What, Exactly, Is Permaculture?

Permaculture "is not actually an agrarian pursuit but a design philosophy evaluating energy coming in and energy going out." Credit: Getty Images

Permaculture: You might have heard the word tossed about by your commune-living nephew who works on a farm, or in the pages of your Modern Farmer subscription. But what the hell does it mean? To help us unpack the resurgent philosophy, we called up Stephen Brooks, the founder and director of the Punta Mona Center for Sustainable Living and Education, the place to learn about permaculture-inspired communities and systems. 

Can you help us to define permaculture?

Permaculture is a design philosophy that focuses on designing human systems based on natural ecosystems. It is based on the notion that we often take for granted where our food comes from, along with our water sources and building materials. Primarily, it is about whole-system thinking and transforming us from being dependent consumers to becoming responsible producers. Permaculture really boils down to meeting our goals while using less energy. On a macro level, we pretty much all have the same goals. We want to play more than we work, eat well, feel safe, and be loved. We constantly strive for a high quality of life. When permaculturists say “use less energy,” they are referring to our individual physical, mental, and financial energy while constantly being conscious of how much of the planet’s resources we take to meet our goals. Through these fundamental ideas, permaculture becomes a whole new lens that we begin to see the world through. 

What sets permaculture apart from gardening or sustainable farming?

I would say what truly sets it apart is that it's not actually an agrarian pursuit but a design philosophy evaluating energy coming in and energy going out. Food is one of the most important things we take in every day, and how we can grow and create food that is not only healthy for us but also healthy for the planet as well is a huge opportunity to use permaculture. But any design that succeeds by mimicking the way natural systems work with nature rather than against it are part of permaculture.

How does this work in community development?

Permaculture philosophy is integral to community design as it is the perfect approach to pretty much creating anything. As one reads through the principals, it is easy to see how each one can be applied to macro design of human settlements. It is this approach that will help to actually design the world of which so many people are dreaming.

What does the future of permaculture look like?

I think permaculture is the key to begin bringing fairness back into the socioeconomic design of society while regenerating ecosystems, cultural integrity, and improving the quality of life of anyone who applies the permaculture philosophy to their life. As we constantly push the plus and minus sign on the Google map of our lives, we become the true intentional designers of the way things are! 

Are there any good resources available for people looking to find out more about permaculture?

My highest recommendation is for everyone to go out and take a permaculture design course. You will learn design techniques in relation to water, food production, home design, and more while living in a true community. This gives people the opportunity to learn about permaculture while truly living the lifestyle. There are farms all over the world teaching PDCs including my farm in Punta Mona in Costa Rica. There are also some great books out there including Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway, Permaculture: A Designers Manual by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, and Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren.