This essay will use sustainable development discourse to cross-examine what is known as the three pillars of sustainable development with the principles and practices of permaculture philosophy and techniques. Case studies of eco-villages in Brazil, Instituto de Permacultura e Ecovilas do Cerrado (IEPC); North Carolina, Earthaven Eco Village and Kenya, Organic Technology Extension and Promotion of Initiative Centre (OTEPIC) will be put forward as instances of sustainable grass roots social movements and examined in terms of how they align with the three pillars of sustainable development discourse; social, environmental and economic. First I will outline some sustainable development discourse pertinent to this essay and then give some background on what permaculture is. The three pillars of sustainable development will then be discussed toward each of the case studies. The environmental pillar is emphasized throughout permaculture ideology and will be discussed within this essay and the economic pillar takes form as a new type of community based economy focused on self-sufficiency, little trade and a steady-state. The social will be highlighted through patterns of governance in permaculture and in the Kenya case social inclusion.

Sustainable development is the holistic approach to development including economic, social, political and environmental perspectives (Redclift 2005, p.66). The Brundtland Commission (or, World Commission on Environment and Development) described sustainable development as:

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations             to meet their own needs” (Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our             Common Future 1987)

Although this appears to make the concept of sustainable development an achievable goal, this ideology is incredibly simplistic, and fails to acknowledge cultural relativism and the importance of a holistic approach. More recently, it is commonly accepted that sustainable development rests upon three pillars; economic growth, social development and environmental protection and that the concept is multi-dimensional, multi-scalar, multi-temporal and multi-geographic (Koshey, Mataki & Lal 2008). Global institutions exist to ensure the notion of sustainable development is distributed and discussed globally, and govern the direction of global sustainable development.

Development is dependent on strong and good governance, which encourages strong communities, a thriving economy and the preservation/conservation of natural ecosystems. It is broadly acknowledged that development and governance have a symbiotic relationship. The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) have long held governance of high importance as it directly relates to the successfulness  of sustainable development and have followed multi-lateral agreements which involve a collection of governments coming together, creating a collaborative governance (IISD 2014).

Permaculture is an emerging grass roots movement aiming to provide sustainably sourced food in all environments along with shelter and a way of creating jobs. It teaches a way of growing food in small spaces as well as creating a sustainable civilisation (Hewitt 2009). The foundational philosophy of permaculture is to work with nature and mimic its systems to create a wealth of produce that is consumed locally. The form of governance found in most permaculture communities has a strong emphasis on self-governance, and less reliance on external governance. A self-governing society is operated by those involved within said society and not influenced by external bodies; decisions affecting the community are resolved by a consensus involving all members of the community (Bird 2000 p.563). Permaculture has become very relevant as recent work in anthropology and environmental geography have shown that the current system of global capitalism and the exploitation of the environment is unsustainable and cannot address the issues facing food security, poverty and other socio-environmental problems (Veteto & Lockyer 2008).

Permaculture has a strong focus on using perennial species over annual crops, intended to create permanent fixtures in backyards that produce a steady amount of food and removes the traditional agricultural routine of yearly attendance.  The idea behind this gives a sense of security, food all year round without the reliance on chemicals and machinery; however it is still important to ask the question: can we feed the world and enhance food security using the traditions and philosophies of permaculture? (Stirzatker 2010)

To do this, permaculture and modern agricultural methods used in the developing world will be examined using the three pillars of sustainable development as a standard.  To display how permaculture addresses the three pillars, permaculture eco-villages will be examined. The trend of ‘eco-villages’ has taken off with ‘The Global Eco-village Network’ reporting that there are over 800 established eco-villages globally. Dawson describes an eco-village as:

“…human-scale, full-featured settlements in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the             natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human development and which can be successfully             continued into the indefinite future” (Gilman 1991 p. 10)

Earthhaven Eco-village in North Carolina has achieved a sustainable community following the rules of permaculture while maintaining democratic self-governance. The community of 60 members are experimenting with new ways of achieving social, economic and ecological sustainability, addressing firsthand the three pillars of sustainability (Veteto & Lockyer 2008).  Earthhaven Eco-village are attempting to provide an alternative approach to development, one that addresses food security, ecosystem health and equality; however the ecovillage is only small scale and it is unclear if a full-scale settlement can be implemented while staying true to the foundations of permaculture and addressing ecological, economic and socio-cultural matters.  Permaculture Activist outlines exactly how those involved in eco-village projects plan on doing so:

“Permaculture is a holistic system of design, based on direct observation of nature, learning from traditional knowledge and the findings of modern science. Embodying a philosophy of positive action and grassroots education, permaculture aims to restructure society by returning control of resources for living: food, water, shelter and the means of livelihood, to ordinary people in their communities, as the only antidote to centralized power” (Veteto & Lockyer 2008).

