Teeth in the Ethics (revisited) – toward Financial Permaculture 10

Holmgren and Temford’s Ethics icon

Here is a lightly-revised version of “Putting Some Teeth in the Permaculture Ethics,” originally published on my old website in 2010 (then republished on this revamped site last August). I’m revisiting it here because it’s been on my mind, as I prepare for teaching at Financial Permaculture 2013, Jan.21-25, in Miami. This course is addressing one of the big gaps, and areas of great innovation, in the evolution of the permaculture framework.

We are in the grips of a paradox. In order to designing projects and businesses that can help regenerate landscapes and communities, we have to design projects that are socially and ecologically sustainable. But these projects must also be able to thrive right now, in our current society that often seems to reward exploitation and destruction before anything else. Reconciling this contradiction in our design work requires new ways of thinking, above and beyond the tools that permaculture has historically offered to the design of human settlements. In order to address the ethical questions and standards that I raise below, we must incorporate strategies for surviving and growing in the current financial system while we work to replace it.

This is, in part, why I’m excited about the upcoming course (and why I’m teaching for expenses only). I think that FPC2013 is helping navigate that paradox. Hope to see you there!

(Psst! If you are going, enter LIBECOL at registration for an $80 discount.)

What follows is the new edition of Putting Some Teeth in the Permaculture Ethics…

(1) Care for the Earth
(2) Care for People
(3) Redistribute Surplus


These three ethics have always been at the heart of permaculture thinking and teaching. At least, that is what folks in the permaculture movement claim – including me. They are easy to agree with – especially the first two – in part because they are so vague. This abstraction is part of their strength – they are widely appealing, and serve as a commonsense and positive entry point to draw people into a conversation.

But how well do the function when it comes to the heavy lifting that’s required of ethical principles – that is, guiding our behavior? If I don’t occasionally review the Ethics, and change some current or planned behavior as a result,then they by definition make no difference. The trick is, the abstraction that makes them such a good conversation-starter is also part of their weakness. I have often found that the Ethics are taught in a watered-down and feel-good style, that does more to create good vibes and excitement than it does to challenge students, or help designers navigate the sometimes-murky waters of choosing clients, partners, and projects. If they get reduced to a story about tending our garden, then sharing our kale with our friends, and then composting our “surplus” kitchen scraps back into the garden, then what does the movement really gain by having ethics at all? Other than to say – with permaculture, it is so easy to be ethical.

The way I think about the Ethics – and the way I train future designers – revolves around the idea of putting some teeth in Ethics. “Care” is a tricky term, after all – it can refer to emotion alone. Like: “In my heart, I truly care for the Earth, and so I shed a single tear every time I turn the key and start up my Hummer.” I prefer to think that, as used in the Ethics, it refers to the action of caring – of taking care of something. So the question becomes, how do I know when I am taking care of the earth, of people?

This is a question that I spend some time with, and revisit. I identify choose indicators and benchmarks, to help shine some light on when I am following the Ethics, and when I am coming up short.  Specific measures are up to the designer, but there are a few questions that I think the Ethics demand that I ask,  and ask repeatedly. If I never find that I have to revaluate my actions because of the Ethics, then the Ethics are useless and I should sharpen them.

Care for the Earth: What, really, is our measure of ecosystem health? The most popular in the Pc movement seem to be biodiversity and energy capture, but I would easily accept topsoil depth, presence of top predators, decreasing levels of nutrient or contaminant runoff in surface waters, structural/functional diversity, etc. What matters to me is not which indicator is used, but that there IS one. I need ways to measure my results, and to see if I am measuring up.

Care for People: What is my measure for social health? A trickier question, even, than measuring ecosystem health, but I still have to spend time thinking about it if I want to accomplish it. The questions that emerge from this Ethic are:

How is this project helping this community USE AND CONTROL it’s own resources regeneratively? How is this project helping a community take control of its own destiny – to self-determine?

It may not be as easy to come up with a number or a measure for this, but I want to hear you (and me) at least make an honest and compelling case for how our work is doing this.

Redistribute Surplus: Trickier still, this third ethic, and most often neglected. And exactly as crucial as the other two. This one merits a little digression.

Most introductory permaculture presentations start with an “Evidence” section – a presentation of the most compelling evidence for the need to do  something different – and not go on as we have been. That’s classic permaculture, as many folks are aware – to spend just a few minutes on doom and gloom, and then focus on solutions for the rest. I present the usual littany of bummers for my evidence section – deforestation, soil loss, climate, peak, etc. etc., and then as the last item, I put up a slide on “Inequality.” I use this graphic for the slide:


I leave this slide up, while we have a little discussion on “Why is inequality an ecological problem?” The discussion that follows is generally very productive.

These are my own answers:
(1) Because of the environmental EFFECTS of inequality: poor and marginalized communities are where the end of the pipe is found. Communities with little political or economic power are unable to defend themselves against toxic contamination, and have no buffer against instability in economic and ecological systems, so bear the costs of environmental degradation disproportionately – especially disproportionate when compared to the comparatively tiny ecological footprint of these same communities.

