Applying Laws and Principles to Permaculture Design

Permaculture Designers Manual




Section 2.3 –

Applying Laws and Principles to Permaculture Design




Principles differ from dogmas in that there are no penalties for error, but only learning from error, which leads to a new evolution.

Dogmas are rules which are intended to force centralized control (often by guilt), and it is obvious that every such rule or law represents a failure of the social system.

It is too late to fail, but never too late to adopt sensible principles for our guidance, and to throw away the rule book.


Life Intervention Principle



Just join with one or two friends to make your way in the confusion. Others will follow and learn.


“In chaos lies unparalleled opportunity for imposing creative order.”


There is only one law that is offered to us by such education as we derive from nature, and that is the law of return, which can be stated in many ways:


Law of Return

“Whatever we take, we must return”, or “Nature demands a return for every gift received.” or “‘The user must pay.”

We should examine, and act on, the forms of this law.

It is the reason why this course carries a tree tax: that we may be able to continue in the use of books.

It is why we must never buy books or newspapers that do not tax, nor goods where the manufacturer does not recycle or replant the materials of the manufacture.

It is why we must carefully study how to use our wastes, and this includes our body wastes.


Put in the form of a directive or policy statement, this law would read :


“Every object must responsibly provide for its replacement ; society must, as a condition of use, replace an equal or greater resource than that used.”


Inherent in such a law are the concepts of replanting, recycling, durability, and the correct or beneficial disposal of wastes. Nature has extreme penalties for those who break such laws, and for their descendants and neighbors.

Nor can we deny immanence; if a landscape delights us, we should not insult it with castles on peaks, roadways, and dear-cuts. We should return the pleasure we get from natural prospects, and maintain their integrity. It would be pleasant indeed were the land around us a always to appear welcoming or non-threatening.

This effect, too, can be created or destroyed. There is no reason not to bury our necessary constructs in earth, or clothe them with vegetation. If we want pleasure in life, then we should preserve the life around us.

Energies enter a system, and either remain or escape. Our work as Permaculture Designers is to prevent energy leaving before the basic needs of the whole system are satisfied, so that growth, reproduction, and maintenance continue in our living components.


“All Permaculture Designers should be aware of the fundamental principles that govern Natural Systems.”

These are not immutable rules, but can be used as a set of directives, taking each case as unique but gaining confidence and inspiration from a set of findings and solutions in other places and other times.

We can use the guiding principles and laws of natural systems, as formulated by such people as Vatt, Odum. and Birch, and apply some of them to our consciously-designed ecologies.


Basic Law of Thermodynamics


“All energy entering an organism, population or ecosystem can be accounted for as energy which is stored or leaves. Energy can be transferred from one form to another. but it cannot disappear, or be destroyed, or created. No energy conversion system is ever completely efficient.” (as restated by Watt)


“The total energy of the universe is constant and the total entropy is increasing.” (As slated by Asimov 1970)



Entropy is bound or dissipated energy; it becomes unavailable for work or not useful to the system. It is the waters of a mountain stream that have reached the sea. It is the heat, noise, and exhaust smoke that an automobile emits while travelling. It Is the energy of food used to keep an animal warm, alive, and mobile.

Thus, ambient and useful energy storages are degraded into less useful forms until they are no longer of any use to our system.

The question for the designer becomes, “How can I best use energy before it passes from my site, or system?

Our strategy is to set up an interception net from “source to sink“. This net is a compound web of life and technologies, and is designed to catch and store as much energy as possible on its way  to increasing entropy (as in Figure 2.1).




The designer’s work is to set up useful energy storages in a landscape or building (proceeding from State A to State B).

Such storages, available for increasing yields, are called “Resources”.

Therefore, we design to catch and store as much water as possible from the hills before it ends up at its “sink“in the quiet valley lake.



If we made no attempt to store or use it as it passes through our system, we would suffer drought, have to import it from outside our system, or use energy to pump it back uphill.

Although the material world can perhaps be predictably measured (at least over a wide range of phenomena), by applications of the laws of thermodynamics, these relate mainly to non-living or experimentally “closed systems“.

The concept of entropy is not necessarily applicable to those living, open earth systems with which we are involved and in which we are immersed. Such laws are more useful in finding an effective path through material technologies than through a life-complexed world.

The key word in open systems is “exchange”. For example, on the local level, cities appear to be “open“, but as they return little energy to the systems that supply them, and pass on their wastes as pollutants to the sea, they are not in exchange, but in a localized one-way trade with respect to their food resource.

All cities break the basic “law of return“.

Life systems constantly organise and create complex storages from diffuse energy and materials, accumulating, decomposing, building, and transforming them for further use.

We can use these effects in the Design Process by finding pathways or routes by which Life Systems convert diffuse materials into those of most use.



For Example, If we have a “waste“‘ such as manure, we  can  leave it on a field.  Although this is of productive use, we have only achieved one function.  Alternatively, we can route it through a series of transformations that give us a variety of resources.

First we can ferment it, and distill it to alcohol, and secondly route the waste through a biogas digester, where anaerobic organisms convert it to methane, of use as a cooking or heating gas, or as fuel for vehicles.

