Understanding Permaculture Ethics

Icons symbolising the 3 permaculture ethics

In this video, Graham King discusses the ethical underpinnings of permaculture. There’s a transcript below if you prefer to read his presentation.


Personal values

So, a brief overview of ethics and why it’s important. We all have personal values. It’s something that we’ve learned, we’ve picked up in our life, we’ve learned from our family and our friends and relationships and people around us and one way of describing is that when we make decisions and actions, our fundamental drives are what shape our decision-making on whether to do something or why we should do something and making judgements on whether we think a thing is good or bad or right or wrong or whatever.

And these and basically when we go to do a thing or make a choice we either ask ourselves or we just go right I’m gonna do it and there’s always a why and these are our moral principles basically that we are referring to.

Judgement call

So pretty much whatever we’re doing we’re making a judgement call on something and what even the simplest things that we do we really in the back of our minds should at least have a little bit of a sense of is that the right thing, can I do this better, even asking yourself what’s a more efficient way of doing a thing, it’s going to save me time, it’s going to take save me money or energy.

They’re ethical or value judgements of what we’re doing and essentially what we’re doing is and I’ve put up here evaluate what our moral self should do.

And I like the word should because we say well I should do this always say to other people “oh you should do this”. And it’s a phrase we often use but whenever you say should, it’s, there’s an imperative as to well the question is: why? why should i do something?

And so and then the answer is because of such and such or for this reason or that reason.

So that evaluation comes with an imperative that that value of what we want to assign to all of this so whenever you see the word should particularly when people just in a conversation like “oh what you should do is this” you’re always like “why?”

And basically it’s what we do.

Integrity, ethics

So we’re talking about doing something and we have our values and so what we like to say is if you align your actions, the things that you do, with your values which means what you say is what you do then we call that high integrity.

And if you say one thing and you do another that’s low integrity. We don’t have good opinions of people with low integrity. We admire people with high integrity. They said they were going to do this and that’s what they did.

And you may have heard this conversation a few times but, you know, high integrity just means you are aligning yourself so if you say I’m going to be a thief but I’m only going to rob rich people and then you go about robbing rich people then your integrity is high in a certain in the sense of aligning your actions with your values.

So it’s a bit more broad than obviously just aligning your actions and your values.

You want to really question your values if you’re going to go and rob people for example um anyway.

So that’s what we want to do and we want to, you know, try and act in good faith and with a good sense of value and a moral sense of rightness and being good is what we want to do.

And in permaculture we pretty much assume that that’s how people are.

So when we talk about morals and you would have heard morals and ethics and I’ve talked about values and it was interesting that there is a slight difference in the use of the words. They sound the same but when we decide to formalize our moral principles into statements then that’s what are called ethics.

So ethics become a codified or formalized way of describing what our principles might be.

The Ethics of Permaculture

So in permaculture we have ethics and you should all know what they are.

And a very interesting point about this is, you know, how important is it?

Well there are many definitions of what permaculture is. Many many people try and what a common thing is you will see this: people say permaculture is an ethical framework or an ethical design or an ethical series of processes.

And this word pops up usually first and it’s quite significant. So we’d want to know why.

Well we really really want to, you know, enact permaculture in a way that aligns itself with the things that we talk about.

So fundamentally we want to have reasons why we go about doing it and in permaculture part of that thinking is formalized into a set of ethics.

So the permaculture ethics represents the fundamental “why” when we say we should do permaculture things, we should align ourselves with our ethics, we should do things.

Then the ethics are the why should we do something, what is the reason for it.

And this picture is a new one recently done by Meg. She’s updated from the core flute diagram that she had and painted this wonderful watercolour. And what I wanted to point out here without looking at all the massive other information is that ethics is right at the heart of this whole representation of all the things that we have.

So I like to call it the heartwood in relation to this picture.

It’s the fundamental part of permaculture, the drive if you like, the imperative to go about doing things.

And an interesting thing about the ethics is the very, from what I can tell, the documentation is obviously in the very early days Mollison and Holmgren were working out the heart, the how and the what and the where and implied that there was an ethical drive.

