[permaculture] Permaculture Ethics

Scott Pittman scott at permaculture.org
Fri Aug 8 23:49:04 EDT 2014

fold_-_geograph.org_.uk_-_1155943.jpg> Fellfoot Drove SheepfoldPermaculture

Permaculture ethics were presented in my first Permaculture Design Course as
the touchstone of designing towards sustainability - whether as a landscape
designer, as an architect, urban planner, as a farmer/gardener, as a teacher
or activist, as an urban dweller seeking to find balance and create an
ecologically-sound life.

I was amazed that I hadn't been presented with a statement of ethics in any
other discipline I had studied; I had known about the Hippocratic oath taken
by medical practitioners, but not for professions that deal with the health
of the land, of our communities or our cities and ecosystems.  Since that
time I have realized how critical ethics are in my permaculture design work
and my teaching of permaculture.  Ethics guide my work and my daily

The three ethics of permaculture are:

1.Care of the Earth, 2. Care of people, and 3. Set limits to consumption and
reproduction, and redistribute surplus to the benefit of the Earth and

At first reading, this seems a simple guide, but, like all things
permaculture, a little reflection leads us into a morass of implications and
decisions to be made.

Care of the Earth

How does one care for the Earth when we have such an elementary level of
understanding of the Earth's processes?  Care of the Earth has an
implication that we are knowledgeable enough to become the caretakers of the
planetary processes.  We, humans, are just learning the basics of the
foundational knowledge of life processes!  What mankind has exhibited in the
last 10,000 years is an incredible ability to lay waste to the Earth with
little to no care for it!

The first ethic sets a very high bar for those of us aspiring to teach about
and work with nature-inspired design, striving to achieve resiliency that we
observe in truly natural systems.

The second and third ethic are, really, a reiteration of the first one, but
with more specificity.

Care of People

Care of People is also a very grand aspiration especially within our culture
of individualism, and narcissistic tendencies.  The evolution of the Western
society into a class system of the "haves" and the "have-nots" is a  sad
testament to a lack of care for the "have-nots".  This is not just an
economic divide but a social justice issue encompassing health care,
housing, meaningful work, education, justice, equality between genders (not
just male and female), racial equality, and the pursuit of happiness.

I find caring for people particularly challenging since we have been so
wounded by a culture that judges one's worth by the possessions one owns,
and by one's conformity with cultural norms of beauty, education, income and
behavior.  Living in a culture that is primarily in corporate hands does not
allow us to truly explore our humanity or to express it, particularly as it
pertains to care of others.  To a sociopath this humanistic attitude is the
ultimate failure in the scrabble to the top echelons of the social order.

Anyone who has seriously thought about the implications of permaculture soon
realizes that herein lie all the answers to the dysfunction of our society
and yet we continually default to the destructive behavior we have been
indoctrinated into by an educational system that's primary purpose is to
engender an attitude of obsequious servitude to the corporate bosses.

Set Limits to Consumption and Population

The third ethic is a troubling one to me, not because it is unnecessary but
because it is so little understood.  The third ethic does not want to fit
into a comfortable sound bite, it is wordy and long and that has inspired
many  generations of permaculture teachers to morph it into something
simpler, easier to digest.

I often hear that the third ethic is: "a return of all excess to the care of
the earth and people".  Somewhere along the line "set limits to consumption
and reproduction" was dropped from the lexicon.  I think this may have been
because of the political climate surrounding birth control and the holy rite
of consumption.

To be fair, the third ethic is so unwieldy and it does not trip off the
tongue as poetically as the first two ethics.

It would be great to have one of the pioneers of permaculture shine some
light on the history of this critical ethic.

More recently the third ethic has further devolved into "fair share" which
is a far cry from the original intent of this ethic.  Fair is an ambiguous
word that changes with the user, what is fair for me may be totally unfair
for you.  What is the gold standard of "fair"?  I am certain that this
misstatement of the third ethic derived from that constant quest for the
"sound bite" that sounds good but, sadly, conveys very little information.

I am much more concerned with the meaning conveyed by the third ethic than
the meter or prosody of the words.  It is critically important that we state
the permaculture ethics in non-compromised form so there is no doubt in
their meaning or necessity.

The ethics of permaculture are the core; around that core everything else -
permaculture methods, approaches, design concepts, practical applications -
converge.  If all our decisions are seen through the lens of the three
permaculture ethics we will not stray far from our best intentions.




"To change something build a new model that makes the existing model
obsolete"  Buckminster Fuller


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