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Permaculture Ethics – Making Them Work

A man is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as that of his fellow men, and when he devotes himself helpfully to all life that is in need of help.

Albert Schweitzer

The ethical principles of Permaculture set it apart from other design disciplines, as their inclusion guides the actions and goals of the designer. These ethical principles are fairly simple and straightforward, but some sections of the Permaculture community are expressing various concerns about them.

What could be so troubling about these three ethical principles of Permaculture that we’re all familiar with – Care of the Earth, Care of people, and Return of surplus to Earth and people?

I’ve seen opinions thrown around that the Permaculture ethics don’t go far enough, that they lack teeth and other such expressions of shortcomings. What would lead people to draw such a conclusion? Perhaps they are coming to the party empty handed? I’ll explain what I mean by this in this article.

Every problem has in it the seeds of its own solution

We can apply Permaculture methodology when reflecting on Permaculture itself. Permaculture is concerned with understanding the relationships between things, and that’s precisely the type of Permaculture thinking we need to use to identify the problem here, as nothing exists in a vacuum, especially human opinion!

To understand the problem let’s dig a little deeper here. There are three elements at play here:

1. The Permaculture ethical principles themselves
2. Their expectations of what the Permaculture ethical principles are supposed to deliver
3. An individual’s personal ethics

By understanding the interplay or relationship of these three elements, we can resolve the matter quite easily. So let’s look at each element in turn and the relationships between them.

Handful of soil

Ethical foundations

Firstly, let’s look at the Permaculture ethical principles. Everyone suspects that when Bill Mollison and David Holmegren came up with the ethics, they did so by identifying the common guiding principles shared by the indigenous peoples of the world who live in harmony with the land. This lowest common denominator of ethical guidelines shared across cultures around the world can be summed up in these three ethical principles. This is an often missed point when viewing the ethics from the narrow ethnocentric perspective of a modern city dweller in the western world. The ethics are not created around the concepts of freehold land and modern society, yet some people do think that, and to them I say this – there’s a whole world out there, it’s not all about you, get over it!

Would these indigenous people have any trouble with the question “why care for the planet, people and other living things, and why live sustainably?” I wouldn’t think so. I would expect they would be very clear on the matter and definite in their answer. Why so? They would explain their reasons by sharing their worldview, predicated on the understanding that all life is sacred, which includes their creation myths, spirituality, their understanding of the connection to the land and their relationship with all living things. This worldview which governs every aspect of their lives has passed the test of time, which is why they pass it on from generation to generation, as it ensures their continued survival. They have no trouble explaining why.

How does Permaculture rationalise and justify in a scientific manner the same principles that the indigenous people live by, to a mixed and varied international audience which spans a wide range of belief systems? By finding the lowest common denominator, something everyone can agree upon.

Bill Mollison, whom I studied with, taught this as the concept of ‘enlightened self-interest’ – basically anyone wise enough to know what serves their best long-term interests won’t want to destroy the natural systems that keep them alive, maintain their health and provide their material needs.

Reassessing expectations

This is all Permaculture gives us, and that is all that is reasonable for Permaculture to give. If that is enough, then there is no ground for complaint about the efficacy of the ethical principles. This is where the second critical element of personal expectations comes into the picture. If expectations lead to disappointment with what Permaculture can reasonably provide, is that not a fault with a person’s expectations rather than the ethics?

The third critical element is that of personal ethics. If a person does want deeper ethical foundations, then it is their responsibility to find their own personal truth to support these principles in their own minds. To put it another way, every individual is ultimately responsible for their own personal worldview which forms the foundation of their ethics and provides the justification to adhere to them. These ethical principles are not unique to Permaculture. If Permaculture didn’t exist, would that be reason not to practice these ethics? I think not.

Why is it unreasonable to expect Permaculture to provide more than the concept of “enlightened self-interest” as justification for the ethics? Historically, both western and eastern philosophy have been independently grappling with the subject of moral philosophy for nearly the last 3,000 years and have not come up with a definitive answer, but have come up with three different theories of ethics, put very simply, that ethics are based on intention of action (deontological), outcome of action (consequentialist) or development of character (virtue based). Expecting Permaculture to answer the ongoing and unresolved 3,000 year old debate of moral philosophy is totally unreasonable. If Permaculture did choose to delve into this area, it would then be obliged to solve moral dilemmas covering every aspect of life – necessitating it to become an all encompassing worldview similar to a religion or an eastern philosophy, with its own creed and everything else. Permaculture cannot possibly tell you what to believe and why!

Seeing the real problem and taking responsibility

If we can agree that it’s unreasonable to expect Permaculture to provide more on the ethics, and it is totally an individual’s responsibility to formulate their own worldview to justify their own personal ethics, then this brings the focus away from the Permaculture ethics and squarely on the dissatisfied individual.

Examining the objections logically, if people cannot justify to themselves why they should care for each other and the planet and live sustainably, then the problem is with their own word view and personal philosophy and not with Permaculture. The reason why we have religions and philosophies, which are integral parts of all human culture and always will be, is not to indulge in speculative theology or mental gymnastics respectively, but to answer those bigger questions about life, to explain why.

In this light, the criticisms that ‘Permaculture ethics don’t go far enough’ and ‘Permaculture ethics lack teeth’ would be more accurately rephrased as ‘My own personal ethics don’t go far enough’ and ‘My own personal ethics lack teeth’. The logical response is simply this – find a better philosophy, religion or spirituality that more satisfactorily explains these things and provides a firmer foundation to support the Permaculture ethics in your own mind.

Hands of  a man planting his own vegetable garden

The resolution…

In conclusion, making Permaculture ethics work is quite simple. If people are not satisfied with the lowest common denominator principle of ‘enlightened self interest’ which Permaculture does give them, it is each individual’s personal responsibility to bring their own sound worldview to support the Permaculture principles which they subscribe to. If people choose to come to the party empty handed, then they can graciously and without complaint accept the bare minimum the host freely provides, or they can recognise their own shortcomings, exercise self-responsibility and make a personal effort to bring something more of their own liking to the party that will satisfy them. It all starts and ends with self-responsibility, just like the rest of life!

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