Though permaculture began in the hearts and minds of its progenitors as a toolkit for developing “permanent agriculture,” over time we’ve seen its application generalized in the pursuit of something more like “permanent culture.” Indeed, permaculture’s ethics provide us with a sturdy foundation for designing not only regenerative landscapes, but also, crucially, regenerative lifestyles.
When we begin the process of internalizing permaculture’s three core ethics – earth care, people care, and fair share – we come to realize pretty quickly that they fly in the face of modern convention. The status quo’s materialistic metrics for gauging success – the big house, the fancy car, the slow and steady climb up the corporate ladder – don’t mean much to the permaculture practitioner who’s concerned with living frugally, limiting consumption, and distributing surplus resources. So if we wish to live by this set of ethics, then we have to define our own ways of gauging how successful we are in our daily lives.
To this end, I have distilled the core message of permaculture’s ethics into a set of guidelines for defining your own success metrics. I can’t pretend to try to tell you what you need to do to be happy and content in your day-to-day life, but I am confident that these guidelines can help you define for yourself what it means to be successful and satisfied outside of the dominant culture that’s designed to deny you these things.
1. Seek growth and development over acquisition:
Focus on acquiring intellectual and experiential capital over material goods.
I hinted at this first point in the introduction, but it’s worth spelling out: don’t concern yourself with acquiring things. True wealth comes in the form of knowledge and experience, because once you’ve gained it, you can never lose it.
It sounds obvious, especially to those of us who’ve been on the path for some time now, and yet the pursuit of material goods is so ubiquitous in our culture that we are constantly bombarded with nagging reminders that we can’t help but pick up. And it can pop up in places where you might not be looking for it: how many of us permaculturalists would love to own a humble piece of land? How about that rustic cabin in the woods you’ve always dreamed of?
Of course it’s beneficial to have goals, and my wife and I would love to own land one day – but it ain’t happening today, it ain’t happening tomorrow, and anyway, I wouldn’t hardly know what to do with it today even if I did have it. For now, I’m much more concerned with learning how to work with landscapes – I don’t need to claim ownership of one.
If and when the day arrives when we can buy land, I’m confident that I will come equipped with the knowledge and experience to make the most of the space from day one. In the meantime, I will continue to learn and grow in the place we rent, deriving immense satisfaction from my daily pursuit of intellectual and experiential capital.
2. Seek spiritual satisfaction over mindless pleasure:
Give your body, mind, and soul what they need, not what external influences tell you to desire.
For Brooke and me, the spiritual realm is one place where the tenets of earth care and people care collide. A big part of taking care of ourselves involves seeking out a spiritual connection with the natural world, which naturally entails a desire to care for it.
Spirituality is a touchy subject for some, especially those among us who come from a scientific, rationalist perspective (like me). But spirituality need not entail religion, or any sort of higher power.
The best definition of spirituality I’ve ever heard defined it as seeking meaning beyond pure survival, and seeking connection beyond the individual body. Viewed through this lens, we see that permaculture is an avowedly spiritual practice: we find a higher purpose through our efforts to heal the land, and we feel deeply connected to all of the living things around us as a result of those efforts. This is how we nourish our souls while taking care of our bodies and our surroundings.
What is the alternative? Modern society offers nothing in the way of purpose beyond pure consumption, and nearly all of that consumption takes the form of entertainment that’s designed to allow us to escape from, rather than connect with, the body and its environment.
Permaculture co-originator David Holmgren calls this denial of human spirituality “the real Achilles heel” of corporate capitalism, which is to say that the system rejects our fundamental human nature at its own peril. But it’s not my job or your job to solve that systemic failure – we both have to plenty of work to do on ourselves first.
3. Seek fulfillment over achievement:
Feel good about the things you do from day to day, regardless of the outcome.
Achievement, in my experience, can be an extraordinarily difficult concept to let go of. Doesn’t it feel great to set goals and then achieve them? Yet somehow, the goalposts have a way of pushing themselves just a little further back each time we reach them, so that whatever we’ve just accomplished is overshadowed by whatever comes next. The victory is diminished because the previous goal turned out to be just a stepping stone leading to the next goal, and in this way, we become stuck living in an imagined future, unable to celebrate today’s accomplishments.
The Bhagavad-Gita tells us that in order to act in good faith, we must focus our mental energy toward our actions themselves, rather than the fruits of those actions. This ancient piece of wisdom is mirrored in the colloquial expression, “it’s the journey, not the destination.” We should act without any “gaining ideas,” to borrow from Zen philosophy, because that prize at the end of the race only clouds our intentions.
When we focus on the goal, we are unable to observe the path, which is where our lives actually play out. Instead of simply crossing things off of our to-do list, we should aim to feel fulfilled by whatever actions we take over the course of a day, no matter the outcome.
This is a tricky one, especially because the vast majority of us find ourselves in job situations that we’d rather not be in, and so focusing on the goal – a big paycheck, for example – becomes the only way to slog through whatever chores we’ve been tasked with. But I submit that there are always worthwhile lessons to take away from every situation that we encounter, if only we know how to look. My coworker on the farm said it best to me one day when we were feeling frustrated while fencing some young trees:
“Do the job, big or small; do it right, or not at all.”
Doing the job is how we accomplish the goal; doing it right is one way we can derive satisfaction from our work beyond simply getting it done.
But regardless of whether or not you achieve what you set out to do, you always have one fundamental choice: you get to decide how to feel about it. You can choose to beat yourself up over perceived failings, or you can celebrate every action you take that aligns with your values. And if your daily actions revolve around the ethics of earth care, people care, and fair share, then there is always something worth celebrating.