[permaculture] Fwd: On an ethics of permaculture...

rafter sass rafter at liberationecology.org
Wed Aug 4 20:42:05 EDT 2010

Hey folks,

I'm FWDing an email on from Kevin Skvorak, a good permie who it appears has been banned from this list.

Kevin's original email below, then my response follows.

Begin forwarded message:

> From: regeneration CSA <regenerationcsa at gmail.com>
> Date: August 4, 2010 7:26:06 PM EDT
> To: "Northeastern Permaculture (List)" <northeasternpermaculture at lists.riseup.net>
> Subject: On an ethics of permaculture...
> warm greetings folks,
> So, i am wondering if anyone would like to consider some conversations on the ethical dimensions of permaculture?   (no pressure!) 
> If you happen to feel so inclined to indulge some of my ponderings, here they are:
> How can we frame in (more) practical ways the ethical principles of permaculture?  How do we analyze and discuss if we are achieving our goals of earth care, people care, and fair share?  How much of each does it take? If two out of three of these are embodied in any given project, is this enough to qualify as permaculture?    
> I want to offer an example or two to help illustrate.
> Recently, Scott Pittman, director of the Permaculture Institute taught some National Guardsmen on their way to Afghanistan some Permaculture basics.  For me this very tricky, if not perhaps untenable for a movement (for want of a better word) that is espousing the values Permaculture is.
> In fairness, it seems to me there can be a couple of different perspectives on this. One is that it doesn't matter who, or how, or in what context permaculture is delivered in, it is "all good" as long as it gets out there, and there are no contradictions in offering this info to the US National Guard.  Ok. One may hold such an opinion i suppose.
> There is also another way to view it, one that i believe more holistically embodies the values we teach.  While there may be some "good" that was delivered to the  few national guardsmen that attended the course, it was far outweighed by the bad. (providing greenwash for a pretty bloody, unprincipled imperial effort; possibly/probably damaging/sabotaging any reputation that permaculture might have developed among the people of afghanistan in the future; etc etc. Hence, imo this was a less than optimal "ethical"  choice. 
> A much better ethical one (again imho) would have been to refuse to offer these token classes to some US soldiers engaged in an occupation, but instead make an effort to offer them to like valued afghan led efforts on the ground, unembeded in what appears (it seems to me) to be an ongoing US led corporate/military/industrial/etc colonial effort of the most naked kind. (It is a bad thing. the war is bad.)
> This is all easier said that done I know, and afghanistan remains a pretty dangerous place for democratic and civil society groups that would be the natural allies of Permaculture.   And it will likely remain a very dangerous place for such people, as long as the US military remains.   A dilemma one might say...
> And there are actually a lot of other Permaculture identified efforts that appear to be on pretty shaky "ethical" ground. like all the "permaculture" developments going in in global south "third world" countres, owned, and for the benefit of (usually) global north, mostly of european origin folks. Be this as it may - i don't want to waste folks computer time going into all this.  Because of course there also many wonderful, creative, and highly ethical Permaculture efforts going on as well.  (this isn't another blanket condemnation of permaculture! i swear)
> What I am most interested in is "how" we dialogue about this stuff, under what framing? what principles?  what "context"?
> Maybe we just need to be more specific when we talk about "fair share".  For instance does fair share include an inherent debt by US and other "developed" industrial consumers to the majority of the worlds population not living such a consumer "lifestyle"?  Dow we owe "Regenerative Reparations"?    (anyone can use this without attribution whenever they like!)
> Do we talk about carbon or "climate debt".  The language that came out of the Cochabamba meetings on climate change is very thoughtful on this issue:
> http://pwccc.wordpress.com/category/working-groups/08-climate-debt/
> and, i suppose another question to ask might be, how well do our existing principles work in this regard?  Are they achieving the goals of creating an adequate intellectual framework on which to fully assess and discuss our work?   Is the vagueness on the part about our existing principles a well thought/intentional in this regard? Is it tactical choice?   Do we perhaps feel that the vagueness helps us as we attempt the broadest possible "tent" of permaculture?   i am not sure....
> I am not meaning to be to terribly confrontational with all this, (tho, alas it is my current nature it seems)  and it is just something I am meditating on at the moment.    
> And for me "ethics" is not because we want to achieve some vague feeling of goodness, but because we want to be effective.
> so for me, much of this all is "context"  I am meditating a lot on the question of context these days.
> peace and love,
> kevin
> p.s.  If anyone wants to fwd this to the national listserve, (i have been banned by LL)  i would be gratified as i would honestly, and deeply value any insight on these issues from many of the minds and hearts on that listserve as well.
> -- 
> Regeneration CSA
> at Outback Farm
> 81 Clove Valley Rd
> High Falls NY 12440
> 845 687 0535
> http://www.regenerationcsa.org/

