Grow Peace Through Permaculture

This article reprinted in its original form from when it was published in the Eugene Anarchist publication Front Porch News in 2000.

This article reprinted in its original form from when it was published in the Eugene Anarchist publication Front Porch News in 2000. I should probably edit it, but it’s fun to read what my idealistic 28-year old self had to say about permaculture!! To see what I’m up to lately, come to

“I teach self-reliance, the world’s most subversive practice. I teach people how to grow their own food, which is shockingly subversive. Yes, it’s seditious. But it’s peaceful sedition.”

Imagine a world with no war, no crime, no pollution, no terrorism, and no hunger.

Imagine a society where people share skills, land, and lives toward the benefit of all, and for the harm of none. Imagine that everyone you know has job they love, a home and lush organic garden that they are proud of, a community they trust, and bodies that are strong, healthy, and filled with vitality.

Is this vision of global peace and Edenic splendor a childish fantasy, or does it just seem that way in the dirty, dangerous reality we live in?

How can we create a pure, healthy, sustainable life for ourselves and for our society when around every corner there is a new obstacle? Is it possible?

Many people want to change the world, change their lives, and change the future for their children. Most of us have jobs doing things we would not be doing, if it were not for the money. Some of us are lucky enough to make a living at what we love, but still lack the time, energy, or resources to create the ideal world we would prefer to engage in. Countless others lack either jobs or resources, and struggle every day just to survive in impoverished, unhealthy, and/or abusive situations. Despair is an emotion we can all relate to, and disempowerment is the cage we live in.

However, even in these grimmest of times, I believe that peace is possible, and I believe it is intrinsically linked with individual choices, environmental stewardship, and intentional, proactive change.

Ultimately the question we should ask is, “how can we live, together, on this planet, in perpetuity?” Someone once told me that the knowledge of how to thrive on the land is free and available to anyone who would put his or her hands into the soil. This means that we each have within us the natural instincts to thrive as a species, within the life-web on earth. However, in this modern age of fast paced electronic consumerism and dominant global violence, many people have lost touch with their natural instincts. Luckily, there is another option: Permaculture.

Permaculture, the design system developed by Bill Mollison and others in the early 1970’s, is a way for people who have forgotten their instincts to move toward the peace on earth that is our birthright and our destiny. Permaculture combines practical, systematic design, ancient instinctual practices, and good ol’ common sense, toward more sustainable, ecologically thriving human settlements.

What is Peace?

Before we go deeper into how permaculture provides an action plan for peace, we should define peace itself. Lately the people who control the governments and resources of the world are often heard to speak of peace. But which, if any, of their actions are peaceful? The reality is, the United States government has bombed twenty different countries in the last fifty years[ii], so it would seem that peace is not actually their goal. It is all strangely reminiscent of the “newspeak” in George Orwell’s 1984: “War is Peace.” These so-called leaders would have us believe that rampant aggression and environmental devastation will lead us to a peaceful future, but if we step back for a moment, and logically consider the law of cause and effect, it is plain to see that this is just not true.

War is not peace. Oppression of others will not bring freedom to ourselves. They tell us these things again and again, in hopes that we will believe, but I will not believe, and neither should you. Black is not white, and rampant greed, fear, and aggression should not be mistaken for visionary leadership or hope for the future.

It is easy to understand why so many people do not believe that there is a way to live peacefully. Historically, there are few tangible examples of peace. In the words of Harvard Anthropologist Steven Le Blanc, “Anthropologists have looked for peaceful societies much like Diogenes looked for an honest man.[iii]” Without much success. So how do we truly know what it is? The word, peace, comes from the latin root, pacisi, which means “to agree.” Webster’s Dictionary defines peace as follows:

1 A state of tranquility or quiet: as

a freedom from civil disturbance,

b a state of security or order within a community, provided for by law or custom.

2 Freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions.

3 Harmony in personal relations

4 a a state or period of mutual concord between nations

b a pact or agreement to end hostility between those who have been at war or in a state of enmity.

