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The original definition of permaculture was permanent agriculture, or agriculture which can be sustained in a place indefinitely. In contrast, the much more common monoculture, or the growing of the same crop repeatedly, tends to leech topsoil of vital nutrients, eventually rendering the land unusable for farming. Over time, the definition of permaculture has broadened to include culture, thus incorporating the social aspects of sustainability.

There are four main components of permaculture philosophy:
  • Shared ethics centered on "earth care", "people care", and "fair shares" (which is shorthand for limits to populations and consumption, and the fair distribution of resources to further the work of earth care and people care). Permaculture also stresses the importance of taking personal responsibility for one's actions.
  • Ecological principles derived from the observation of natural systems by ecologists such as Birch and Odum, as well as from successful pre-technological societies.
  • Design tools and processes that allow an individual or group to assemble conceptual, material, and strategic components into a "pattern" or "plan of action" that can be implemented and maintained with minimal resources.
  • A plan for surviving the energy descent as oil and gas production peak and begin to decline over the next decade. David Holmgren is increasingly presenting permaculture as the only viable tool for retrofitting the suburbs to survive peak oil in a lifestyle that emphasizes the core values above; a holistic care for local people and ecologies in a local energy based economy.

After the publication of Permaculture One, Mollison and Holmgren further refined and developed their ideas by designing hundreds of permaculture sites and organizing this information into more detailed books. Mollison has lectured in over eighty countries and his two-week Design Course has been taught to many hundreds of students. By the early 1980s, the concept had moved on from being predominantly about the design of agricultural systems towards being a more fully holistic design process for creating sustainable human habitats.

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