book builds on the extraordinary success of the permaculture
concept and global permaculture movement (over the
last 25 years), to provide a more cerebral and controversial
contribution to the sustainability debate. David Holmgren
is an ecological pioneer destined to have a major
influence on permaculture's evolution.
the 'Permaculture Principles' that David Holmgren
discusses in this extremely important book were applied
to all that we do, we would be well on the road to
sustainability, and beyond." Professor Stuart
B Hill (Foundation Chair of the Social Ecology University
of Western Sydney)
there ways to live within nature's limits while providing
a secure future for our children and justice for everyone?
We think so. Read this book.
sustainability debate has shown a deep confusion about
the processes and systems which support life and humanity.
The lack of conceptual tools to incorporate previously
ignored environmental "givens" into calculations used
by economists and decisionmakers is painfully obvious.
There are no simple answers to the complex question
of costs, benefits, and sustainability. However, there
is a natural currency we can use to measure our interdependence
on our environment and assist us to make sensible decisions
about current and future action.
currency is energy.
The energy laws governing all natural proceses
are well understood and have not been challenged by any
of the revolutions in scientific thinking during the 20th
century. These laws are called the first and second laws
First Law: the law of conservation
of energy. Energy is neither created or destroyed. The
energy entering the system must be accounted for either
as being stored there or as flowing out.
Second Law: the law of degradation of energy. In all processes
some of the energy loses its ability to do work and is
degraded in quality. The tendency of potential energy
to be used up and degraded is described as entropy, which
is a measure of disorder which always increases in real
laws are taught in every science course, but, in a manner
typical of our fragmented society and culture, are completely
ignored in the way we conduct our economic life and relationship
to the natural world. The laws of thermodynamics are widely
seen as true, but not very useful theoretical ideas. The
second law has always represented a fundamental threat
to the modern notion of progress. More traditional and
tribal views of the world are in keeping with the second
law. For example, the ancient Greek idea of the universe
being used up by the passage of time is very pessimistic
to the modern mind.
Over the last 20 years work by ecologists and some economists
has attempted to apply the energy laws in more practical
ways to understand the global environmental crisis and
develop useful conceptual tools for creating a more viable
and durable basis for human life. The work of ecologist
Howard Odum provided a theoretical framework and conceptual
tool which was critical in the development of the permaculture
concept. In the 1970's there was a flurry of research
in this field but it declined along with oil prices in
the 1980's. Odum was one of the leading ecologists who
developed a systems approach to the study of human/environment
interactions. He uses energy as a currency to compare
and quantify the whole spectrum of natural and man-made
elements and processes.
ecosystem elements and processes in terms of energy
flows, storages. transformations. feedbacks, and sinks.
incorporates non-living and living elements of the
incorporates human systems and economies as an integral
part of the natural world.
Quality And Embodied Energy
The second law of tbermodynamics is based
on the concept of energy quality. Examination of tbe natural
world from stellar processes through to living systems
shows differing forms of energy have varying potential
to do work or drive processes. Since all forms of energy
can be converted into heat, energy can be defined as:a
quantity that flows through all processes, measured by
the amount of heat it becomes (the calorie is the unirtof
measure of heat energy). Dispersed heat is the most dilute
form of energy; it is no longer capable of doing work.
All real processes involve a net degradation in energy
quality. However, a proportion of the total energy flow
can be upgraded into more concentrated forms of energy
capable of driving other processes. This creation of order
produces remarkable results, most notably life, but includes
such non-living phenomena as rare mineral ores and human-created
systerns such as the built environment, culture, and information.
However this order is always at a cost of a net degradation
of energy. The whole evolution of the Gaia (the living
earth) is a small expression of order arising out of the
massive energy degradation of the sun's thermonuclear
There are thermodynamically fixed relationships between
four forms of energy ranging from low- to high-quality.
These and similar relationships between energies of differing
qualities are fundamental to a correct understanding of
the energy basis of nature and human existence. The efficiency
of conversion of sunlight to wood (via the processes of
photosynthesis) is 8:8000 or 0.1 percent. The apparent
inefficiency of this process is due to the very low quality
of dilute sunligbt falling on the earth's surface. However
3,800 million years of evolution have optimized this energy
harvesting process and any technological "improvement"
is highly improbable despite frequent claims to the contrary.
