Permaculture is an agricultural and social philosophy that follows the cycles of the natural world.
By managing land in a sustainable and revitalizing way, permaculture aims to foster ecological health and a better society.
Over time, farmers and permaculture advocates have advanced brilliant ideas about how to live, grow food and develop in a positive way on the land we inhabit.
Their ideas are well worth exploring to get insights into how permaculture can improve our world.
Without further ado, here we go.
The 15 most important thinkers in permaculture
1) Ancient indigenous knowledge
Modern permaculture is a concept developed in 1970s Australia.
But the principles of regenerative wilding, sustainable growing and working with nature instead of against it are part of many ancient indigenous knowledge systems.
Indigenous cultures from Brazil to America to Mongolia have always focused on how to grow food and livestock and run systems in ways that create a sustainable cycle of regrowth.
This isn’t just physical either: it’s part of a spiritual worldview that sees human beings as part of nature.
“Indigenous spiritualities are the result of people’s close connection, communion with, and reverence for nature and all life.
“They have lived as part of nature for millennia, and understood their place in it — their spirituality arose from there.”
2) Bill Mollison
Bill Mollison is the co-founder of modern permaculture and its foundational ideas.
He launched its main ideas with his 1978 book Permaculture One–A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements co-written with David Holmgren.
Mollison was born in 1928 in the small Tasmanian town of Stanley in Australia. His father was a fisherman and his family also ran a bakery. He left school early and worked in the bakery as well as fishing, trapping, working in a mill and as a logger.
Mollison eventually went on to become a professor of environmental psychology which is how he got to know fellow professor Holmgren.
Mollison’s main ideas are to integrate humanity with nature and achieve sustainable, peaceful communities through practice rather than abstract ideas. He wanted to revolutionize and increase the effectiveness of many things we do.
“The books took ideas from many areas—farming systems, traditional agriculture, building design and construction, water supply, ecology, anthropology, ethnobotany, technology and more—and synthesized them into something seemingly complete and achievable.”
Mollison himself described permaculture as:
“The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems.
“It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”
3) David Holmgren
As a fellow permaculture pioneer, David Holmgren is particularly well-known for his book Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability and his early work forming the ideas of permaculture with Mollison.
Holmgren emphasizes how ecology can be our partner in farming, energy and living, instead of an obstacle to be overcome or conquered. He’s also not shy about pointing out the issue with modern society.
As Holmgren writes, the Global South and the world as a whole is going downhill because First World elites hide the effects of global overconsumption in order to secure short-term power and high profits.
“The same system of power that extracts and exploits the less powerful, soothes the billion or so middle class people, mostly in the North, into complacency with low costs, relative to average incomes, of food, water, energy and derived goods.
“This failure of global markets to transmit signals about resource depletion and environmental degradation has insulated consumers from the need to develop more self-reliant lifestyles, and disabled the drive for public policies to assist these necessary adaptations.”
4) Masanobu Fukuoka
Masunobu Fukuoka is one of the most important thinkers in permaculture and an inspiring figure for all those who care about the food we eat and the planet we live on.
This talented and brilliant Japanese man lived from 1913 to 2008 and started a system of permaculture which he called “do-nothing farming.” The main concept was just what it sounds like: do as little as possible and let nature work.
Fukuoka believed this resulted in nature working out her own problems and producing the best crop yields.
His 1984 book The Road Back to Nature was an international bestseller and focuses on how man-made problems have cut in front of nature’s natural processes.
A devout Christian who also believed in elements of Taoism and Zen Buddhism, Fukuoka believed that God created nature to be an accompaniment to human flourishing, not a thing to be dominated and destroyed.
He was very opposed to practices such as forest clear-cutting and large-scale consumption.
Fukuoka also spoke out against fertilizers and modern methods of farming that treat the earth as merely a means to an end. To him, this was both spiritually and physically damaging to all of us.
Although his “do-nothing-farming” doesn’t mean literally to do nothing, it does emphasize Fukuoka’s view that most ecological devastation and poor quality of life and food comes from humankind’s impatience and intervention into systems that don’t require so much involvement.
5) Penny Livingston-Stark
Penny Livingston-Stark is one of the most important thinkers in permaculture.
She’s studied across the world and specializes in teaching Permaculture Design Certification (PDC) courses to budding permaculture designers and farmers.
As a direct protege of Mollison and Holmgren, Livingston-Stark has taken their ideas and expanded them, with a particular focus on herbal medicine, environmentally-friendly construction materials and building co-housing communities.
Livingston-Stark also emphasizes the potential of using rainwater collection, local resources and nearby watersheds to revivify the landscape and increase ecological health.
She lives and works on an organic farm that’s partnered with a cancer treatment center in California with her husband.
She’s been instrumental in spreading the word about permaculture and started various programs in higher education including the Ecological Design Program at the San Francisco Institute of Architecture.
Livingston-Stark also started an organization called the Natural Building Colloquium, which specializes in spreading awareness of how to build straw bale and cob homes and use healthy interior finishes like clay for inside.
6) Geoff Lawton
Geoff Lawton is a leading teacher and consultant in the permaculture field.
