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Lesson 7 – The Ethical Basis of Permaculture

In earlier days, Bill and several of his friends researched community ethics, as adopted by older religious and cooperative groups, seeking for universal principles to guide our own actions. Although many of these guidelines contained as many as 18 principles, most of these can be included in the three below (and even the second and third arise from the first);

  The Ethical Basis of Permaculture

  1.  CARE OF THE EARTH: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply.

  2. CARE OF PEOPLE: Provision for people to access those resources necessary to their existence.

  3.  SETTING LIMITS TO POPULATION AND CONSUMPTION: By governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the above principles.


This ethic is a very simple statement of guidance, and serves well to illuminate everyday endeavors.

It can be coupled to a determination to make our own way: to be neither employers nor employees, landlords nor tenants, but to be self-reliant as individuals and to cooperate as groups.

For the sake of the earth itself, I evolved a philosophy close to Taoism from my experiences with natural systems.

As it was stated in Permaculture Two, it is a philosophy of working with rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action; of looking at systems and people in all their functions, rather than asking only one yield of them; and of allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolution’s.


A basic question that can be asked in two ways is:

 What can l get from this land, or person?” or

What does this person, or land, have to give if I cooperate with them?


Of these two approaches, the former leads to war and waste, the latter to peace and plenty.

Most conflicts, I find, lay in how such questions are asked, and not in the answers to any question.

Or, to put it another way, we are clearly looking for the right questions rather than for answers. We should be alert to rephrase or refuse the “wrong” question.

It has become evident that unity in people comes from a common adherence to a set of ethical principles, each of us perhaps going our own way, at our own pace, and within the limits of our resources, yet all leading to the same goals, which in our own case is that of a living, complex and sustainable earth.

Those who agree on such ethics, philosophies, and goals form a global nation.

How do a people evolve an ethic, and why should we bother to do so?

Humans are thinking beings, with long memories, oral and written records, and the ability to investigate the distant past by applying a variety of techniques from dendrochronology to archaeology, pollen analysis to the geological sciences.

It is therefore evident that behaviors in the natural world which we thought appropriate at one time later prove to be damaging to our own society in the long-term (e.g. the effects of biocidal pest controls on soils and water).

Thus, we are led by information, reflection and careful investigation to moderate, abandon, or forbid certain behaviors and substances that in the long term threaten our own survival; we act to survive.

Conservative and cautious rules of behavior are evolved. This is a rational and sensible process, responsible for many taboos in tribal societies.

From a great many case histories we can list some rules of use, for ex; THE RULE OF NECESSITOUS USE – that we leave any natural system alone until we are, of strict necessity, forced to use it.

We may then follow up with RULES OF CONSERVATIVE USE – having found it necessary to use a natural resource, we may insist on every attempt to:

  • Reduce waste, hence pollution;
  • Thoroughly replace lost minerals;
  • Do a careful energy accounting; and
  • Make an assessment of the long-term, negative, bio-social effects on society, and act to buffer or eliminate these.

In practice, we evolve over time to various forms of accounting for our actions.

Such accounts are fiscal, social, environmental, aesthetic, or energetic in nature, and all are appropriate to our own survival.


Consideration of these rules of necessitous and conservative use may lead us, step by step, to the basic realization of our interconnectedness with nature; that we depend on good health in all systems for our survival.

Thus, we widen the self-interested idea of human survival (on the basis of past famine and environmental disaster) to include the idea of the survival of natural systems“, and can see, for example, that when we lose plant and animal species due to our actions, we lose many survival opportunities.

Our fates are intertwined. This process, or something like it, is common to every group of people who evolve a general Earth Care Ethic.


Having developed an earth care ethic by assessing our best course for survival, we then turn to our relationships with others. Here, we observe a general rule of nature: that cooperative species and associations of self-supporting species (like mycorrhiza on tree roots) make healthy communities.

Such lessons lead us to a sensible resolve to cooperate and take support roles in society, to foster an interdependence which values the individual’s contributions rather than forms of opposition or competition.

Although initially we can see how helping our family and friends assists us in our own survival, we may evolve the mature ethic that sees all humankind as family, and all life as allied associations.