Many kinds of high-quality energy are required for complex
work. We tend to think of the energy requirements of a
process only as fuel, ignoring human work and contribution
of materials. These often involve more energy than the
fuels. In running a motor car, the fuel is about 60% of
the total energy consumed.
Odum goes on to explain... "The energies involved in the
long chain of converging works supporting processes such
as educational activities is very large. The total energy
required for a product is the embodied energy of that
product... The embodied energy of a book is very large
compared with the heat energy that would be obtained if
the book were burned. For clarity in energy accounting,
embodied energy should be expressed as calories of one
type of energy such as solar equivalents or coal equivalents."
Many energy studies done by apparently qualified persons
and taken seriously by policymakers fail to take account
of the simple fact that a calorie of low-quality energy
cannot do the same work as a calorie of high quality energy.
Consequently completely erroneous conclusions are frequently
reached. Such problems have afflicted both high- and low-tech
proposals. Nuclear power may be the greatest exarnple
of an energy "source" which actually uses and/or degrades
more humanly usable energy than it produces. Solar, wind,
and biofuel technologies, while appropriate for the use
of already embodied energies will never sustain high-energy
industrial culture without fossil fuel subsidy.
Computer technologies may similarly be appropriate to
make use of manufacturing and network capacity already
in place but are in reality very energy expensive due
to the very large embodied energy.
Of Odum's Work
Energy Basis for Man and Nature is an accessible
text on Odum's work written for high school and undergraduate
students with only minimal matbs and science. It is a
very important book which should be read and understood
by all permaculturists. Without that understanding it
is very easy to be misled into developing and proposing
systems of land use, technology, and lifestyles which
will consume rather than produce energy storages useful
in providing for current and future human needs.
It provides a way of integrating information about natural
systems from the local and global scale, technology, environmental
impact, and social and economic processes. The energy
accounting and systems diagrams provide a unique tool
for understanding and decisionmaking more in tune with
the rules of the natural world.
Odum's work shows exactly how and why it is impossible
to avoid those rules in any case without the need to resort
to moral injunctions. High-energy industrial society is
revealed as a quite natural response to fossil fuel abundance
but maladapted in every way to a low energy future.
there is a single most important insight for permaculture
from Odum's work it is that solar energy and its derivatives
are our only sustainable source of life. Forestry and
agriculture are the primary (and potentially self-supporting)
systems of solar energy harvesting available. Technological
development will not change this basic fact. It should
be possible to design land use systems which approach
the solar energy harvesting capacities of natural systems
while providing humanity with its needs. This was the
original premise of the permaculture concept. While available
solar energy may represent some sort of ultimate limit
to productivity it is other factors which primarily limit
with the two established laws of thermodynamics, Odum's
work is based on a third principle, the Maximum power
principle, which explains that the system that gets the
most energy and uses it most effectively survives in competition
with other systems.
Odum states, "Those systems that survive in competition
among alternative choices are those that develop more
power (rate of energy flow) inflow and use it to meet
the needs of survival." They do this by--
developing storages of high-quality energy
feeding back work from the storages to increase inflows
recycling materials as needed
organizing control mechanisms that keep the system
adapted and stable
setting up exchanges with other systems to supply
special energy needs, and
contributing useful work to the surrounding environmental
systems that helps maintain favorable conditions,
e.g.. micro-organisms' contribution to global climate
regulation or mountain forests' contribution to rainfall.
Maximum power principle is contentious and has led some
to criticize Odum's work as "biophysical determinism"
with no room for human values. While this systems view
is only one way of understanding the world, the last two
characteristics of successful natural systems allow plenty
of scope for co-operative approaches and higher human
values. The predictive power of Odum's methodology in
assessing the chaotic changes in the world over the last
20 years suggest that it is a very useful way of thinking.
In permaculture we should use these points as a checklist
for sustainable systems.
the permaculture movement, Odum's work has not been widely
recognized (and confused with the work of another American
ecologist, Eugene Odum) even though it confirms permaculture's
concern with sustainable use of natural systems as the
foundation of any permanent culture.
Mollison makes only passing reference to Odum in Permaculture:
A Designers Manual and goes on to suggest "the concept
of entropy does not necessarily apply to living, open
earth systems with which we are involved and in which
we are immersed" This could be wrongly interpreted as
meaning we can design our way out of any problem and that
natural systems can sustain the continuous free lunch
the affluent world is used to.