5 Used interjectionally to ask for silence or calm, or as a greeting or farewell.[iv]

While each of us has some experience with short periods of personal or political harmony, it is difficult to attach more than fleeting examples to these definitions. I agree that a peaceful world would be tranquil and free from war and hostility. But what about order? Is peace synonymous with order? I think not. The opposite of peace is war; the opposite of order is chaos. While one would certainly find chaos in war, there are many examples of natural chaos that are not warlike or even necessarily violent. Consider the seemingly chaotic natural array of plants in a jungle, or the clamor of a kindergarten classroom. Chaos and order are natural cycles on the earth; peace and war are choices made by humanity. So let us choose peace, and begin from there.

Further, the dictionary definition says little about the deep personal transformation that peace requires. If we want to live in a peaceful culture, we must be peaceful people. We must create lives and communities that embrace this peaceful ethic. In order to do this, we must be able to meet our own needs without exploiting others. Most wars are the result of a perceived need for more resources; most violence is the result of an individual’s personal despair over their own situation. Beyond meeting basic needs such as food, shelter and health care, what are the other elements of peace? What do we as individuals need to live peacefully, and how does the world need to change in order to embrace a global policy of impervious peace? Because we lack concrete examples, we must create a vision of peace from our own desires and intuition. Let’s go back to the childish fantasy. Security, purity, relaxation, trust, health, sharing, abundance, creativity: These are some of the elements of a peaceful world. Because the prevalent elements in our current society are just the opposite of the above, (danger, pollution, stress, dishonesty, sickness, scarcity, and repression), it is clear that we need to invoke major changes, if we are to achieve peace.

In addition, the rampant environmental devastation caused by overconsumptive, underconcerned international trade practices greatly contributes to the degeneration of our chances for a peaceful future. Often there is a great separation of thinking between political peace studies and environmental issues, but they are undeniably connected: We must conserve and regenerate the natural world if we are to survive, and one of the fastest ways to devastate the natural landscape and wipe out irreplaceable natural resources is through war. In his Permaculture Designer’s Manual, Bill Mollison writes, “the sad reality is that we are in danger of perishing from our own stupidity and lack of personal responsibility to life. If we become extinct because of factors beyond our control, then we can at least die with pride in ourselves, but to create a mess in which we perish by our own inaction makes nonsense of our claim to consciousness and morality.[v]

For millennia, peace has eluded humanity, and perhaps this is because humanity has actually been eluding peace. There always seems to be just one more reason to fight just one more war, just one more evil to overcome, before we can achieve peace at last. Humanity is like a junkie, making excuses for itself, to avoid kicking a very bad habit. In permaculture, we reject these rationalizations, and choose to end the cycle of violence. We reject any and all reasons for war, for pollution, for oppression, and we vow to stop fighting and start the nonviolent creation of the world we want to live in, today.

women in permaculture garden
Image from permaculturewomen

What is Permaculture?

In permaculture, relaxation, tranquility, sharing and abundance are the primary tactics, and meeting our own needs without exploiting others is the primary goal. Gone is the emphasis on brute force, material growth and political power; these things are replaced by thoughtful design, natural wealth and personal growth. In other words, a successful permaculture looks very much indeed like that seemingly unattainable vision of peace on Earth. There are over a hundred small, developing examples all over the world, and these may be the first models of peace that society has seen for a long, long time.

Permaculture is most simply defined as a design system for sustainable living, but it is far beyond that. Permaculture is a personal transformation that results in the creation of safe, beautiful, non-polluting systems that simultaneously provide for our needs and regenerate the natural resources from which we take to survive. This transformation has exponential effects on the land and the people, and has the potential to lead to a global culture of aware, responsible, peaceful communities.

In the late 1970’s, Australian scientist Bill Mollison coined the term permaculture. He said it was a combination of permanent and agriculture, and used the term to describe a set of principles and techniques for the design and implementation of sustainable human settlements. These settlements would include homes, gardens, schools, industry, shared community resources, and be based on a common set of ethics. They would have the ultimate goal of providing for their own needs on a perpetual basis, therefore reducing (or eliminating) both pollution and consumption of natural resources.

