That's not the most exciting headline title I've ever crafted, but it is truly descriptive of the subject. Utility -- usefulness -- practical importance -- is what we are getting at here. Permaculture is the art and science of designing human habitations that care for Creation, care for People, and care for the Future.
I first read about permaculture in the old Co-evolution Quarterly and Whole Earth Catalog, as they reported the early work of Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, the co-developers of permaculture. The need for the discipline is clear. We face tremendous challenges going forward, in multiple areas of concern. Permaculture offers us a conscious design discipline to help us finagle our way forward towards a more sustainable and peaceful way of living on this planet.
Permaculture is first and foremost rooted in a personal ethical decision to embrace the 3 permaculture ethics (Care for Creation, Care for People, Care for the Future). Having made that ethical commitment, permaculturists (a/k/a permies) uses principles, strategies, and tactics to achieve our goals. We write "permaculture designs", which are thoroughly planned and staged descriptions for the work needed on a particular site. For an overview of the permaculture design process, including a statement of permaculture principles and disciplines, see Living Lovingly on the Earth, by Dan Hemenway of Elfin Permaculture in Florida.
Permaculture is not gardening class, although gardens are often an aspect of a permaculture design. Permaculture is "comprehensively holistic", it is as interested in energy conservation and travel modes as it is in gardening and edible landscaping.
Permaculture works for everyone everywhere -- the rich and the poor, and all points between. It is important for people in cities and on farms. It is necessary for college students and soccer moms, working mothers and busy fathers. You don't have to have land or own a house, permaculture works for renters as well as anyone else. This universal applicability is because permaculture does not dictate solutions, it offers design principles and processes that can be applied anywhere.
It is not easy. It takes time and effort. But the result is worth the work.
I'm using permaculture in my life to get ready for retirement. Like many people these days, I won't have a lot of money when I retire, and the outlook for Social Security is at best dubious. So I am working and planning now, when I have income, for the day when I will have little income. The permaculture design for my home is a five year plan to increase the food production on my tiny little 1/7th acre urban plot and decrease the operating expenses. Every dollar I don't have to spend for food or electricity is a dollar I don't have to earn, receive from Social Security, or have in my savings.
You can read about my permaculture design at Gatewood Urban Homestead. It is 183 pages, with comprehensive appendices including 10 years of central Oklahoma climate data, reading list, resources for implementation, and plant species lists. The outline is on the page so you can see how it develops. You can buy a PDF of the design for $10 (it can also be ordered on the Oklahoma Food Coop monthly orders, as either a PDF or a CD). I realize I am tooting my own horn here, but I think permaculture design is critical for the future. One way to learn permaculture design is to read someone else's design and see how it works. While my design is site specific to my own situation and lifestyle, careful readers can learn a lot that can be applied to their own situation.
Here are some free sources for learning permaculture design:
Online Permaculture Design Pamphlets, a transcript of a permaculture design course taught by Bill Mollison in New Hampshire in the early 1980s.
Permaculture Resource Manual, from an Indonesian organization, in English and in Indonesian, a very comprehensive site with hundreds of pages of information.
Introduction to Permaculture, an article from the Permaculture Activist.
The primary text of permaculture is the Permaculture Design Manual. It's not cheap, but it is often available from libraries.