In the last few hundred years we have dug millions of
years worth of sunlight (fossil fuels) out of the ground
to create global industrial culture and economy. The most
productive sustainable systems imaginable may be able
to provide for the needs of five or even 10 billion people.
However they would never sustain large-scale cities, a
global economy, and Western material affluence even if
all the conventional energy conservation strategies were
to be adopted. This is a bitter pill to swallow for Westerners
raised on the notion of material progress. This does not
mean that the energy conservation strategies promoted
for years by Lovins and other energy optimists, and progressively
being adopted, are not incredibly important In fact they
are essential to make best use of what we have.
The transition from an unsustainable fossil fuel-based
economy back to a solar-based (agriculture and forestry)
economy wilt involve the application of the embodied energy
that we inherit from industrial culture: This embodied
energy is contained within a vast array of things, infrastructure,
cultural processes and ideas, mostly inappropriately configured
for the "solar" economy. It is the task of our age to
take this great wealth, reconfigure and apply it to the
development of sustainable systems.
Mollison almost in passing points to three guidelines
we should observe in this task.
systems we construct should last as long as possible
and take least maintenance.
systems, fueled by the sun should produce not only for
their own needs, but the needs of the people creating
and controlling them. Thus they are sustainable as they
sustain both themselves and those who construct them.
can use non-renewable energy to construct these systems
providing that in their lifetime, they store or conserve
more energy than we use to construct or maintain them.
are very important points, but how should be assess
whether we are following them, particularly the thorny
question of use of non-renewable energies, raw and embodied.
I apply the following perspectives (derived from Odum)
as a primary sustainability test to all land use systems
before considering any more detailed aspects of costs
All terrestrial ecosystems must work to slow the inexorable
effects of gravity in progressively degrading the physical
and chemical energetic potential expressed in uplifted
everything ends up in the oceans until the next uplift
(with the few but important exceptions of onshore winds,
migrating fish, and birds). Water and nutrients are
the key forms of chemical energetic potential while
the landform itself is the key expression of the physical
energy potential. Soil humus and long-lived trees are
the key energy storages which terrestrial ecosystems
use in the never-ending fight with gravity.
basic argument for permanent agriculture: how to feed
and house yourself in any climate with the least use
of land, energy, and repetitive labor. Supersedes
Permaculture One and Two
the system work to catch and store water and nutrients
for as long as possible and as high as possible within
its catchment landscape?
does it compare with the performance of pristine natural
systems as well as wild and naturally regenerated ones
is possible for managed productive landscapes to collect
and store energy more effectively than pristine systems
by the careful use of external, often non-renewable
use of bulldozers to build well-designed dams capable
of lasting hundreds of years in well-managed landscapes
is an excellent example of appropriate use of non-renewable
energies. Even structures and processes which do not meet
this condition (possibly the windmills) can be justified
because they save the use of greater quantity of non-renewable
energies or because they make best use of already embodied
energy in existing plant and equipment. Most of our managed
rural landscapes, especially farms, fail miserably on
the water and nutrients test. Erosion, salinity, acidification,
and stream and groundwater nutrient pollution are some
of the symptoms. In addition, use of non-renewable energy
as an annual rather than development input is generally
very high. (The embodied energy of artificial fertilizers
is extremely high).
the other hand consider the amazing productivity happening
right before our eyes from with unmanaged systems. Many
parts of rural Australia are supporting far more kangaroos
than sheep with less damage to the land. These herds could
provide a huge meat surplus even as they maintain healthy
and wild populations.
Forests are even more efficient at catching and storing
water and nutrients than sustainable pastoral systems.
In the high rainfall areas of coastal Australia regrowth
forests of native and (in some places exotic) species
are developing future timber resources at a greater rate
than all the more deliberate efforts at reforestation
combined. Simple practices of thinning could greatly improve
the future resource value of these forests. Any systems
which call improve soil and water values, and require
little or no fossil fuel energy to develop and maintain,
and provide resource yields largely by the application
of human labor and skill. should be seen as our greatest
systems are dearly massive net losses in terms of energy
and soil and water values. In addition the bulk of the
physical and information outputs of energy transformation
processes in cities s further undermining the social and
ecological basis of any sustainable future (e.g.. advertising
and consumer culture).
