Permaculture, Ethics and Diversity: Can Permaculture Ethics Help with the Evolution of Human Culture?

Using permaculture as a tool can be hugely beneficial for people to create practical ways of improving their immediate environment. Many have suggested that such a tool only works if we use the lens of permaculture to first create our own empowerment from within (see for example 1).

This view can be seen indeed as underpinning much of permaculture thinking, for example, with the three permaculture ethics of “Earthcare, Peoplecare and Return of Surplus” (2). To follow these ethics, it could be argued, one has to first sort out one’s own personal integrity through self-empowerment.

The three ethical principles, much the same as the design principles (the number an names of which changes depending on whose version of permaculture you are looking at, showing the evolutionary and flexible nature of permaculture), can theoretically be applied to any situation in any part of the world as a way to help find practical improvement. But in practice, can we really have one set of ethics to guide all the multitudes of millions of human lives? And, given the emphasis on encouraging biodiversity as part of practicing permaculture, would we really want to?

What are the three ethics and where do they come from?

The three permaculture ethical principles were first developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in a book published in 1978 (2) and have been expanded on and interpreted in many ways since this time.

“These principles were designed by evaluating indigenous, sustainable civilizations from around the world through history. One of the things that kept these civilizations going for so long, sometimes for over a thousand years, was that they had some set of ethics to guide them in the decisions and actions they made. ” (3)

As such the ethical principles can be seen to have a sound practical basis in consideration of how to create mutually beneficial relationships in the world. This makes them very powerful as it does not matter what beliefs or faith you may have, you can agree with the immediate practical effect which following such principles can have on your life and environment.

Caring for our world: Re-connecting to the animate landscape

Farmer's hand watering a young plant with green bokeh background

Earth care as a principle can encourage actions recognising that our environment includes living organisms other than humans whose well-being we can affect and which affects us. Such thinking may seem to be clearly apparent if you consider it, though many people do not necessarily connect their actions to caring for the earth.

One theory, propagated by David Abram (4) for how we have become so disconnected is that since our invention of phonetic, so-called abstract language we have been able to theoretically abstract ourselves as humans from the rest of the ‘animate landscape’ (4) by essentially inventing concepts, thus creating the illusion that we are separate from nature as we can speak as if we were (for more on this see 4, 5).

This could help to illuminate how the indigenous cultures which Mollison and Holmgren studied managed to maintain ecological balance within their communities for so long. As Abram explores, many indigenous communities use language in a different way to most Indo-European languages and so their entire way of thinking is different from that of a phonetic-language, literate society; without differentiation between the society of humans and the society of, for example, trees, earth, rocks, and sky-phenomena when it comes to caring for the world around you (4).

Bringing the idea of Earth Care as a fundamental base of our actions can help us to regain this seemingly lost connection, and in this we can re-discover that if we take care of the environment around us this is beneficial for ourselves as well.

People care

Similarly, with people care it makes sense (in practical terms if no others) to care for people around you because this is helping you to care for yourself. How do you care for the people around you? Perhaps the most meaningful way to answer this question is to take into consideration the idea that when you are operating in full health, feeling fulfilled and stimulated and as though your life needs are being at least more or less met, caring for others is easy and can come from a place of comfort within you. Therefore people care is about care of you, because you are the one who is going to be able to create whatever change you wish to see in the world.

John Kitsteiner explores this ethic quite simply:

“I have to survive to help others. This is also true of my family and my community. I need to care for myself so that I may continue to care for others.” (3)

Silhouette of helping hand between two climber

He goes on to explore the idea of care as helping others to look after themselves and create more positive changes in their society; since this is the easiest way to ensure continued health of yourself and others. Here we come back to the idea of empowerment which we can certainly assist in others, whilst remembering and respecting that they are the only ones, ultimately, who can choose what is best for them.

Set limits and redistribute surplus

When you consider the care of the earth and of the people around you as deeply connected to the care of yourself, it is perhaps very easy to see that there are limits to what you can consume. As one human, for example, you cannot eat indefinitely because you only have a certain amount of processing space in your body.

The third ethic is often described as ‘Fair Share’; concretising this idea that we can all share equally in the abundance of the Earth. This concept becomes slightly complicated with modern consumerist society, however. Perhaps, for example, you only ever need to drink 3 litres of water a day, and you only ever do drink that much. But every 500ml of water comes in a plastic bottle which you subsequently throw away. Over the course of a year you are personally responsible for the disposal of 2,190 bottles. Where do they go?

As an example this may be slightly extreme, but the point remains that in order to fully participate in the Earth Care and People Care ethics we have to also be aware of the whole chain of consumption of all the things we use, and how we use them. Perhaps throwing away 6 bottles a day is not a problem for you if you are using them to build something, like Richart “Reishee” Sowa, who in 1998 began constructing an artificial island from plastic bottles from a Mexican beach, and now lives on his second version of the island, ‘Joyxee’ (6).

We may not be able to directly affect every part of the chain, but being mindful of what we are consuming and at least attempting to find out where it comes from, or coming up with imaginative ways to reuse our products like with Joyxee, are some effective ways to participate in this ethic.

Ethical principles: limitations?

As with anything that can be put into words, the ethical principles can be interpreted in many different ways. This does not necessarily imply a problem, though if two people are trying to work together based on what seems to be the same guiding principles and later find out they have totally different ideas of the meaning there could be complications.

This applies to all guiding or inspirational principles, whether they are directly connected to ethics or not. In this respect it seems that as well as the three ethical principles we need to be aware of the supporting structure weaving all around them: that of communication. The ethics can be seen as primarily communication tools and it’s up to us how effectively we use them.

