An ecological design revolution is here, and I pray it has arrived in time. Ecology can be defined as the totality or pattern of relations between organisms and their environment. If human culture is to sustain itself—and reach toward thriving— we must see our place in the larger pattern. The permaculture design approach considers the interwoven whole of our connections with each other, as well as our broader relationship with the natural world.
Permaculture has many layers. Today, the word is used to describe the design approach, the international social movement and its local applications, the general philosophy and worldview, and the bundle of practices associated with it. Its roots as a theory of permanent agriculture are traced to Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. They developed the concept while studying perennial farming practices modeled on nature’s patterns in Aboriginal settlements, inventing the term “permaculture” in the 1970s. The framework is based on three simple ethics (care for the earth, care for people and share the surplus) and a number of design principles that can guide decision-making by an individual, a community, or a nation. It has grown to incorporate the larger philosophy of a more permanent or enduring broader culture, embracing a systems-based approach to designing beneficial relationships.
Holmgren addresses the paradox of the impermanence within the concept of permanence. Beneath all of the change in nature, there are steady states characterized by cycles: “a contextual and systemic sense of the dynamic balance between stability and change contributes to design that is evolutionary rather than random.” The limits to the toxic track of resource exploitation, production, distribution, consumption and disposal (deftly expressed by The Story of Stuff, directed by my co-author Louis Fox) are now impossible to ignore. We are, as an increasingly global culture, starting to recognize the necessity of a significant shift in order to avoid large-scale environmental and social catastrophe. I believe we need to demand change on a systems level, as well as take action in our own lives to become that change. Based on the observation of nature’s cycles and patterns, permaculture integrates traditional knowledge with appropriate technology. As an essentially indigenous science, it can reconnect native people with priceless ancestral knowledge, as well as giving industrialized societies a framework to meet their needs sustainably through the concept of the commons.
Journalist David Bollier writes that “the commons is at heart an ethic—a way of being human that goes beyond homo economicus, the selfish, rational, utility-maximizing ideal of a human being that economists and politicians say we are. The commons presumes that humans are more complex and that a richer set of human behaviors can be designed into our institutions. The commons asserts that there is an important role for self-organized governance that both challenges and complements formal government.”
This evolutionary and revolutionary change is not an abstract idea; it is happening right now on every continent, in cities, in suburbs, and in isolated villages. I spent the last eight years researching and documenting the permaculture movement around the world, deeply motivated as a new parent to search for signs of solutions to our global crisis. I used my background in anthropology to put together what I see as an ethnography of the diverse international culture of ecological design. The book, Sustainable [R]evolution: Permaculture in Ecovillages, Urban Farms and Communities Worldwide is a catalog of 60 sites and an anthology of articles, and was the work of a small army of about 100 contributors including some of my personal heroes such as Paul Hawken, Dr. Vandana Shiva, Geoff Lawton, Albert Bates, Starhawk, and David Holmgren. It includes projects in climates as diverse as the Dead Sea Valley in Jordan and the Amazon rainforest, in the heart of inner cities as well as in remote corners of Mongolia.
Each site demonstrates sustainable solutions and shows different strengths: Findhorn, an ecovillage in Scotland, claims to have achieved the lowest carbon footprint of any settlement in the industrial world through their use of wind and other alternative energy sources, waste reduction, and efficient buildings. Auroville, a township in India, is demonstrating a number of solar technologies, has reforested the surrounding area, and is innovating in education. In Fuzhou, China, they used Living Machine water filtration technology to restore a polluted river and the surrounding urban neighborhood. These are examples of projects that empower people with techniques that provide lasting sources of food, water and energy, while conserving and restoring ecologies and strengthening communities.
Permaculture as cultural resistance
Permaculture trainings have been held in approximately 100 countries around the world. An innovative program in Israel, called the Bustan Project, brings Arabs, Jews, and Bedouins together for sliding-scale permaculture courses. The course combines teaching practical techniques in natural building, water catchment, and traditional agriculture with peace building.
“It is connected to peace, in that we work the land together instead of fighting about it,” says Petra Feldman, a resident of Hava ve Adam, the permaculture center that hosted the training Louis and I attended in 2008 along with our toddling daughter. At this center, Israeli youth are able to work for a year as an alternative to military service. Petra’s husband Chaim began a collaboration with Palestinian farmers, sharing irrigation techniques, drought-resistant heirloom seeds, and other practices that allow farmers with restricted access to land to grow more intensively in smaller spaces.
“The closest thing in the world to the principles of permaculture I’m learning in this course are the principles of traditional Bedouin culture,” said Haled Eloubra, a Bedouin community leader and green architect attending the training.
Some call this approach permaculture; for many native people, as Nahuat-Mayan activist Guillermo Vasquez told it to me, “it’s a practice, a way of life.” Vasquez founded Indigenous Permaculture, an organization that partnered with residents of Pine Ridge, an Oglala Lakota reservation in South Dakota, to develop Wounjupi Garden, a food security and soil building project. He speaks about the permaculture movement as a form of cultural resistance and a healing process.