Thus, we expand people care to species care, for all life has common origins.

All are “our family“.

We see how enlightened self-interest leads us to evolve ethics of sustainable and sensible behavior.

These then, are the ethics expressed in Permaculture.

Having evolved ethics, we can then devise ways to apply them to our lives, economies, gardens, land ,and nature.

This is what this course is about: the mechanisms of mature ethical behavior, or how to act to sustain the earth.

There is more than one way to achieve Permanence and stability in land or society.

The peasant approach is well described by King, for old China.

Here people hauled nutrients from canals, cesspits, pathways and forests to an annual grain culture. We could describe this as “feudal permanence” for its methods, period and politics.

People were bound to the landscape by unremitting toil, and in service to a state or landlord. This leads eventually to famine and revolution.

A second approach is on permanent pasture of prairie, pampas, and modem western farms, where large holdings and few people create vast 


grazing leases, usually for a single species of animal.

This is best described as “baronial permanence” with near-regal properties of immense extent, working at the lowest possible level of land use (pasture or cropland is the least productive use of land we can devise).

Such systems, once mechanized, destroy whole landscapes and soil complexes.

They can then best be typified as agricultural deserts.

Forests, not seen by industrial man as anything but wood, are another permanent agriculture.

But they need generations of care and knowledge, and hence a tribal or communal reverence only found In stable communities. This then, is the communal permanence many of us seek; to be able to plant a pecan or citrus when we are old, and to know it will not be cut down by our children’s children.

The further we depart from communal permanence, the greater the risk of tyranny, feudalism, and revolution and the more work for less yield. Any error or disturbance can then bring disaster, as can a drought year in a desert grain crop or a distant political decision on tariffs.

The real risk is that the needs of those people working “on the ground“, the inhabitants, are overthrown by the needs (or greeds) of commerce and centralized power; that the forest is cut for warships or newspaper and we are reduced to serfs in a barren landscape. This has been the fate of peasant Europe, Ireland, and much of the third world.

The characteristic that typifies all permanent agricultures is that the needs of the system for energy are provided by that system. Modern crop agriculture is totally dependent on external energies-hence the oil problem and its associated pollution.

Figure 1.1 is a very simple but sufficient illustration of the case Bill is making. Selected forests not only yield more than annual crops. But provide a diverse nutrient and fuel resource for such crops.

Without permanent agriculture there is no possibility of a stable social order.

Thus, the move from productive permanent systems (where the land is held in common), to annual, commercial agricultures where land is regarded as a commodity, involves a departure from a low- to a high energy society, the use of land in an exploitative way, and a demand for external energy resources, mainly provided by the third world.

People think Bill is slightly crazy when he tells them to go home and garden or not to involve themselves in broad scale mechanized agriculture; but a little thought and reading will convince them that this is, in fact, the solution to many world problems.

What is now possible is a totally new synthesis of plant and animal systems, using a post-industrial or even computerized approach to system design, applying the principles of whole-system energy flows as devised by Odum (1971), and the principles of ecology as enunciated by Watt(13) and others.

It is, in the vernacular, a whole new ball game to devise Permaculture systems for local, regional, and personal needs.

Had we taught this approach from the beginning, we would all be in a stable and functional landscape, but our grandparents failed us, and (perhaps for lack of time or information) set up the present, and continuing, mis-designed households, towns, and cities.

The concept of “free” energy put the final nail in the coffin of commonsense community, and enabled materialistic societies to rob distant peoples, oblivious of the inevitable accounting to come.


Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual (by Bill Mollison)

Section 1.2 –

Ethics in Permaculture


The core ethic of Permaculture is, as so many things are, laughably simple and yet thought-provoking!



There are three parts to this ethic, but to fully appreciate the scope and scale this ethic incorporates, let’s look at each individually.


Care For The Earth:

 Without a thriving planet, we as a species have nowhere to go. Therefore, caring for the earth is the primary directive of Permaculture.