I have often thought that Pc ethics are taught in a watered-down and feel-good style, that does more to create good vibes and excitement than it does to challenge students, or help designers navigate the sometimes-murky waters of choosing clients and partners.

The way I think about the ethics, and the way I train future designers, revolves around the idea of putting some meat - and maybe even teeth - behind the ethics.
That "care" is a tricky term, after all - because it can refer to emotion alone. I like to think that, as used in the ethics, it actually refers to the action of caring - of taking care of. So the question becomes, how do we know when we are taking care of the earth, of people?

We can and should choose indicators and benchmarks, to help us know when we are following the ethics, and when we are coming up short. Specific measures are up to the designer, but there a few questions that I think the ethics demand that we ask:

Care for the Earth: What, really, is our measure of ecosystem health? The most popular in the Pc movement seem to be biodiversity and energy capture, but I
	 would easily accept topsoil depth, presence of top predators, decreases in nutrient or contaminant runoff in surface waters, structural/functional diversity, etc. etc. 
	What matters to me is not which indicator, but that there IS one - that we have ways to measure our results - and see if we measuring up.

Care for People: What is our measure for social health? Trickier, even, than measuring ecosystem health, but we still have to *actually think about it* if we want to 
	accomplish it. The way that I interpret this ethic is 
		How is this project helping this community USE AND CONTROL  it's own resources sustainably - or regeneratively? 
		How is this project helping a community take control of its own destiny - to self-determine?
	Maybe not as easy to come up with a number or a measure for this, but I want to hear you (and me) at least make an honest case 
	for how your work is doing this.

Redistribute Surplus: Trickier still, most often neglected, and exactly as crucial as the other two. This one merits a little digression.

	  Most into to Pc presentations start with an "Evidence" section. That's classic Pc, as many folks are aware - to spend just a few minutes on doom and 
	gloom, and then focus on solutions for the rest of the time. I present the usual littany of bummers for my evidence section - deforestation, soil loss,
 	climate, peak, etc. etc., and then as the last item, I put up a slide on "Inequality." I use this graphic for the slide: 


	Then I have a little discussion on "Why is inequality an ecological problem?"
	These are generally very productive. 

	My own answers are - 
	(1) Because of the environmental EFFECTS of inequality: poor communities are unable to defend themselves against toxic discharges, and 
	have no buffer against instability in the eco-eco systems, so bear disproportionate effects - ESPECIALLY disproportionate 
	compared to their impact.

	(2) Because inequality is an environmental DRIVER: as long as their are people who are calling the shots about production and extraction who are 
	making a killing, and can buffer themselves from the effects indefinitely, AND those who do the work and bear the effects don't have any decision
	 making power about production and extraction, THERE WILL BE NO SUSTAINABILITY. Research supports this statistically: in counties,
	 states, and nations (3 different studies) the more inequality, the worse environmental outcomes.

	(3) And finally, because it's just freaking ecological, isn't it? The movement of energy and matter through complex living systems is the
	 stuff of ecology, and we can use that lens and those tools to understand it, and to change it.

	SO, back to the 3rd Ethic. The way I see it, the question that the 3rd Ethic "Redistribute Surplus" demands of us is: 
		How is my work helping, in some way, to begin to flatten the terrible mountain of inequality that lies between us and true sustainability?
		Or, to reverse the metaphor, how is my work helping to fill the chasm that separates the 20% world from the 80% world, that MUST be filled to
		regenerate our culture and biosphere?

As for Scott's flirtation with the military-industrial complex, I'm actually not all that interested in having an opinion. 
I'd rather hear more, and ask some questions, than figure out if it was OK or NOT OK. ;) 

Thanks again, Kevin, for spurring discussion of crucial topics.


rafter sass
Liberation Ecology Project
skype: raughter

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