The Philosophy of Permaculture

To say that permaculture is just about plants is like saying that Socrates just talked about cities. It’s only true in the most superficial sense.

Yes, most of what Plato transcribed of Socrates teachings -from The Republic, to The Apology, to The Crito- were centered around cities. But the city wasn’t the point. What makes Plato the central pillar of western philosophy are the depths that he plumps of the individual’s relationship, and responsibilities to, the society that they exist within. The dynamic relationship between the citizen and the polis, that system, and its intricacies, provided a foundation solid enough to build western democracy upon.

Similarly permaculture is less a thought than an idea on how to think.

Permaculture’s relation to landscaping and planting is the facet that most people have at least heard of. Its central idea is to look not just at the plant, but at the entire ecosystem. To define a goal (aesthetic, food production, erosion control, etc.,) and to work backwards from that. It is an approach that puts the specific location first; the antithesis of ‘one size fits all.’

The idea is that, rather than fighting against nature, to work with it and to guide the processes towards whatever outcome you desire: Instead of spending thousands of dollars to install a sprinkler system to water your flowers, why not redirect the rain that already lands of your roof? Rather than having to buy expensive fertilizers to keep your garden lush, why not rotate complimentary crops and animals that will enrich the soil for the species you plant next year?

Permaculture in the philosophical sense is simply this idea on a larger scale. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Everything, especially humans, exist in an interdependent web with the environment, people, and society around them. In order to make a change in your life, you need to work backwards from your goal, to see what factors lead into it and what is the best, most sustainable way is to make the change.

It is a way of thinking that pushes back against the normal linear mindset, a mindset which, ironically, has grown from the foundation of Plato.



This is the standard, linear way of thinking that most of the world engages in tends to see goals in isolation.

A city doesn’t have enough water for its citizen’s needs? Just divert a river. That same city has an issue with seasonal downpours and flooding? Build a flood control system that clears the rainwater as quickly as possible out of yards, into the streets, through storm drains, and out of the city.

If the problems of low rainfall and flash flooding existed in isolation then those two solutions might work just fine. But the world we live in is intensely intertwined.

Instead, wouldn’t it make more sense for that same city to minimize the amount of impermeable pavement and concrete, and to maximize the amount of absorbent soil and plants? To slow down the water to let it infiltrate into the ground water supply, rather than spending millions of dollars to bring in water from a far away river? Such a solution would cost far less and solve both problems with significantly less resources.

This type of thinking can be harder. It is very easy in the short term –and fits far better with our immediate gratification culture- to decide that you want to have a green lawn and go out to buy sod and fertilizer. It takes more time and intention to study the area around your home and see how the water, wind, and sun moves through it. It takes more time to take that knowledge and apply it to creating swales, berms, and rain gardens. It takes more time in the beginning, but I guarantee that in the long run, that invest will repay itself in many times over.

And the dividends from that investment won’t just be the beautiful garden. It will be the change in the way that you look at the world.


Travis Holtby



4 Responses to “The Philosophy of Permaculture”
  1. areopageant says:

    Wonderful Travis. Of water, weather and watchfulness.

    The city is a rainbow too, and bent. Speak to the shift, to the patterns we glance which are the suggestions we live by. Each morsel and vantage into inherent infinity. We suppose the link in the molecule chain, the moment in time, the city block, each to carry something more, to be a passageway for something larger. The larger thing is the movement, and the perspective each shape affords: the corner in the square, the falling look of the curved sphere.

    Speak the shifting perspective. Each word is an addition to potential. If all colors ARE, yet all colors are not yet seen. Turn.

  2. Jake Hanson says:

    I feel it takes a lot more right-brain perspective than what we usually develop in school. Seeing and understanding all those many relationships is a rather different mentality than reductionist linear thinking. This video is the best explanation I’ve found on special gifts of the right brain:

  3. couldn’t have said it better myself

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