Given the destruction we’ve wrought on our environment and our planet, it is no longer enough to simply replace what we take. We need to be proactive about developing technologies and regenerative practices that don’t simply heal the world, but enhance it while meeting our current needs through abundant yields – remember, we’re very much talking about maintaining.

Ultimately, we must stand up and assume a guardianship role on our planet in which our every interaction with our world is governed by what is best for the entire body as a whole.

A fascinating thing happens when we recognize and take our rightful place as stewards – we come into
right relationship with our lives by taking our rightful place and answering the endless questions human
beings have been asking for hundreds of years about the meaning of our lives.

The meaning is simple – we are the designers, and when we design in smart  ways, we thrive by helping everything around us thrive. By coming into right relationship with the world, we find inner peace, meaning and a clear pathway towards leading profoundly fulfilled lives.

Human beings were meant to thrive in abundance, and our world very much needs us to take our place as stewards facilitating the natural state of extraordinary abundance.


Care For People:

Permaculture is somewhat radical as an environmental philosophy in that it puts care of the people front and center as one of the three primary design ethics. As a whole-systems life philosophy (yes, it is very much a profoundly interconnected philosophy of living), Permaculture recognizes that human beings very much have a critical role to play on this planet, and when human beings thrive, the planet will thrive with us.

Human beings have ascended through millions of years of evolution to become the dominant species on the planet. As we have done so, we have branched out and populated the world to the edge of disaster, and it is clear that we’re at a turning point where we mature to seek to design intelligent systems for everything to thrive, and the only way we can do that is by focusing on healing ourselves first and foremost – emotionally and physically.


Return of Surplus:

While radical on its face, the third ethic of Permaculture actually makes perfect sense when considered in the context of designing systems for incredible abundance and maximize our yields (profits) at the same time. By setting up ourselves to share the surplus throughout the system, we are seeking to design incredibly resilient systems.

A good way of looking at this is like this: growing sufficient food to keep one’s own family and neighbors in good health is admirable; however, it must never be forgotten that one hard winter or late or early frost can easily undo much if not all of one’s hard work.


For this reason, even as we design for extraordinary abundance, we seek to create resilient systems that are based in relationships that ensure that when we do experience a shortage, we will have access to surplus from our larger community.

Permaculture is fundamentally a philosophy of bringing all the elements into right relationship, and social Permaculture is absolutely critical to regenerative sustainability.

Everyone’s been in a hard spot at some time or another and needed a hand to get out of it. This ethic acknowledges that although people in one area may be enjoying record-shattering yields from their
food supplies, others not that far away may not be so fortunate.

Therefore, it is desirable that where there is a surplus of food, that surplus should be shared with those who were not so fortunate in their own harvest, not because it’s a nice thing to do but because we’re all part of the same world and our own resiliency the next year may well depend on the today’s less fortunate neighbors.

This comes back to caring for people, as discussed above, as well as our world by creating resiliency through right relationship with the larger community.

The entire Permaculture ethic, when put together, is:

  “Care for the Earth; Care for People; Return the Surplus.”

This forms a cyclic ethos which emphasizes the earth above all, human beings in a stewardship role, and that our activities upon the earth and with one another directly help the world thrive, rather than harm it.

In this way, we can help assure a world that we can bequeath to our children and grandchildren with pride, rather than with embarrassment.

By designing our way of life to be inherently regenerative, we’ll be in a position to fully enjoy and appreciate our world. Right now, many of our buildings and vehicles are designed for very limited function rather than form, and their functions tend to create unthinkable damage to our world.

To truly embrace Permaculture on a meaningful level, it is imperative that we learn how to create designs, which harmonize, and work with rather than against nature.

Permaculture may not be the cure for every social ill, but each day it becomes more glaringly apparent that something needs to change, and quickly.

Nearly every newspaper screams daily of tragedy and environmental catastrophes around the globe. By observing the principles of Permaculture, which we’ll discuss in detail in the chapters to come, we can break the cycle of madness that has resulted from doing the same thing the same way for centuries and expecting a different outcome.

Most importantly, Permaculture is very much something one person can commit to and expect to make a very tangible difference in the world, thus giving a clear pathway towards personal empowerment.