He focuses on teaching groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), corporations and governments how to implement effective permaculture policies.
So far, Lawton is credited with instructing more than 15,000 permaculture students worldwide.
He’s shown students how to work with soil, plants, livestock, renewable energy and within political systems to achieve beneficial change and live more in harmony with nature.
Lawton is hopeful that more sustainable ways of using consumables like food and energy can avert a coming meltdown over resources and climate disasters.
In the late 1990s, Lawton was tasked with following through on a farm started by Mollison called Tagari Farm and he later opened up Australia’s Permaculture Research Institute there as well.
The organization works worldwide to fund permaculture projects and Lawton teaches around the world. Notable recent projects by Lawton include an ambitious land restoration venture in western Saudi Arabia and working to improve the water situation through permaculture in Wadi Rum, Jordan.
7) Robert Hart
Robert Hart was a British farmer who changed the way modern society grows things. He is definitely one of the most important thinkers in permaculture.
Hart was a leading advocate of “forest gardens,” which are basically what they sound like: planting gardens that are directly integrated with the forest ecosystem and having vines, vegetables and plants which feed off the forest and feed humans.
Hart became renowned for his forest garden located in Shropshire, UK, which a visiting couple called Ken and Addy Fern described as “a very special place.”
“Narrow pathways lead you amongst fruit and nut trees, growing into them you will find climbing plants such as grapes and kiwi fruits. Growing under them are various fruiting shrubs such as blackcurrants and gooseberries and also many herbs and salad plants that will succeed in the woodland shade,” the Ferns described.
“On the sunnier edges of the garden, a number of more conventional vegetables are grown. There was an amazing amount of food, especially plums, in the garden.”
Hart started his garden in 1960 in order to become totally self-sufficient and he began focusing on growing perennial crops which grew much better.
His forest garden concept doesn’t need fertilizer, pest control, strictly ordered rows and lots of weeding. Even the root networks in the forest actually help the crops to grow and find nourishment and water.
Hart’s vision of forest gardens has become influential around the world and he’s fondly remembered since his death in 2007. His permaculture stands in contrast to mechanized modern agriculture which seeks to regiment, break down and control nature.
8) Robyn Francis
Robyn Francis is a legend in the permaculture world and is undoubtedly among the most important thinkers in permaculture.
She’s helped innovate and expand the field, including her work building up ecovillages, teaching sustainable agriculture and offering professional training in permaculture.
She also founded the Permaculture College of Australia which is located at the large Djanbung Gardens campus in New South Wales.
Francis is experienced at putting permaculture ideas to work in both rural and urban settings and is also very focused on getting the whole community involved in projects.
Francis believes that permaculture is a very promising field, but that people do sometimes bring in their own blind spots and let their own “dogmas” supersede practical work.
“We’ve got to tread a very careful fine line of the reality of the bad news of what’s happening with our planet and environment and people, along with spreading hope for change,” Francis says.
“Permaculture needs to focus a lot more on the people-care side of things.”
Her work has often centered on her native Australia, but Francis has also worked around the world and believes that the ideals of sustainability and harmony found in permaculture are a bright spot of hope in dark times.
As Francis elaborates in this interview:
“Permaculture permeates all aspects of my life, from my day-to-day decisions and lifestyle right through to how I interact with my community and the world at large…
“I think the most profound lesson from permaculture has been ‘small is beautiful.’ I know that’s a Schumacher term, but starting small, starting with small systems and getting them working and then moving on from there…
“Really exercising a lot of self-discipline. It’s easy to spread yourself too far, too thin. I learned that from living on a very large property once.”
9) Max Lindegger
Max Lindegger is a leader in the permaculture field and certainly one of the most important thinkers in permaculture.
He’s worked to build ecovillages in over 60 nations around the world and has been particularly focused on sustainable recycling of wastewater systems and building long-term, ecologically friendly infrastructure.
Lindegger has worked hard to help many students and farmers build up small farms, particularly in beekeeping and trying to regenerate and keep the diminishing population of bees alive and well.
Permaculture can range from the very small like a garden on the porch to hobby farming or larger operations. Lindegger is particularly well known for his design of Crystal Waters Permaculture Village located in Queensland.
He’s also become popular for his courses around the globe from America to Argentina where he teaches students how to put the best aspects of permaculture into practice and work in many different bioregions and climates.
10) Ernst Schumacher
Ernst Schumacher was a German economic thinker and environmentalist who is most renowned for his 1973 book Small is Beautiful. This idea was mentioned earlier by Robyn Francis and has been enormously influential over the past decades.
Schumacher believed that localism and small economic projects were much better for human flourishing than globalization and unchecked free trade.
He wanted to decentralize economic systems and agriculture, economics and corporations so that they didn’t continue to run roughshod over the environment and human beings.
Schumacher believed that global capitalism was on a runaway course that would eventually implode the environment and society itself.
“The system of nature, of which man is a part, tends to be self-balancing, self-adjusting, self-cleansing. Not so with technology,” Schumacher noted.
His work was controversial in his time because of challenging the mindset of growth and industrial “progress” that abounds in many Western cultures.
Schumacher died in 1977 but his ideas are still highly relevant today and form a foundational core of permaculture as well.
“Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology toward the organic, the gentle, the elegant and beautiful.”
11) Patrick Whitefield
Patrick Whitefield belongs on any list of the most important thinkers in permaculture.
He was a pioneer of permaculture in Europe and did a lot of work on expanding permaculture practices in the UK and different climates.
Whitefield explored many of his key ideas in his book Earth Care Manual.
The book is tailored to British conditions and looks at how permaculture concepts around sustainable growing and recycling can be adapted to colder northern temperatures.
Whitefield was born in 1949 and passed away in 2015. He was raised in Wiltshire UK and went on to study agriculture. He later purchased land to turn it into a protected natural area and ran for Britain’s Ecology Party, the ancestor of today’s Green Party.
Whitefield had a unique way of understanding permaculture that prized the human connection to the land and adapting to various conditions and obstacles. He talks about this in films such as 2008’s A Farm for the Future.
He also helped form the Glastonbury Music Festival.
12) Rosemary Morrow
Rosemary Morrow opened the Blue Mountains Permaculture Institute in 2009 and is a renowned and important permaculture thought leader.
Her book Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture shows people how they can reduce their ecological footprint in their day-to-day life and draws on her decades of experience in permaculture to talk about a sustainable future.
Morrow has worked all over from Vietnam to India and all across the African continent, and has refined her view that permaculture can bring people together and unify society.
She’s built up successful permaculture farms from Uganda to the Middle East, increasing respect for her and people’s desire to learn from her insights.
Along with great lessons on how to save seeds, keep pests to a minimum without harmful sprays and rewild nature while still having plentiful harvests, Morrow is an expert on how to conserve water and live in harmony with the ecosystem.
13) Brad Lancaster
Brad Lancaster is one of the most important thinkers in permaculture, especially in terms of rainwater usage and water management.
He’s a strong advocate of rainwater collection and has used this technique very effectively at his own small property in the urban core of Tucson, Arizona.
Lancaster helped start the Neighborhood Foresters program in 1996 that works to plant trees that have fruits and nuts you can eat around the city. He also runs a non-profit called Desert Harvesters that instructs locals on how they can plant, tend to and eat from things which grow in Arizona.
Desert Harvesters has also made great progress in milling and processing local mesquite flour that a large number of local restaurants in his area have started using instead of, or in addition to, wheat.
His 2019 book Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 1: Guiding Principles to Welcome Rain Into Your Life and Landscape has been very popular and shows how to harvest water even in very dry regions like deserts.
“I believe we all can become beneficial stewards of the land, and partners in the ecosystem in which we live, and I believe that by harvesting water—and more—we can all begin to transform our households and neighborhoods from being consumers of resources to generators—and even regenerators—of resources.”
14) Toby Hemenway
Toby Hemenway is definitely one of the most important thinkers in permaculture and was an inspiring and dedicated man to all who knew him.
Hemenway actually worked in the biotechnology field, but began losing faith in the way that industry was progressing and soon after discovered permaculture.
He specialized in applying permaculture to city environments and also to practicing it on a small scale, as he outlines in his 2009 book Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-scale Permaculture.
This book shows people how to make a permaculture system in their own backyard and allow insects, birds and the natural ecosystem to be on your side. It also gets into how you can make a permaculture garden even if you live on a smaller property in the city.
Hemenway gets even more into urban permaculture in his 2015 book The Permaculture City where he explores how you can save water, generate energy and have a permaculture garden in an urban environment.
Sadly, Hemenway died in 2016 after a fight with pancreatic cancer, but his work in permaculture and the many courses he taught are well remembered by students and he’s left a lasting impression on the permaculture world.
15) Joel Salatin
Joel Salatin is a leading American agricultural activist and one of the most important thinkers in permaculture.
Salatin runs Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia, and has been a leading advocate of a return to healthier, permaculture-based farming and being more connected to the food we eat.
Salatin actually grew up in Venezuela because his dad worked for an oil company, but they left when he was still a young age to settle in Virginia.
In particular, Salatin supports raising livestock on healthy grasslands and moving them around pastures rather than bulking them up on hormones and corn feed.
Salatin calls himself a “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer” and says the quality of his meat is even better than standard organic food.
Permaculture brings hope for the future
Permaculture provides a path forward for agriculture and society.
Instead of a short-term, profit-based system, permaculture urges us to think longer-term about the food we eat and the planet we inhabit.
The influential thinkers who’ve helped develop and advance the theories of permaculture are well worth your time to look into.
This includes in cities and suburbs, where retrofitting homes and changing energy use can be part of the shift towards workable permaculture systems.
The important ideas of permaculture pioneers and newcomers are helping build a better future for all of us and you can put permaculture into practice even right in your own backyard.
As Elizabeth Waddington writes:
“Most of us now understand that our way of life on this planet has to change if humanity is going to survive – we’re faced with a range of challenges that threaten our very existence.
“It can be easy to become disheartened and to feel like shrugging our shoulders and asking what we, as individuals, can possibly do.
“Permaculture offers a ray of hope – a way forward. It offers everyone the chance to be part of the transition to a more eco-friendly, ethical and sustainable future.”