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What is Integral Permaculture?

Why “Integral” Permaculture?


The clearest definition of permaculture is in the Designers Manual, p.37: 

“Permaculture Design = the beneficial assembly of the 
social, site, energy & abstract components 
in their proper relationships”. 

This is a very clear & succinct definition of permaculture design, dated 1988 (here with added AQAL correspondances in gray).


The problem is that in practice, traditional permaculture has been propagated mainly as design of the site & energy components – sometimes with some passing reference to the other two.    
Although at least some of the social & abstract components have to be considered for any design to work, these aspects have not been as develop and consequently as well taught, as the other, more material components.
For example, all PDCs (Permaculture Design Certificate courses, the most basic permaculture qualification) will be taught about the natural succession from bare soil to climax ecosystem, but very rarely will they include any mention of cultural, group or individual people’s maturity developmental natural successions.
Yet experience tells us that it is usually some oversight in integrating these “internal” quadrants in the design that causes projects to fail. 
Integral Permaculture specifically re-instates the other components to equal importance in the design, with the science to back them.
So Permaculture always has been, in theory, & from its origins, Integral.   But in practice unfortunately it rarely is.

Honoring Women Pioneers

The origins of permaculture as they are normally told (with Bill Mollison & David Holmgren + sometimes Masanobu Fukuoka listed as the iconic ‘fathers’ of permaculture) are interestingly quite patriarchal, even though in fact women have been instrumental in both creating and popularizing permaculture, from the start.  With integral permaculture we explicitly include the great contribution of the many great women who are usually ‘forgotten’ (or ignored) on the way.  
We see this cultural pattern in other forms…

The Permaculture card game promoted in permies.com (with the aim of “infecting brains” with Permaculture ideas) & financed by thousands of people, includes 10 celebrated & recognized male pioneers & not one woman

(another very important idea at the base of “conventional” permaculture that continues to “infect brains” in practice with sexism in this way, even as it talks about equality, in theory).

This interesting absence of women pioneers is (possibly?) also why the Social & Abstract components are often not so well developed in ‘regular’ permaculture: integrating of these invisible components into designing physical structures is something women pioneers have excelled at & we have taken some time in realizing just how crucially important this perspective is: internal perceptions, beliefs, models, culture, history, etc. affect absolutely everything we think, do & certainly what & how we design, and to the extent that we are conscious of this we become better holistic designers. 
Some examples of these exceptional integral pioneers that we include & honour in this new curriculum are Vandana ShivaWangari Maathai,  Hazel Henderson (who published an integral model of development years before ‘the fathers’ of integral did… a pattern?), Dana Meadows (honored by us as the mother of Integral Permaculture), Helena Norberg-HodgeNorie HuddleNicole FossMargrit KennedyJean LiedloffMargaret WheatleyArundhati Roy, & others.
The reason the influence of these outstanding women are often un-acknowledged (& only briefly mentioned, if at all) in most permaculture circles we can all guess at … but we suggest it is 
– clearly not because they didn’t practice permaculture, 
– & not only because women’s ideas are often coopted without credit 
– & women’s voices are typically less respected in any patriarchal culture, 
– but also because theory always precedes practice (often by decades, & in any sphere).  
– and also because any radical & potentially threatening (to the main culture) knowledge tends to get diluted or assimilated with time, if it can’t be ignored altogether.  
It is interesting that this is a quote from Bill Mollison: 
“Women are the holders of all knowledge, 
everything a man knows he stole from a woman.”  
We’re aiming to accelerate the natural succession toward all pioneers being fairly credited and celebrated for their important contributions to all knowledge important for creating sustainable societies, for example by stating visually the original sources of the Integral Permaculture curriculum, here (work in progress).

Not just Gardening and Building

From the Foundation Year Book of the Permaculture Academy (by Bill Mollison): 
“It is always necessary to return 
to the roots of knowledge 
and the origins of institutions, 
for the latter drift from their purposes 
even if many individuals 
hold true to origins 
and ideals”.
There are far too many times good permaculture designers have found themselves saying “permaculture design is not just about gardens or buildings, it’s a design science”.   … only to find that:

a) there are lots of people / websites / publications / urban myths out there saying something quite different & busily propagating the ‘permaculture as gardening’ myth, &

