History of Permaculture

Permaculture began as a collaboration between a human ecology professor Bill Mollison and an environmental design student David Holmgren at the University of Tasmania in the 1970’s. The foundational short text by these was Permaculture One (1978). It was followed up by Mollison’s much more comprehensive Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual (1988) and many books since (https://www.permaculturedesignmagazine.com/books-dvds).

Permaculture was one of many reactions to the environmental threats posed by the 20th century’s ever increasing technological capacities. But it is a far more comprehensive approach than say organics, the EPA, the atomic weapons test ban, or LEED architecture.  Rather permaculture focuses on designing the long-term sustainability of humans and other species by regenerating and restoring the major systems needed to do this. It is a positive approach employing decisions that take the whole system into account. As well, permaculture is particularly useful and effective when used by individuals and small groups, whether the wider society agrees or not.

Mollison, as a forester, was impressed with the long-term stability and productivity of mature forests as well as the long-term survival of indigenous societies and agrarian civilizations of North Asia. He believed that humans could observe ecological processes in nature and copy and apply them in farms, gardens, homes, systems, communities, and cities using locally available abundant materials. Holmgren contributed the processes of environmental design to realize this vision.  They started with farms, but farms are just part of much larger systems, so they began to design communities. 

In its broadest sense, Permaculture means Permanent Culture.  But the term is more specific than the broad term.  It refers to an ecological design approach to achieving this.  This has given rise to many short but mostly truncated explanations of permaculture.  See  Permaculture Definitions .

Mollison left his teaching position in Australia and for the next several decades taught permaculture worldwide.  He taught several 72-hour courses in Texas.  His first was at the University of Texas Austin, but he spoke in Houston at the science museum and started our efforts here.

Permaculture’s Main Ideas

Permaculture is an ecological, holistic, and sustainable design system, problem solving algorithm, and philosophy for human living spaces. Its main tenant is that for important decisions, The Prime Directive (Future Care) is to assure future generations a fair shot, and that this will not happen unless impacts on both nature, food supply, and the fair needs of all living things—humans and non-human alike are a priority.

The foundation of permaculture is its three ethics that should be followed to provide for future generations:

  • Care of the Earth – Nature is like a complex machine that, left to itself, works very well. If you thoughtlessly destroy a part however, or dump your wastes in it, it stops working or works poorly. So, restore and enhance nature.
  • Care of People – Take care of ourselves, friends, family, community, and everyone else because if they are cared for, they are better able to care for us and future generations.
  • Fair Share – Set limits and balance what we take and what we give. Reduce our consumption of non-renewable “stuff” and design carefully so as not to take what others both human and non-human need both now and in the future.

Although these are described as ethics, they are really engineering requirements for sustainable design.  A strong scientific case can be made for their necessity for long-term survival.

At this point, in its fifth decade, permaculture is being successfully used around the world.  It can maximize food production, regenerate springs, cool homes without air conditioning, revive deserts, transform lives, reorganize towns and neighborhoods, reduce pollution, and much else.

These ethics help guide the basic permaculture design principles. These principles when used together create problem solving plans that produce high benefits, low costs, and little to zero waste.  There are many versions of these and many ways of talking about them.  Mollison’s are probably the easiest to use https://worldpermacultureassociation.com/mollison-principles/ .  Holmgren’s version is repeated in many places on the web but is more general and easier to make mistakes with https://worldpermacultureassociation.com/holmgren-principles/ . Taken together using known permaculture practices, these principles produce impressive results.

Permaculture Designers Certificate Course (PDC)

Mollison created a short intensive course he could teach in two weeks when he visited various parts of the planet.  It is taught in at least 72 hours, but teachers are encouraged to add additional material that contextualizes the course in the region where it is taught.  The internationally recognized core curriculum is at https://pina.in/permaculture-design-course/  .  When the course is taught by local teachers to local students, it is often taught on weekends rather than intensively and these days, some may be online.

Urban Harvest offers a series of permaculture classes and hands-on training in the field, totaling approximately 100 hours. Because the lead teachers in Houston have permaculture education diplomas as well as PDCs, the certificates Urban Harvest offers are Permaculture Institute of North America certified. The course here is offered by a group of teachers known informally as the Permaculture Guild of Houston.  They are part of a larger permaculture community mainly but not exclusively of PDC graduates: http://setxpermaculture.org/ .  You are welcome to become a member online and at in-person meetups but will get more out of it if you have done the PDC first.

The classes are grouped under titles, called modules, which are offered each season and do not need to be taken sequentially, except for Module 1 and Module 5. Module one includes two classes that are prerequisites required before going on to take Modules 2 – 4. 1-4 must be taken in any order before the Graduate Tutorial Module 5.

Permaculture classes have so far been scheduled on Sundays and mostly in afternoons with a few exceptions. Below are the titles of the modules, how many classes are in each module, when they are offered and the cost. Descriptions of these modules are at class description.

Module 1:  Sustainable Living Through Permaculture 1 and Sustainable Living Through Permaculture 2  Theses classes are repeated each September and January. Sustainable Living 1 is a PRE-REQUISITE for Sustainable Living 2.  Both classes are PRE-REQUISITES for other permaculture courses. They can be found on our classes page, here.

Module 2:  The Designing Bountiful Gardens Through Permaculture This 6-part class series takes place annually on Sundays from October to mid-November. Two field trips to local permaculture farms are included.  No gardening experience is assumed.

Module 3:  Designing Our Green Homes and Communities Through Permaculture This 6-part series is offered 6 Sundays mainly in February and March. No architecture or urban planning experience is assumed.

Module 4:  Restoring Nature Through Permaculture This 4-part series is offered 3 Sundays.  No naturalist training is assumed.

Module 5:  Design Project Tutorial.  You choose a problem you are interested in, get advice from a teacher, and then spend 8-10 hours working on a design for the solution. Then you present your ideas to the class of graduates and teachers, we celebrate, and you get your permaculture designer’s certificate.

Other Permaculture Education

The course certification is by the main continental permaculture professional organization Permaculture Institute of North America.  This is a rapidly growing organization.  http://pina.in .  Beyond the PDC, there are often short courses in permaculture https://www.permaculturedesignmagazine.com/permaculture-courses-pdc-s  and with substantial more work various diplomas https://pina.in/diplomas/

Other Resources

An earlier Houston course outline is here Permaculture Course Curriculum.
You can find some Permaculture Resources here and Permaculture Links here.