Afterword: Four Key Features of Permaculture (applicable to ‘everything’); & an Opportunity for the Future (also applicable to ‘everything’) Stuart B. Hill – 2010

If you have ever said to yourself, as you watched what was going on around you, or reflected on your own situation and actions, “This is not right”, “There must be a better way”, I suspect that as you read this important book you will have been filled with hope for a better future; and may even have found some answers specific to your particular concerns.

Most of us, most of the time, follow these ‘thoughts of discontent’ by just continuing to ‘plod along’. Perhaps this is because the change needed seems to be too enormous, or we feel that whatever we might do wouldn’t be enough to make a difference, or perhaps deep down we feel too afraid to change.

On some occasions, however, most of us have chosen to do something to address the ‘wrongs’ and to ‘find a better way’. I think of this as ‘choosing to act on deep caring and love rather than on fear’ – a choice that we actually have every day, moment-to-moment.

Throughout history we can recognise significant moments when individuals and groups have done this in ways that have the potential to benefit everyone. In Kerry Dawborn’s reflective chapter – ‘The Future in Our Hands’ – she described how in 1955 the acts of Rosa Parks, and in the 1980s those of Muhammad Yunus, led to such transformative, significant and meaningful change. You probably have your own special examples of such inspiration and hope for better futures; not just involving famous people, but perhaps someone in your own family, as well as some of your own past courageous acts.

It was such, hopeful and defiant acts in the 1970s that gave birth to permaculture; brought to life by two unlikely collaborating ‘midwives’: the in-your-face experienced university lecturer, field ecologist and activist, Bill Mollison, and the more introverted landscape design student, David Holmgren (Mollison & Holmgren 1978).

Since then permaculture has become a global movement for the improved design and management of food and energy systems (and much more). Caroline Smith has provided some of the statistics of the movement in her helpful ‘Introduction’.

I became familiar with permaculture in the 1970s while I was a Professor of Zoology at McGill University in Montreal; when I was also associated with ‘The New Alchemy Institute’ in Cape Cod, Massachusetts (Quinney 1981, 1984). I, like John Jeavons (1974), had already written about a need for a ‘permanent’ and more sustainable agriculture (Hill, 1976, Hill & Ramsay 1977). I attended one of Bill’s first workshops in North America at Samuel Kayman’s Stonyfield Farm in New Hampshire; and both of us subsequently spoke at several events in Canada. It was not until I immigrated to Australia in the mid-1990s that I had the pleasure of meeting David; I was able to record part of his story in our book on the History of Ecological Ideas in Australia (Mulligan & Hill 2001), and was privileged to be asked by him to write the Foreword for his excellent book on the key design principles of permaculture (Holmgren 2002). I have also attended numerous permaculture gatherings and workshops; and have been fortunate to have been able to learn from the authors in this collection of inspiring stories.

Because of this exposure, I now feel as if there is a bit of permaculture in every cell in my body. So reading these stories has for me been particularly rewarding.

To help my students to focus I often ask them “What are the three most important things for you about… (whatever it is that we are discussing)?” I have listed below the three things that make permaculture really important to me. In some ways they summarise the foundational elements of permaculture that I recognised in each of the stories in this book. I encourage you to reflect on their possible relevance to you, particularly in the context of ‘finding a better way’ to think about and act on this perspective, and to do this in relation to your particular circumstances.

Firstly, as you will have found clear in these chapters, permaculture has its roots in a passion for nature, social justice and wellbeing for all. It is grounded in cutting-edge ecological science and effective collective and personal action, all underpinned by a clear set of ethical ‘testing questions’; to help us to relate our actions to our shared values (see also my expanded list of such questions in Fig. 3 below). These aspects of permaculture are discussed in more detail in the many inspiring stories in this book, and in the writings of Mollison and Holmgren.

Secondly, permaculture is an evolving framework for the development of sound theories and practices in relation to the design and management of not only our food and energy systems, but also our individual and collective lives, including all our institutional structures and processes. As such, it can help us address, and more importantly avoid, the many crises that currently face our species (from all aspects of sustainability, to the specifics of climate change, water management, pest prevention, biodiversity conservation, and nourishment for all). This focus on designing systems that can work sustainably is in contrast to our society’s overemphasis on ‘deceptively simple’ endless ‘problem-solving’ interventions within mal-designed and mismanaged unsustainable systems.

