Regenerative Foundations: Ethics & Principles of Permaculture

Permaculture ethics are the conceptual foundation at the base of all permaculture design work.

by Rachel Lyn Rumson

What would nature do?

That is the perennial question in the permaculture worldview. This article will be laying the conceptual foundation at the base of all permaculture design work. While it is heady and philosophical, the challenge to you is to embody the answer.

With the permaculture ethics and principles we are getting into decision making. Ethics and principles in permaculture are providing structures that support the choices we will make. They provide a sense of what information is needed at different steps in the process, and what ecological systems we can imagine would be a generative addition to the place we are designing for.

This article will illuminate the ethics and principles of permaculture with the works of permaculture women: Jessi Bloom, Rosemary Morrow, Maddy Harland, Looby Macnamara, Pandora Thomas, Lisa Fernandes and more. It will is a learning journey that will explore outside and online to make sense of this topic. Continue reading to:

  • Gain an understanding of the permaculture ethics and principles
  • Explore models of change at two scales, both personal and global
  • Practice design-thinking

ETHICS

Environmental activist, food sovereignty advocate, Dr. Vandana Shiva teaches that we must face rampant stupidity to protect our home on Earth, that our future on the planet depends on the knowledge of how to live with nature.

I am not sure about you, but for me there is no end to the wrongs in the world that we can worry about. I mean, it feels important to have a basic understanding of climate change, the global financial system and how it is all connected with fossil fuel consumption, but sometimes it can get really depressing. With extractive economics diverting water from communities for profit, fabricated foods poisoning our bodies, privatization becoming the end-all-be-all of public policy, it can be hard to imagine that there is anything we can do about it.

Deep breath, in…

…Breathe out. Follow the breath all the way out.

It’s not you. It’s your cage.

Enter the permaculture ethics. They provide us a little space in our lives to make deliberate choices about the situation at hand.

“The women with their caring and sharing will be the teachers of how to be human in the future.” — Vandana Shiva

permaculture ethics

“Care of the Earth” and “Care of People” are the first two ethics. They may seem obvious but we will delve into them. The literature is consistent about the first and second ethics, and there are several versions of the third.

Originally, Bill Mollison framed the ideas on the third ethic as “limits to population and consumption.” Dave Holmgren, co-originator of permaculture, presented this as “Fair Share.”

“Careful process” is the third ethic used by Jessi Bloom and David Boehnlein’s in their book Practical Permaculture (2016.) This framing of the concept is more dynamic than “Fair Share” since it incorporates how we share and become aware of our boundaries and limits as ongoing work.

There is another term in use as well, that is “Future Care”.

Originating from the African Permaculture School, and recently advanced by Maddy Harland, another of your teachers in the Permaculture Women’s Guild, in Permaculture Magazine, “Future Care” suggests we have a role as “determiners” in an inter-generational creative space between that past and the future.

As determiners, we can mold and shape regenerative systems, and use the hands-on knowledge, and models of our ancestors to do it, including science. In this creative space, intergenerational space, our unique capacities and privileges are offered to honor future generations in the choices we make now.

In the Future Care version of the third ethic, there is sober awareness of the resource wars of the past and present, of colonizing forces that destabilize peoples, grab lands, divert water, create debt schemes to assume control over sovereign nations, and ecologies. There are visionary ideas in the article too about facing this together.

Let’s take a little break from reading and do an exercise.


Visualization & Breathing Exercise

Please take a moment to imagine what these ethics mean to you already. Step away from the computer for 3–5 minutes and do some stretches.

While stretching, think about the ethics. I have a little mantra that I use to meditate on them below:

Care. Care. Share. Aware.

Breath deep full breaths while you stretch. Imagine a world shaped by these ethics. In your mind, imagine people living by them. Close your eyes and envision:

What do you see people doing?

What are they saying?

What choices are people making?

How are they making them?


permaculture ethics
A version of the permaculture ethics.

Earth Care is at once about the whole planet and the very place where you stand.

When we design permaculture systems it is important to value the functional ecosystem that is already in place. We want to avoid interfering in intact functional ecosystems and to actively protect them. Meanwhile, we look to restore places that have been degraded already.

This ethic is about participating in the nutrient cycle, bringing the elements together to forster fertility in the landscape. It is about accounting for who is there, before humans, and before our ancestral forebears. It is about honoring the ecological services of all the plant and animal beings, and learning to see the interconnections, all the while caring not to disrupt the balance in place.

People Care is at once about self and the whole of humanity, and everywhere in between. It is about skills and boundaries, needs and wants, communication and all the social systems that could use greater alignment to the first ethic.

With your design work, seek to meet people’s needs appropriately. Starting with the self, then radiating out to family & friends, community, and so on we negotiate our relationships. I used to say in grad-school that we need high-definition relationships, we need to see people intimately, honoring their gifts as well as our own.

