Tag Archives: permaculture ethics

Balancing the Ethics of Permaculture

In her book People and Permaculture, Looby Macnamara speaks of the way we humans have a penchant for categorizing, compartmentalizing and for creating boundaries between things (where boundaries do not really exist) to facilitate our understanding of the world. This division does allow the human mind to begin to understand complex systems. At the same time, however, there is a danger of losing sight of the bigger picture and therefore our ultimate goals, which can prove counterproductive. “Can’t see the forest for the trees,” as the old adage reminds us.

1280px-The_Scandinavian_Permaculture_festival_of_2013_-_7_HugelcultureOne paradigm informing our current civilization is that humans are separate from nature, an idea reinforced throughout the development of Western religion and philosophy. Because it emerged in the context of this paradigm, the mainstream environmental movement of the late 20th and early 21st centuries has undermined its own intentions. By envisioning humans as separate from the environment, a dichotomy has been created where humans should be “hands-off” and not set foot in nature, lest they “disturb” or “disrupt” natural ecosystems. In reality, we humans are a part of nature, deeply connected to and dependent on all other species for our survival and continuance on this planet. However, it is also apparent that we would not, nor should not, sacrifice ourselves as a species in order to protect nature, since we are inextricably part of this planet’s biome just as is every other species on earth. The paradigm of humans as separate or outside of nature has effectively doomed most environmental action to the status of window dressing, preventing any truly meaningful, long-lasting change toward the end of real sustainability.

Permaculture, a holistic design science which attempts to reintegrate humans into the landscape, was first developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s and 1980s. Permaculture’s three ethics – earth care, people care, and future care – are implied to be three aspects of the same concept. Over the years of permaculture’s development and practice in the context of the environmental movement, itself in the context of the human/nature separation paradigm, people have naturally tended to emphasize earth care over the other two ethics. This is evident in the fact that most people today tend to think of permaculture primarily as landscape design or as an agricultural, gardening, or homesteading method.

If one of the three permaculture ethics is missing or deemphasized, then the other two ethics break down. Tim Winton describes an example of this disintegration in this article, which starts with his experiences at Tagari Farm, a permaculture proof-of-concept farm designed and established by Bill Mollison. While all the members of the farm came together in like-mindedness and worked hard at the earth care aspect of permaculture, the farm as a whole eventually suffered because the needs of all the people involved were not being met.  A lack of structure and a prioritization of earth care over people care meant that people burned out on the project, realities fell short of expectations, and that tragically, a member of the Permaculture Institute took their own life.

We as permaculturists too often have overemphasized the earth care aspect and are still viewing the care of the earth/environment as separate from caring for ourselves as human beings. Often when we design with permaculture, the more subtle needs of people are ignored or misunderstood, or the design has unrealistic wishes for what the people will be able to do and when they will be able to do it. If we create designs that don’t take into account all of our personal needs, behaviors, and cultural context, then we are not creating effective, holistic designs that meet all three permaculture ethics.

Human beings, especially those of us living in high material wealth societies, have trouble understanding our own needs a lot of the time. The first step in people care is to identify our needs – observing ourselves as we might observe a landscape to gather information for our design. Increasing our awareness of our true needs in the first place leads to better understanding the needs of the earth, and the needs of future generations of people. Only when we have identified what our needs are will we be able to put them in the appropriate relationships with other elements so that they work for and not against the system.

Ultimately, to achieve permanence, we seek to integrate ourselves into the landscape – as is our rightful place – as functional players in a functioning ecosystem. Permaculture’s holistic view requires the integration of all three ethics: earth care, people care, and future care. Prioritizing one of the three ethics means we “unprioritize” the other two, thereby negating the possibility of a “permanent culture.”  When we balance the meeting of our real human needs with the needs of the earth to sustain itself and with the needs of future generations to provide for themselves, then and only then are we living in an ethical and permanent way.

Where to go from here

  • A simple action that we can take to assess whether our design is balanced is to state explicitly how it fulfills each of the three permaculture ethics – essentially, to use the ethics as a design tool. More about this at liberationecology.org.

  • A lack of design for people care is the inspiration for Looby Macnamara’s book People & Permaculture. This book is an excellent and highly recommended exploration into what people care really means, and a useful tool to begin discovering and designing for our human needs.
  • For more on future care, and why we use that term instead of the more traditional “fair share” or “set limits and redistribute surplus,” see our past post Future Care.