Diversity and world society

One important part of communication I find useful is the understanding that, however effective a set of tools may be for me, that does not necessarily mean that they should be used by everyone; much in the same way that it may be a great idea to plant lots of a particular species in one environment but potentially disruptive of existing ecosystems in others.

Biodiversity in one’s garden ensures healthy and balanced ecosystems and the same can be seen with our ideas: we’ve created enough physical disharmony in the land with monocultural agriculture so we probably don’t need mental monoculture as well.

With this in mind we can recognize the ethical principles as being just one way to creating more regeneration and connection in the world, and we can honour other ways wherever we see them if they appear effective. If some people have been farming in a particular way for generations, they may not take kindly to someone coming in speaking a lot of new jargon and attempting to persuade them to change their ways. However, if we use recognizable terms they are much more likely to be engaged.

In Thailand, for example, there are many permaculture projects which seem associated mainly with non-Thai people; indeed, even the Permaculture Institute of Thailand (7) was set up by a man from the USA, Howard Story (7). However, one reason for permaculture success in Thailand is probably that there already exist a number of techniques and practices in ecosystem-regenerating, polyculture and aquaculture farming, agroforestry and reforestation encouraged by the seemingly almost universally-adored and recently deceased King Bhumibol Abdulyadej (see for example 8).

The point here is that we can be open-minded in our language and embrace practices which do not necessarily call themselves ‘permaculture’. Having said this, it also seems like the permaculture principles are flexible enough to be able to include all manner of perspectives, viewpoints, ideologies and faiths; and so even if the majority of people agree with these three things, biodiversity of culture can still flourish.

The power of permaculture

One way in which our use of the ethical principles differs from the way in which the indigenous tribes studied by Mollison, Holmgren and others who care for and garden the land without causing detriment to the ecosystem is that with these ethical principles we are creating connections which are potentially much more powerful than the connections still being maintained by indigenous societies.

Unidentified local indigenous people next to Napo river in the rainforest, Yasuni National Park, Ecuador

The indigenous tribespeople may have a much stronger link to the world around them than we do and a more realistic conception of how their actions affect the immediate environment and the web of life, or ‘potentized field of intelligence’ (4), as Abram puts it, which surrounds them. Yet though their language and conceptions may have deeper roots to all of the more-than-human life around them, it may also be limited in its scope for human biodiversity in that other humans do not readily understand it or are excluded from it as not being part of that particular group.

In this way the permaculture principles can be seen as a tool for opening up human communication while at the same time encouraging biodiversity; a new way of connecting to the Earth which includes recognition of our place in a planet-wide ecosystem and our capability to create harmonic links within this.

I may be suggesting this on a slightly biased basis as the tools of permaculture work for me; and inspirational though I hope this article to be I am by no means suggesting that they are the only tools. Since they exist and seem rather effective, though, we may as well keep using them…


1. Macnamara, L, 2012. People and Permaculture: Caring and Designing for Ourselves, Each Other and the Planet. Permanent Publications: East Meon, UK
2. Mollison, B; Holmgren, D, 1978. Permaculture One: A Perennial Agricultural System for Human Settlements. Tagari: Tasmania
3. Kitsteiner, J, 2013. ‘Permaculture Ethics’. Temperate Climate Permaculture, 5/5/13. – retrieved 6/12/16
4. Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage: New York City
5. Haworth, C, 2016. ‘Tuning Into Nature’. Abundance Garden, 31/5/16. – retrieved 6/12/16
6. Stark, B, 2007. ‘Man (Re) Builds Mexican Island Paradise on 250,000 Recycled Floating Bottles’. Ecoble, 18/11/07. . – retrieved 6/12/16
7. Permaculture Institute of Thailand, 2016. ‘Home’. – retrieved 6/12/16
8. Rak Tamachat, 2016. ‘The New Theory and Sufficiency Economy’. – retrieved 6/12/16

Charlotte Ashwanden

Charlotte Ashwanden (nee Haworth). Born in London, I am very interested in peace and community and have a degree in Peace Studies. I got my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, from Treeyo at Permaship in Bulgaria, and my Permaculture Teaching Certificate in 2018 at Aranya in India. For me, permaculture is about so much more than garden design; I am mainly interested in applying ‘human permaculture’ as a complement to peace practices. In particular, I like to look at how human permaculture can be applied through psychology, communication and education techniques. In 2015 I got married in a pagan ceremony in a field to David Ashwanden and changed my surname to Ashwanden. With my husband, I’ve travelled a lot in Europe and Asia and encountered many permaculture and community projects. I have lived in various situations, from squatted land to intentional communities, as well as more ‘normal’ places, in the UK, Spain, Italy, Thailand and Vietnam. A professional dancer, I do fire and hula dance and sometimes run dance meditation workshops. Currently, I live in the Andalucian mountains.


  1. Quote:
    “These principles were designed by evaluating indigenous, sustainable civilizations from around the world through history. One of the things that kept these civilizations going for so long, sometimes for over a thousand years, was that they had some set of ethics to guide them in the decisions and actions they made.”

    This is a mistake. Very few indigenous people were civilized, eg. the Aztecs. Being civilized means to live in cities (from Latin “civis”=roman citizen). Civilized lifestyle is by definition not sustainable, that is why all civilizations either collapsed or got conquered by another civilization. Western industrial civilization is playing this out on a global scale now, destroying all life on the planet. “Care for the earth”, if taken seriously, should be a call for resistance against destruction.
    See this article:

  2. Also, why does the ethic of “fair shares” become “complicated” in modern consumerist society? I don’t follow how your example illustrates anything except that modern consumerism is intrinsically unethical and unsustainable. Such sloppy thinking gives credence to the view that permaculture is little more than a hobby of guilt-ridden privileged westerners (for whom this ethic is problematic).

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