Like Bill Mollison particularly made it very clear, permaculture is a reaction to what he saw as a very bad system, a bad environment, a bad situation that was getting worse.

And we now see 40 odd years down the track that he was right. And so fundamental to his drive to say we need an alternative is a sense of good a sense of doing the right thing. And the ethics formalized after a bit of time in the documentation so perhaps they kicked it off in the 70s and perhaps by the 80s they were starting to really sort of clarify what was meant by this.

The Ethics

And so as you all know we have the print the three simple ethics that are given and that’s Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share.

And again this is a new picture for Meg. And what I really like about it is, we’ll come to, is the third ethic is described in several different ways. Fair share is one of them and useful. But Meg has captured the others in this Venn diagram of the three ethics in the redistribute surplus and limits aware and future care alternatives. And we’ll come to that. But to be a permaculture practitioner you have to satisfy all of these ethics, you have to sit in the middle of this picture to get there.

Care for the Earth

So Care For the Earth, Earth Care, I particularly think of this as probably the most important.

I know Rowe Morrow in her book says they are all equally important but i kind of think if you’re not looking after the place where you live fundamentally then having a car is no good if there if you cannot live, if you cannot breathe, you cannot eat. The goal for caring for the earth is defined in many ways and one of them is work for the holistic health of all living things on our planet.

So we really want to have our minds spread out to consider everything, to understand what it is that we need to know.

And really it defines in many ways a lot of the detailed work that we learn and study and apply in permaculture when we talk about in our, you know, site analysis and sector analysis and goal setting and vision setting and desires and so on on any design project.

The very first thing we need to be able to do is to understand everything about the environment that we’re working in.

We want to do a permaculture design and implement it. We need to know everything about it and a large part of that is obviously everything about the environment, the earth, the everything in it.

So and the things that we do need to understand and you basically touch on these in a PDC because I think PDC touches on everything you don’t come away as a professional from a PDC course but you give pointers to everywhere.

And so we really want to understand on any place that we’re working a whole range of things and I’ve jotted down some points there are many others of course.

But you know we want to focus on the soil, we want to focus on the life that’s there, the biodiversity, we consider the idea of stewardship of land we are passing through. This land will last forever in relative terms. So rather than ownership, stewardship is just to care for for all of the environment that’s around us.

Ecology is the formal word for the study of environmental systems and as you would know we we want to know about all of our energy we want to know about our land, air, water and in a broader scale care for the oceans, care for the forests, care for the broader planet and supply food.

Again as I said that permaculture was a reaction to a situation. It was very much stated by Bill Mollison and everyone has followed through with the idea of we need to repair, we need to rejuvenate, restore, replenish, regenerate.

All of these things are part of the actions that we need to address to be able to care for the earth. And of course with that as an ethical statement we need to really take all of this in.

People Care

The other, the next ethic is People Care. And we it’s a very very important thing that we don’t just close ourselves off and go for self-sufficiency.

Self-sufficiency doesn’t work. It was a dream of the seventies. And it just doesn’t work.

We, for lots of reasons, you just can’t know everything, you can’t do everything.

We lived in villages and communities for tens of thousands of years for very good reason.

We’re social animals. We rely on each other. We need community.

I think all of us are have moments of having gone a little bit spare over the last 18 months being locked at home and not getting about doing things. And I can imagine that it takes its toll in different ways on various people. It’s a grand example of showing that we are indeed social and community-minded people.

So the idea of People Care in permaculture is more about everything that you do you’re also taking into account how does this affect everyone else, how does this benefit other people, is it benefiting me because you count me in the whole People Care.

Look after yourself. In fact to look after your family I always say look after number one because if you’re not looking after yourself you’re not doing a good job of looking after anybody else. So care for self is as much as important as anybody else.

So permaculture tries to promote self-reliance. But that just means to me not being independent, not being self-sufficient.

But being self-reliant means being a functional part of a community.

You know as I say that we share and support each other.

