Permaculture: systems design for the energy descent future


  • David Holmgren Holmgren Design



Permaculture is a conceptual framework for the redesign of agriculture and human settlement in response to the Limits to Growth (1972) challenges that are now crystallizing around globalised industrial society and culture.


From its conception in Tasmania with Permaculture One (1978) permaculture has grown into a world-wide movement of practitioners, designers, teachers and activists mostly working at the household, small business and community organization level outside of government, corporate or institutional support.


Over more than four decades, permaculture has been a positive agent of influence in more mainstream populist responses to the sustainability crisis and is gradually gaining recognition in academia, as both a significant social movement, and contributor of eco-technical responses in regenerative agriculture, intentional community design, residential retrofit and appropriate technology.


In Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual (1988), Bill Mollison articulated both the ethical foundations and scope of permaculture design as a result of the first decade of teaching and extension of the ideas.


In  Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability (2002), I reframed permaculture design principles as having universal application across all fields of human endeavour in a future of energy descent rather than the default assumption of our global civilization of continuing growth in organizational complexity and power to manage nature. I  dedicated that book to the memory of H.T. Odum’s work as a seminal and continuing influence in my lineage of teaching permaculture ethics and design principles. 


In this keynote, I will outline the diverse influences on, and evolution of, permaculture as a design system, and reflect on how permaculture represents an under-recognised way in which the complexity and abstraction of system science has influenced society in ways which are: bottom up rather than top down, accessible and practical rather than obscure and theoretical, resource frugal rather than resource intensive, conceptually promiscuous rather than supportive of dominant structures and paradigms.

While my portrait of permaculture as a form of activist science is mostly positive, I also acknowledge the hazards of this populist pathway, towards what H.T.  Odum called, the prosperous way down.