Why Permaculture?

Transition Ethics: The Art of Compromise

This article originally appears in the NuMundo Transformational Times Blog. The Ranch was recently named a NuMundo Impact Center.

Permaculture Design is many things to many people, but one of its pillars is a set of three ethics. These as originally laid out by Bill Mollison are

• Care of the Earth
• Care of People
• Redistribution of the Surplus

These are our primary directives for how to act to sustain the earth. Or on a simpler level these are the ways to a good life.

Teaching these ethics during our annual Permaculture Design Certification (PDC) course is one of my favorite topics. It inevitably brings up pointed and challenging conversations, commonly around how to live these ethics in a world that often does not care for the earth, nor its people. How do we live and design for today’s world and for the parallel world we want to create? This discussion leads to fear and anger based responses, a tear-it-down approach easy to rally around in a classroom of like minded, fed up and passionate souls. Unsurprisingly, this is not an effective route for change. It became apparent to our teaching team that this conversation on ethics lacked a route to speak about compromise. To fill this gap we utilize a fourth ethic in our PDC curriculum; the Transition Ethic.

The Transition Ethic is a guide for how to be effective in creating change. In their recent book Practical Permaculture (one of the few references to the Transition Ethic in permaculture) Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein state that “the transition ethic says that no one is going from zero to sustainable overnight. Making the transition takes time.” We have to meet people where they are at. We must understand their cultural context.

When I first began learning about the industrial food system and what it was doing to our personal and environmental health, I was angry. I desperately avoided all participation in that system.

Transition Ethics 01

This was easier to embrace while living and working at the Ranch, a NuMundo impact center. But it was challenging when I returned to my parents’ home during the holidays. While they eat healthy by many standards, I was disappointed to find apples from Chile, processed meats, and corn-syrup fueled snacks around the kitchen. It was not a local food paradise by any means, so I jumped on my soapbox and preached. They needed to support local economies and take care of their bodies! Didn’t they care about the amount of pesticides used on those tomatoes?!

They responded with kindness and listened, like the wonderful parents they are, but were likely rolling their eyes in the background, and not much changed. A few years latter though, when I was able to show them how excited I was to manage a farm in Costa Rica, bake my own bread, and build my own furniture. I began to see them make real changes. As soon as my ideas came from a place of positive examples versus negative critiques the transition began for them. Their garden as expanded, they save and share more and more seeds every year, and the kitchen has a few more jars of ferments upon my home arrival.

This instilled in me that even though I was ready to change, the world around me operated at a different pace. So the question became: how do I navigate the series of compromises needed to encourage change? The original three ethics of permaculture speak to this in varying ways, but they don’t provide a road map as clearly as an ethic of transition. For me it is a road map of humility, recognizing that we are all coming from different places and we can’t begin to guess the context of others’ lives.

The Ranch is one of the leading natural building centers in the Americas. Yet, we still use concrete in our foundations and metal on our roofs. We don’t love the environmental impact of either of these materials, but we have done the due diligence to know that they make the most sense in our current context. These are compromises we must make in order to protect our infrastructure investments from rain, earthquakes, termites, and the tropical climate. This infrastructure allows us to operate as a world-class education center, without it our livelihood and mission fails.

Transition Ethics 02

It is a compromise we must make.

The Transition Ethic makes it clear that these compromises are ok and often necessary. The key take away that I share with our students is that we can never compromise our ethics but we can make ethical compromises.

Most of us use fossil fuels, don’t eat only local organic food, and participate in a globalized economy. We may wish this wasn’t true, but this is the world we live in; and it requires an art of compromise. So how do we make choices and design our lives for the current world and the one we are creating and visioning for the future?

Permaculture design is one tool at our disposal to navigate these waters (primarily through good design of our lives, homes, and land) and with a Transition Ethic in place it becomes an even more robust tool.

Upcoming Workshops at Rancho Mastatal

Check out our workshop schedule for class on Wilderness Medicine, Homestead Design, Timber Frame Construction and more!


About Rancho Mastatal

Rancho Mastatal Sustainability Education Center is an education center, working permaculture farm, lodge and community rooted in environmental sustainability, meaningful, place-based livelihoods, and caring relationships.

We offer profound, innovative and authentic apprenticeships, residential workshops and guest experiences. We practice, promote and teach about natural building, fermentation, permaculture design, renewable energy, agroforestry and more.

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Our campus encompasses more than 300-acres of picture-perfect waterfalls, crystal-clear rivers, idyllic swimming holes, impressive trees, extraordinary wilderness views, and pristine habitat for the area’s rich flora and fauna. Visitors and participants have access to over 14 km of trails, an extensive library, our working permaculture farm, and the tireless team who make the Ranch such a unique place to learn.

We are located in the rural farming town of Mastatal, situated on the edge of the last remaining virgin rainforest of Costa Rica’s beautiful Puriscal County. It is a wonderful place to take in Costa Rica culture, practice your Spanish, visit other permaculture projects, or catch a pickup game of fútbol.


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