In a village environment which is village of the mind or the village of where you actually live, whatever, people always developed particular skills or specialized in certain produce or whatever and everyone traded. And if I grow all the potatoes, somebody else grows all of the apples and we share them.

And we trade amongst ourselves. Self-reliance expands out to our community and in all cases we also the go to the biggest picture.

I’m way putting my hands out but I’m assuming you can’t see me. Is everyone seeing a little sidebar with all the pictures of all of us there as well as the presentation? Yes you can. Okay this big, I caught a fish this big once.

All right, so yes life’s too small, we want to think small, we want to think here, we also want to go out and really if you can, whatever your project is, how does this help the planet? How does this help all of humanity? How does this help all of life? So we need to expand our brain out that big.

And then the next step I’ve got there is again when we’re acting under People Care along with everything else, taking responsibility just beyond yourself means you are thinking about the things that you’re doing and how is this going to impact others.

I also think how’s it going to impact beyond my life so particularly this property that Meg and I are working on and developing. You know, we see that as our our lifetime place but we also see it as being taken up by the next generation of somebody, somebody, maybe our daughter and son-in-law, maybe somebody else if they don’t want to. But we would really like to see this property be passed on to the next generation and beyond that and be a permaculture site.

And so yeah that we’re thinking that we don’t want to sell it to somebody who’s going to obliterate everything we did and put lawn back in again, after getting rid of the lawn for the past 20 years.

But and again what we do is we try to think of what we do is setting an example, like many of us do and again that’s all about teaching the next generation coming on through, passing on our knowledge passing on our skills as you know very much at our point of life we promote the perma-share idea because we want to teach everybody but younger people in particular and it’s been great having the great range of people that have been coming to our place so far.

And so that’s all about People Care of passing our knowledge on and passing it into the future.

But not only are we talking about just the people as individuals and what they’re doing.

Part of People Care really on the broader scale is and I put the note there at the bottom: revising our social systems.

We want to consider the way we live our life, all the things that we do and think how can that be improved, what’s not working.

You know, if you follow the news on a regular basis, you can see how various issues come up in media.

Care of the age for one has been an issue that’s suddenly come to the forefront with the impact of COVID. All of a sudden a pandemic happens and we suddenly realize that our aged care system leaves a lot to be desired. So from a permaculture point of view we would be compelled, if in governmental power, to address that as an issue and that’s just People Care.

At the same time education people are leaving the public system and going to the private system and the hope that it’s better partly because policies are just for the many years, decades, policies have been tearing down the public system to build up the private system. For not good reasons not knocking the private system as such but those who are doing that are, there is money involved. The observation was made that you know the catholic church may be losing its followers but its business is now education, probably its largest focus in this country is the education provided by the catholics as an example. Not really commenting on the catholic church just that as a private organization they are in it for the money as an example.

And I think it was, I’m not sure the original, it may well have been Meg’s father when he was a member of parliament many years ago basically said when you were defining a social system, you know, consider yourself as being in the lowest position in that society and think to yourself: have I built a good social system?

And I think that’s a wonderful way to look at things is how is the poorest person in my society living and if they’re not living very well then I haven’t built a good society.

So we really want to think about all that we want to fan out and and really consider all of the impacts of what it is that we’re trying to do on the world around us in the human world, the social world.

Fair Share

So the third ethic, Fair Share, the phrase itself only emerged around about 20 years ago

by around about the year 2000. Originally Bill Mollison had expressed limits to growth in his original thoughts and expanded on that and the idea moved around. Various people have had different thoughts about what we’re talking about here. The very obvious thing is another one is return of surplus to earth and people which is largely about being fair-minded about what you take, what you have, you know, if you don’t take more than you need.

Nobody needs to be a billionaire. The idea is you only take what you need, share what you don’t need that you have with the earth and the people. So we’re not talking about people but returning back to the earth and use the word energy to describe everything that goes off.

We need to nourish the earth and not destroy it so we also need to sort of give back to the planet.

Planet gives freely, you know, all of our energy comes from the sun and everything that’s on the earth comes from the earth. We’ve taken all of the oil, we’ve dug up the iron, we’ve taken the timber, we’ve taken the food. It comes from the planet.

