Principles, strategies, elements and why they are a moveable feast

It’s common during permaculture courses for some students to become a bit frustrated with the loose nature of the permaculture model. There are several different sets of principles, hundreds of possible strategies and thousands of tools, techniques and elements. Even the three core ethics are not universally agreed or universally stated. Why can’t permaculture make up its mind!

One of our advanced students recently put together an amazing matrix, linking the elements in the design she was doing for a client with the strategies that we had used for an exercise during the course. She shared the matrix to the learning group’s facebook page with this comment:

I would love feedback here as I struggled with even defining what the permaculture “Strategies” should be. I feel like there should be a defined set – and all designs should aim toward each strategy – almost like the Ethics and Principals. Am I on totally the wrong path?

This prompted me to write the following response, and because I know that this level of frustration is shared by many I thought I’d share it, with minor editing for context:

There are hundreds of strategies and not just the ones that we used during the course exercise. I would definitely include ‘protect, regenerate and restore wild places (zone 5) to the list of top strategies.

There can’t be a defined set because strategies are context dependant. The strategies for social permaculture will not necessarily be the same as the strategies for establishing a home system for example. Even with home systems, the strategies will vary with bioregions.

If it helps, the principles SHOULD be universal. The five in my macro pattern for all of the principles, which you can find here….

….were designed to be universal, but some of the others are definitely very specific to a context and in my view they should really be strategies. As an example, Rowe’s “bring food production back to cities” is clearly a strategy, not a principle, because it cannot be universally applied.

I find it useful to remember that permaculture is relatively young, and a soft system. I think of it as being much like a garden. It was started with some very clear ideas about what the originators were hoping to achieve but has since evolved to be so much more. It will keep evolving. Rowe Morrow resists even offering a clear definition because she believes it means different things to different people and we should all come up with our own definition! I disagree with her and wrote my definition to deliberately establish some clear goals, which were missing from the other commonly used definitions.

Permaculture is an ethically based design pattern for creating and evolving systems that increase biological health while providing for human needs

This looseness and lack of dogma in permaculture does some people’s heads in, but it’s a huge part of the appeal for me. I keep returning to the ethics and asking if I have finally come up with the best pattern for achieving them. So far, everything is still referred to as ‘my current favourite’ because I’m not done yet. I am encouraged by the observation that Bill Mollison kept redesigning the model right up until his death.

It took a long time for me to realise that this freedom to redesign is one of the great strengths of permaculture. It engages people in a way that dogma can’t. It is not received wisdom from on high but a living, breathing system that we get to co-create with others.

I have always admired the Jewish tradition of debating the bible rather than simple accepting it as doctrine. They belief is that the purpose of the Book is to serve as the foundation for engaging with faith and exploring it, rather than relying upon the interpretation of a patriarch, as most versions of the Christian church do.

While permaculture is not a religion it is a pattern that seeks to help us become better humans, and in that context it must always be evolving. There is no end goal to improvement. I like the idea of the permaculture model, as it exists at any point in time, being the basis for further debate and redesign.

In very broad terms, permaculture seeks to provide us with a pattern for evolving, but as evolution requires us to change, so the pattern must shift and adapt. For anyone with a systems thinking background this makes perfect sense. “How might we be better humans?” is what systems thinking refers to as a wicked problem. We can’t see a clear answer from here, and so we need to set some broad parameters and head off in what we hope is the right direction, learning and adjusting as we go.

I hope that my thinking and writing will contribute to the evolution of permaculture. I don’t seek to develop the best version of it, but I do seek to improve it and I encourage everyone to do the same.

You can read more about wicked problems here:

2 thoughts on “Principles, strategies, elements and why they are a moveable feast

  1. What a fab definition, I’ll be using this one in conversation from now on, thank you! I continually get tongue tied when trying to define what I’m studying!


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