Thirdly, permaculture is a collective endeavour; a movement that all of us can become a part of. As such, it offers training programs, supported by a rich literature of books, magazines and articles, inspiring websites with downloadable talks, YouTube videos, and other materials, outreach projects in less developed parts of the world, local working bees to establish permaculture gardens within our neighbourhoods, and a full range of political and social activism initiatives. Again, as you read this amazing collection of stories, I’m sure you would have been inspired by the ways in which the authors’ lives have been transformed and given greater meaning and purpose through their association with permaculture.

Usually, after my students have done the above exercise, I ask them the following additional question: “If you could add one more important thing about whatever we are discussing (in this case ‘permaculture’), what would it be?” This is because I have found that this fourth feature is usually the most important one; it just takes offering this ‘extra opportunity’ for it to surface.

4. So, for me, the fourth key feature of permaculture is its ongoing co-evolutionary change (change that benefits all involved) and improvement; as it continues to journey forwards, along an ‘upward spiral path’. This involves a progressive process of experimenting with small, meaningful, cutting-edge initiatives, and then learning from these by paying attention to all of the outcomes; this is in contrast to the more common linear approach to change, with limited attention being paid to unintended outcomes.

I believe that if the above four key characteristics of permaculture were also common to our systems of government, business, education, health (etc), all of these areas would benefit enormously and be in a much better position to contribute to the wellbeing for all.

The challenge in every area facing all cultures is how to best enable change from systems that don’t work to ones that can work better. In Figure 1 I have contrasted these four qualities of permaculture with the dominant characteristics of most current industrialised societies. What I am advocating are actions to enable progressive change from the situation characterised in the lower part of the figure to that in the upper part.

The areas where I believe permaculture – and most other hopeful initiatives – need to develop further relates to our ‘psychological healing and development’. In the case of permaculture, I refer to this as working on ‘permaculture of the inner landscape’. I believe that the quality, clarity, relevance and effectiveness of our ‘outer landscape work’ is limited or enabled by the quality of our ‘inner landscape’, and that this is the area where the greatest development is both needed and will contribute towards genuine progress.

I first started thinking about this in the mid-1980s, when I ran a workshop on this subject at a permaculture conference in the USA. Since then I have been monitoring developments in this area. As part of my research for writing this ‘Afterword’ I searched the web and was encouraged to find that there are now a dozen or so permaculturists who have subsequently developed workshops on ‘inner permaculture’ or related topics (I encourage you to search the web using this term to find the latest developments in this exciting area of development).

Since the 1970s I have maintained my interest in this inner-outer connection, and have continued to develop it through my research, teaching, writing and action. See, for example, my ‘Foreword’ to David Holmgren’s 2002 book; my analysis of some of the psychological aspects of why PA Yeomans’ (1958) Keyline system has not been more widely adopted, despite its many valuable features, including its extraordinary capacity to capture carbon in the soil and ameliorate climate change (Hill 2006); and my framework for how we might better develop our relationships with nature and place (Hill 2003). Continuing to improve our competence in this latter area is one that I consider to be foundational for the ongoing development of permaculture.

Fig. 1. Key features of permaculture (upper triangle) contrasted with those of most systems in current industrialised societies (lower triangle).

Many of the stories in this historically important collection include much about ‘inner permaculture’ and the ‘emotional’ aspects of being a permaculturist, such as the many stories of how discovering permaculture enabled the authors to renew their hope in the future, and find greater meaning in the present.

In the mid-1980s, to help understand the connection between ‘inner and outer’, I developed a framework for relating the state of the world – particularly the ways in which we produce food – to our values, our ways of being and doing, and to their psychological and cultural roots (Hill,1991; see Figure 2 below). Such lists of characteristics can be used by each of us to (honestly and courageously) reflect on which ones might apply to oneself and to one’s group, and to then address any issues that become evident.