Over the next thirty years, and in collaboration with other great minds like David Holmgren and Graham Bell, Mollison wrote several more excellent books, and initiated an exponential learning network of people around the world, learning, teaching, and practicing permaculture. Today, permaculture has come to mean so much more than either “permanent” or “agriculture” ever did. To millions of people across the planet, permaculture is a way of life: A way of thinking and acting toward a more ecological, more sustainable lifestyle for ourselves, and toward a brighter future for everyone.

Permaculture is not just about the elements of a system, it is about the flow between those elements. You can have solar power, an organic garden, an electric car, and a straw bale house and still not live in a permaculture. A project only becomes a permaculture when special attention is paid to the relationships between each element, between the functions of those elements, and between the people who work within the system.

Author Graham Bell defines Permaculture as “a way of arranging your life to be happy and abundant. You can meet your own needs without making anyone else’s life less pleasant. Human habitats can be made highly productive with much less work than is taken to make them destructive under present systems. By making conscious decisions in designing our lives we can manage our resources well, reducing wastage.[vi]

It is extremely important to emphasize that, while permaculture is an excellent word and does refer to a specific set of learned principles and applications, it truly is a culmination of ancient tribal practices and modern critical thought. I’ve often heard permaculture students say, “Well, it’s just common sense! What’s the mystery?” No mystery, just careful planning and a good attitude. Yes, many of the ideas in permaculture are common sense, but they are not common practice. Why not? Perhaps because people do not know where to begin. Permaculture provides the starting point, and continues with a specific checklist of design principles, to help us along when our instincts fail. In short, permaculture is a systematic way to make life easier, more fulfilling, more ecologically sustainable, and ultimately, more peaceful.

Permaculture stems from a triad of ethics: First, care for the Earth, because the Earth sustains our lives. Second, care for the people, because we are people, and because the people are the primary cause of damage to the Earth. Third, reinvest all resources toward the first two ethics, because surplus means pollution and recycling means survival. The overreaching ethical decision is to take responsibility for ourselves and for our children. If you examine your most cherished personal ethics, you may find that they can easily fit into those listed above. If your current ethical standpoint does not embrace these ideals, then permaculture asks you to change. Personal change is a terrifying thing to most people, but if we want to change the world, we may have to change ourselves. Permaculture is not about being perfect, it is about striving for balance. It is easy to get discouraged and become apathetic, but if we are to reduce our impact, improve our health and reverse our ecological situation, then we must make some intrinsic changes in how we live. We might not have to change everything, but if we change nothing, well, nothing changes!

The application of these ethical choices is made easier by the permaculture principles, a checklist of catch-phrases to ensure the intentionality and ecological integrity of a system. In every book or course on permaculture, you will encounter a similar set of principles. Based on scientific research, trial and error, and natural law, these may be anywhere from six to seventeen in number, and tend to overlap into one another. For the purpose of this essay, I will provide a brief interpretation of some of the most popular permaculture principles. As you read them, try to imagine how each can be applied toward the development of a more peaceful, truly sustainable society.

Hammock hanging in permaculture garden

Permaculture Principles

Increase the sum of yields.

This means two things: First, you need to obtain a yield. You should get something from your work. As they say, you cannot work on an empty stomach, and unless your project provides some sort of physical or emotional return, you will likely lose interest rather quickly. This interaction with and enjoyment of the fruits of your labor is essential to keep you motivated, and to validate your work. Second, to increase the sum of yield means to diversify and multiply the types of yields you get. For example, a vegetable garden will most likely provide vegetables, but it could also provide flowers, compost materials, and educational opportunities. Try to get as much as you can from each stage of each element in your project as possible, without degrading the ethics of that project.

Prolonged and Thoughtful Observation is Better Than Protracted and Thoughtless Action.

This is like the old carpenter’s law, “measure twice, cut once.” Take your time making decisions, and always be willing to change. Observation is at the very heart of permaculture, and is the key to finding and cooperating with nature’s patterns and cycles. Every design should be site specific, and should embrace both the strengths and weaknesses of that site. Learn to read the land. Become a good listener. Attune yourself to the cycles of nature. Lay on the ground and look at the world around you. What do you see? How do you want to change it? What is the most effective and most sustainable way to proceed? Take your time, look before you leap, and try to avoid irreparable errors.

