Permaculture Principles and Your Life

Photo: Eduard

Permaculture is one of those topics I’ve admired from afar but felt intimidated by. I didn’t know if it would relate to my life since I’m not a proficient gardener. Though I have managed to feed some tenacious squirrels who liked to steal my tomatoes, I rarely manage to do much more than that when I plant stuff on my back porch.

A friend of mine mentioned a couple of months ago that she uses the twelve permaculture principles as a way to think about organizing her life. What appealed to me about these concepts is that they take seriously the fact that we are embedded in an ecosystem. In order to make changes in our lives, we need to think carefully, be compassionate and make changes with intention. The idea of using these to think about my life and how I live it got me really curious.

What could permaculture teach me about how I live my life?

Photo: Permaculture Principles

The idea stuck with me. I might not be a very successful gardener, but I do like thinking in ecological ways. I don’t mean being a self-important Prius driver or an overbearing recycling enthusiast. I just like being in nature. I like trees, ferns, rivers, ocean and mountains. Metaphors from nature are powerful for me. When I think about the complexities of my life as an ecosystem, or a garden or a forest I gain so much more than if I think of lists of tasks, priorities or goals.

Photo: John

While I do have goals, some of them are kind of… mushy. Sure, I’d like to accomplish things. But I’d also really like to feel more connected to the people I love, to build a sense of peace and calm into my life and to be more responsive to the challenges that life brings.

In truth, I’m also wary of productivity as it is used in the modern world. I am unsure that being productive at doing things is always the best way to live. I really appreciate reading about folks who do year end reflections, or annual reviews but I wanted to do it a bit differently, where I think about myself in relationship to the world around me.

Since my friend mentioned the idea, I’ve pestered her a few times to learn more about how these principles can relate to our daily lives and she usually points me back to the principles themselves and suggests I walk through each one considering what questions emerge for my life.

I found the exercise quite meaningful and thought I’d share. Perhaps you might find some of these concepts and questions useful in your life as well.

Photo: Boris

1) Observe and Interact

Consider what you see in the environment around you.

To me this is about really investigating and opening to our capacity to observe the world around us and to pay attention to what is true with compassion, honesty and as much clarity as we can muster.

I really dig this idea as a social scientist and ethnographer. How can we watch what we do, have and how we interact with compassion? We’re not judging these things, we’re just seeing what actually happens.

  • What systems are really working for me right now? What systems are not working well?
  • What do I do without thinking about it? What do I do that seems difficult or challenging?
  • What do I do that has a lot of emotions around it?
  • Where do things pile up in my space? Where do things stay clean?
  • When do I feel emotions that I don’t enjoy? When do I feel enjoyable emotions in my life? What time of day? What is happening when I feel those things?
  • Thinking about the problems or challenges I have right now, what specific issues are they causing me in my day to day life? How are these problems or challenges disrupting the systems I have created?

2) Catch and Store Energy

This permaculture principle is about harvesting food and energy sources when they are in abundance so that you can use them in times of need. In ecological terms, that typically refers to things like renewable energy systems (solar, wind, geothermal) or abundance in terms of saving crops or working with the sun.

For our personal daily lives however, this principle asks us to consider our own personal energy and how we are able to align that vitality and aliveness with the things we want to do in the world. What kinds of things renew us? What kind of energy can we store and use later on?

  • What time of day do I feel most alive? What am I typically doing during those times?
  • What activities and situations are energizing to me? Does being social energize me? Animals? Nature? Puzzles/Problem solving? Playing? Creating?
  • When have I felt calm, centered and awake in my life? What was happening that I felt that way?
  • When have I felt stressed, challenged and tired? What was happening that I felt that way?
  • What type of food nourishes and energizes me?
  • What type of people nourish and energizes me?

3) Obtain a Yield

This principle suggests that what we grow and cultivate in our lives should offer us a yield or a benefit in return. I’ve heard for instance that some people who are devoted to permaculture will only grow things in their gardens that have multiple uses. For instance bamboo would have a variety of yields: it creates shade, it’s a privacy fence, it stops water from flowing down a hill and it can be used to make things.

I find it compelling to think about what my work, time and energy has yielded. We may go to work so that we can get paid, but we may yield more than just money from that work. Perhaps we also get a sense of purpose, a community of like-minded individuals, a sense of well being and accomplishment. You might trade those things for less yields in other parts of your life such as free time or the capacity to travel. The question is, are the yields you receive the yield you want? Is it enough for you?