This sentiment suggests that permaculture has the ability to morph with ecological and cultural change, to be implemented in macro or micro settings and most importantly provide a holistic bottom up approach to sustainable development that addresses all three pillars.

Economic growth is not directly addressed by the permaculture movement; rather it suggests a new type of economy within permaculture communities. Ted Trainer (2010) argues that the current industrial-affluent-consumer society is unsustainable and only contributes to environmental issues and will lead to a harder inevitable economic crash whereas permaculture offers an alternative; self-sufficient local communities, locally sourced produce, little trade and a steady state economy (Trainer 2010 p.19). Both the permaculture and eco-village movements focus more on self-reliance and sustainably sourced produce than the development of self-sufficient economies, with both movements assuming that self-governance will happen naturally and the current economy will have little influence.

The foundational philosophy of permaculture is to work with nature, so the second pillar ‘environmental protection’ is heavily incorporated into all permaculture practices. Ecocentro IPEC, a permaculture centre in Brazil are working with the community to protect and rebuild the Amazon, a rainforest so heavily manufactured it is predicted to reach a point where the forest cannot renew itself within the next 5 years (Cumming, Southworth, 2012 pp. 67-74). All involved in the permaculture movement hold the sentiment ‘protect nature and safeguarding wildernesses of highest regard (Global Ecovillage Network 2014)

The last pillar to be considered is social development; an example of permaculture addressing this is the Otepic Project in Kenya. This project is working toward food and social security for the community through sharing common resources, encouraging alternative health practices, providing work and companionship for all members and integrating marginal groups into the community (Global Ecovillage Network 2014).

The permaculture movement urges a shift toward self-reliance, self-governance and community based sustainable development. Its foundations acknowledge the importance of ecological preservation and providing sustainably sourced food for all. That said, it fails to offer a practical solution to address all three pillars of sustainability by dismissing economic growth as a necessity. Permaculture cannot flourish without severe economic, political and social change. In the current economic and political climate permaculture can provide assistance to obtaining food security along with technological advances, political stability and strong global governance.



Bird, C 2000, ‘The possibility of self-governance’, American Political Science Review, 94.3 p. 563, Cambridge University Press, viewed 7th April2014

Brundtland, H 1987, Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, World Commission on Environment and Development, Oslo

Cumming, G, Southworth, J, Rondon, X & Marsik, M 2012, ‘Spatial Complexity in fragmenting Amazonian rainforests: Do feedbacks from edge effects push forests towards an ecological threshold?’, Ecological Complexity, 11 pp. 67-74, Elsevier Press, viewed 7th April 2014

Gilman, R 1991, ‘The Ecovillage challenge’, In Context, 29 p. 10, viewed 7th April 2014

Global Ecovillage Network 2014, Dimensions of sustainability, viewed 7th April 2014 <;

Hewitt, D 2009, Permaculture: ‘What, why and how: Growing food for a sustainable society’, Herald Times, viewed 7th April 2014 <;

International Institute for Sustainable Development 2014, Governance for Sustainable Development, viewed 7th April 2014 <;

Koshy, K, Mataki, M & Lal, M 2008, Sustainable Development – A Pacific Islands Perspective, Pacific Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development (PACE-SD), University of the South Pacific

Redclift, M 2005, ‘Sustainable Development (1987-2005): an oxymoron comes of age’, Sustainable Development, 13, 4 pp. 212-227, Business Source Complete, viewed 7th April 2014

Stirzaker, R 2010, Out of the Scientists Garden, CSIRO, Victoria

Trainer, T 2010 The Transition: To a Sustainable and Just World, Envirobook, Sydney

Veteto, J & Lockyer, J 2008, ‘Environmental Anthropology Engaging Permaculture: Moving Theory and Practice Toward Sustainability’, Culture & Agriculture, 30.1-2 pp. 47-58, University of Georgia, viewed 7th April 2014


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