Wellbeing is an unmet need for too many people in this world. People with unmet needs like food, water, shelter and and sanitation are unable to concern themselves with environmental stewardship. It is important to be mindful of that, and sometimes not to charge ahead too fast either.

People show up to community endeavors with emotional needs as well, needs like connection, honesty, meaning, play, autonomy. People will have different leadership styles, learning styles and ways of handling conflict too that will impact projects. It is important to meet people where they are at and show up as authentically and compassionately as possible to permaculture, and not to over identify with the techniques you will learn along the way.

People Care expands out beyond our own circles and children. It transcends our lifecycle even. Depending on how this ethic resonates for you, your designs may have their greatest impact on people that you will never know. When we employ this ethic it makes sense to choose a tree to plant that won’t produce in our lifetime.

This ethic is also be about honoring the ancestors of place and our own bloodlines. The web of life is truly vast, putting our appreciation for it into action can be fulfilling, even healing experience. Pandora Thomas is one of my beloved teachers. Her work with prisons and ex-convicts in California goes deep into the nature of healing of trauma though putting these ethics into action in our communities. (Listen to her speak on healing trauma in our society in the movie Inhabit: A Permaculture Perspective, or on being relevant in her talk on Social Permaculture and the Magic of Diversity at UCSC a treat.)

Care of people gets at things like placing food in the landscape for the people living there to forage. While most town planners and developers agree that perennials are better than annuals for their low maintenance, Bloom & Boehnlein explain that engaging people in the landscape by banking food there makes a place come alive to people, it means something to them. How many ornamental grasses and shrubs are collecting trash debris that no one feels responsible for?

Too many.

People are part of Earth’s ecosystem like all other species, so care for people is care of Earth. When basic needs are met we can collaborate on more earthcare together!

Future Care (a.k.a.“Limits to Population and Consumption,” “Fair Share,” or “Careful Process”) has two parts. The first is the sharing of goods that are surplus to our needs. The second is being aware of limits.

This ethic requires that we take responsibility for our needs and those of our children. Once we have that covered, then we actively distribute the rest in service of the other two ethics. In our design work, we strive to loop every output of a process into another system. Kitchen scraps goes out to the chicken yard, becomes eggs. Bird bedding becomes compost for the garden to grow more food for the kitchen, becomes scraps for the birds, etc. Waste becomes obsolete! Where we reinvest the surpluses a lot of goodwill and hope is generated in our communities as well.

The second part of the Future Care ethic is about being aware of our own limitations. The carrying capacity of the land to feed the creatures that live on it is one example. The yield of each crop, the time it takes to mature, the climate hardiness zone and the growing season are all limits to be aware of.

This ethic invites us to adjust our behavior choices by applying self-regulation. The dominant culture of over-consumption is part of the context of all our design work. Taking responsibility for ourselves means that we have to know what our needs really are. In a culture of pushing consumption and accumulation this is a radical idea!

To put this in perspective, if we are consulting on the design for a solar array to support a home, school or a EV car charging station, the Future Care ethic requires that we design the demand-side first. Supply is always the default mindset. If we look only at the current-state rate of use, we may meet limitation. We, or our client, may not be able to afford the solar array. However, if we change the rate of consumption to meet the actual need then the solar array solution may come back in to play financially.

This awareness of limitation part of the Future Care ethic challenges assumptions about both consumption and growth. These challenges are potentially useful at any scale of design from global, to bioregion, to neighborhood, to household or business, to an single element in a permaculture design.

Demand side first design means we collect the data that we need to measure current-use and we ask by what amount can we reduce that? We don’t wait for the financial limitation to design for the demand side first. This is designing for resilience.

In nature nothing grows forever. The lifecycle of a thing and its distinct stages of development are part of the character of that organism. The breed of an animal or the species of a tree will have limits to be aware of. All beings in the biosphere have periods of growth and decline.

Where an organism lives has a great impact on the organism’s capacity to express itself. If you are from New England like me, when you travel to more lush bioregions, the size of plants there blows your mind. The aloe in Algave, Portugal for instance! The rosemary in Coastal Mountains of California! I digress. The point is that endless growth is not possible in natural systems, if it happens it is probably cancer.

With the narrative of the growth imperative, costs are externalized to skew the number, costs are shouldered by real people, outside of the pool of capital. Capitalism as a system, some would say, is as senescent as a 200 year old apple trees living in an abandoned orchard! Even outside of permaculture think tanks like Post Carbon Institute, economists agree that financial depression will occur. They agree because of many factors, one significant one is the global financial system is entirely dependent on fossil fuels, another is climate change will destabilize the markets.

We are in a precarious situation collectively, yet we are conditioned to identify as individuals. This is why we need to adopt collaborative structures and creative processes with permaculture.

