Book Notes: The Permaculture Handbook :: Chapter Three

Here are my highly personal notes on Chapter Three: Gardening the Planet in Peter Bane’s The Permaculture Handbook (2012). Any misrepresentations of Bane’s words or work are mine alone and completely unintentional. Notes on each chapter linked here.


“Most human agriculture consists of cultivating weeds in simple systems.” — Peter Bane

Permaculture Ethics: Care of Earth <-> Care of People <-> Fair Distribution of Surplus (or Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share, Limits Aware).

Permaculture includes and extends indigenous knowledge + empirical practices of science. It “provides people who have been cut off from their own traditions, lands bases, and even from basic contact with nature with the means to restore a healthy and productive relationship to the natural world around them. One basis of that relationship is ecology, or informed observation of the living world; the other is design — a positive, creative response to our own needs and the logic of natural systems. Permaculture is thus a system for taking responsibility for our lives at a most fundamental level, that of energy.”

Ecosystem Insights (insights permaculture draws from ecology):

1- Ecosystems have open boundaries, “exist in a matrix of other forces.” Not isolated or separate. Everything affects everything else.

2- And because of (1), ecosystems are dynamic, always changing. They can be thrown off balance.

3- Larger system = more stable (homeostasis)

4- Almost all energy for life on Earth comes from the sun.

sun setting over Jekyll Wharf, Jekyll Island, GA, 27 Dec. 2015

5- Everything eats something else. (“Plants eat sunlight” ??) Overshoot = a population “has exceeded the carrying capacity of its environment.” Overshoot not realised right away but after a lag, because of resiliency in most systems. “Humanity has been in overshoot on planet Earth since about 1989″ (cites Global Footprint Network). Each year we go further into ecological deficit; “we are now running an uncontrolled experiment involving humanity and the biosphere.”

I would not call this meditation, sitting in the back garden. Maybe I would call it eating light. ― Mary Rose O’Reilley, The Barn at the End of the World: The Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd

6- All eating results in some waste — which can be potential food for another being.

3-bin compost system, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Richmond, VA, July 2016

7- Energy flows through ecosystems, and is stored in them. “The energy captured through photosynthesis is about five times the energy generated by fossil fuels.”

8- Materials that make up all living bodies cycle. Most of animal and plant biomass (97% of it) consists of elements in atmospheric gases: carbon, oxygen, hyxdrogen, nitrogen. The other 3% are minerals, stored as salts and other compounds in soil, ocean, earth’s crust. Minerals are often a limiting factor in ecosystems.

“We humans may think of ourselves as solid objects, all flesh and bone. But take a close look, and it’s clear our bodies are composed largely of oxygen and hydrogen. We are essentially ephemeral – akin as much to wind, water, and fire as to earth.”  — Curt Stager, Your Atomic Self: The Invisible Elements That Connect You to Everything Else in the Universe

9- Information flow is the chief resource in ecosystems: “Information arises in ecosystems as feedback and is stored genetically (and among settled people, culturally). The loss of information can be more disruptive to life than the loss of biomass or even minerals.” Healthy ecosystems have redundancy built in so the loss of a single element doesn’t harm it; “[b]ut simplified systems (such as our agriculture) are easily disrupted by a change of information because they lack redundancy. In 1971, most of the U.S. corn crop failed due to a rust organism. … This was only possible because the information content of most of the fields was very low, with only a single variety of a single species present. The picture is not very different today.”

monoculture crops with irrigation, Henlopen, DE, July 2017

10- Species composition and ecosystem architecture change over time. “Disturbance triggers succession, though it doesn’t guarantee it.” E.g., when soil is disturbed, weeds and then pioneer plants show up. “Most human agriculture consists of cultivating weeds in simple systems. Farmers who plow and suburban lawn mowers both work against succession. That effort takes an enormous amount of energy and work.”

11- In nature, cooperation is the rule, competition is the exception: “Individuals within species compete for similar food resources, but within the larger community species are most often in relationships of cooperation. … When two species require the same niche, it is far more likely that one will adapt its behaviour to eliminate competition than that either will go extinct (“Better to be different than dead.”)

The permaculture system of design is not limited in its application to agriculture. The term itself has also come to be understood as ‘permanent culture,’ a paradoxical notion that nevertheless conveys the aim of an enduring adaptation to the natural world.” Permaculture can be applied to businesses, community currencies and credit unions, labor exchanges, urban neighbourhoods, ecovillages, universities, etc.


Featured image (top image) is a view — possibly into Canada — from the fire tower on the Magalloway Mountain trail in Pittsburg, NH, July 2015, meant to illustrate the concept of boundary-less ecosystems.

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