b) most people don’t know what you mean by ‘design science’ anyway, hence a) happens a lot
So Integral Permaculture is about making the wonderful range & span of permaculture a lot more explicit, and actually teaching, in much more detail, how much more than a earth(-as-soil) science it is. 
In an interesting way it is actually about going back to its roots – which is why we say that the mother & father of Integral Permaculture are Dana Meadows and Howard Odum.    
Now we are ready to understand the profound insights & wisdom they had to share, in their original form, which actually goes a lot deeper than including most permaculture graduates can imagine.
With this we don’t, in any way, wish to under-estimate the primary importance of the restoration of vital ecosystems, nor, indeed, all the brilliant work done to date.  
What we believe it is important & urgent to do, however, is to address the fact that things have gotten markedly worse during the last 40yrs of passionate campaigning by ecologist and of demonstrably successful land-restoration work by permaculture designers all over the world.   
& it’s not because we don’t know how to restore vital ecosystems, but because we’ve failed to design holistically (also with the society’s mythology & economy, and our individual psychology) – or in a truly integral way.

We believe this is because we have focused the brilliant permaculture design tools on ‘external quadrants’ solutions (the physical world) 
whilst the new-age movement has filled the inevitable void in the ‘inner quadrants’ needs & interests – which are just as important for all of us – with lots of semi-magical & pseudo-spiritual half-truths, most of which (demonstrably, in their practice) actually support the status quo in just continuing on its incredibly destructive path.   
Integral Permaculture  integrates all quadrants, internal & external, but using the same applied scientific aim & vitality, innovation & originality, guided by strong clear ethics and principles that are the mark of good permaculture design.    Still ‘no belief required’ !   Only tried & tested models are taught & questioned, even as our primal need for myth, imagination, fun & story is acknowledged & consciously included in our design tools repertoire. 

An ongoing Co-Creation

Integral Permaculture graphically can be envisioned as the tip of the advancing wave above, the yellow part which represents Permaculture thought in the “yellow” or “systemic-integrating” meme.    It’s the one that strives to include all stages & types of permaculture we see now and integrates them, together with the latest emergent collective thinking on the subject of how all things come together.

Integral Permaculture is an emergent creature: it is constantly evolving and we invite you to be one of the integrating people who are exploring and co-weaving this particular piece of the fabric of history.

This is simply a conscious application of natural successions when it comes to the cultures of entire groups, neighbourhoods & societies.        
We can make much more effective interventions if we accurately understand where communities are at in terms of social development, in a very similar way that we can restore landscapes a lot faster if we have an understanding of where they’re at in ecological terms. 
There are also individual and group development stages which we ignore at our peril, when we come to design with people (and all permaculture designs are about people just as much as they are about soil & the whole surrounding ecosystem).   
Integral Permaculture includes many more models pertaining to the ‘Inner Quadrants’ of human experience, to supplement & empower the excellent range of models we already teach of the ‘Outer Quadrants’.

An Integral Map

Models of conscious evolution

Now we have many new models which are coherent and resonate well with the essence of Permaculture,  which clarify where we are, and can guide us on our path to radically re-design some inoperative old ways of thinking.    
Change is not just a matter of more & ‘better’ hardware technology.    It is the software technology that actually most matter: our ways of perceiving and thinking about the problems.


These models ARE EVOLVING all the time, & they evolve through inclusive Dialogue.


When viewed together, the viable old & emerging models  are now starting to give us a more interesting, more holistic understanding of how the self-destructive systems are held together – so we can re-design them

Spiral Dynamics


Clicking on the image will take you to a definition of this model in Wikipedia.



The spiral describes what in permaculture is called a “Natural Succession”, in this case of ‘ways of thinking’ or ‘memes, in terms of civilized cultures (= those that have created cities).

Permaculture is a science which (by definition, but rarely by practice) belongs to the yellow meme, that is, is understood in its most correct form from within this way of thinking, because it was created from this perspective.

This meme is called the Systemic or Integrating Meme, and is the level where permaculture starts not only to be understood in a holistic way, but also to be able to be applied in its most complete and powerful form: this is Integral Permaculture.

And Integral Permaculture, also by definition, includes and transcends all other previous forms, which today co-exist, and can be recognised sometimes clearly, sometimes as mixtures.  

These forms explain some of the differences that often separate us, and this model gives us some ideas about how it could unify us – as well as giving us a more global and satisfactory understanding of the design challenge itself: this model makes possible a real systhesis and holism rarely achievable without this type of clarity. 


Here is the Spiral Dynamics class page in the e-book if you would like to explore more about this model.
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