Fig. 2. Possible influences of past experiences on food system characteristics (from Hill 1991)

In addition to paying more attention to the ‘inner landscape’, and with respect to enabling ongoing progress, I find that keeping the notion of paradox in mind can be very helpful. For example, an exercise that I use to challenge my students who are studying ways to become ‘deep leaders’ is to ask them to reflect on ways to bring about meaningful change anonymously (to contradict the ‘deceptively simple’ assumption that leaders must be visible heroes; other key features of ‘deep leadership’ are listed in my article on ‘deep environmental leadership’, Hill 2009). My students usually generate a list that includes:

working in a large team that collaborates across difference and other boundaries,
being ready to work over long-time frames (as against expecting immediate outcomes),
using indirect, subtle, low-power, and often bio-ecological design and management interventions (in contrast to the currently dominant emphasis on heroic, instant, direct, heavy-handed, chemical and physical interventions).

I believe that such ‘paradoxical reflection’ within permaculture (and all other endeavours) might open up a diverse range of additional opportunities for further development.

Also, to enable such developments, it can help to reflect on what the tenets and practices of permaculture are ‘in the service of’, and then critically test them against such ‘integrator indicators’ as spontaneity (the ‘healthy’ opposite to ‘distressed patterned behaviours’), wellbeing, equity, meaning, sustainability, joy, and the ongoing progressive co-evolution of all systems. Such ‘testing questions’ are conceptually similar to those used for landscapes by ‘Holistic Resource Managers’ (Savory & Butterfield 1999); and they relate to my extended version (Hill 2005) of David Holmgren’s (2002) very valuable ’12 permaculture Design Principles’. A more extensive set of ‘testing questions’, using a social ecology framework, is provided below in Figure 3. I encourage you to test your ideas and initiatives against such a list. An additional list that can be used in the same way is provided as a power-point presentation, under the heading of ‘wisdoms’ (see my website: HYPERLINK ""

Greater progress could be achieved in permaculture, as in all other individual and group ‘improvement’ endeavours, if more attention were paid to enabling the development of a healthier ‘inner permaculture’. By this I mean one that is embodied, holographic (in the sense that ‘anything you detect anywhere is likely to be found everywhere'), in-the-present, and characterised by spontaneous ways of being and doing. This would complement and better enable the contextually-relevant development of external design competencies and initiatives. It is a matter of ‘going in (psychologically) to go out (environmentally)’, and ‘going out (environmentally) to go in (psychologically)’ – a ‘both’ process rather than an ‘either/or’ one!

Personal – Does it (policies, programs, plans, regulations, decisions, initiatives, etc) support:
Building & maintaining personal capital – personal sustainability: empowerment, awareness, creative visioning, values and worldview clarification, acquisition of essential literacies and competencies, responsibility, wellbeing and health maintenance, vitality and spontaneity?
Home & ecosystem maintenance: caring, loving, responsible, mutualistic, negentropic (capital building) relationships with diverse others (valuing equity & social justice), other species, place and planet? [‘negentropic’ is the opposite of ‘entropic’: breaking down]
Lifelong learning: positive total life-cycle personal development and ‘progressive’ change?

Socio-Political – Does it support:
Building & maintaining social capital – cultural [including economic] sustainability: trust, accessible, collaborative, responsible, creative, celebrational, life- promoting community and political structures and processes?
Inter-cultural and interpersonal capital: the valuing of ‘functional’ high cultural diversity and mutually beneficial relationships?
Co-evolutionary change: positive cultural development and evolutionary change that benefits all involved?

Environmental – Does it support:
Building & maintaining natural capital: effective ecosystem functioning and ecological sustainability?
‘Functional’ high biodiversity, and prioritised use and conservation of resources?
Positive ecosystem development and co-evolutionary change?

General – Does it support:
Proactive (vs. reactive), design/redesign (vs. just efficiency & substitution) and small meaningful collaborative initiatives that one can guarantee to carry through to completion (vs. heroic, Olympic-scale, exclusive, high risk ones). Also public celebration at each stage -- to facilitate their spread -- thereby making wellbeing and environmental caring ‘contagious’?
A focus on key opportunities and windows for change (contextually unique change ‘moments’ & places)?
Effective evaluation and monitoring: (broad, long-term, as well as specific & short-term) by identifying and using integrator indicators and testing questions, and by being attentive to all feedback and outcomes (& redesigning future actions & initiatives accordingly)?

