[permaculture] 3rd ethic; toby hemenwat

Wesley Roe and Santa Barbara Permaculture Network lakinroe at silcom.com
Fri Dec 4 09:11:24 EST 2009

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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