What Is Permaculture, Anyway? | Omega

The design principles embodied in permaculture are a key part of the Omega Center for Sustainable Living. But what exactly is permaculture? If you’ve been wondering, here’s a concise overview.

As a term "permaculture" was coined in the late 1970s by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, originally as a combination of the words "permanent" and "agriculture." The meaning has since expanded to encompass more conceptually, incorporating social aspects of sustainability, so that today permaculture is generally accepted to be the melding of "permanent" and "culture." 

Permanent doesn’t mean unchanging or static, rather it means permanent in the sense of those principles and natural patterns that are resilient, persevering over time.

Omega faculty member Eric Toensmeier says the central message of permaculture is that it’s “not just about minimizing our impact, but actively having a positive impact on the planet, through our food production. This is the regenerative aspect of permaculture, that makes it so inspiring and so interesting.”

Ethan RolandEcological Literacy Immersion Program (ELIP) lead faculty from 2014, explains permaculture “brings together all of the different disciplines of sustainability. From organic agriculture to renewable energy, from edible landscaping to natural building, from green architecture to appropriate technology, and more. It is a whole-systems approach to designing sustainable homes, businesses, and communities. In our quickly-shifting world of climate change, resource depletion, financial instability, and global conflict, permaculture offers practical pathways to survive and thrive.”

Bill Mollison himself says permaculture is, most simply, “a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.” 

Penny Livingston-Stark, who spoke at Omega’s annual sustainability conference in 2010, takes this one step further to point out that we are not separate from nature. She states simply, “We are nature, working.”

At the broadest level permaculture is rooted in three ethical principles—earth care, people care, and fair share. This means:

  • The planet is recognized to be a living, breathing entity, with all life forms having intrinsic worth, even if we as humans don’t immediately recognize this
  • In meeting our human needs in the simplest, most compassionate way possible, working together collaboratively, the environment around us will prosper
  • We must recognize that there are limits to what we take from the planet, as well as the necessity of sharing whatever bounty we have with others 

As another permaculture teacher, Andrew Faust, describes it, “Permaculture isn’t so much a thing, but a way of thinking. Permaculture is a design process; it’s a set of ideas; it’s a body of literature. It’s a movement. It’s a network of people.” 


These overarching ethical principles have been broken down into 12 design principles (the descriptions of which below are drawn from Permaculture Principles, a website developed in cooperation with David Holmgren). They attempt to answer the question of, in David Holmgren’s words, “How do we create the world we want?” 

Holmgren says, “When you start thinking about [these] issues, most people think about how we change public policies—how you get the levers of power pulled in a different way, so all the big structures in society get changed. “That’s an old way of changing the world. The new way—that’s now well-proven, but still a lot of the politicos, the people who think about how to change the world haven’t caught on—is that by changing yourself and what you do yourself, it is actually not a little stepping stone toward contributing to a larger change, it’s, arguably, the most powerful thing you can do.”

  1. Observe and interact

    “By taking the time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.”

  2. Catch and store energy

    “By developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need.” 

  3. Obtain a yield

    “Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work you are doing.”

  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

    “We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems continue to function well.”

  5. Use and value renewable resources and services

    “Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumption and dependence on nonrenewable resources.”

  6. Produce no waste

    “By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.” 

  7. Design from patterns to details

    “By stepping back we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.”

  8. Integrate rather than segregate

    “By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between them and they support each other.”

  9. Use small and slow systems

    “Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources, and producing more sustainable outcomes.”

  10. Use and value diversity

    “Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.”

  11. Use the edges and value the marginal

    “The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse, and productive elements in the system.”

  12. Creatively use and respond to change

    “We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.” 

© 2014 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies