New Internationalist

The ethical heart of permaculture

Issue 402

Maddy Harland argues that the design system can bring about social change.

Permaculture design is based on observing what makes natural systems endure, establishing simple yet effective principles and using them to mirror nature in whatever we choose to design. This can be gardens, farms, buildings, woodlands, communities, businesses – even towns or countries. Permaculture is essentially about creating beneficial relationships between individual elements. Its application is only as limited as our imagination. There is, however, a bedrock – its three ethics – that provides its motivation, its heart. At first sight the ethics may appear to be obvious – but their combined presence in a design has a radical capacity for social transformation.

Earth Care

Imagine the originators of permaculture, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, looking at the Australian landscape in the 1970s and seeing the devastating effects of a temperate European agriculture on the fragile soils of an ancient landscape. Like the dust bowls of Oklahoma in the 1930s, an alien agriculture has the capacity to turn a delicately balanced ecology into desert. Their initial response was to design a permanent agriculture with tree crops and other perennials, inhabiting all the ‘niches’ from the canopy to the ground cover and below. The soil is left untilled to establish its own robust micro-ecology. Key to this is that the land must be biodiverse and stable for future generations.

This ethic of Earth Care was bound to grow and pervade all aspects of permaculture. How can we have an organic agriculture or horticulture and manage our landscapes to sustain themselves over generations, on one hand; and then consume goods from industries managed in ecologically damaging ways? It’s pointless designing an organic garden and then buying a gas guzzler, or building a house from concrete and steel when we can use local materials with less embodied energy.

The original vision of care for all living and non-living things has grown to embrace a deep and comprehensive understanding of Earth Care that involves our many decisions, from the clothes we wear and the goods we buy to the materials we use for DIY projects. Though we can’t all build our own house or grow all our own food, we can make choices about what and how we consume and conserve. Key to this is the understanding that up to a third of our ecological footprint is taken up by the food we buy. Even growing a small amount in a city allotment or container garden can make a difference – and permaculture is all about making a difference.


People Care

Embedded in permaculture is the concept of Permanent Culture. How can we develop this if people are expendable, uncared for, excluded? There can be no élites here, no plutocracies or oligarchies – all members of the community must be taken into account. People Care asks that our basic needs for food, shelter, education, employment and healthy social relationships are met. Nor can genuine People Care be tribal. This is a global ethic of fair trade and intelligent support amongst all people, both at home and abroad.

At the core of People Care is an understanding of the power of community. We can change our lives as individuals and make incremental differences. How much more we can do in community! Ecovillages and co-housing communities that significantly reduce their ecological footprint by sharing resources are good examples. In smaller ways, in our cities, towns and villages, everyone can benefit from deepening community links.

I may not have all the skills to grow all my food or eco-renovate my house, for example, but by developing good networks I can expand my capacity to live more sustainably and become more self-reliant. This is a decentralized, democratic vision of social transformation. There is no time to wait for central government.


Fair Shares

The last ethic synthesizes the first two. It acknowledges that we only have one Earth. We have to share it with all living things and future generations. There is no point in designing a sustainable family unit, community or nation while others languish without clean water, clean air, food, shelter, meaningful employment or social contact. Since the industrialized North uses the resources of at least three Earths and the Global South languishes in poverty, Fair Shares is an acknowledgement of that terrible imbalance – a call to limit consumption, especially of natural resources, in the North. Permaculture fundamentally rejects the industrial growth model of the Global North, which is at the core of its ethics, and aspires to design fairer, more equitable systems that take into account the limits of the planet’s resources and the needs of all living beings.

Of course, these three ethics are not exclusive to permaculture: they derive from the commonalities of many worldviews and beliefs. Permaculture’s ethics are shared ethics – shared by most of the world. What permaculture does is make them explicit, within a design process that aims to take them out of the realms of philosophy and root them practically in everybody’s lives, transforming thinking into doing.

We cannot design our own private Eden and turn our backs on the rest of humanity or the biosphere. We are not engaged in building ecological arks on a failing planet. We are part of an interdependent ecological system. Permaculture is not just about low-carbon, eco-friendly, even abundant living. It is an ethically based design system which can fit us all.

Maddy Harland is the editor of Permaculture magazine:

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