In this article I am going to share with you insight into what Permaculture means, and how as a design science, it is powerfully exciting and of tremendous value for you.

To do this, I am going to break this down into two sections. In the first section I will give you the hard “deets” – the history, some definitions… the intellectual meaty stuff. In the second section, I am going to shift my style of writing and immerse you giving you an enticing view of what it means to become and be a Permaculture designer. 

(Skip if you know it already or find history boring)

Permaculture began in the 1970s with a man named Bill Mollison. At the time it was a contraction of the words “Permanence” + “Agriculture” and as a design science it offered solutions to combat the growing environmental degradation caused by modern agriculture. As a field of science it honoured how indigenous people had grown food around the world for millennia, and did so through the lens of a growing body of modern science that recognized the importance humans working with soil cycles, water cycles, and biological cycles. This early stage of Permaculture was documented in the books Permaculture 1 and Permaculture 2. 

The movement had leaps. One was when Bill Mollison and David Holmgren refined and expanded upon what Permaculture was and together co-founded “The Permaculture Design Manual”, the standard text used for training Permaculture designers to this day. This was pivoting point in the history of Permaculture because the design manual took “Permaculture” in definition and scope to the next level… “Permaculture” now became a contraction of “Permanence” + “Culture”. Turns out this science of harmonious design, of working with nature, and creating efficient and resilient systems was fantastic for food systems but it was equally applicable for designing shelter, business, and community systems. 

Permacultures history since has been a quiet revolution. The basic training to become certified a Permaculture Designer is only 72 hours long and has spread to be offered by community members and professional teachers alike in almost every country on the planet. Cuba heavily utilized it to weather their embargo, China is employing it to heal areas the size of Belgium allowing local farmers to double and triple their income, and the United States of America… funded a University Garden for the University of Massachusetts. Go USA. 

Individuals who take a Permaculture Design course receive a fundamental shift in their worldview… this sounds lackluster, but its importance and and value is nearly impossible to communicate. Einstein said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

This shift in worldview is also fascinatingly exciting, kind of like putting up 3D glasses for the first time. You will see what I mean in Section 2… (oooo, foreshadowing!)

Individuals who become Permaculture Designers begin to interact with their world with insight and wisdom. This includes, but is not excluded to:

  • Engaging their land bases from hobby gardening, to acreage landscaping, to broad acre farming and reclamation projects. 
  • Improving house operations and augmenting their utility systems – could be adding solar power, building a cob oven, installing rainwater harvesting or composting systems. Could be building a tiny house, earthship, or strawbale house. 
  • Switching careers and/or exploring side businesses which not only provide them income but also are an asset to their physical and social community. Often these involve re-skilling in life skills such as growing and processing food, secondary trades turning raw materials into finished products of beauty and function, and people care trades

I will end this intellectual meaty section with 3 definitions that will bring this all together:

  1. Permaculture is the conscious and holistic design of people and landscapes. It is the integration of many disciplines to create meaningful solutions for a permanent culture. ~Unknown
  2. Permaculture is a branch of ecological design, ecological engineering, environmental design, construction and integrated water resources management that develops sustainable architecture, regenerative and self-maintained habitat and agricultural systems modeled from natural ecosystems. ~Toby Hemenway
  3. Permaculture is a design science, inspired by nature, and guided by ethics, for meeting the needs of humanity to the benefit of the environment. ~Kenton Zerbin



Feeding your brain info is a superficial way of learning and knowing. As they say, you learn by doing – through experience. You are sitting there though, reading bits of white and black on your phone or computer screen… how do I convey a deeper understanding for you using words?

Well that’s where a shift in writing style is now needed. Words hold tremendous power to evoke your imagination, and through imagination I can give you a peek how Permaculture can change your brain. I am going to have you imagine that Permaculture Design is like those 3D glasses I referenced early. I am going to share my designer glasses with you and give you a simulated experience. 

First, imagine putting on these designer glasses. Push those glasses up your nose nerd-style. As you do, suddenly your world comes into a new clarity. You see every THING, living and non-living, brimming with multifaceted potential. Everything has purposes clear to you, has strengths and weaknesses, has untapped possibilities which can benefit you…

Second, your brain is now going to switch out of a mode of passively watching. Your brain is waking up with everything you are seeing, and it’s getting excited by all the potential that is waiting at your finger tips. You enter a mode of creativity, inspired to instigate, tinker, and optimize.

From this perspective, you are a child again with your rubber boots on, changing how water flows. You are an engineer without boundaries. You are fingers ready to place the last domino and then push the first domino over.

Specifically, the glasses reveal a floating list beside every THING in your physical world. This list tells you what that thing NEEDS and what it can do (YIELDS). This is the beginning of Permaculture design thinking.

This brings us to a universal truth – that everything is connected and CAN be connected. You, as a designer and instigator, can make connections to assist whatever ends you want and need. Here is where design gets exciting. With these glasses on, EVERYTHING is a domino, and you are the finger, ready to instigate.

But forget dominoes! Let’s look at this applied out your back door:

  • A compost pile YIELDS heat, and this can be used to heat a structure, a chicken coop, or even make a hot bath in winter.
  • A concrete path YIELDS water that can be collected and put to trees that NEED it. That same path holds the day’s warm temperatures and YIELDS additional protection to adjacent plants from frost.
  • An edible tree placed on the south side of your house YIELDS shade for your home in summer, lowering your cooling bills and providing food, and the house can YIELD greywater and kitchen nutrients to feed that same tree. 

The power of functional interconnection is limitless. With intelligent placement, we can do every task “better”, meet our needs and wants efficiently, and with competence and confidence we can design ourselves back into our physical environment.

I told you at the beginning of this article that I’d give you insight into how Permaculture design works, and how it can be powerfully exciting and of tremendous value for you. I hope I have accomplished this task, and now you see and appreciate this potential for us to simultaneously take control over our life and can find harmony working with everything around us. 

Now give me back my glasses!

If you want to change your brain, to go through this fundamental shift in worldview, I invite you to join me for a Permaculture Design Course (PDC). I teach a 2 week intensive PDC every year. I also know that many people can’t take a 2 week course so I also teach a PDC every year through weekend workshops, here is the selection:

  1. Learn How To Design & Build A Tiny House Workshop – the title says it all 🙂
  2. Sustainable Homes 101 – For teaching all you non-tiny house people how to turn your house kick ass. 
  3. Thee Edible Landscaping Workshops – Design & Plan, Build & Install, Plant & Grow

Want to read more articles like this & be notified about future course options? I send a newsletter out twice a month. Subscribe here. 

Happy designing!

Kenton Zerbin

(Kenton is a passionate educator for sustainable living. He runs a wide array of workshops to help others – wherever they are at – so they can create awesome and sustainable homes, landscapes, and communities.)




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