Wait… you’re studying what again? (Part 2):
What do you mean by permaculture? 34

Update 6.13.13: If you’re arriving here from Toby’s response to this piece, please check out my reply: The Convenience and Poverty of Simple Definitions.


Deciding that you want to study permaculture is pretty easy. Dangerously easy. Even forgetting our dire need for sustainable design, and considering it just as a straight-up researcher for a minute (taking off my activist-scholar hat), it’s pretty juicey: complex, timely, controversial, and growing fast. And it’s wide open: there is almost, but not quite, zero peer-reviewed research about it. (That’s both an opportunity and a stumbling block, actually, but more on that in another post.)

It’s after that decision  – once you’re walking around with this idea in your head that you want to study permaculture – that the trouble starts. This is especially true for higher education, and especially especially if you want to do research. As I mentioned earlier, permaculture suffers from a mild definitional crisis: what is this thing? Our answers tend to veer toward the abstract and all-encompassing. Look at the suite of definitions over here.

For that matter, look at the definition that I came up with back in 2005 (and which I’ve been gratified to see has caught on pretty well). Permaculture is…

meeting human needs while
increasing ecosystem health.

While there are a lot of things I still like about this definition (and I still use it for some purposes)*, it also has its own special muddiness. It implies that permaculture is a criterion. Huh? So then, every time a human need is met, and an ecosystem gets healthier in the process, permaculture is happening? Even if that’s not what the humans are calling it? Even if it’s by accident?!

 “Well, permaculture is all-encompassing,” you might say, “It includes everything that’s involved in sustainable human settlement – which is everything! So the definitions reflect that.” OK, fair enough. But it doesn’t get us closer to answerable research questions about the viability and impact of permaculture design.

Which is, I suspect, why the little peer-reviewed research that does exist seems to come from education departments. An all-encompassing definition doesn’t get in the way of a paradigm-shifting educational experience – it probably facilitates it. And the outcomes and quality of that experience can be tracked using conventional social research methods. In other words, questions about permaculture as a curriculum, or pedagogy, might be easier to answer than questions about permaculture-as-everything-sustainable-forever.

So let’s get down to the trouble with how we talk about permaculture. Here it is (or here I think it is): there is a lot of unnecessary confusion involved in the term ‘permaculture’ because it’s being used to refer to different things, from sentence to sentence, without much clue for the listener as to what’s happening. Here is my list of those different things: in any given sentence, you might use ‘permaculture’ to refer to an

  1. International social movement (and its regional extensions)

  2. Worldview and theory of human-environment relations

  3. Design framework

  4. Bundle of practices

Each of these levels begs a different set of questions: how big is the movement? What is the substance and origin of the theories about human-environment relations? What happens when the design framework is implemented? What do we know about how the practices perform, er… in practice? Working this out, I developed a conceptual map to help me define and orient my research (because OMG I needed it).

Looking back to the page of definitions I linked to above, you can see that most of the official (!) definitions of permaculture make it out as a mix of worldview (or ‘belief and knowledge’ in my diagram) and design framework. I bet that if you’ve had a decent number of conversations about permaculture, you’ve also heard it used to refer to the movement that carries the worldview, or the practices that are taught along with the design framework.

I don’t need to bet, actually, because as it happens I recently had a chance to ask 698 permaculturists what they thought of each of these possible meanings. I also threw in another one:

5. Profession

…just to see what would happen. I was actually expecting a lot of disagreement on that one.

Here are the percentages of people responding with “Agree” or “Strongly Agree,” to multiple statements starting with “Permaculture is a…”

  1. …framework for design and planning:              99.4%

  2. …philosophy or worldview:                                   95.9%

  3. …social movement                                                      91.6%

  4.  …set of farming and gardening practices:       84%

  5. …profession                                                                   71.4%

Design wins! Wahoo! Followed closely by worldview and movement. I think it’s good to see that practices and profession are the losers, because they are the least distinctive aspects of permaculture. The relative levels of agreement confirmed my hunch, at least tentatively, about what people are using the term to refer to.

My hope, of course, is that this is not just an exercise to bring structure to my research, but that identifying the way we sling this word around will also help permaculturists communicate their goals and proposals with greater clarity. Permaculture is a complex, compound entity, but it doesn’t have to be murky.

What are your experiences with defining permaculture, inside and outside the movement?

Is it as confusing as I’ve made it out to be, or am I overstating my case?

Let me know in the comments.

* That’s the first draft of the definition, that I’m sharing to illustrate a process over time. These days, as you might imagine, I will often specify that definition a bit with reference to design system, movement, etc. – it all depends on the context.