Permaculture first reached the public when Permaculture One, A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements, was published by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1978. Whilst permaculture was very much a result of the ideas and influences of the 1960s and 1970s, permaculture has deeper roots that can be traced back to previous decades and indeed many thousands of years. We stand on the shoulders of giants!

It's also important to acknowledge that permaculture has come under criticism in the last few years in the context of a wider exploration of colonisation, oppression and appropriation. We hope this page can contribute towards that wider discussion.

Let’s explore some of permaculture’s influences and think about what that might mean about permaculture’s relevance today.


Permaculture has deep roots

Himalayan Permaculture Project people planting

Indigenous and traditional wisdom and practices

The founders, and many practitioners since have been inspired by the practices and the deep relationships that indigenous people have held with the land for millenia. The Permaculture One book and Bill Mollison’s other writing acknowledged this deep debt of gratitude, but not all teachers and practitioners have done so since - we need to.

forest garden layers

Perennial agriculture perspectives

We are also indebted to writers such as F.H. King author of Farmers of Forty Centuries (about traditional Chinese agriculture) and Joseph Russell Smith, who was concerned by the rapid destruction of the environment following the industrialization of crop farming, and wrote Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture (1929). Many of these writers also draw on and acknowledge the value of traditional practices.

Protest about climate change

Gandhian and anarchist organising

There is a very radical social side to permaculture, that draws attention to the many harms caused by capitalism, empires and large power structures. Permaculture promotes local solutions, self-reliance and mutual aid. Cooperatives, mutual aid societies, bioregionalists and alternative economists like Manfred Max Neef have also inspired permaculture.

Influences from the 1960s and 1970s


The back to the land movement

The turbo-charged consumerist culture post World War II, was rejected by many serious political and radical thinkers and doers who led the movement to get back to nature, community and local self-sufficiency. This departure from the destructive culture of the ‘modern world’ was ridiculed and sidelined (and still is) as the ‘hippy movement’. Communes, rural communities, homesteading and the New Self-Sufficiency of John Seymour, all created an atmosphere that even made it into the BBC’s popular Good Life programme.


The 70's wave of environmentalism

The back to the land movement was informed by new scientific understandings about how industrial agriculture was killing nature. Rachel Carsen’s Silent Spring (1962), was a wake up call for many people and inspired many new groups to take action and grow new movements for social, ecological and political change, like Greenpeace (1971), Friends of the Earth (1971) and the Green Party (1973).


New findings from the science of ecology

Rachel Carsen was a marine biologist and part of a growing body of scientists and researchers, including Howard Odum, that were starting to better understand nature through the science of ecology. David Holmgren was very much influenced by these writings. At last indigenous wisdom and modern science were starting to connect.


The 70s oil crisis

In 1973, OPEC proclaimed an oil embargo. Prices increased by 300% and more, causing recession in many countries. Solar panels were installed on the White House in the USA, and Bill Mollison and David Holmgren started thinking about what kind of agriculture could provide for human needs without needing fossil fuels.


Radical agriculture

Bill and David were not the only ones thinking about a radical new form of agriculture. In the USA, Wes Jackson and the Land Institute were experimenting to find perennial grains, Masanobu Fukuoka was looking for no-till rice cultivation methods and published his work and philosophy in the wonderful book One Straw Revolution, and Percival Alfred Yeomans was popularising his Water for Every Farm keyline management system in Australia.

Bill Mollisom and David Holghem

The contributions of Bill and David

Amongst this swirl of ideas and influences, the founders of permaculture brought their own ideas too. David Holmgren was curious about what would happen if you combined Landscape Architecture, Design, Agriculture and Ecology. Bill Mollison wanted to fight for a better world not by being against the bad stuff but by creating positive solutions. He supported indigenous people in Tasmania to gain legal recognition, and undertook a cross-cultural study of traditional world-views that went on to inform the permaculture ethics. In their writings they acknowledged their sources and inspirations, and did bring something unique of their own too.

Cultural emergence design workshop

The contributions of the wider movement

It is not just about David Holmgren and Bill Mollison. There are so many brilliant women and men from every continent that have added their wisdom, intelligence, practical know how too. In many languages, with rich and poor, permaculture evolves with every contribution. This global movement for local action is too big too measure, and growing with every day.

What does that tell us about permaculture’s relevance in the 2020s?

The ethics of permaculture are shared by people all over the world. They have different names but in their essence this is something that we share. They are not uniquely ‘ours’. The principles of permaculture are based on nature, so they are not ‘ours’ either. Design is something intrinsic to how humans interact with the world. The practices and techniques used in permaculture systems are not ‘ours’ either!

So what does permaculture bring? 

Permaculture has put those things together into a framework. It provides a way forward, a direction and compass, guidelines and principles, a process. It makes the wisdom of older traditions accessible. By drawing on all that is useful, permaculture is helping to create a new approach to living in harmony with nature, with each other. We have a huge debt of gratitude to indigenous people, to innovators and pioneers, to ecologists and barefoot economists. We have a responsibility to make use of that wisdom and help heal the world, and permaculture hopefully makes that easier for people to do.