Permaculture Pioneers — Stories from the New Frontier

2011•12•12 Caroline Smith Swinburne University, Kerry Dawborn

In these days of increased concern over food security, resource scarcity and deteriorating ecosystems, the system of design known as permaculture is an important part of finding sustainable solutions.

Permaculture is much more than organic gardening. Some believe it is one of Australia’s greatest intellectual exports, because it has helped many people worldwide to design ecologically sustainable strategies for their homes, gardens, farms and communities.

So, what is permaculture? Environmentalist Paul Hawken talks about ‘the movement that has no name’ or ‘the other superpower’. This is a global fast growing and dynamic environmental and social justice movement of millions, working often unnoticed at the edges of society, to bring lasting and positive change. Permaculture is very much a part of this movement.

In the early 1970s, Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren developed the idea of permaculture and also ran the first courses, known as the Permaculture Design Certificate or PDC. Since then, permaculture has spread around the world to more than 160 countries and people can study for PDCs in many locations, cultures and languages.

carolines farm

Caroline Smith’s small farm, designed using permaculture principles.

The genius of Mollison and Holmgren’s work is that it brings together an understanding of natural ecosystems, traditional small-scale mixed agriculture, low impact technology, community development and social justice into an interconnected dynamic system of design principles for creating self-sustaining human settlements. Permaculture is about looking at the whole in all its complexity, and making connections. It is through the complexity of the systems we work with, that we can achieve productive relationships, harnessed through careful observation and responsive, thoughtful design.

Early in its development, permaculture focused on agriculture and food systems, but its design principles have now been applied in diverse ways to urban food production, suburban gardens, farms, communities, larger bioregions and even social systems. The principles used to develop permaculture systems are based on a three-part ethical ecological and social justice framework as follows:

∗ Care of Earth: Provision for all the well-being of life systems;
∗ Care of people: Provision for people to access those resources necessary to their well-being and;
∗ Share the surplus. This is sometimes re-stated as ‘return the surplus’ or ‘reinvest the surplus’.

Every problem has a solution

Though it is based in science, permaculture equally nourishes and supports vernacular, or ‘everyday’ wisdom, encouraging people to adapt permaculture to their own culture as well as trusting their intuition.

Yet many of us in industrialised countries have lost confidence in our ability to take care of ourselves, our families and our communities. We buy almost everything and make almost nothing ourselves. Many communities struggle with isolation and are not able to meet the needs of their members or solve their own problems.

We have become used to relying on technological solutions to our problems, which are often disconnected from culture and community. Because of our faith in technology, we tend to ignore the price we pay for the mess so often left in its wake. Our reliance on industrial agriculture over the past 50 years has left soils infertile, water storages and ecosystems devastated, and many people without the knowledge to grow their own food or build their own shelter.


Photo by Caroline Smith.

Permaculture Pioneers: Stories from the New Frontier tells the very personal stories of 25 Australian permaculturists, male and female, old and young, who are inspired by permaculture to work for a more sustainable world.

People usually think of pioneer species in ecosystems as ‘weeds’ or ‘pests’. They are those resilient plants and animals with the unique qualities that allow them to thrive in a degraded ecosystem and help to prepare it for other species to follow. The writers in this particular book are also pioneers, a remarkable and diverse group of people who have all chosen to work towards a sustainable future through the practice of permaculture. Like many others, they recognise the need for a deep transformation of cultural and personal values from being high consumers to values based on social justice and ecological sustainability.

Their stories offer all readers, not just permaculturalists, something we can all learn from that comes from real life achievements as well as many mistakes and challenges. One of the reasons permaculture is becoming so popular is the common sense (or as some have said, ‘un-common sense’) of its ideas and approaches, which can almost seem revolutionary these days.

For example, if you have too many snails in your garden, then the problem is not really too many snails, but not enough ducks to eat them. As Bill Mollison says, if we put some ducks into the garden we not only help restore balance and bring the snails back to lower numbers, we also add to the benefits by having some meat, eggs, feathers, manure, clearing up fallen fruit, controlling grass and weeds and other pests such as insects.


Photo by allfr3d

[quote quote=”If you have too many snails in your garden, then the problem is not really too many snails, but not enough ducks to eat them.” type=”image” image=”4116″ ]

Instead of seeing snails as a problem requiring energy and unsustainable measures such as poisons, a permaculture approach says that too many snails means the system is out of balance. Instead it can be an opportunity to stimulate rethinking the design to be more productive. As Mollison puts it, ‘the problem is the solution’.

From the insights of co-originator David Holmgren’s and others who have been involved in permaculture for many years, to an inspiring younger generation, the writers in Permaculture Pioneers show us a range of ways of working in permaculture. They are all ordinary people struggling to make sense in a world of fears about food security, peak oil, climate change and ecosystem disruption. Contributors explain how permaculture offers everyone a way to stop being fearful and start being positive and pro-active, and provide readers with strategic and practical skills to work on solutions.