Fig. 3. Testing questions for ‘challenging’ all understandings, ideas and initiatives (from Hill 2006).

Greater engagement in ‘inner permaculture’ could, I believe, enable this important movement to progress from its current state (which I call ‘permaculture I’) to the next stage in its development (‘permaculture II’), while daring to dream what permaculture might involve over the long term (‘permaculture III’ and beyond)! What role do you want to have in this ongoing cultural evolution, both in permaculture and in society in general? What will it take to enable such change to happen? And what might the benefits be for present and future generations?

Hill, SB 1976. Conditions for a permanent agriculture, Maine Organic Farming and Gardening 3(5): 8-9 [Reprinted in the Soil Association Quarterly Review 3(2): 1-4, 1977].

Hill, SB 1991. Ecological and psychological pre-requisites for the establishment of sustainable prairie agricultural communities, in Jerome Martin (ed), Alternative Futures for Prairie Agricultural Communities, Faculty of Extension, University of Alberta Edmonton, AB, pp. 197-229.

Hill, SB 2003. Autonomy, mutualistic relationships, sense of place, and conscious caring: a hopeful view of the present and future, in John I. Cameron (ed), Changing Places: Re-imagining Australia, Longueville, Sydney, NSW, pp. 180-196.

Hill, SB 2005. Sustainable living through permaculture: a social ecology perspective (Keynote to the 8th Australian Permaculture Convergence, Melbourne, 8-15 April – available from the author).

Hill, SB 2006. Enabling redesign for deep industrial ecology and personal values transformation: a social ecology perspective, in Ken Green & Sally Randles (eds), Industrial Ecology and Spaces of Innovation, Edward Elgar, London, Chapter 12, pp. 255-271.

Hill, SB & JA Ramsay 1977. Energy and the Canadian food system with particular reference to New Brunswick. Prepared for the New Brunswick Government Agricultural Resources Study Group, NB. Ecological Agriculture Projects, Macdonald College of McGill University, QC. 181 pp.

Holmgren, D 2002. Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability, Holmgren Design Services, Hepburn, VIC.

Jeavons, J 1974. How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine, Ecology Action of the Midpeninsula, 2225 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, CA 94306.

Mollison B & D Holmgren D 1978. Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements. Transworld (Corgi, Bantam), Melbourne, VIC.

Mulligan, M & SB Hill 2001. Ecological Pioneers: A Social History of Australian Ecological Thought and Action, Cambridge University, Melbourne, VIC.

Quinney, J 1981. A report from the tree people: Introduction; Nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs; Hedgerows and living fences, Journal of the New Alchemists 7: 56-7; 60-61; 62-3.

Quinney, J 1984. Designing sustainable farms, Mother Earth News 88: 54-65, Jull/Aug.

Savory, A & J Butterfield 1999. Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making, Island, Washington D.C.

Yeomans, PA 1958. The Challenge of Landscape: The Development and Practices of Keyline, Keyline, Sydney, NSW.

Stuart B. Hill, BSc (Hons), PhD - HYPERLINK "" – Bio/CV

Professor Stuart B. Hill is Foundation Chair of Social Ecology at the University of Western Sydney. At UWS he taught units on Qualitative Research Methodology, Social Ecology Research, Transformative Learning, Leadership and Change, and Sustainability, Leadership and Change (he retired in 2009 and is now an Emeritus Professor).


• Ask of all theory & practice – what is it in the service of? – before supporting or copying it

• Work mostly with ‘small meaningful achievable initiatives' vs. ‘Olympic-scale projects' (most of these are abandoned or fail, & have numerous negative side-effects.

• Don’t get stuck in endless ‘measuring studies’ (‘monitoring our extinction’) – these are often designed to postpone change that is perceived as threatening to existing power structure.

Prof. Stuart B. Hill.

We are the teachers of the
next generation.

It's up to us to teach our children how to care for you, me and the planet.