Work with Nature, Not Against It

A house built to close to a river will eventually end up in the river. It is easier to build the house further away than to rebuild it later. The power of nature is far greater than the strength of any structure; so why not make it easy on yourself? Natural cycles can be observed, mimicked, and cooperated with, rather than competed with. While we do find many examples of competition in nature, we also find countless displays of nonviolent cooperation. In permaculture we choose to favor cooperation, and try to take care of our needs in a way that makes competition unnecessary. This also refers to working with our own emotional and physical patterns and cycles: We must learn to challenge ourselves while still respecting our personal limits and boundaries. Workaholism is unhealthy, and in a good design, unnecessary.

Like the rest of these principles, working with (and not against) nature encompasses every aspect of our lives. Much of what we do every day is against nature, and changing the dominant paradigm does not happen overnight. However, we can move in leaps and bounds if we make every effort to minimize toxic waste and use appropriate technologies for heat, electricity, and transportation.

Catch and Recycle Energy and Materials

The seven R’s of cycling are: Rethink, Redesign, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Refuse, Recycle. If every element of a system or society was subject to these rigorous processes, we would greatly reduce the waste and consumption that causes such widespread pollution and environmental degradation. Each time a resource is lost, it must be replaced, hopefully by an even more efficiently used and carefully conserved one. In addition, distribution of surplus is an extremely important piece of the puzzle: Unused surplus can become pollution, and by finding uses for our surplus we create more yields for the whole system. As they say, “One persons trash is another’s treasure.” Or “Waste not, want not.” This principle also calls for the recirculation of knowledge: I teach ten people, they each teach ten more, and so on. In this way, we can exponentially share useful skills and information, and incite new projects everywhere we go.

Place elements in a location relative to the needs and functions of that element.

This is as simple as putting a bar of soap next to the handwashing sink, but extends to all aspects of our lives. If you spend an extra fifteen minutes each day going out of your way to look for something, you are wasting almost four days a year that you could use for a vacation or creative project instead. The reality is, most of us waste much more time than that; time that could be easily saved by just moving things around a bit. This principle not only implies “a place for everything and everything in it’s place,” it also requires that each of those places be relevant to the function of what is in it. We should choose the location of each and every object, according to the multiple functions ofthat object. Hence, the keys by the door, the tools by the garden, and the basil next to the garlic, if you’re a pesto lover. These relative locations will have everything to do with the specific and individual needs and routines of the people involved.

Permaculture uses a simple technique called zone and sector analysis to help with the placement of objects in a system. Zones are patterns of human use, numbered zero through six. Zone zero is the designer, one is the home, two the garden, three the field crops, four the orchard, five the wilderness, and six is the community. Some urban systems seem to lack zones three, four, and five, but in a whole system design all zones must be present. Sectors are wild influences such as sun, wind, fire, moisture, and wildlife habitats. Based on the goals of your system, you can predetermine the patterns of use and place elements in the zone and sector that is most appropriate.

Companion plants of lettuce tagettes and herbs

Everything Gardens.

Even the smallest insect has an essential job in the system. All creatures work, all plants have a purpose, and beneath every city there are hundreds of tons of bacteria, working all through the year to create and repair life. If we pay attention to even the tiniest details, they will provide opportunities for exponential improvements. Conversely, if we overlook the negative impact of a particular element, then it may “garden” in a way that inhibits or damages the whole. This is about developing our sensitivity to recognize the function and worth of as many details as possible.

Many hands make light work.

This is a time tested and multifaceted principle, applied in several ways. First and second, make sure that each element performs multiple functions, and that each function is supported by multiple elements. For example, a small pond (element) provides beauty, water storage, and habitat (functions); conversely, all of the above listed functions are also provided for by other elements, such as flowers for beauty, tanks for water storage, and trees for habitat. In other words, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket, and beyond that, don’t use all of your baskets for eggs. This principle includes techniques such as multitasking, plant stacking, and time stacking. If we cover our bases and diversify our resources, we will have a greater chance of establishing a self-perpetuating system.

