Permaculture: glorified hippy commune or an essential step to save our planet?

A nice break from full-on applied research this week. Last Wednesday, Macquarie University’s Sustainability Officer, Belinda Bean (awesome name, amirite?) gave a talk on the ins-and-outs of permaculture, as well as the need to foster links between practitioners and researchers.

But first off, what even is Permaculture?


It is NOT the creation of delicious, addictive tomacco                                                                        Image courtesy of Fox

Permaculture is defined as “the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems that have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems” [1]. It was developed in the late 70s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, and has since evolved to include not just agriculture but other human endeavours such as architecture, animal husbandry and economic and legal systems.

Core to permaculture is its emphasis on design – permaculture is an involved process that takes into account the needs of the community, desired products, local environmental conditions and seasonal changes etc.

The three core ethics of permaculture are: caring for the earth, caring for people and ensuring a fair share. From these, the 12 universal design principles spring. These principles guide practitioners in designing, establishing and maintaining sustainable, productive ecosystems.

The foundational ethics of permaculture (centre), surrounded by its 12 design principles     Image from:

Now if all that sounds distinctly un-sciencey, well, that’s because it is. Permaculture is not a scientific endeavour (although techniques and principles may be informed by scientific research).

And indeed, that is one of the problems with permaculture: a lack of academic rigour.

While it has been embraced by a sizable sector of the community, permaculture remains relatively ignored by the academic world. A large section of Belinda’s talk was focused on the need for research and its integration into permaculture practice. And there are important questions that could be addressed empirically (see end of the blog for my top 5!).

So, why is it important?

In short: because humans have mucked up our planet.

Our greenhouse-gas emitting, deforesting, polluting species has had the most significant impact on the earth of any single species (in fact, our impact has been so large that we’ve triggered a new epoch, the Anthropocene![2]).

Our footprint can be seen across the world, in all ecosystems. From aquifers drying up [3], to topsoil being lost at an alarming rate [4]. We as a species, are guilty of gross overfishing and overexploitation, driving many species to extinction worldwide [5, 6].

So you might ask, how long can we keep going the way we are – especially with the threat of climate change breathing down our necks?

Enter permaculture…

Permaculture, as a movement, is a reaction against the unsustainability of our industrialised society [1].

It isn’t merely a set of instructions to help you grow oranges and squash in your backyard. Rather, it encourages people to connect with nature; to look to it for inspiration in managing agricultural systems in a way that is productive while not being wasteful of resources.

And not only does it have environmental dividends, permaculture also helps create close community ties.

Since 2009, residents of Buderim, a suburb of the Sunshine Coast,  have been growing dozens of species of seasonal fruit, vegies and herbs. The project now encompasses 11 streets and over 200 families, with everyone in the community allowed to gather what they need, when they need it. Last year alone, the community produced 900kg of bananas.

But the best part, according to locals? Meeting other like-minded people.

Sounds great! So why isn’t it everywhere?

In our discussion after her talk, Belinda talked about some of the barriers to adopting permaculture principles in the wider community. These include the reluctance of people to change their habits; the influence of large agricultural  and retail companies; and lack of education about permaculture.


I think it’s naive to think that we will ever get rid of industrialised agriculture. But perhaps it shouldn’t be an either-or proposition anyway: I think the wisest way to go is to combine the technological and scientific know-how from centuries of agriculture with the sustainable, ecological knowledge of permaculture (and other related disciplines).

But that’s another blog, for another day.

Ultimately, if permaculture prompts more people to reconnect with the natural world, that can only be a good thing.



Top 5 permaculture questions to be addressed by research:

  1. Viability of permaculture near Eucalyptus – Eucalypts are known to have impacts on understorey vegetation, soil fertility and animal abundance. Are there species that could cope in those conditions?
  2. Soil biology – what microorganisms are found in different soil types? How do these affect plant growth?
  3. Studies of beneficial insects – what are the most important pollinators for different crop species? And how best to attract/ maintain them?
  4. Animal tractor optimisation – anecdotal evidence that chickens, pigs etc. are effective at maintaining stable/ diverse systems. But more empirical research is needed – eg. under what conditions are they most effective?
  5. Benefits to humans – studies have shown the health benefit of exposure to natural environments [7]. But what about the health benefits of permaculture?


An excellent Nat Geo article on the ‘Future of Food’

MQ Sustainability facebook page

Video of David Holmgren, on Permaculture



  1. Ferguson, R. S., & Lovell, S. T. (2014). Permaculture for agroecology: design, movement, practice, and worldview. A review. Agronomy for Sustainable Development, 34(2), 251-274.
  2. Gillings, M. R., & Hagan-Lawson, E. L. (2014). The cost of living in the Anthropocene. Earth Perspectives, 1(1), 1-11.
  3. Gleeson, T., Wada, Y., Bierkens, M. F., & van Beek, L. P. (2012). Water balance of global aquifers revealed by groundwater footprint. Nature488(7410), 197-200.
  4. Pimentel, D. (2006) Soil Erosion: A Food and Environmental Threat. Environment, Development, and Sustainability  8:119-137.
  5. Jackson, J. B., Kirby, M. X., Berger, W. H., Bjorndal, K. A., Botsford, L. W., Bourque, B. J., … & Hughes, T. P. (2001). Historical overfishing and the recent collapse of coastal ecosystems. science, 293(5530), 629-637.
  6. Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P. R., Barnosky, A. D., García, A., Pringle, R. M., & Palmer, T. M. (2015). Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction. Science Advances, 1(5), e1400253.
  7. Bowler, D. E., Buyung-Ali, L. M., Knight, T. M., & Pullin, A. S. (2010). A systematic review of evidence for the added benefits to health of exposure to natural environments. BMC Public Health, 10, 456-456.

Banner image: a corn crop on ‘Urban Food Street’, Buderim.
Taken from:

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