The Ka’ala Center has been practicing permaculture since before the term was widely circulated, starting in 1978 as a youth movement for water rights. Located in Wai’anae on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, the area has one of the largest native populations in Hawaii, and was once a thriving, self-sufficient community—the “poi bowl” or breadbasket, of the region. Today it’s nearly impossible to find any food that’s locally grown, and poverty and health problems are rampant. Ka’ala receives 4,000 visitors a year, mostly young people, teaches traditional canoe and home construction skills, and has restored pre-contact taro pondfields. Founder Eric Enos sees this as a revolutionary act essential to the survival of his people, since according to the Kumulipo, or creation chant, taro is the elder brother of the Hawaiian people.
Kina Mahi, an organizer at the center, describes it as a kipuka, a place of regeneration. “When Pele, the goddess of the volcano, unleashes, she goes down the mountain with her lava trails and everything in her way is destroyed,” Mahi says. “The fingers of lava often go around little spots of green, and they remain. That’s what a kipuka is. A couple of years ago, our state legislature actually passed a resolution, where they coined the term ‘cultural kipuka.’ Our people and culture have been bulldozed by a lot of different things. The disconnection of people from land has been the destructive course followed. But we have pockets of hope and regeneration like this; we’ve got our people. So our vision is that someday there will be a kipuka in every community.”
The vision of a kipuka in every community is exciting not only from the perspective of indigenous empowerment, but as a means to connect non-native populations to indigenous wisdom. “Everybody can trace themselves to an indigenous culture; everywhere you live there is an indigenous culture that can guide you,” Mahi says.
“I think that permaculture is carried inside the body,” Vasquez says. “We are all born with this knowledge.”
Permaculture’s focus on symbiotic relationships is connected to the concept of ayni, a Quechua and Aymara word for sacred reciprocity and a code of conduct shared by many traditional cultures. Ayni is an agreement emerging out of a universal perspective, where importance is placed on a relational flow of energy for a balanced exchange between self and other. If the permaculture movement can successfully integrate this ethic and spread in a way that truly benefits both traditional and modern cultures, perhaps this exchange— this sacred reciprocity—has the power to help guide the future of the planet.
A fractal is a geometric pattern, often found in nature, that is repeated at ever smaller scales to produce irregular shapes and structures. That is, if you were to zoom in on a part of the fractal, you would see the same pattern as the whole repeated to infinity.
Each ecovillage or urban food forest depicts what permaculturists call a “node,” or center of human activity. Each node can be seen as an information fractal, featuring patterns that encode a great deal of knowledge and observation. Like the fractal structures that form the blueprints of our universe, the emerging whole may be made up of a pattern that is repeated ad infinitum, at every scale, each slightly unique and locally adapted. Permaculturists focus on fractal patterns because their distinctive structures allow a deep interlock between systems, increasing the “edge effect.”
The edge, where two elements meet, is key to regenerative design because of the expanded possibility for cycling of materials and information, allowing for more synergy. With synergy, mutually beneficial relationships between elements of a system create a result greater than the sum of their individual effects.
Regenerative design strategies are being developed at the edge, but they must move from the margins to the center and become the mainstream approach to community development—for the sake of those to come. Our daughters were born in 2006 and 2009, in a generation yet to be labeled. For them, Louis and I continue to dream that change will come through a global design re-evolution, not a bloody revolution. The growing permaculture movement offers a vision of healing and renewal for the Earth and her seven—soon to be nine—billion people.
 David Holmgren, “The Essence of Permaculture,” electronic edition (Hepburn Spring, Australia: Melliodora 2013). 6-7 www.holmgren.com.au
 The Story of Stuff movie http://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-stuff/
Juliana Birnbaum is the author of Sustainable [R]evolution: Permaculture in Ecovillages, Urban Farms and Communities Worldwide, published in 2014 after eight years of research. Trained as a cultural anthropologist and skilled in four languages, she has lived and worked in the U.S., Europe, Japan, Nepal, Costa Rica and Brazil. In 2005 she founded Voices in Solidarity, an initiative that partnered with Ashaninka indigenous tribal leaders from the Brazilian Amazon to support the development of the a community-led environmental educational center. She has written about ecovillages, native rights and social justice issues in a variety of newspapers, indigenous journals, blogs and anthologies including YES magazine, Zester Daily, E-The Environmental Magazine, Bridges Journal, El Reportero, The Rising Nepal, World Rainforest Movement Bulletin, Quechua Network, and Cultural Survival Quarterly. Most recently, Juliana co-founded The Western Gate, a non-profit community teahouse, classroom and library near her home in West Marin, California, that is an outreach project of the international Permaculture Research Institute.