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
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
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 of thermodynamics.
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 processes.
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
ecosystem elements and processes in terms of
energy flows, storages. transformations. feedbacks,
incorporates non-living and living elements
of the natural environment.
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
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 process.
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
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
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
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
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
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 and benefits.
All terrestrial ecosystems must work to slow the
inexorable effects of gravity in progressively
degrading the physical and chemical energetic
potential expressed in uplifted catchment landscapes.
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.
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 (weeds included)?
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 energies.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 for construction).
non-renewable and embodied energies primarily
to establish sustainable systems
(e.g. passive solar housing, food gardens, water
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.