Permaculture Ethics: A Touchstone

Scott Pittman
Dec 13 2017

After permaculture, I was amazed that I hadn’t been presented with a statement of ethics in any other discipline I…

Three Ethics

The permaculture ethics were presented by Bill Mollison 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, or as an urban dweller one is 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 the other 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 activities.

The three ethics of permaculture are:

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

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 carries the 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. In fact, few even consider themselves a part of or connected to the ecology in which we are embedded.

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 ethic, but with more specificity.

Care of People

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 considered the ultimate failure and to those power seekers, holds the key to their success in the mad scramble 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 and Redistribute Surplus

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, “fair share” for instance.

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 religious/political climate surrounding birth control and the holy rite of consumption. Redistribute surplus is essentially a recycling ethic. Composting is a good example but anything that is done to turn our waste stream into a resource works. Food is a good example where some 60% of all food winds up in the land fill while a large percent of our population goes to bed hungry. There is no waste in a forest ecosystem.

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