  • What is it that I have an easy time yielding? What is easy to create? What do I have a LOT of?
  • Of the things that I have a lot of, which of those things am I glad I have an abundance of?
  • Of the things that I have a lot of, what would I prefer to have less of?
  • What is it that I struggle to yield? What is more challenging for me to cultivate? What do I not have enough of?
  • What do I not cultivate that I’m glad to keep out of my life?
Photo: Brad

4) Self Regulate

The idea for this principle is to consider and be open to accepting feedback. Our natural world has many feedback mechanisms built into it, and we are seeing that right now in global challenges like climate change.

This principle urges us to consider how to evaluate and to respond to the feedback we get so that we are not stuck continuing to do things without evaluating how beneficial they are for ourselves and for others in our lives.

  • Where are the formal feedback loops in my life? Do I get grades? Progress reports? Temperature readings? Scales? Lab Tests? Blood Tests? Deadlines? Performance Metrics? Evaluations? Comments? What impact do these have on me? How do I respond to them?
  • What kinds of informal feedback loops do I have in my life? How do people respond to me socially? What do people say when they talk about me or my work? What feedback do they give me?
  • What is my typical response to feedback? Do I ignore it? Take it seriously? Does it depend on who or how I get that feedback? When do I respond and when do I not respond?
  • What activities occur in my life that I respond to without thinking? Am I responsive to the weather? The news? My partner’s mood? The dog’s appetite? The day of the week? The terrain of my backyard?

5) Use and Value Renewables

Reducing Dependence on Scarce Resources

Of course this principle focuses on fossil fuels and discourages our dependence on non renewable resources, but I’ve really enjoyed thinking about this in terms of renewability of what is available in my life. While I know that I could do something like running a marathon, that task would not be renewable for me. I’d be in a lot of pain afterwards. It would take me a lot more resources to run a marathon than someone who loves running and has learned how to run long distances.

When we consider ourselves as resources it’s fascinating to think about what we have and do that is renewable for us — just because we went to sleep and woke back up again the next day. I began to see that while I’m not a runner, I have a lot of skills as someone who likes to DIY things. This kind of creativity had never occurred to me as a renewable resource, but I certainly can make things that will solve problems more easily than others who. Other renewables in my life: I have access to quite a lot of rain in the Pacific Northwest, where I live. There’s also a lot of quiet and solitude in my life.

  • What skills do I have in abundance? What am I already good at
  • In what parts of my life are my passion and enthusiasm abundant?
  • What physical and materials items are easy for me to get?
  • What emotional or spiritual gifts are renewable for me?
  • What in the natural world is abundant where I live? Is this resource renewable?

6) Produce No Waste

I like to think of a “closed loop” system as like a dome on Mars or something. Everything has to stay in the dome, which means that waste has to be dealt with. Waste has to offer something to the rest of the system otherwise we’ll have a dome overflowing with stuff we don’t want. This principle suggests that what we “waste” has to offer something so that it becomes not waste anymore but something to value. Manure for instance is a remarkable fertilizer and serves a purpose in a garden. We wouldn’t call that waste even though it is excrement.

This principle seeks to question our modern concept of waste and to suggest that we see all that we create and produce as useful. When we look at our lives and what we spend our time, resources and energy doing things, where are we creating waste?

  • Where do I waste time? Where do I waste energy or effort? Where do I waste money?
  • What makes these actions wasteful? Am I sure its wasteful and not yielding something I don’t like?
  • What piles up in my life? What do I lose? What do I forget?
  • What in my life could be maintained and cared for with a bit more attention? What would it look like to care for what I already have?

7) Design from Pattern to Detail

Use Natural Patterns and Apply them to Design

This principle asks us to use nature as our teacher and to consider the patterns we see repeated in natural systems as ways to rethink the life we lead. This might lead us to consider how can we learn from the patterns in nature and apply them to the problems we face.

  • What metaphors and processes in the natural world are really interesting to me? Do I feel drawn to an action a certain animal makes? The way that a tree interacts in the woods? A flower, shrub or herb? What is it about these natural elements that appeal to me? What does it teach me?
  • Does nature deal with some version of a problem or a challenge I face? If so, how does the natural world respond?
  • Consider the four elements — earth, water, wind and fire. Which of these is most resonant in my life right now? What might that element teach me?
Photo: Michael

8) Integrate Rather than Segregate

Capitalize on the way that things work together

We’re social creatures and we exist in a system. This principle asks us to investigate how we might find efficiencies within the systems we create by looking at the relationships we are in and the connections we could build.

Instead of looking at an individual plant, we’d look at that plant in relationship to the other plants around it and how they work best together. We exist in community with one another and with our society. How might understand our relationships among one another? How might we create ways forward that are mutually beneficial and greater than the sum of our parts?

