2. Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share - Permaculture Ethics

Our increasingly globalized culture is in dire need of a basic moral compass that we can all agree upon. Permaculture offers one such solution.

This podcast aims to apply the principles and ethics of permaculture to our everyday lives; to align our core values and our daily habits towards a more sustainable, ecologically conscious way of thinking and interacting.

Though it began as a design science for creating interconnected living landscapes that function like natural systems, permaculture’s underlying themes extend far beyond the garden.

That’s because it’s more than just a toolbox or a collection of techniques – it also comes readymade with a set of ethics that guide its use. In the words of co-originator Bill Mollison, “science without ethics is sociopathy.”

Mollison and his student David Holmgren developed the ethics of permaculture through comparative study of the world’s indigenous and non-industrial cultures, reasoning that these lifestyles have been far more sustainable over the course of human history than the way we Westerners operate today.

These ethics are generally remembered shorthand as earth care, people care, and fair share, and they are all connected through an underlying spiritual reverence for nature.


Earth Care

In his 2002 book Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability, Holmgren defines the earth care ethic in several ways. First is the literal care for earth, as in the living soil that sustains all life on this planet.

Industrial culture has devastated our natural landscapes by depleting the health of our soils, and the way forward isn’t entirely clear at this juncture. But there’s a whole new generation of farmers, designers, and homesteaders experimenting with cutting-edge sustainable and regenerative agricultural methods, and the early results are very encouraging.

Care for the earth can also be defined in terms of stewardship, meaning the care of our homes, communities, territories, or regions, and the natural resources we find all around us at each scale.

Holmgren says that we must constantly ask ourselves: “Will the resource be in better shape after my stewardship?” The goal of stewardship should always be to improve what we look after.

Earth care is further understood as respect for the diversity and abundance of living things, independent of “current usefulness.” All living things have intrinsic value as interconnected parts of the whole, whether or not they have any direct value to human culture.

Of course, Holmgren notes, “to assume responsibility for the fate of all species is beyond our power or intelligence.” Permaculture, then, aims to be pragmatic by emphasizing a “live and let live” ethos of doing the least amount of harm. 

We strive to minimize our overall environmental impact, and when we do harm or kill other living things, we do so with the utmost respect.

People Care

Holmgren tells us that the people care ethic makes permaculture “an unashamedly human-centered environmental philosophy,” because we alone on this planet have the capacity to drastically alter our global environments and landscapes.

This power means that we as individuals must accept personal responsibility for our own situations, and “focus on the opportunities that exist even in the most desperate situation.”

We begin by caring for the self, and work to extend compassion outward to family, friends, communities and beyond. We must tend to our own needs first and foremost, because that’s where we can take the most meaningful and direct action.

It’s also the most gentle and effective way to influence those around you – “be the change you wish to see in the world” is appropriate here.

We must rid ourselves of bitterness towards external forces, whether personal or political, which we view as controlling our lives, and rise to the challenge of self-reliance with open arms and open minds.

The sad reality of the Western world is that the way we’ve been taught to care for ourselves – and others – is generally through the consumption of material goods. That’s bad for the planet, bad for those less privileged than us, and bad for our bodies, minds, and souls.

Holmgren suggests focusing on “non-material well-being,” for example, enjoying a sunset with a loved one rather than going to see a movie, or going for a hike instead of going out for brunch.

The truth for most of the rest of the world is that this non-material well-being is actually the most valuable wealth of all, and so the respectful preservation of these kinds of resources becomes a high moral concern.


Fair Share

The so-called fair share ethic is perhaps the most controversial of the three, though probably much more so in the early days of permaculture when the notion of ecological limits was less accepted.

We call it “fair share” mostly for the rhyming flair that it brings to the ethics, but what Mollison and Holmgren originally formulated was mainly about setting limits to population and consumption while at the same time redistributing surplus.

From this perspective, the third ethic is a natural extension of the first two – in order to properly care for a finite planet that can support a finite number of humans and other species, we must accept nature’s limits and organize our lifestyles accordingly.

For us in the post-industrial world, this means dramatically reducing our consumption of resources, and coming to terms with it means to have “enough.” Holmgren points back to non-material well-being as a means of escaping the rat race of material gain.

The issue of population growth is a touchy one, though most people would agree that the planet is already overpopulated, assuming that the standard of living we would like to achieve for everyone resembles that of the Western world.

Nobody is suggesting eugenics or a One Child policy – research indicates that what the world needs to stabilize population growth mainly comes down to economic security and low infant mortality rates. This means we need to get serious about redistributing surplus resources if we wish to address the problem of overpopulation.

Redistributing surplus, again, extends naturally from the previous two ethics: if we care for and respect the planet’s natural resources, and we care for ourselves, each other, and other non-human living beings, then it logically follows that we would share the abundance of the natural world with one another.

This is where the practice of mindful compassion comes in, because sharing surplus resources means reaching out beyond your immediate sphere of influence, where, as Holmgren tells us, “there may be no mutual obligation or feedback mechanism to reward our benevolence.” In other words, give freely and do good for others whether they are even aware that you are doing it or not.

And this fair share ethic extends beyond the present as well – we must also consider how we might allocate resources now so that they will available for future generations to come.

If we adhere to the earth care ethic of improving any place that we take on as stewards, then we can begin to restore our battered and bruised planet so that it may adequately provide for our children, and our children’s children and beyond.

Spiritual Purpose

Beyond the three ethics of permaculture, Holmgren stresses the need for a system of values based upon a higher spiritual purpose in nature. This is a “universal and defining feature of all cultures before scientific rationalism,” he argues, and we ignore it “at our peril.”

He goes on to point out that most indigenous societies maintain “nature-spirit traditions” of caring for the land beyond the immediate need of its human stewards through acts of devotion such as prayer or sacrifice.

We need not spill the blood of our most prized goat to appease Gaia in this era, but we must nonetheless revere Mother Nature as the source from which all life arises if we are to develop a respectful attitude towards the consumption of resources.

This spiritual reverence of nature need not conflict with any religious traditions that a practitioner brings to the table – there is plenty of room in permaculture for all religions, but what we are really concerned about here are the core moral attitudes that we all share.

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We know that the way our culture operates is not sustainable. We know that it can’t continue indefinitely, though nobody can pinpoint when or how it might all collapse. Pragmatically speaking, this leaves us with two options:

  1. Continue on course with the status quo and hope it doesn’t get too ugly in our lifetimes.
  2. Seek out alternative ways of living that can be sustained through future generations.

The good news for those of us who choose the second option – and I hope that’s everybody reading this! – is that we need not solve all of the world’s problems today. As Bill Mollison so eloquently stated, “our best will not be our children’s best.”

But it is up to us to reorganize our lives and our belief systems in order to pave the way for our children to succeed on a healthy and stable planet.

This blog, then, is one of the ways I am working to redistribute the wealth of intellectual and experiential capital that I have gained and will continue to gain on this journey, so that I might empower others to embody the ethics of permaculture in caring for the earth, themselves, and each other.

About the Author

Sam Sycamore is a writer and homesteader located in Simpsonville, Kentucky. An avid gardener with a passion for wild foods and edible perennials, Sam loves to teach others about growing food, foraging, and finding purpose in the modern world. Contact Sam here, and keep up with his daily adventures on Instagram @doityoursammy.