Ethics of permaculture

Lycaenid butterfly
Dancing circle at the Alte-Papierfabrik
Vegetables from the garden

Permaculture design is “a system of assembling conceptual, material, and strategic components in pattern which functions to benefit life in all its forms, seeks to provide a sustainable and secure place for living things on this earth” (Bill Mollison). In other words, the permaculture concept aims at creating a deeper, richer, healthier, and more direct connection between us and the environment we live in and this is supported by three very strong ethic principles: Earth care, People care, and Fair share.

Earth care

The first objective of permaculture is to stabilize and take care for the land that has already been degraded by human activities. So basically the aim is to transform back degraded, unproductive land into clean, productive, and efficient systems that are both sustainable and resilient to withstand environmental variations. Such systems are then favorable for all present life forms, which is the core of “Earth care”. Why do we stress the importance to use degraded lands? Well, there is so much land that has been degraded already that if we rehabilitate it, we have more than enough to live in abundance and we can leave the remaining natural ecosystems intact. We could even increase the surface occupied by natural ecosystems. This is important not only for conservation, aesthetic, or environmental purposes but also because natural ecosystems are the teachers and inspiration for permaculture designs; hence, it would not make much sense to destroy a natural ecosystem to put in its place a permaculture design, as productive and efficient as it might be for us. We’ll come back to that.

People care

The second objective of permaculture, intimately related to the first one, is to care for the well-being of local and regional households. Indeed, a complete permaculture design should be diverse enough to fulfill all the needs of the people living on the land. This does not only concern basic needs such as shelter and food but also the need for aesthetics, for relaxation, for enjoying life with family and friends, and so on. The idea is not to restrict ourselves but to live in abundance in a way that agrees with the first principle. Why do we stress “local and regional households”? Because the farther you need to transport goods, the less efficient the system becomes and the more energy is wasted, which in the long run actually enters in contradiction with the first principle. Of course, to care for people we need to remain very pragmatic and close to reality, something that some permaculture enthusiasts can forget. We must not forget that there are no magic wands and that major changes in a system will take work and investments. For instance, a very diverse polyculture crop may produce much more and be much more resilient than a monoculture, but it makes no sense to create it if the harvesting efforts increase a hundred-fold.

***N.B.: A full permaculture design integrates all aspects of human life, including sustainable housing and energy production. Even though these aspects rely on the same basic principles and though we can provide basic knowledge about them, we are not experts of these fields; we specialize in the “garden and landscape design” part of permaculture, including plant and animal systems.

Fair share

The third objective of permaculture can also be called “Return of surplus”. This encompasses two ideas. The first is to return everything we do not need to the ecosystem we are creating so that we are not depleting its resources and so that other life forms can also fully benefit from it. Here, two general resource use guidelines should be followed: using only what we need and avoid waste when we do use resources. It also implies that in many instances, we should revise what we feel like we need. Then, with a system constantly becoming more productive, efficient, and stable, surplus can be safely used for local or regional sale and exchange without disagreeing with the first principle, and supporting the second one.