy to cover all needs.
- Produce no waste.
Nothing is considered waste. In nature, nothing is “pollution” or “garbage.” All waste from one system becomes an input for another system. In a permaculture community, everything would be reused or recycled. Waste is considered a resource to be used, not refuse to be buried. For example, municipal compost can return fertility to backyard gardens.
- Integrate rather than segregate.
Many beneficial relationships between the various parts ensure the stability and resilience of the community. Place stores, schools, jobs, and health clinics near to where people live. Social connections create networks of support.
- Use and value renewable resources and connections.
Make use of biological services offered by nature (worms to amend soil, bacteria and fungi to clean up toxic spills) and use resources that are renewable and abundant. This will ensure that the ecosystems within which a community lives will remain healthy.
- Use edges and value the marginal. Use and value diversity.
In nature, the “edges,” where two systems such as forest and meadow (or two series of connections) meet and mix are the most productive. The same is true where human “edges” meet and mix. A permaculture community encourages biological, social, and economic diversity. Innovation and creativity can be found where diverse people and cultures meet and mix.
- Evolution and succession.
Systems evolve with time, and one thing will be succeeded by another. Decisions made by a community that has the future in mind, and that understands how it will change, will be much more likely to build resilience.
- Creatively use and respond to change.
Change is inevitable. We can see solutions in the problems, and outputs are only limited by the creativity and imagination of the designer. A community can come together to solve its problems in a way that creates a better future.
These principles have been adapted from Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual and Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison; and Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren.
Permaculture Principles – Permaculture Principles website
How to Use 12 Principles of Permaculture to Grow Sustainable Organizations – GreenBiz.com website
The Permaculture Flower – Permaculture Principles website