I subscribed to this list a month ago to do some research on the
relationship between biodiversity and permaculture. I have finished my
paper (below), and I thought I'd share it with the list as well as my
professor. Thank you to the people who responded to my pleas for help. I
hope this work is helpful to someone, somewhere.
What aspects and values of biodiversity inform the practice of permaculture?
By James Mumm
Permaculture, the contraction of permanent agriculture as well as permanent
culture, is a design system for constructing sustainable human settlements
that focus on the functional connections between species, and between humans
and their environment. In this proposal permaculture principles are shown
to correlate to specific aspects and values of biodiversity. Permaculture
design incorporates utilitarian, intrinsic and cooperative values of
biodiversity. To a permaculturist, indigenous ecosystem integrity and
species richness are secondary to the functional relationships between
species in a consciously designed system. Deliberate attention is paid to
minimizing energy budgets and building small-scale intensive systems because
of their manageability and efficiency. Permaculture designs can be
implemented in virtually any environment, from desert to city, and with
people of limited resources. As such, permaculture offers a cooperative
means of subsistence that integrates humans with their environment to create
a sustainable human and non-human ecology.
What is Permaculture?
Permaculture is tightly linked to the concept of biodiversity. Biodiversity
is a human concept which relates to the assessment of all life on earth.
Although it contains many ambiguities, biodiversity is useful way of
conceiving life on all of its levels -- from genes to biomes. An
explanation of biodiversity requires a thorough examination of the values
and context in which it is applied.
Permaculture also benefits from a holistic explanation. "Permaculture is a
design system for creating sustainable human environments," states Bill
Mollison, who co-founded the permaculture movement in 1974 with David
Holmgren (Mollison and Slay). Permaculture itself is a combination of
permanent and agriculture, as well as permanent and culture. This dual
definition reflects permaculture's emphasis on constructing a diverse and
cooperative environments within the context of sustainable human
settlements. According to the Permaculture International webpage,
permaculture is "the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally
productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of
natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and
people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and
non-material needs in a sustainable way." (Permaculture International)
Mollison deliberately emphasizes permaculture as a philosophy of design. The
key is to use the inherent qualities of plants and animals in combination
with landscapes and structures to create enduring and productive
environments in both urban and rural areas. Deliberate attention is paid to
minimizing energy budgets and small-scale intensive systems because of their
manageability and efficiency. As a cultivated ecology, a well designed
permaculture will produce more food than is found in nature. According to
Mollison, "Although the yield of a monocultural system will probably be
greater for a particular crop than the yield of any one species in a
permaculture system, the sum of yields in a mixed system will be larger."
In most cases more food is grown than can possibly be consumed on the site
by either humans or animals. Over 12,000 people across the world have
competed certified Permaculture Design Courses, and their work can be found
on every continent and in every ecosystem where it is remotely possible to
grow vegetation. Crops include any subsistence or energy product that is
useful for humans or animals. (Mollison and Slay)
Permaculture is predicated on maximizing functional diversity. Every
element of a species assembly should support at least two other elements and
be supported itself by two elements. One interesting example is using flat
slats for the floor of an animal pen to allow manure to fall into a pond
below, providing valuable nutrients to fish and plants. This type of design
teaches that functional interactions are critical in species assemblies and
human habitats. As a design system, permaculture focuses on conserving and
restoring the earth in a way that also allows humans to live in harmony with
Deliberate attention is paid to the minimizing the energy budget of a
design. Energy needs should be provided by the system itself. Constructing
a design that integrates sun, wind, and land resources with species and
habitats results in an energy efficient design. Non-sustainable agriculture
requires an immense amount of non-renewable resources and energy inputs in
the forms of water, fertilizer, and labor. Permaculture strives toward
energy efficient and closed-loop designs. "I'm lazy," quips Mollison in his
video Global Gardener, "that's why we put the garden next to the kitchen. I
can throw my scraps out the window." (Mollison) (Figure 2)
Small-scale intensive systems means that the land will be used efficiently
and carefully managed, producing a wealth of resources. This is not a
return to peasant agriculture and drudgery, rather permaculture designs are
built to require a minimal amount of energy input, as in the animal pen
example above. Labor and other material inputs are reduced as the
functional connections in the system increase. (Figure 3)
The concept of biodiversity is tightly linked to permaculture design through
the conscious attempt to increase functional diversity in species assemblies
and in the emphasis placed on the construction of energy efficient
ecosystems. According to Maddy, a permaculture activist, "Biodiversity is a
key principle in permaculture design and influences all aspects of
permaculture thinking." (Maddy) Such a recognition of biodiversity is
reflected in the intentional design of permaculture sites. Careful
attention is paid to the construction of functionally useful species
Purpose of Study
This paper will explore the aspects and values of biodiversity that inform
permaculture design. Specifically, this paper will examine the aspects of
biodiversity that are valued or disvalued in permaculture. Additionally, I
will investigate permaculture's usefulness for the rapidly escalating human
population in terms of food, energy and other needs.