On the other hand, consider the vast suburban landscapes.
much has been said about the inappropriateness of existing
suburbs in an energy-conserving future. However, few urban
planners have seriously considered how we might adapt
cities to a low (solar) energy as opposed to simply energy
conserving future. Despite all their disadvantages, the
low-density nature of suburbs makes them incrementally
adaptable to a low-energy future. Passive solar retrofit
of buildings for residential/commercial enterprise is
relatively easy, while intensive garden agriculture and
urban forestry can make use of reticulated, runoff, and
waste water to create our most productive systems.
Limits To Productivity
claims very high productivity from permaculture systems
which are neither labor- nor capital- (energy and materials)
intensive. This productivity can be attributed to the
information intensity of permaculture expressed through
interactive design processes and incorporation of genetic
resources from access the globe. The focus on human and
biological information is in accord with a much wider
mainstream recognition of the increasingly pivotal nature
of information systems (even if the information in this
case takes the form of a bioregional species collection
and a designer/gardener with a basket and secateurs).
Capital inputs to establish sustainable systems may be
confined to a brief intense development phase. Human effort
is required over much longer periods, possibly a lifetime
before it declines (or more correctly evolves) into a
careful and quiet stewardship.
Much has been made by Mollison and others of the low labor
requirements of permaculture. This may be true compared
to the labor required by traditional sustainable systems
(such as those in China) operating near the limits to
human carrying capacity. However, permaculture systems
will never be highly productive on very low levels of
labor input (such as that required to maintain a well-designed
ornamental garden of local native plants). The search
for systems which continually reduce human effort is also
a recipe for human alienation and the technological fix.
Whether the significant gains from the application of
design skills and genetic resources can continue to build
productivity above that made possible by inputs of non-renewable
energies during establishment and the use of appropriate
traditional (agri)cultural skills remains to be seen.
suggests that all information systems have a high embodied
energy cost. We should assume that (at the material
level at least) productivity of sustainable systems
will not be vastly different from traditional examples
from the past This may be a very uncomfortable realization
for all of us raised on the mythology of material progress
and human invincibility.
net energy availability were to increase (through some
optimistic/horrific realization of biotechnological dreams
or some other current technological fantasy) then She
Maximum Power Principle suggests that nothing would stop
humanity transforming itself beyond recognition. This
would be necessary to absorb and use that energy while
pushing back the environmental debt yet again as has been
done on a much smaller scale in previous millennia. In
such a case, permaculture would be buried in the debris
of history, while most existing human culture and values
would be swept aside by an avalanche of change.
On the other hand, if net energy is declining, as more
people have come to realize is the case, then attempts
to maintain materialist culture based on growth economics
are counterproductive, irrespective of any moral judgments.
The permaculture strategy of using existing storages of
energy (materials, technology, and information) to build
cultivated ecosystems which efficiently harvest solar
energy is precisely adaptive.
critical issue of the last 20 years of environmentalism
has been that of net energy availability to humanity.
Permaculture has always been predicated on the assumption
that net energy availability is declining after probably
reaching a peak sometime in the 1960's. Misjudgment of
the timing and precise nature of energy decline by Mollison
and myself along with other environmentalists in the 1970's
can be attributed to the enormous energy already embodied
in industrial systems and culture. This embodied energy
has fueled continuing rapid adaptation by industrial society
to new emerging conditions. The apparent capacity to do
more with less and other consequences of high embodied
energy have lulled most observers into a belief that humanity
is largely independent of energy constraints.
The complexity and severity of environmental and economic
crises make it more imperative than ever before that we
have a common currency for understanding the changes around
us and assessing the available options.
Reuse, Recycle (in that order).
a garden and eat what it produces.
Avoid imported resources where possible.
labor and skill in preference to materials and technology.
build, and purchase for durability and repairability.
resources for their greatest potential use (e.g. electricity
for tools and lighting,
food scraps for animal feed).
renewable resources wherever possible even if local
environmental costs appear higher (e.g. wood rather
than electricity for fuel and timber rather than steel
non-renewable and embodied energies primarily to establish
(e.g. passive solar housing, food gardens, water storage,
using high technology (e.g. computers) avoid using
state of the art equipment.
debt and long-distance commuting.
taxation by earning less.
a home-based lifestyle, be domestically responsible.