[permaculture] 3rd ethic

Gene Monaco efmonaco at comcast.net
Fri Dec 4 15:30:32 EST 2009

I missed the original part of this, but having read what's below, I am
compelled to add the following:
I think the 3rd ethic, as it was explained to me by Mollison in the 90's,
was more around the idea of community and abundance.  When you have an apple
tree, you will have extra apples, more than you can eat, so you give some
away rather than hoarding them.  It goes to the paradigm of abundance as
opposed to scarcity.

We have evolved into a culture that has what Daniel Quinn might describe as
Keepers of the Food [energy, etc.], such that some have a lot while others
work and give their work for access to the food.  Quinn notes that in
nature, food is all free for the taking and few other creatures if any hoard
food for power; although, it has been pointed out that there are definitely
pecking orders in animal communities; yet these seem to be more around sex
and reproduction, which works towards natural selection.

However, it does not have to be that way.  We can care for others and not
have a Taker power structure (ethic) if we so choose.  This is where balance
comes in and the first ethic.  We must care for the earth, our mother,
because without that we all perish.  When too many deer are born exceeding
the food supply of the forest, then some must starve.  I have heard from a
mentor that in some Eskimo cultures, if there was not enough food for the
winter, then the oldest and weakest would walk out onto the ice and disrobe,
sacrificing themselves to the earth.  This is voluntary self sacrifice and
part of the web of life.  Even in a paradigm of abundance, sacred choice is
necessary to achieve balance.  

I know this flies in the face of anthropocentric viewpoints commonly held,
but in earth societies, the hunter takes only that which balances the
greater system; she gives thanksgiving and has extreme reverence for all of
life, and does not see herself as above everything else.  She prays for
communion with the web of life and strives to be in a state of oneness so
she will make the best choice.  Might he choose not to take the last deer or
the last herb in an area, even if it means starvation?  Might she sacrifice
herself for the earth rather than ravish her for yet a few more selfish
moments of life?  

The deer that is taken for food understands that it is time to give itself
and so accepts its fate.  Even the apple that is picked from the tree wants
to be taken by the browser who seeks to pick the one best suited for the
balance of all.  Maybe this one for food, that one for medicine, another one
for seeds to be planted over there for the future, and those others to be
left for the deer.

This stuff I believe Mollison understood on some level, but did not want to
engage in the mental masturbation of writing philosophical treatises, and
ultimately clashing with militant religionists.  Better to get out in the
garden and just do it, and there you will discover your answers to what you
need to do.  The best question I am learning besides, "How does this make me
feel?" is, "How does this feel about me?"


Toby wrote:

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

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 ethics.

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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