A literature and resource review produced a limited amount of readily
available materials. "Global Gardener," by Bill Mollison, a four-part,
two-hour video was available at the Harold Washington Library.
"Introduction to Permaculture," by Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay, was
available mail-order through Rodale Press. Subscribing to the Permaculture
Listserv at the University of North Carolina led to a series of contacts who
agreed to answer a basic set of interview questions over the Internet. A
web-search revealed several informative web sites. "Biodiversity," by
Glenn Adelson and Dan L. Perlman provided general information on
biodiversity. Through the resources on both permaculture and biodiversity,
it was possible to correlate the principles of permaculture with the values
My investigation of the philosophy and practices of permaculture design has
revealed that it is predicated on utilitarian, intrinsic and cooperative
values. (Adelson and Perlman)
Permanent agriculture emphasizes functional over numerical diversity of
species. According to Dan Hemenway, "if there are sixty ways in which a
hummingbird functionally interacts with a bottle brush vine, that is more
biodiversity than 50 non-interacting or competitively interacting species in
the same locale. Functional diversity is the number of total connections."
Permaculture systems differ dramatically from other forms of agriculture
because they recognize the intrinsic value of life. The value of species,
in and of themselves, are understood to have an inherent worth. Uniting
utilitarian and intrinsic values is a challenging task which necessitates an
emphasis on cooperative values. Cooperation is valued over competition,
within both species assemblies and human communities, because cooperation
increases functional diversity. In this manner, all three values feed into
and support each other.
Permaculture also addresses the inefficiency of private, profit-driven
agricultural practices and land use. Intrinsic and cooperative values of
biodiversity are at odds with competitive and private uses of land and
Other aspects of biodiversity are not as valued in permaculture design. For
permaculturists, indigenous ecosystem integrity and species richness are
second to the functional relationships between species in a consciously
Permanent agriculture attempts to incorporate native plants and animals in
their designs, but foreign species are eminently acceptable elements of a
species assembly. Permaculturists are not slavish about maintaining
indigenous ecological patterns, using the concept of functional diversity to
guide their hand. (Hemenway) Species assemblies tend to use local plants
and animals, in most cases because such species are maximally adapted to the
local environment. Since permaculture design is a conscious process that
seeks to increase the functional connections in a system, species are often
added to make these connections. But, there is a point at which species
richness becomes a barrier to efficient design. Some species are actively
reduced, such as mosquitos and virulent weeds. Those species that are
considered "weeds," flora that have a competitive interaction with
functionally positive plants, are kept under management through the
strategic use of useful ground cover species, shade trees and grazing by
According to Mollison, permaculture ethics are threefold -- care of the
earth, care of people, and dispersal of surplus time, energy, money and
materials toward these ends. (Mollison and Slay) Such an ethical framework
elevates biodiversity to a conscious element in all aspects of human life.
Seeds of Change, an organization founded by the eco-entrepreneur Kenny
Ausubel, began in the 1980s with a noble goal, to "restore biodiversity and
revolutionize the way we think about food." According to Ausubel's
introduction to the book Seeds of Change, the new company was "value-driven"
and "intent on preserving and spreading a diversity of organic seeds through
the gritty, caring hands of backyard gardeners in living gardens." (Spencer)
Many permaculture sites participate in seed saving networks. They are often
entrusted with caring for live populations of rare plants. Preserving rare
species through their active use follows the utilitarian nature of
In addition to preserving specific species, permaculture seeks to conserve
ecosystems through reducing the need for un-sustainable agricultural
practices. "The main thrust of permaculture is to preserve what little
diversity remains. All the literature aims to reduce our impact and
pressure on existing forests and to re-build habitats to preserve and
support flora and fauna in such a way that human habitation is also
sustainable and peacefully enjoyed," states April Sampson-Kelly. (Sampson-Kelly)
Specific examples of the diversity of environments in which permaculture
designs have been used can be found in Global Gardener where Mollison
showcases permaculture designs in Zimbabwe, Botswana, India, Tanzania,
Australia and the United States. These environments range from tropical
forests to deserts. He demonstrates the adaptability of permaculture
designs to fit the specific needs of human settlements while also addressing
land conservation and rehabilitation issues. (Mollison)
A local example of permaculture design can be found in southwest Wisconsin.