Thirdly, the liquid effluent can be sent to fields, and the solid sludge fed to worms, which convert it to rich horticultural soil. Fourthly, the worms themselves can be used to feed fish or poultry.


Birch states Six Principles of Natural Systems:

  1. Nothing in nature grows forever.” (There is a constant cycle of decay and rebirth.)
  2. Continuation of life depends on the maintenance of the global bio-geochemical cycles of essential elements, in particular carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur, and phosphorus.” (Thus, we need  to cycle these and other minor nutrients to stimulate growth, and to keep the atmosphere and waters of earth unpolluted.)
  3. The probability of extinction of populations or a species is greatest when the density is very high or very low.” (Both crowding and too few individuals of a species may result in reaching thresholds of extinction.)
  4. The chance that species have to survive and reproduce is dependent primarily upon one or two key factors in the complex web of relations of the organism to its environment.”(If we can determine what these critical factors are, we can exclude, by design. some limiting Factors, e.g. frost, and increase others, e.g. shelter, nest sites).
  5. Our ability to change the face of the earth Increases a t a faster rate th an our ability to foresee the consequence of such change.” (Hence the folly of destroying life systems for short-term profit.)
  6. Using organisms are not only means but ends. In addition to their instrumental value to humans and other living organisms, they have an intrinsic worth.” (This is the life ethic thesis so often missing from otherwise ethical systems.)

Although these principles are basic and inescapable, what we as designers have to deal with is survival on a particular site, here and now.

Thus, we must study whether the resources and energy consumed can be derived from renewable or non-renewable resources, and how non-renewable resources can best be used to conserve and generate energy in living (renewable) systems.

Fortunately for us, the long-term energy derived from the sun is available on earth, and can be used to renew our resources if life systems are carefully constructed and preserved.


There are thus several practical design considerations to observe:

  1. The systems we construct should last as long as possible, and take least maintenance.
  2. These systems, fueled by the sun, should produce not only their own needs, but the needs of the people creating or controlling them. Thus, they are sustainable, as they sustain both themselves and those who construct them.
  3. We can use energy to construct these systems, providing that in their lifetime, they store or conserve more energy than we use to construct them or to maintain them.


The following are some Design Principles that have been distilled for use in Permaculture:




We can assist rather than impede natural elements, forces, pressures, processes, agencies, and evolutions. In natural successions, grasses slowly give way to shrubs, which eventually give way to trees. We can actively assist this natural succession not by slashing out weeds and pioneers, but by using them to provide microclimate, nutrients, and wind protection for the exotic or native species we want to establish.


If we throw nature out the window, she comes back in the door with a pitchfork“(Masanobu Fukuoka) .


For example, if we spray for pest infestations, we end up destroying both pests and the predators that feed on them, so the following year we get an explosion of pests because there are no predators to control them.

Consequently, we spray more heavily, putting things further out of balance. Unfortunately, all these pests are never killed, and the survivors breed more resistant progeny (nature’s pitchfork!)



Everything works both ways. It is only how we see things that makes them advantageous or not . If the wind blows cold, Let us use both its strength and its coolness to advantage (for example, funneling wind to a wind generator, or directing cold winter wind to a cool cupboard in a heated house).

A corollary of this principle is that everything is a positive resource; it is up to us to work out how we may use it as such.

A Designer may recognize a specific site characteristic as either a problem or as a unique feature capable of several uses, e.g. jagged rock outcrops.


Such features can only become “problems” when we have already decided on imposing a specific site pattern that the rock outcrop interferes with . It is not a problem, and may be an “asset” if we accept it for the many values it possesses.


The problem is the solution” is a Mollisonism implying that only our fixed attitudes are problems when dealing with things like rock outcrops! A friend has included several natural boulders in her home, with excellent physical, aesthetic, and economic benefit; the builder would have removed them as “problems“, at great expense.



For example, when choosing a dam site, select the area where you get the most water for the least amount of earth moved.



The only limit on the number of uses of a resource possible within a system is in the limit of the information and the imagination of the designer.

If you think you have fully planted an area, almost any other innovative designer can see ways to add a vine, a fungus, a beneficial insect, or can see a yield potential that has been ignored.

Gahan Gilfedder at the Garden of Eden in Australia found an unsuspected market for cherimoya seed, required by nurseries as seed stock for grafting.

This made a resource from a “waste” product derived from damaged fruit.




A Mollisonian principle is that “everything makes it own garden“, or everything has an effect on its environment.

Rabbits make burrows and defecation mounds, scratch out roots, create short swards or lawns, and also creates the conditions favorable for weeds such as thistles.


People build houses, dispose of sewage, dig up soils for gardens, and maintain annual vegetable patches.

We can use the rabbit directly as food, to help in fire control, to prepare soil for “thistles” (cardoons and globe artichokes), and to shelter many native animal species in their abandoned burrows. Rabbits maintain species-rich moorland swards suited to many orchards and other small plants.

It is a matter of careful consideration as to where this rabbit, and ourselves, belong in any system, and if we should control or manage their effects or tolerate them. When we examine how plants and animals change ecosysterns, we may find many allies in our efforts to sustain ourselves and other species.

(See Figure 2.2).