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Permaculture Ethics

Fellfoot Drove SheepfoldPermaculture Touchstone

Permaculture ethics were presented in my first Permaculture Design Course as the touchstone of designing towards sustainability – whether as a landscape designer, as an architect, urban planner, as a farmer/gardener, as a teacher or activist, as an urban dweller seeking to find balance and create an ecologically-sound life.

I was amazed that I hadn’t been presented with a statement of ethics in any other discipline I had studied; I had known about the Hippocratic oath taken by medical practitioners, but not for professions that deal with the health of the land, of our communities or our cities and ecosystems.  Since that time I have realized how critical ethics are in my permaculture design work and my teaching of permaculture.  Ethics guide my work and my daily activities.

The three ethics of permaculture are:

1.Care of the Earth, 2. Care of people, and 3. Set limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistribute surplus to the benefit of the Earth and people.

At first reading, this seems a simple guide, but, like all things permaculture, a little reflection leads us into a morass of implications and decisions to be made.

Care of the Earth

How does one care for the Earth when we have such an elementary level of understanding of the Earth’s processes?  Care of the Earth has an implication that we are knowledgeable enough to become the caretakers of the planetary processes.  We, humans, are just learning the basics of the foundational knowledge of life processes!  What mankind has exhibited in the last 10,000 years is an incredible ability to lay waste to the Earth with little to no care for it!

The first ethic sets a very high bar for those of us aspiring to teach about and work with nature-inspired design, striving to achieve resiliency that we observe in truly natural systems.

The second and third ethic are, really, a reiteration of the first one, but with more specificity.

Care of People

Care of People is also a very grand aspiration especially within our culture of individualism, and narcissistic tendencies.  The evolution of the Western society into a class system of the “haves” and the “have-nots” is a  sad testament to a lack of care for the “have-nots”.  This is not just an economic divide but a social justice issue encompassing health care, housing, meaningful work, education, justice, equality between genders (not just male and female), racial equality, and the pursuit of happiness.

I find caring for people particularly challenging since we have been so wounded by a culture that judges one’s worth by the possessions one owns, and by one’s conformity with cultural norms of beauty, education, income and behavior.  Living in a culture that is primarily in corporate hands does not allow us to truly explore our humanity or to express it, particularly as it pertains to care of others.  To a sociopath this humanistic attitude is the ultimate failure in the scrabble to the top echelons of the social order.

Anyone who has seriously thought about the implications of permaculture soon realizes that herein lie all the answers to the dysfunction of our society and yet we continually default to the destructive behavior we have been indoctrinated into by an educational system that’s primary purpose is to engender an attitude of obsequious servitude to the corporate bosses.

Set Limits to Consumption and Population

The third ethic is a troubling one to me, not because it is unnecessary but because it is so little understood.  The third ethic does not want to fit into a comfortable sound bite, it is wordy and long and that has inspired many  generations of permaculture teachers to morph it into something simpler, easier to digest.

I often hear that the third ethic is: “a return of all excess to the care of the earth and people”.  Somewhere along the line “set limits to consumption and reproduction” was dropped from the lexicon.  I think this may have been because of the political climate surrounding birth control and the holy rite of consumption.

To be fair, the third ethic is so unwieldy and it does not trip off the tongue as poetically as the first two ethics.

It would be great to have one of the pioneers of permaculture shine some light on the history of this critical ethic.

More recently the third ethic has further devolved into “fair share” which is a far cry from the original intent of this ethic.  Fair is an ambiguous word that changes with the user, what is fair for me may be totally unfair for you.  What is the gold standard of “fair”?  I am certain that this misstatement of the third ethic derived from that constant quest for the “sound bite” that sounds good but, sadly, conveys very little information.

I am much more concerned with the meaning conveyed by the third ethic than the meter or prosody of the words.  It is critically important that we state the permaculture ethics in non-compromised form so there is no doubt in their meaning or necessity.

The ethics of permaculture are the core; around that core everything else – permaculture methods, approaches, design concepts, practical applications – converge.  If all our decisions are seen through the lens of the three permaculture ethics we will not stray far from our best intentions.