(2) Because inequality is an environmental DRIVER: as long as the people making decisions about production and extraction are making a killing from it, and can also shield themselves indefinitely from its effects, while those who do the work and actually bear the brunt of industrial fallout don’t have any decision making power about production and extraction, there will be no sustainability. Research supports this statistically: in counties, states, and nations, worse inequality produces worse environmental outcomes. When the benefits go to power-holding decision-makers, and the detriments go anywhere else, why would we even expect the system to change?

(3) And finally, because it’s actually and fundamentally ecological – albeit socio-ecological. The movement of energy and matter through complex living systems is the stuff of ecology, and we can use that lens, and those tools, to understand it and to change it.

SO, back to the 3rd Ethic. The way I see it, the question that the 3rd Ethic “Redistribute Surplus” demands of me is this:

How is my work helping, in some way, to begin to flatten the terrible mountain of inequality that lies between me and true sustainability?

Or, to reverse the metaphor…

How is my work helping to fill the chasm that separates the 80% world from the 20% world, that must be filled to regenerate our culture and our biosphere?

These are the questions that I try (and sometimes fail) to put at the root of my work: research, education, and practice. I’m confident that there are jobs that I don’t get because of this. These are the questions with which I try and infect the slowly growing horde of change-agents that I am privileged and amazed to call students. These are the questions I would like us to be asking each other all the time, and asking of the projects and partners we consider supporting – especially but not only the ones we call permaculture.

What does it take, after all, to create a project that can answer this set of questions substantively, and in the affirmative? It takes more than the Principle of Multifunctionality and the Scale of Permanence. If we want to build a movement that works – that gets us the world we want to live in – then I think it’s (past) time to put some more of that critical design thinking that we pride ourselves on into the design of the movement itself. Leavening the feel-good and inclusive nature of the Ethics with some provocative questions is one way to do it.

  • If we want to build a movement that works – that gets us the world we want to live in – then I think it’s (past) time to put some more of that critical design thinking that we pride ourselves on into the design of the movement itself.

    I’m wholly with you on this. Ryan Harb of the UMass Amherst Permaculture Project and I had a good discussion on this topic after this year’s Northeastern Permaculture Convergence. Mr. Harb noticed that the model of the gathering (a convergence vs. a conference) may no longer best serve the needs of the movement. We identified a shared urge to develop a broader design strategy for implementing the movement. We felt that the weekend convergence model, with it’s emphasis on socializing and short “taster” workshops and talks, while it works well for newcomers, didn’t provide the focus or support required to bring professional minds together to develop and present such proposals to guide real political and institutional change.

    The conversation continued with my feeling that I couldn’t truly develop “A Permaculture” in Philadelphia, where I volunteer with a group called Philly Food Forests. I noted that in my understanding, Permaculture Design was intended for rural homesteaders working with considerable acreage. In such a place, no “cultural transition” is needed. If one is working on degraded pasture in the Australian outback for only one family, they can implement any and all social and ecological systems desired without any real consideration of whether their work is truly fulfilling the Three Ethics. Now that these ideas and awareness spread to those in urban and suburban communities who don’t want to move out, or don’t have the means to do so, though the Ethics and Principles may remain as steady guides for the overall trajectory, a different time-frame and scope must be addressed.

    For example, in Philadelphia, I volunteer with Philly Food Forests, a group reclaiming vacant lots in under-served neighborhoods through work-parties (free food, lots of musical instruments, free store for giving & taking, closing circle to reflect) where we install edible parks. We started with 5 lots two years ago. This year we gardened on around 40 – a great leap. Still, there are 40,000 vacant lots in Philadelphia. Even taken our exponential growth rate, I can’t fathom how to successfully build stable eco-communities in each of these neighborhoods quickly. In order to set realistic goals for smooth and successful culture change, I feel a different model is needed.

    This lead me to formulate the beginning concepts of Cultural Succession, and designing with this “least change for the greatest good” model in mind. I do see Permaculture Design as a vital design kit; however, it may not be exclusively the right framework for every job. The basic concept of Cultural Succession is that healthy human cultures naturally regenerate themselves in a pattern of distinct phases similar to the way mature forests regrow after a major disturbance. We are a natural function of the Universe, so why not pin our cultural development onto a natural model? The image below is the basic outline, and for more description, please see: http://culturalsuccession.tumblr.com/post/32289357421/the-movement-grows-like-the-forests-cultural

    I believe many individuals and many systems are already well into outgrowing this current phase of Industrial Civilization, into the Cultural Creatives phase, who prepare the way for a Digital Native phase. The goal of our eco-social designs then transforms from one of problems and solutions, to how to best encourage this natural succession around the globe, and how to best savor it!

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  • Jeff

    Great stuff. Some have recently begun highlighting the similarities (and differences) between biodynamics and permaculture. What I’m currently trying to get my mind around is how Steiner’s social ideas (the so-called “three-fold social order;” his early 20th century attempt to strike a balance between capitalism and socialism) might relate to permacultural ethics or principles. I’ve read a lot of Steiner, and have permaculture design credentials and what-not, and I still am struggling with this connection. Currently hung up on the difference between ecology and economy. Anyone know of any resources in this direction? Cheers.

  • Alexander Markham

    An excellent article, thank you so much 🙂

  • Thank you! This is right on the head. I shared with my group in Las Vegas.

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  • shoeless_pete

    Thanks for the link to this article. I have forwarded to a scholar working on the idea that social reform must begin with the most oppressed. Phil Kienholz.

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