For all of our evolutionary history, feast or famine has mostly been the "luck of the draw." While one family found themselves well-fed and wealthy in the environment of an oasis, the next had to make due in the desert. One valley was green and fertile while the next was a barrens and we human inhabitants simply accepted our lot.
Or we fought to take someone else's.
The primary insight of Permaculture is that this does not have to be so. We can design our human habitats to meet our needs by emulating and working with nature instead of wasting energy struggling against it. The family in the barrens can analyze what makes the other valley fertile, how it catches and accumulates life enhancing elements like water, sun, bio-diversity, and shelter. And if they can design their own valley to do the same, then they will have the same abundant result.
While this approach seems utterly obvious, it is revolutionary, and very real. Take the example of the Loess Plateau in China.
Looking at this landscape, it's no surprise that the residents here are the poorest in China. And besides poverty, they have a myriad of other problems stemming from their ecology: frequent natural disasters, poor health, malnutrition, poor academic achievement, crime, disease....
But scientists have found this was not always so. What you see above is a man-made landscape, degraded by thoughtless human use, and a degraded situation followed for the inhabitants that they could never escape - until they repaired their ecology. They studied how healthy ecosystems caught and stored life-enhancing resources like water and fertility and they transformed their environment:
Just 15 years later, the median income has risen 4 times! People are returning to the area and measures such as health and education are on the rise, too. And the environmental effects of carbon sequestration and water quality can be felt across the country and even globally.
But it doesn't stop there.
We can use the same approach to our cities. Permaculturists are analyzing the elements that make great neighborhoods, with vibrant community, security and livability, and they're applying those to broken neighborhoods. The results are stunning. It works.
And why stop there? We can all design our homes, neighborhoods and cities so that they better provide for us and meet all of our needs while reducing our negative impacts on the environment and other human communities. And we can do this good work for the world while improving our own quality of life, building a better connection with nature, surrounding ourselves with beauty and feeding ourselves with delicious and nutritious food from our own communities.
And let's take it further still:
What is it about the great "destinations" the places we go on vacations, that makes us feel rested, renewed, alive? We can analyze the factors that make those places thrive and we can design them into our own habitats. Instead of spending all our time, money and effort on our dreams of going some place else, we can design homes so beautiful, communities so beloved, and lives so meaningful that we kiss the earth and thank the stars each day that we get to wake up in such a paradise.
That's what Permaculture is all about. It is a system for designing "human habitats," our homes, neighborhoods, cities and beyond, so that they meet all of our needs by working with nature, rather than against it. It's a way we can build more secure, joyful, wealthy lives without burdening others or causing more problems.
For people new to Permaculture, my two top recommended resources are:
1. The book "Gaia's Garden" by Toby Hemenway. For me, this has become the classic Permaculture resource.
2. The Permaculture Principles site, compiled by Permaculture co-originator David Holmgren: http://permacultureprinciples.com/ These are often called the "Holmgren Principles." Consideration of these principles, the three ethics and a system of "zone" and "sector" site analysis (covered in Gaia's Garden) are the core of the Permaculture Design System.