Next, work with other people. No single human being can create a world of peace. Just like it takes more than one person to move a piano, it takes a community to build a permaculture. Learn to work efficiently with others and the tasks at hand become much less daunting. We will go deeper into how to work well with others in the next chapter.

Make the least change for the greatest effect.

Start small and work outward. It is better to have a small, functional system than a large, dysfunctional one. Localize your needs, simplify your desires, and look for the solution that will require the least amount of energy. Remember, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. If we can carefully think about each small adjustment, and do only the work that is absolutely necessary to improve the integrity of our system, we will have more time to relax, and will be better designers and more functional members of society. Sometimes an aspect of a design needs only a small adjustment to produce a large improvement. If we can train our minds to recognize these subtle opportunities, we will spend less time correcting mistakes and more time in the hammock, enjoying the fruits of our labor.

Embrace diversity.

This extends from working with people of different cultures to placing value on every single weed and insect in the garden. If biodiversity was the number one priority to every human on earth, we would be forced by our own ethics to cease all violence, environmental and otherwise. Humans are just a tiny fraction f a fraction of a percent of the diversity of life forms on Earth, and we would do well to pay better attention to the rest of the “society” we truly live in.

In addition, we must learn to value, rather than exclude, the marginal. At the edge of adjoining systems, you will always find a greater diversity than inside either, which can be used to benefit both. Not only can we use edges conserve diversity, we can also create them, by building curvy borders, establishing microclimates, and introducing new species.

Attitude is everything.

Permaculture is information and imagination intensive. If we are not consistently open to change and new ideas, we will limit ourselves and the success of our work. Mistakes should be seen as tools for learning, and in very problem there are clues for the solution. The only barrier to the realization of our goals is our self-oppression. Of course there are extreme situations which require the help of the community to resolve, (see principle number seven,) but the message here is to keep a good attitude, be open minded, and the solution will come. By remaining flexible and receptive to feedback, we become adaptable, lifelong learners, which ultimately helps to ensure our evolution and survival as a species.

How Permaculture Changes People

The application of these ethics and principles provokes an internal transformation in the people who apply them. Once this transformation begins, there is no limit to the depth of awareness a permaculturist can achieve. It is extremely liberating and empowering to find yourself at the center of an intentional creation. In most of the world, decisions are made based on a perceived need, whether it be economic gain, political strategy, damage control, or otherwise. Most of these decisions and the actions that follow are impulsive reactions rather than conscious choices. In permaculture, every decision is based on careful thought, and every action is a part of a whole system design. When people engage in this type of conscious, holistic activity, they tend to become more aware of the world around them, more likely to take care of their bodies, more mindful of their impact on the environment, better at listening and communicating, and more able to overcome fears and obstacles, more efficiently and with less stress. There are no scientific studies to this effect, but I have met and worked with hundreds of permaculture designers and like minded individuals, and I have seen the same results, again and again: Flowers are not the only thing that blooms in the garden; people do.

Most of all, permaculture teaches people how to teach themselves how to live on the Earth. The systematic approach to design, through working through each principle and applying it to a system, renews our connections to our instincts and enables us to ask the questions that will lead to the solutions we seek.

And once we learn to ask questions- relevant, useful questions, then nothing can stop us from learning what we need to know to become willing participants in a peaceful society. Maddy Harland, editor of Permaculture Magazine, says it well: “Contact with the soil reminds is that we are an integral part of nature, rather than feeling shut out and excluded. The simple acts of growing and eating our own food, recreating habitats in which nature’s diversity thrives, and taking steps to live more simply are practical ways of living which connect us to an awareness of Nature’s seamless whole. Permaculture is a spiritual reconnection as well as an ecological strategy.[vii]” By putting our hands into the soil, we gain access to the knowledge of the ages, and by putting our heads together, we learn how to use that knowledge for the benefit of all.

Woman planing chard into a raised bed

How Permaculture Changes the World

Permaculture changes the world in three primary ways: First, through social empowerment and the development of interactive communities. The more ecologically conscious, self-empowered individuals there are in a society, the more the society as a whole becomes conscious and empowered. Just planting a garden in the front yard can inspire the neighbors and incite exponential action. When we interact in healthy, proactive ways, we develop healthy, proactive communities, without even trying. Then, if we actually try to promote community permaculture and mutual aid, the effects can be astounding.