One of the book’s key messages is that ordinary folk do not have to wait for experts and governments to lead. The experiences of the Permaculture Pioneers illustrate that we can all be courageous and amazingly creative. We all have the tools to empower ourselves, rather than simply being dragged along in a flow we cannot escape.

The great eco-theologian, Thomas Berry, wrote that we have reached a time in Western history where our progress towards an ‘ever improving’ human situation has instead brought us to waste-world rather than wonder-world. Permaculture is an attempt to create that wonder-world, with eyes wide open.


Permaculture Pioneers – Stories from the New Frontier, edited by Kerry Dawborn and Caroline Smith, is available for purchase online here. All royalties from the book are being donated by the editors and contributors to the Permaculture Pioneers Fund, to be used to support appropriate permaculture projects in Australia and overseas.



Caroline Smith

Swinburne University

Caroline Smith teaches at the National Centre for Sustainability, Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia. Previously she worked as a plant pathologist, science teacher and teacher educator and is also involved in plant protection training and teacher education in Solomon Islands. Permaculture Pioneers: Stories from the New Frontier, which she co-edited with Kerry Dawborn, is her latest publication. Caroline lives on an organic farm just outside Melbourne, and is interested in the role permaculture can play in local food security.

Kerry Dawborn


Kerry Dawborn is permaculturist with experience and post-graduate qualifications in social science, education and urban planning. Kerry is passionate about ecological economics, sustainable farming, relocalisation, community food security and social and environmental justice. Studying law, and living in the Yarra Ranges, Kerry looks forward to a world in which humans honour their place as part of a richly diverse Earth Community, and in which access to a vibrant, healthy and sustainable way of life is right and not a privilege, for all.

Join the Discussion

  • marknotaras

    Thanks for a great article. What a fantastic story Permaculture is. I have had the good fortune to meet some lesser-known Permaculturalists and they are inspiring and motivating, often in a very unassuming and humble way. People-driven stories like those above (I assume, since I have not yet read the book) have the potential to change the way we relate to the Earth and each other, more than any article or textbook on the environment can. One thing I would like to see articulated better is how city-dwellers can transition to a more sustainable living model. I get the feeling many people know about permaculture or related integrated ways of living, but cannot see an exit from their existing lifestyle which promotes long hours of work, with constant consumption and addiction to modern comforts and technology.

    Another point which is interesting, if not amusing, is that in Australia so many people
    are connected with the great outdoors through gardening, bushwalking, fishing etc. Yet at the same time the country seems to have a high level of resistance to positive environmental policies including to taxes on pollution or an arrangement where the profits from extracting the country’s natural resources could be more equitably shared for current and future generations in the way that Norway has done. One question I have for the Permaculture Pioneers is can permaculture realistically bridge this awareness gap in the near future when the vast majority of Australians have a comfortable lifestyle? Or will its future rise be more likely to coincide with high enough oil prices and continuing environmental change e.g. floods and droughts, that push communities to change more hastily?

    • Vsolomon

      That’s a really good question marknotaras, as with many things permaculture is often a response to need, so unfortunately the general answer is possibly ‘no’. But I would argue that our comfortable lifestyle’s fate is intrinsically linked to that other descent: Peak Oil, and that those of us who have not yet noticed soon will find that the lifestyle becomes more and more expensive. I chose to work with affluent teenagers for exactly this reason. Lets hope some of them at least choose to implement permaculture as a strategy and influence others around them.
      Virginia Solomon

  • Ahimsa

    marknotaras,  your observations were enjoyable, just a little add – one will find that gardening in one’s own front of back yard in the growing plants for food ideology has an intrigue and fascination for little children is enjoyable by older people and don’t leave teenagers and younger children out, because they would just be fooling you to make as if they do not enjoy it. When we engage with the ground around us, we will find that a small patch of manageable size is far more interesting than huge tracts which boggle the mind and make you give up before you begin, even the thought of it is daunting. So when gardening for food and sustainability is brought into mainstream as being enjoyable, we’re on our way – also because in fact, it is! vsolomon cheers! great to hear that.

  • Smith Caroline81

    marknotaras I think it’s both of those. A lot of city folks are now educated about the issues and are increasingly  concerned about food security, not to mention where their food comes from.  Others will continue to bask in the illusion of a secure lifestyle till it hits the fan. Permaculture needs to show it is relevant to where most folks live ie the city. There are some great examples of localisation within cities eg in Melbourne there’s Permaculture Out West (POW), an inner city local group.  Have a look at their inspirational work both in food production and in the social sphere  – the ‘invisible structures’ around community that Fiona Campbell and Russ Grayson talk about in the book. This is a good model I think people will increasingly adopt,  either out of desire or necessity as the drivers of peak oil, climate change and global economic woes increasingly impact on our comfortable existence. That or (and) guns I suppose.  It would be interesting to see what is happening in places like Greece at the moment.
    cheers, Caroline