Miekal And, founding member of Dreamtime Village, an intentional community
and permaculture site in West Lima, Wisconsin, explains his concept of
biodiversity, "For our project here, the model of diversity that I am
working with is that a hectare of Brazilian rainforest contains 400 species
of plant life, something we are slowly creating on the grounds of the
school." (And) Incorporating over ten years of design, the Dreamtime site is
reaping the utilitarian aspects of permaculture in a progressively more
productive set of fruit, vegetable and nut gardens.
The challenge of replicating the plant species diversity of a Brazilian
rainforest in southwest Wisconsin requires a thorough understanding of the
possible connections in the natural world. Climate, wind, sunlight, and
landscape play major roles in site selection and construction.
Rehabilitating the soil and flora of a site requires a design that
accelerates succession and evolution. Often the design uses what is already
growing to build up soil fertility. Then plants that will easily survive
are introduced to continue the soil improvement and to provide an immediate
crop. Climax crops, those intended for use in a mature design, are added as
the organic level of the soil is increased. During this process, species
are introduced that are more useful to the design than existing vegetation.
All permaculture designs use a zone system according to a "low maintenance,
high yield" philosophy. Areas that require more intensive maintenance are
located closer together, usually near the major structures (home,
greenhouse, animal pens, aquaculture ponds, etc.). Main crops, herbs and
vegetable gardens are located in this first zone. The second zone tends to
hold intensive fruit and nut systems and more animal pens. The third zone
features food forests and other large scale natural areas designed for human
and animal grazing. The fourth zone contains areas for firewood foraging,
animal grazing, and other low intensity uses.
In keeping with the holistic orientation of permaculture, structures are
built to take advantage of the local ecology. Homes are built to be energy
efficient in both cold and warm periods, wastes are recycled to their
fullest degree, and energy use for farming is intended to be maximally
efficient. All material and energy inputs are viewed as positives that
contribute to the overall design. If an area has high wind speeds, then the
home is designed to channel wind for cooling in warm periods and trees are
planted to redirect winds in cold periods.
Permaculture design is adaptable to virtually any environment and level of
resources, from urban and suburban areas in temperate industrial countries
to the grasslands and deserts of Africa. Permaculture is a philosophy of
design, and as such it can be applied wherever a cooperative approach to
land use and human needs is desired.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Permaculture design offers the growing human population a sustainable means
of meeting the basic human needs of food and shelter. Mollison's inspiring
description of very low income African and Asian communities use of
permaculture to address local food production lends hope to the future of
sustainable human habitation on earth. From the most marginal desert
environments to community gardens in New York City, U.S., permaculture
designs have taken barren soils and turned them into lush gardens.
(Mollison) (Figure 4)
"There is no other path for us than that of cooperative productivity and
community responsibly," Mollison. (Mollison and Slay) Permaculture design
is a growing philosophy that offers a solution to the twin ecological
disasters of competitive economics and monocultural cash crop agriculture
practices. We must move toward cooperative social relations and sustainable
agriculture to avert further destruction of earth's biodiversity.
Adelson, Glenn and D. Perlman, Biodiversity (Malden, Massachusetts:
Blackwell Science, 1997).
And, Miekal (email@example.com). Permaculture Listserv
(firstname.lastname@example.org). May 4, 1998.
Hemenway, Dan (Elfpermacl@aol.com). Permaculture Listserv
(email@example.com). May 4, 1998.
Maddy (firstname.lastname@example.org). Permaculture Listserv
(email@example.com). May 5, 1998.
Mollison, Bill, Global Gardener (Bullfrog Films, 1991).
Mollison, Bill and Reny Mia Slay, Introduction to Permaculture, 5th. ed.
(Tyalgum, Australia: Tagari Publications, 1991).
Permaculture International (www.nor.com.au/environment/perma).
Sampson-Kelly, April (firstname.lastname@example.org). Permaculture Listserv
(email@example.com). May 5, 1998.
Spencer, John (JSPENCER@FCC.GOV). Permaculture Listserv
(firstname.lastname@example.org). May 19, 1998.
To Unsubscribe: Email email@example.com with "unsubscribe sanet-mg".
To Subscribe to Digest: Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the command