Next, permaculture changes the world through environmental repair. Permaculture is partially a design process, but it is not truly permaculture until it is put into action. And because so much of a whole system design requires healing and caring for the Earth, the results of permaculture become visible within a very short time. When a community starts practicing permaculture, they improve the soil, purify the water, plant trees, encourage wildlife, and reduce pollution and waste. Permaculture, unlike agriculture, sometimes even organic agriculture, actually gives back more than it takes from the Earth. In this way, every permaculture project increases the overall health of our planet, (just as every box of styrofoam degrades it.)

Another way in which permaculture provokes global change is through exponential education and through changes in the way we raise our children. As we well know, children are the seeds of the future, and a child who grows up in a permaculture will be much more able to embrace true, egalitarian leadership skills such as active listening, and teaching by example. Imagine what the world would be like if every politician had embraced permaculture in their youth. Even more inspiring is the idea of applying permaculture principles to government policy! However unfathomable it may seem, I and many others believe we can make it happen.

Where to Begin

Yes, peace is possible, and permaculture provides a way. Permaculture is an imaginative, peaceful, and realistic option for creating lives that do not require the fossil fuels and other global commodities that cause the worldwide violence and aggression so common today. Permaculture encourages thoughtful observation, active listening, and non-violent interactions with the earth and each other. This way of being is the key to a life of happy abundance and easy self-reliance. However, permaculture should not be seen as another idealogical band-aid to enable us to continue our current unsustainable practices. The harsh reality is, if we continue to overconsume precious resources such as oil and water, and if we continue to disregard the care of the Earth as a primary concern, the road to peace will be blockaded by our own unwillingness to change. Permaculture is not just another gardening technique. It is a way of life. And while permaculture provides an excellent set of tools to design a sustainable society, it must be accompanied by a deep commitment to the long term restructuring of our culture. The garden is an excellent place to start, but our actions must continue beyond our own gardens, beyond our own lives, and into the big picture that is our global community.

So where do we begin? I have heard it said that permaculture begins at your doorstep: Start with your garden and work outward from there. However, I say permaculture begins in your mouth. Eat food that represents the values and ethics of permaculture. Talk with others about these ideas. Examine yourself and your home. Start with opening your mind to the possibility of a peaceful world, and develop a plan of action. Permaculture is half instinct and half process. If you feel you have lost touch with your instinct, then use the process to get started. Walk through your home with the list of principles, looking for ways to apply them. Start with zone zero, yourself, and expand form there.

Just practicing with the principles will help renew your connection with your instincts. To encourage the transformation, consider spending some time engaged in the intentional awakening of those instincts. There are many simple ways to reconnect with nature: Go hiking. Run barefoot in the grass. Go skinny-dipping. Eat raw, organic food. Do yoga. Get dirty. Try to overcome your fear of the wild and the unknown. Be peaceful, in your words and actions, and you will contribute to a peaceful society. The transformation of our current insustainable society into a thriving permaculture paradise will not happen overnight. It may not even happen in our lifetimes. But if we begin now, we greatly increase the chances of success for future generations. So start today, with yourself, and see where tomorrow takes you.

Planting permaculture seeds, image of seeds and seedling


[i] Interview with Scott London for Insight and Outlook Magazine

[ii] Prairie Fire Organizing Committee. 2004. Chicago.

[iii] LeBlanc, Steven A., as quoted in the article Modern Myths Taught as Science, by Kenneth Fuller.

[iv] Collegiate Dictionary. Tenth edition. 1994. Springfield, MA: Merriam Webster, Inc. P. 854

[v] Mollison, Bill. Permaculture, A Designer’s Manual. Section 1.1

[vi] Bell, Graham. The Permaculture Way.

[vii] Harland, Maddy. Creating Permanent Culture. 1999. The Ecologist 29,3. p. 213

Promoting peace through permaculture, one seed at a time.

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