Future Care is a phrase that I think has popped up in Africa where in the same sense really they’re just thinking: think about the future, don’t take everything, leave something for the future. And that’s why, you know, we have limited resources.

And if we just took everything now, I mean there’s like 800 years of coal left in the ground. And suppose we just we didn’t have climate change, we just dug up all of that coal for 800 years and burned it all then what comes after that? We’ve used up all of the coal, you know.

And yes everyone goes oh it’s 800 years. But 800 years is not a long time and the people in 800 years time suddenly go: they’ve used up all of the coal, you know. So our resources are finite.

Even the sun’s energy which we think of as virtually unlimited just still more or less a fixed amount. You only get so much sunlight way way way more than we can comprehend but it is still a finite resource. But all of the other things other than direct heat and light energy come from this planet and stay on this planet except for the orbits we fire out into space.

So really the ethic here is take only what you need. And we really need to understand take. Whenever you take something as a cost, if you read in all of the books on permaculture that various people have written, this is talked about quite a lot, about just in energy you take something from the garden, you need to put it back. There’s always a dynamic balance in energy.

So if you’re taking food out of your garden, energy has to go into your garden to create that food. So we want to be aware of that.

And in terms of sharing we want to trade fairly.

I mean these are kind of judgemental words.

What is fair but that’s the whole question we should endlessly be asking ourselves.

Is this fair what I’m doing? Is it fair ?

Am I somebody said of Jeff Bezos, the man who destroyed book shops.

And that’s true when you think about it, you know.

After Amazon, online books and online I know it was Netflix, online books, book shops have started to disappear. They are still around but just locally I’ve noticed over the years they come and go and, you know, the long lasting names, Angus and Robertson and various other places have

disappeared or morphed and so on.

And it’s been a huge impact just from what Amazon has done in terms of that. It’s grown into many other things but it’s an idea of trading fairly. If a man has hundreds of billions of dollars of value,

is he being fair? And as an example again with Amazon we all know for news stories that people who work for that company are not getting a good deal. It’s, you know, this guy sells a billion dollars worth of shares every year to fund his toy spaceship. But if he can just throw away a billion dollars every year on a toy spaceship, somebody else has made that money for him and those people have not got a good life.

And as we say resources are finite.

And you will notice a lot in documentation of permaculture that there is an attack on capitalism and I entirely think it’s justified.

But just purely as an example, capitalism itself says that its ideology is based on continuous growth, you know. Corporations, the model, is get richer, earn more, sell more. And by more we need, you know, more population.

Mollison’s original words were set limits to population and consumption.

That was that evolved into fair share but his original thought was exactly that: set limits to population consumption. I’ve one of thought that for many years we at the population of humans on this planet is not sustainable and as much as people don’t really talk about it I will talk about it bluntly. It’s a problem.

The population of humans has grown five-fold in the last 120 years since 1900.

That’s, you know, a plague and our resource consumption gets more and more and more.

We’re destroying. We’ve taken all of the fish out of the ocean. We’re tearing down the forests. We’re polluting the air. There are limits, there are just limits where things won’t survive.

And as a final note, Fair Share, we want to be mindful of those who will be living in the future. What kind of life have we now set for people 100 years from now.

And there’s an interesting thing. I saw a little meme today saying: don’t think of this year as being the hottest in the last 100 years, think of it as being the coolest of the next hundred years. That’s a scary thought.

So we’ve got 10 years to stop our limiting to 1.5 degrees centigrade by the end of the century. We have already raised the temperature 1 degree in the last 200 years. And we’ll raise it by another 0.5 in the next 80 or more.

So, summary: live an ethical life, take responsibility for your actions and let this be your default setting.

Ethical Life

If you live an ethical life in the line with permaculture, let it be your normal. Things that are normal don’t have a label. They don’t have a description. I look for the day when permaculture is the normal agriculture. Farming is permaculture. When we lose the word permaculture but that’s what everybody is doing, that’s normal. So allow, you know, the permaculture ethics to be your normal. Thank you.