What is an “Integral Permaculture”?

by Bonita Ford. Creative Commons. Attribution 2013.

Permaculture is a holistic approach to design based on living systems. It offers a way of thinking, relating, making decisions and solving problems, which are more in balance with the living world around us. Its ethics, principles and design process enable us to use our resources intentionally and more effectively, thus creating more abundance for ourselves and our communities. Permaculture design can be broadly applied to land-based, urban, social or economic systems.


What then is an “Integral Permaculture” and how does it add to the existing body of knowledge and practice that we call permaculture? I will use the term “Integral Permaculture” to mean permaculture that explicitly includes and addresses the multi-dimensionality of our lives: the individual and the collective, the internal and the external landscape. It explicitly stretches our practice to include: our actions and behaviours, our ecological systems and social systems, as well as our experience as individuals and communities. (Integral studies were a part of my master's work, even before I started studying permaculture. More recently, this approach has helped me bring my permaculture practice and teaching into sharper focus.)

The Integral framework was developed by Ken Wilber and attempts to offer a meaningful and coherent map of “everything”. Wilber holds the premise that everyone has a piece of the truth; he has created a model that tries to make sense of all areas of knowledge, including biology, physics, religion, spirituality, psychology, sociology, economics, politics and more.

For our purposes, I'll simply focus on the four quadrants, which are central, though not the only part of the Integral model. According to Wilber, everything has interior and exterior aspects, as well as individual and collective aspects. In the diagram below, the left quadrants represent the interior and the right quadrants represent the exterior. The upper quadrants represent the individual and the lower quadrants represent the collective. The intersection of these gives us four distinct quadrants.

The upper right (UR) quadrant points to the exterior, objective, observable aspects of the individual; it includes a person's body and her/his actions. The UR is sometimes referred to as the “behavioural”. The lower right (LR) points to the exterior, objective, observable aspects of the collective; this includes social (governance, economic, physical infrastructures, etc.) and ecological systems and structures that make up our world. The LR is sometimes referred to as the “social”. Sometimes the UR and LR are also called “it” and “it's”, which together can be referred to as “nature”.

The upper left (UL) quadrant is about the interior, subjective aspect of the individual; it includes a person's attitudes, beliefs, needs, feelings, awareness and experience. The UL is sometimes referred to as the “intentional” or “self”. The lower left (LL) quadrant is about the interior, subjective aspects of the collective; this includes cultural attitudes, beliefs, values, myths, awareness and experience. The LL is sometimes referred to as the “cultural” or “culture”.


Together, the four quadrants represent nature (it and it's), self (I) and culture (we). The four quadrants cannot be reduced to each other, nor can they be separated. Consider the “environmental movement”. Some people focus on the importance of individual actions (UR): recycling, changing light bulbs, biking and buying organic food. Some focus on the larger systems and structures (LR): legislation and regulations, physical infrastructure, as well as environmental protection and restoration. However, our cultural values, attitudes, beliefs and experience (LL) about nature (eg. we can continue to extract resources for “economic growth“ and “development”, and throw our garbage “away”) all contribute to the current state of the planet. Similarly, our individual values, experience and awareness (UL) also contribute to our lifestyles and life choices.

Permaculture practice tends to focus and has its strengths in the right quadrants. When we think of “permanent agriculture”, we usually focus on land-based systems and actions we can take to implement and care for these systems. Permaculture shows us that we can “green the desserts” and grow food forests in cities from waste materials; it teaches us to reweave the web of ecological relationships, thereby promoting resilience and abundance in the ecosystems around us. Similarly, some permaculturists are at the leading edge of reweaving the webs within our social structures, including examples such as regional energy descent plans, local currencies, regional food systems, Transition Towns and ecovillages.

Traditionally, permaculture has not focussed as much on the left quadrants: the inner experience and awareness of both the individual and the collective. Even with what we call “social permaculture”, sometimes we focus more on the systems and structures that allow groups to function in a new way (which is still LR).
With more inclusion of zone 0 (or zone 00) and the inner landscape, we have opened the door to the UL realm. When we have our students do regular observation sessions in the same place in nature (some call these “sit spots”) and with awareness of their five senses, it is an activity (observable from the outside and thus UR) designed to help the person notice the outer landscape (also UR) as well as the inner landscape (UL).

Similarly, some tools and activities can carry us from doing something together (LR) to connecting with our shared experience and potentially transforming our cultural values and beliefs (all LL). In our courses, part of what we model and practice includes promoting a culture of people care, respect, openness and collaboration. Group activities and tools (observable from the outside and thus LR), which support this cultural shift (LL) include group check-in's, the students practicing group facilitation, as well as having listening circles (where only one person speaks at a time). To go further with this LL work, the students could be asked how they would like to co-create this classroom culture of people care, or a listening circle could be held sharing our experiences, challenges and celebrations around our personal and collective transition towards a lower-energy society.

From my perspective, the Integral framework coupled with permaculture design offer an approach that is powerful, widely applicable and far-reaching. “Integral Permaculture” offers a map, showing us the ground we may wish to cover, as we aim to take care of the Earth and people, while returning the surplus. This terrain incudes our ecological systems and social systems (LR), our individual actions and behaviours (UR), our cultural values and beliefs (LL), as well as our personal awareness and values (UL) that will support our transition into a more sustainable, possibly regenerative and hopefully life-enriching way of life.

by Bonita Ford. Creative Commons. Attribution 2013.


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