A Permaculture PhD, by Mary Loveday

Mary Loveday outlines twelve points, based on David Holmgren’s Permaculture design principles, for a sustainable approach to the PhD process.


Mary Loveday Edwards

School of Design

University of Leeds



Permaculture is a holistic based design practice which aims to enhance quality of life without causing harm. Given what I think is permaculture’s potential for useful application to a range of activities, I am going to outline how one might approach doing a PhD through the twelve Permaculture design principles articulated by David Holmgren in his Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability:[1]

  • Observe and interact

Observe your field and what is happening around your project. Explore yourself as well as you go through the process of completing a PhD. WRoCAH events are a useful way of placing yourself within an ecology of practices.

  • Catch and store energy

Find your own working patterns. It will pay dividends now to explore and understand when you think best, when is good for writing, when you can read most analytically, when you need to blow off steam – ordering your working day around your own best energy use.

  • Obtain a yield

Try to write something every day. Words on a page are really encouraging. Give yourself small goals that you know you can achieve, and that you can recognise when you have achieved them.

  • Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

Ask for lots of feedback. As you move through your PhD the emphasis will move from feedback from others to your own self-regulation – but feedback is always useful, even when it’s not.

  • Use and value renewable resources and services

Networking is extremely valuable. Try to set up networks you find enjoyable as well. Free training is a fantastic opportunity. University services are there to assist you – use them.

  • Produce no waste

Try to see writing as a process rather than a product – if you write to think rather than to produce golden prose, you will not think of what you have to cut as waste but as steps towards the finished thesis thinking. Also, try to identify where your energy leaks away.

  • Design from patterns to details

If you read other theses you will see how different people have achieved the same goal – it will show you where you can alter the expected format to suit yourself.

  • Integrate rather than segregate

If you see how your project fits into wider fields, you stand a better chance of being able to articulate what your original contribution is.

  • Use small and slow solutions

Break what you have to achieve down into smaller chunks. Everything will take longer than you think it will, so plan for this. And just keep swimming!

  • Use and value diversity

A colleague’s different practice, or a comment from someone outside academia, can often give you an insight you didn’t realise you were waiting for.

  • Use edges and value the marginal

The interface between things is often where the most interesting things happen. Don’t get stuck within an echo chamber – go out and meet other thoughts and ways of doing things.

  • Creatively use and respond to change

It can be difficult when your data shows something you had not expected, or your hypothesis or question needs radical revision. But the more you can respond to these changes the stronger your thesis will be.

I’m sure you can see lots of other ways the principles could be applied to your journey. Not all the principles apply equally to everybody or in all situations – but I hope they may be of use in framing parts of your journey.

[1] Holmgren, David. 2002. Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Hepburn, Vic.: Holmgren Design Services.