David Holmgren’s Principles

David Holmgren’s 12 principles were published in his 2003 book "Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability".  He states that he doesn’t see these as a definitive list; rather as his contribution to the principles discussion at that time.  Each proverb is accompanied by a graphic (not reproduced here) and 1-2 sayings reflecting aspects of the principle. The sayings also demonstrate the previous cultural recognition of the truths within each principle.

  1. Observe and interact: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”  Make your own direct observations. Learn to read landscapes & systems.  Take time to engage with your land (and nature in general) so you can design solutions that suit your particular situation.

Principles 2 & 3 (below) are referred to by Holmgren as power principles because they are about energy harvest, use and storage.

  1. Catch and store energy: “Make hay while the sun shines”  Bank energy in all its forms (e.g. water flow, rain, gravity, food, fuel, people energy, sunshine) during times of abundance (daily or seasonal gluts or opportunistic single events). By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need.
  2. Obtain a yield: “You can’t work on an empty stomach” Make sure you have what you need to sustain you today. Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.  No point doing the work and not reaping a reward. Also obtain yields from external systems through acts such as wild foraging or urban scavenging.
  3. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: “The sins of the fathers are visited on the children unto the seventh generation” Apply voluntary limits to your consumption.  Plan for future generations & be aware that the consequences of our choices & actions (both positive and negative) will have impact for generations to come.  Work within your own physical and other limits and include aging & succession planning in your designs. Accept feedback and adjust systems and behaviour appropriately.  Discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.
  4. Use and value renewable resources and services: “Let nature take its course” Make the best use of nature's abundance to reduce our consumptive behaviour and dependence on non-renewable resources.  Grow bamboo canes rather than purchase manufactured rods. Use sunshine to dry your washing rather than a tumble dryer. Renewable resources are those that are replenished by natural systems (e.g. timber) after harvesting.  Services, such as shade or wind, are provided without the system being damaged. NB the importance of use, not just valuing. This is where permaculture diverges from some conservationists who want to value but not use. The proverb also reminds us that nature will have its way in the end – we influence but cannot control.
  5. Produce no waste: “Waste not, want not’’ ‘A stitch in time saves nine” The principle combines notions of frugality, pollution reduction and seeing waste as a potential resource.  The two sayings reflect different aspects of this principle; finding ways to make use of all resources as a way of meeting all our needs (want not) plus the habit of routine and timely maintenance as a strategy to prevent the degradation of equipment or infrastructure.   This principle is very well known due to global waste reduction programs. Note that intervening to gather someone else’s waste for repurposing (e.g. dumpster diving) is Obtain a Yield rather than Produce no Waste.

The first six principles tend to consider systems from the bottom-up perspective of elements, organisms, and individuals. The second six principles tend to emphasise the top-down perspective of the patterns and relationships that tend to emerge by system self-organisation and co-evolution.

-         David Holmgren The Essence of Permaculture

  1. Design from patterns to details: “Can’t see the wood for the trees” The saying warns us that focussing on the details can cause us to miss the bigger picture.  By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.  Understanding broad patterns of landscape, climate, culture & society before developing detailed plans or designs increases our chances of success.  This principle underpins both site assessment and schematic designing.
  2. Integrate rather than segregate: “Many hands make light work”  In nature, the relationship between elements is important – or more important – than the qualities of the elements themselves.  By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.  The West has a long cultural tradition of segregating elements and reducing systems to the greatest level of simplicity for the sake of scientific study.  This has allowed us to understand qualities of individual elements, but left us struggling to deal with complexity. “By correct placement of plants, animals, earthworks and other infrastructure it is possible to develop a higher degree of integration and self-regulation without the need for constant human input in corrective management” (Holmgren, Essence of Permaculture).   [relates to Mollison principles of relative location, stacking functions and essential functions being supported by multiple elements]
  3. Use small and slow solutions: “The bigger they are, the harder they fall’ ‘Slow and steady wins the race”  Working at a human scale (e.g. hand tools in home garden) is lower-impact on the planet and more productive & resilient than industrial systems. Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.  Slow solutions allow time for feedback loops to operate and adjustments to be made. The first proverb reminds us that large systems (e.g. power grids) may have amazing capacities while functioning but are difficult to restore when they fail. The second proverb encourages us to adopt a longer-term time frame; we’ll get there in the end!  [Holmgren also notes the natural pattern of long periods of stability disrupted by massive pulses of energy (e.g. flood, fire, storm, earthquakes) and suggests that we can follow this pattern by using small slow solutions for the majority of the time but also having occasional big and fast interventions such as using a bulldozer to build a dam]
  4. Use and value diversity: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”  Diversity in our forest garden gives us a varied & interesting diet; which will also change depending on the particular season.  ‘Exotic’ plants or unusual uses (lime leaves in your salad) are part of the diversity, as is wild foraging or simpler strategies like planting a range of different apples so you have fruit across the widest range of the harvest season.  Diversity reduces vulnerability to threats like pests, disease or variable seasons. Diversity also positions us to take advantage of the unique aspects of our local environment. The vulnerability of agricultural monocultures is well known, but this principle also applies to human systems, built environment, diversity of income streams and all other aspects of life.
  5. Use edges and value the marginal: “Don’t think you are on the right track just because it is a well-beaten path”  As already mentioned in relation to Mollisons’ Edge Effect, the areas where two ecological systems overlap are the areas of greatest productivity.  This can also apply to the edge between city & country, adolescence and adulthood, zones on a property or fences or tracks that border two systems. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.  Could we also include the edge between waking & sleeping, legal & illegal, or the ‘edge’ of learning where we are about to achieve a new skill or insight? 😉 The marginal includes elements (plants, places, people, processes) that are not central to mainstream culture: less well-known food plants, eccentric thinkers, quirky blocks of land with ‘poor’ soil, old-fashioned or highly progressive ways of doing things.  The saying reminds us that following the most conventional or popular path may not lead to the desired outcomes.
  6. Creatively use and respond to change: “Vision is not seeing things as they are but as they will be” Many people focus on the responsive nature of this principle and sometimes confuse it with responding to feedback, but it also includes a pro-active element; that of anticipating and designing for change.  Change might be personal aging, forest systems maturing or the local impact of global climate change. This principle allows for us having a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.