[permaculture] 3rd ethic; was: What I hope to achieve from this list ?

Toby Hemenway toby at patternliteracy.com
Fri Dec 4 00:54:28 EST 2009

steveread at free.fr wrote:
> If we are basing our PmC on the texts and work of the founder of PmC then
> "fairshares" is not the '3' ethic but an impoverished soundbyte 
> version of the
> original that also is for me philosophically very different.
> If we got copies of the Designers Manual I find it useful to use them.
I had an email conversation with someone on this subject recently, and 
he has permitted me to post it, below. It's a subject that Rain and 
others brought up a while back on another listserv, as well.

Ted Leischner wrote:
Hello Toby, or one who can respond to my important question about/ /'the 
third ethic, *inconsistency* in Permaculture teaching circles.
This is request for clarity and for an brief explanation, please. I am 
coming out of retirement to put my college ecology teaching experience 
to work teaching and doing permaculture projects in the Okanagan 
Similkmeen region of BC which does not yet have a permaculture 
presence.  I know I am going to be asked about this eventually and the 
inconsistency bugs me big time.
Mollison's manual (p.2) lists three parts of the ethical basis of 
permaculture. His third one is, "Setting limits to population and 
consumption". However, most of the newer books on permaculture, state 
the third ethic as, Share the surplus, return the surplus or invest the 
surplus. Bill's original third ethic statement seems to be more 
consistent with what and how Earth Systems put the brakes on to achieve 
ecologically sound sustainability. Holmgren, in my assessment states the 
third ethic even better as, "Set limits to consumption and reproduction 
and redistribute the surplus".  This is the reality that we need to 
embrace if we are going to resolve our crisis situation on this planet 
(which as a system may be resolving things anyway following a 'humans 
lose, Earth living systems win' course of history).
Who and what are the reasons for the watered down version of the third 
Was the change needed to barter greater acceptance of the permaculture 
Does Mollison's and Holmgren's versions of the third ethic transcend 
religious, cultural, political and economic boundaries world views to 
fast or too directly?
OR are their tribes of different belief systems in the permaculture 
movement placing conditions on the  original hard core ecological 
version of the third ethic?
Or simplified, do I socially market permaculture more effectively by 
promoting the watered down version of the third ethic?
Thanks for your time with this important issue and thanks for your 
excellent book, Gaia's Garden.
Ted Leischner

Dear Ted,

Thanks for the interesting question.

Part of the 3rd-ethic issue is a simple historical artifact: Mollison 
married a woman, Reny Slay, in the eighties, who was a pretty good 
editor, and I'm told she cleaned up and streamlined some of his writing. 
The Designer's Manual was written early in this process (it's easier to 
read than Permaculture One and Two, thanks in part to Reny), and therein 
is Bill's original wording which includes the "limits" phrases. Reny 
helped write "Introduction to Permaculture," which is easier to read, 
and she and a few others were largely responsible for organizing the 
ethics and principles into a more coherent form during its writing. I 
believe that's when the 3rd ethic was trimmed to simply "share the 
surplus." It later evolved into other variants such as "reinvest the 
surplus." So some of it stems from editorial decisions, and begins with 
"Intro to Pc."

My own take is that the 3rd ethic has always been slippery and 
problematical for many reasons. First, even if we accept the abbreviated 
"surplus" ethic, what does it mean and how do we say it? How do we know 
what is surplus? And what's the best thing to do with it? This shortened 
ethic has morphed from "share the surplus," which many took to mean 
"give it away," to "return the surplus," which suggests that we need to 
give back to the systems that support us, to "reinvest the surplus," 
which says the same thing in a more explicit way. So we're still hazy on 
what surplus is and what to do with it. (I wrote an article about this, 
now at
http://www.patternliteracy.com/surplus.html  )

Though I like the completeness of the phrase "Set limits to consumption 
and reproduction and redistribute the surplus generated thereby," 
(another wording I've seen and one that covers the bases clearly) the 
clauses and compound phrases make it a verbose mess, compared to the 
clean wording of ethics 1 and 2. I can see why someone with an editorial 
sense would want to clean this up to match the conciseness of the other 

But there's a deeper issue for me. "Care for the Earth" and "Care for 
People" are broad and non-prescriptive. They leave the means (the 
tactics, if you will) of implementing the ethics up to the individual. 
There are a million ways to care for the Earth, and people can choose 
the approach that suits their conditions. But when you say "set limits 
to consumption and population" you are prescribing pretty specific 
behavior, and it would be easy to slip into finger-pointing: "Are you 
limiting your consumption as much as I am?" I don't like that, even if 
the goal is both admirable and necessary. And I think a philosopher 
would say that ethic 3 in the long form is in a different logical 
category from "Care for the Earth." It also carries some ideological 
baggage. One could argue that since one American birth has 8X the impact 
of one Brazilian and 25X that of a Zimbabwean, the impact of setting 
limits to population does not fall fairly on the 3rd world, and that 
sort of thing. And if I conserve by driving a Prius, should a Zimbabwean 
make an equally proportioned belt-tightening step, by, say, going 
without food one day a week? I would save more fuel each year by driving 
a Prius instead of an SUV than they will use in a lifetime, probably. So 
am I limiting my consumption more?

Should I insist that a Mali farmer only have two kids, when their family 
is their work force and old-age care? That's why I don't like 
prescribing specific behaviors like population control for others. "One 
solution fits all" is very unpermacultural; we design for specific sites 
and conditions.

So I'd say the 3rd ethic still needs work. My current thinking is that 
the 3 short-form ethics work as an ethical basis, and that if you follow 
permaculture principles, setting limits to consumption and population 
will be the inevitable result of practicing those principles. I''m not 
sure the long form is necessary or worth its problems. But there's room 
for debate.

I'd be surprised if anyone interested in permaculture is unaware of the 
problems of consumption and population, so we may not need to beat 
people over the head with that as an ethic. The principles teach us to 
set limits. But the third ethic is an evolving and stimulating issue, 
for sure.


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