Image Source: Øyvind Holmstad (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Future Care

Future Care

Permaculture as a design science is unique among other systems because it makes use of ethics. What are ethics? On his website permaculturist David Holmgren says, “Ethics are culturally evolved mechanisms that regulate self-interest, giving us a better understanding of good and bad outcomes.” Essentially, ethics are a tool that allow us to evaluate our actions and guide us toward a desirable end result. In permaculture, there are three ethics by which we design landscapes and other systems. Earth care and people care are always the first two, but over the years of permaculture’s development, there have been multiple interpretations of what the third ethic of permaculture is. We think future care should be the prefered choice.

In Permaculture: A Designers Manual, written in the early years of permaculture’s development in the 1980s, Bill Mollison states the third ethic of permaculture as, “Setting limits to population and consumption.” On his website and in his 2002 book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, David Holmgren similarly states the third ethic as “Fair Share: Set limits and redistribute surplus.” Starhawk has a slightly different way of articulating the third ethic: future care. Examining these three interpretations more closely, we see that setting limits and/or sharing the surplus are not the same as future care. They all are grasping for a similar concept, but which version should the permaculture designer use?

With this in mind, this is an instance where an integral approach, specifically the notion of the holon, can provide clarity. In short, holons allow us to hierarchically order elements and determine their relative order of importance, causal relationships, and dependencies. A simple exercise is to make the statement, “If we did away with x, there will be no y.”

Looking at the earth and people in this way, “if we did away with the earth there would be no people” is true while the reverse, “if we did away with people there would be no earth” is false. This tells us that people are a subset of and therefore dependent upon the earth, not the other way around.

The statement, “if we did away with limits there would be no earth” is not necessarily true; at the same time “if we did away with the earth there would be no limits” is also not true. They do not demonstrate a holarchic relationship.  It is the same with the statement, “if we did away with fair share there would be no earth” and its inverse. Both are untrue. If we substitute “people” for “earth” in the latter statement and its inverse, both instances are again untrue.

However, we can truthfully say, “if there was neither earth nor people there would be no future.”  The future is dependant on both the existence of the earth and of people. It should be clarified what is meant here by the use of the word “future.” The future in general (to our human understanding) will always continue to exist, whether humans are there to see it or not. What we are specifically speaking of when we say “future” in permaculture is the future of this planet Earth and the future for humans living on it.

People are dependant on the earth; they are a subset of our planet, not independent from it. Without the earth (earth care) or people (people care) there will be no future for either. So holarchically speaking, caring for the future rests on the first two permaculture ethics, which allows us to more clearly see the relationship between these three elements.

Fair share can still be understood as a part of caring for people. In order to care for people, we need to shift to an abundance mindset that allows us to freely redistribute surplus. However, it is easy to forget that the earth also needs its fair share. In order to care for the earth, we must not completely consume it (even if people have their fair share amongst themselves). Additionally, the future needs its fair share. Living well today at the expense of future generations is not a viable option.

Similarly, setting limits and sharing surplus are part of caring for the earth, people and future. They are directives toward the goal of future care, actions we can take toward that desirable outcome. It is possible that fair share, setting limits, and sharing surplus may not be enough to accomplish the goal of caring for the future. More or altogether different actions could be required. It is important to understand that these ideas are directives moving us towards a goal, but are not the goal in and of themselves.

Starhawk explains:

Permaculture’s approach to climate change let’s [sic] us avoid short-sighted errors and find true solutions, because it is rooted in three core ethics: care for the earth, care for the people, and care for the future. The three ethics work together.  We cannot truly care for the earth unless we take into account the people and the long term impact of our interventions.  Ecological solutions that ignore issues of justice are doomed to fail.  And we cannot care for the people if we don’t take into account the life-support systems of the earth that sustain us all.  Social and economic justice movements that ignore the environmental constraints and ecological realities cannot truly improve peoples’ lives. To care for the future, we must share the surplus we create and limit our consumption.

When we bring people care and earth care together with an eye to future generations, we create a synergy that has immense power for healing and regeneration.

In permaculture, small changes can have large effects; these are the leverage points that designers look for. Shifting the phrasing of the third permaculture ethic to future care, more clearly defining our goal, better fits the pattern set by the other two ethics. This change will make the ethics more effective as design tools, make it easier to achieve our goals, and ultimately increase the likelihood of the desired outcome: a future for this planet and its people.

Earth Care – People Care – Future Care