  • Where can I offer the excesses and abundance I have to those who need it? Where can others offer me their excess and abundance where I need it?
  • What collaborations am I called to create or be a part of?
  • Are there other people or organizations that could benefit from a relationship with me as I do what I most need to do in the world?
  • Who or what else is doing something that is similar to the things I do? Who else has the same problems I do?

9) Use Small and Slow Solutions

Use local resources and create sustainable options.

A teacher I had used to talk about how we might consider small incremental changes in our life by thinking about how we’d scream and yell if we were asked to pay 2% more taxes each year. We’d see that as “way too much” and yet we think that it’s not much change at all if we manage to be 2% more compassionate, or 2% more thoughtful about money.

Instead of rushing to create lots of change, this principle asks us to consider what small shifts will create a better life for ourselves. How can we find the smallest possible solution to create change? How can we take small, sustainable shifts towards the things that matter most to us?

I really love this principle but be aware that it’s quite counter to our culture which celebrates big sweeping changes (lost 100 pounds, 50% increase in fourth quarter profits). Small changes are so much easier to sustain than the big sweeping changes. We’re able to build them into our lives and they actually last.

  • What small tweaks would help? Where can I do something minor such as moving a piece of furniture, or adjusting where a tool is stored, or walking somewhere that would create an impact?
  • Where would a slow change be easier to accept than a fast one?
  • Where would patient attention be beneficial in my life?
  • What would I like 2% more of in my life?
Photo: Luca

10) Use and Value Diversity

Diversity in an ecosystem is vital to ensuring that the system survives even if one crop is blighted or a natural event takes out a part of the system. For our lives, we may wish to spend some time considering where we are spending time doing the same things over and over again, where are we talking to the same kinds of people, or staying within one certain mindset? What can we do to value diverse perspectives in a variety of ways?

  • Where in my life am I able to listen to people who don’t agree with me?
  • When was the last time I talked to someone who was different from me? Grew up in another city? Has a different diet to mine? Looks different than me? Knows a language I don’t? Is at least 20 years older or 10 years younger than me? Likes to do things I don’t know how to do?
  • Where might I build in small diversities in my day such as taking a different route home or wearing different clothing or listening to someone I’ve never talked to before?

11) Use the Edges and Value the Marginal

This principle is about the intersections and places in your life where things already shift. In a garden, this would be the places where one plant is next to a path or where the fence between your property and someone else’s. Those are the places which are fertile for something different to be created if you pay attention.

In our lives, we can think of these times where we’re between things or where things that we do get put to the side. Consider if you bicycle or drive to work, there is time where you are not in any particular place, what do you do with that time? Or times of year when we’re shifting between seasons, how do you value that time? Or perhaps there are daily rituals you engage in or things that happen at the edges of your day that are notable.

We might also consider where in our society we are marginalizing people and experiences or perhaps even marginalizing ourselves. Consider one’s political preferences, place of origin, sexuality, gender identity, work experience, money, race/ethnicity, physical ability, age, attractiveness, skills and more. What does it mean to live in a community where we do not listen to some people?

  • What are the edges in my life that feel most sidelined or neglected?
  • Are there times in my daily life that I could bring more attention to and value more fully?
  • What experiences are marginalized in my community? Who is not being heard?
  • Where am I marginalized? What parts of my identity have I put aside because they are not valued?
  • When do I interact with people who have been in some way marginalized? What does it mean if I do or do not interact with people who are marginalized?
Photo: Steve

12) Creatively Use and Respond to Change

The last principle reminds us that change is a constant and we are going to have to keep responding to an evolving world. Even if we are doing everything “right” there will always be things to adapt to. How can we best respond to these shifts?

As we consider this for our own lives, it’s also worth looking at where we’re already changing. For instance most of us are getting older and our loved ones are likely getting older as well. How might we creatively and flexibly respond to that kind of change?

What I love about this question is that it asks me to consider not only what to change but also if it’s the right time to push for change. Sometimes we think the change has to happen immediately but it’s worth considering if change is really needed.

  • Where am I facing shifts and changes in my life? Where am I resistant to change? Where am I excited about change?
  • Where can I be more creative and intentional in the things that are shifting in my life? Where can I bring my skills, abilities and resources to bear on what is shifting?
  • In what circumstances is it easy for me to be flexible and to adapt to change? In what circumstances is it harder for me to be flexible and adapt to change?

I would love to hear if you have feedback on these questions! Did this support you in some way?

Beth M. Duckles is a researcher and ethnographer based in Portland, Oregon. Find her at bethduckles.com