[permaculture] Fwd: On an ethics of permaculture...
scott at permaculture.org
Thu Aug 12 15:48:10 EDT 2010
From: Ben Martin Horst [mailto:ben.martinhorst at gmail.com]
Sent: Wednesday, August 04, 2010 8:15 PM
Subject: Re: [permaculture] Fwd: On an ethics of permaculture...
It seems to me that your question "How is this project helping a community
take control of its own destiny - to self-determine?" is a key measure at
least of the first two ethics. As you mentioned, this must be a
consideration of "Care for People," but it is also implicated in "Care for
the Earth." Earth Care implies the nurturing of self-regenerating ecologies,
where the necessity for human input is minimized -- in other words, respect
for the volition, needs, and desires of those ecologies. Of course, any
objective measure would be nigh impossible. It's an exceedingly subjective
thing to determine whether or to what degree an ecosystem or its constituent
parts are satisfied in their ability to self-determine. But then again, that
may be an implication of permaculture: elements of ecosystems (and
ecosystems themselves) can no longer be regarded as objects to manipulate,
but subjects to converse with. (By "subject" I mean not "a person who is
under the dominion or rule of a sovereign" but "that which thinks, feels,
perceives, intends, etc., as contrasted with the objects of thought,
The pc ethics are circular in their interconnectedness each one encompassing
the other in a different aspect. When I teach I spend a couple of days just
covering the ethics and their implications.
How on Earth does one begin to "Care for the Earth" with our overwhelming
ignorance of how the Earth really functions? So the beginning is to become
a student of the Earth; therefore zone 5 is a first step. I insist on a
zone 5 even in a small back yard; If nothing else to curtail our innate
tendency to "fix" or "beautify" natures' process. This zone provides our
first interaction or conversation subject (as described by Ben above)
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.
I couldn't agree more! Unfortunately ethics aren't the only thing watered
down; "Invisible structures" are becoming more and more invisible in the
curriculum. Mollison taught that "visible structures" was what to do, and
"invisible structures" was how to do.
Unfortunately choosing clients and partners is a crap shoot; one can only
ask so many questions and do so much research into the intentions of a
prospective client. I have yet to have a client that was 100% on board with
all of the ethics and principals when it really got down to decision making,
particularly if there were costs involved in being ethical.
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:
Funny, it has never occurred to me that the full definition of "care" would
ever be reduced to the emotional only! I have always thought of the word as
both an emotional concern and attachment as well as stewardship or
caretaking. Without the heart care what would be the motivation for the
taking care of??
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.
One of the reasons I am loath to let go of any sections of the pc curriculum
is because regional perspectives leave out so much of the total system, what
and what first enamored me of permaculture was that it was a whole system
approach. The Earth is a whole system, and one must know much more than
temperate mountain ecosystems to understand the water cycle, for example.
Soil pH makes much more sense if one understands the difference between
tropical and dryland soil types.
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
its 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
I would add:
How is this project creating non-threatening connections between
members of the community.
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
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
(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
(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
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
regenerate our culture and biosphere?
I can't tell you how happy I was to see that your iteration of the third
ethic is "Redistribute Surplus" rather than "Fair Share". I personally use
the Mollisonian "Return of all Excess" but your form serves me as well.
Fair share implies a judgment of what is "Fair", to my mind this is a gaping
hole in the third ethic. There is no ambiguity in Redistribute Surplus or
in Return of all Excess, unless one gets into the discussion of what is
Surplus or Excess.
My discussion of the third ethic begins with "if you can't return excess to
care of the Earth and people then it must be toxic and shouldn't be produced
in the first place. This means that feedlots break the third ethic by
producing manure that is loaded with salts, antibiotics, and hormones which
can't be returned to the system. So all of our outputs have to be useful to
the system at large.
I also believe that excess wealth or income is toxic to the system and a
disincentive to the democratic process.
I spent a lot of time with the National Guard just trying to drum into their
heads that whatever they do had to first conform to the pc ethics filter.
What I have found in tribal situations is that they apply the same ethics to
their living situation but that one needn't apply them to other tribes, and
this is certainly true of the Afghanistan situation.
I also like the graphic you included, I use a series of graphics from
"Working Group of Extreme Inequality"
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. ;)
Except for you choice of the word "flirtation" I appreciate you giving me
the benefit of the doubt; having not received this benefit from Kevin.
Thanks again, Kevin, for spurring discussion of crucial topics.
In a very round about way I guess you are right!
Liberation Ecology Project
Thanks for your thoughtful response which encourages the same from me and
leads to a conversation with some meat rather than all processed flour.
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