Permaculture is a Design Philosophy


(noun) a specification of an object, manifested by an agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment, using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements, subject to constraints;
(verb, transitive) to create a design, in an environment (where the designer operates) – wikipedia

Even though the Rational model is most taught in design schools, the design process of most designers follows another path: the action-centric model. See also Wikipedia for more details. I permaculture design I believe we use the action-centric model.


Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational argument. In more casual speech, by extension, “philosophy” can refer to “the most basic beliefs, concepts, and attitudes of an individual or group“.

Design Philosophy

Permaculture design is not simply a bag of tricks, methods or tools. It’s a design philosophy, like Sustainable Design or Transition Design – based on our core ethical principles of Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. Or as I like to interpret them in more operational terms: Pamper the Earth, Cherish the People and Share the Wealth.

The design principles are aimed at achieving these higher goals of all permaculture design.

The basics

For me at least, the basic beliefs, concepts and attitudes centre around ecology and systems theory. As a teacher I add cognitive development and learning theory.

From Systems Theory I take away that behavior of systems emerge from the behavior of its constituent subsystems. That the behavior of systems is not a linear result or sum of the behavior of subsystems. That systems have an innate ability to adjust to their environment (both internal and external) – you could call that learning. Systems evolve continuously in response to changes in the environment. Systems can be manipulated by dancing with them and their subsystems. Hence I propose a amend Holmgren’s principle to design from pattern to detail to design from subsystems(details) to systems (patterns). The pattern emerges from the behavior and placement of the details – hence emergent permaculture design.

From biochemistry, physics, ecology etc. I take away that form leads function. This is different from the generally accepted principle in design that form follows function. The form of an element dictates how it will interact with other elements and its environment. In industrial design and the design of virtual worlds this is not necessarily the case – here form and function are effectively disconnected and any form can have any function. That however is not how the real-world works.

Ecology doesn’t have a lot of theory but we  can take away from it certainly is the general systems theory (see above). Other theory includes  theory of island biogeography – proposing that the number of species found on an undisturbed island is determined by immigration and extinction. Another is the theory of ecological fitting – the process whereby organisms colonize and persist in novel environments. Both have consequences for designing systems like food forests or learning communities.

Theories about energy transformations in organic systems help in understanding and designing for the capture storage and use of primary energy and plant production.

A good understanding of geology, climatology, hydrology and others is needed to design useful and edible landscapes.

A good understanding of how people behave and learn (change their behavior) is essential in any design project.


All design activities are being judged by feeding back into the ethical principles as well as specified project outcomes. And be prepared to let-go, go-with-the-flow and progress your insight 😉


Systems theory in particular already has found its place in a complex network of related fields of study.

My challenge and invitation to you is to give your thoughts on the place of permaculture design as a design philosophy in the world of complexity.