There is a reflection activity below. As you become familiar with the ethics in this class, please remember that most of your teachers will be familiar with the Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share framework as you move through the course.

You have the basics of the permaculture ethics now, but there are a few more things that I want to share with you about permaculture ethics.

BONUS ETHIC

At each moment of life on Earth, living systems are both in decline and emerging. There is a video of me talking about systems coming up, where I will suggest that what time it is for you is part of where you identify with declining an emerging systems. For the bonus ethic, please consider that we live in a moment that is situational. Our culture has a range of seeds, technologies and rituals that make up a range of possibilities for how we can live in our time. This describes our cultural moment.

Bloom and Boehlien talk about a bonus ethic that captures this idea of a cultural moment. They refer to this as the TRANSITION ethic. They say, the general trajectory is clear with permaculture design. It is essentially that we want to last. If we are to last, they say, we need to use appropriate technology and long term solutions.

An example of this is that if the tools we use to work the land, or control the climate of our dwelling are too high-tech for the average user to understand, then it might be a short-term solution. If we will not be able to use a tool in the future because it is a fossil-fuel-dependant tool design of the last century, it might be a short-term solution. In both cases, we have what I call a brittle system. We can think smaller for the systems we are designing to lengthen the trajectory.

On the other hand, because of the moment we are in, we may have access to heavy machinery that can implement large scale earthworks now, say for a farm-scale system that will maximize water flow and eventually be self-regulating, then using that technology might be good use for the long-term solution.

Another facet to this TRANSITION, that they talk about is interpersonal. Bloom & Boehnlein explain, wisely “we are not going to achieve permanent culture overnight, so meet people where they are”. This includes ourselves! This ethic keeps us humble. It is not helpful to look down on one another based on our judgement that they are not sustainable enough, or that humanure is going too far. It is not good for interconnection and it is not kind to yourself to compare yourself to others either.

Sustainability is a spectrum from conservation to regeneration and the transitions are times of self-renewal, creativity and significant change. The impact of these transitions varies from person to person. We need to bring compassion to our relationships, including ourselves. The next two videos will focus how to do this at two different scales: personal and whole system.

This first video on transitions fits into the category of emotional permaculture, or what is sometimes referred to as permaculture for the inner landscape. We look at an intra-personal model for understanding change at the scale of you using a Transitions model developed by positive psychologist William Bridges. I offer some suggestions for how you can navigate transitions on a personal level, depending where you are at.

Transitions: Intra-personal Skills by Rachel Lyn Rumson

Next, I’ll discuss a systems thinking perspective on change at a global level and the roles we play in large scale systems. In this video, I will talk about peak oil in the context of the changing energy system, and reflect on forest systems too using the Two Loops Model, developed by Meg Wheatley and friends at the Berkana Institute, currently taught in the Art of Hosting Community, which you will be learning about later in this course.

A story of Living Systems: A Model of Systems Change
permaculture implementation diagram
Permaculture Implementation Diagram

The ethics are nested in a framework that include principles and strategies. The elements are strategies. Sometimes they can bleed together as the same thing for folks. Sometimes people have a lot of attachment to a few of them. It is important for this course that you distinguish them, and that each element you consider for a design, you run an input/output analysis on. More on this later in the course.

Here is a picture of the cards I made for working collaboratively with clients on their designs that I mentioned in the video and an Design Elements hand out:

permaculture game
Elements game pieces made in collaboration with Shana Hostetter.

ELEMENTS LIST

Design Elements

INTRODUCTION TO PERMACULTURE PRINCIPLES

When it comes to the permaculture principles I am a deconstructionist. By that I mean that there is a compulsion to frame the ultimate meaning of the principles into text form and I would rather the meaning be felt than words referring to words. Looby Macnamara (2012) writes that there are currently about 50 principles in use!

From where we are culturally in 2018, in the “western cultures”, text and statements are what we need to nourish these ideas, however, understanding is beyond words, it is action. We should not, in my view, ascribe authority to one version of the principles because they are principles of nature, not principles of humans..

The essential use of the Permaculture Principles is that they are a tool of inquiry. They allow both for the gleaning of information, and the commitment of our imaginations as we try to dream the ethics in to reality. Mollsion (1995) talks about how permaculture is part imagination and part information. To me, it is poetry and science.

In learning the behavior of complex living systems and seeking to align our behavior with Earth’s natural systems, to practice becoming the future together with Earth, the principles are foundational.

The principles are like a fractal structure in the dynamic web of life. It is not that we should know them to test well, but that we figure out how to embody them in our own behavior, that we find direction, that they become tacit knowledge.

Non-western indigenous cultures have this without credentialing or controlling pathways to success with this knowledge. By reflecting on these principles as part of our development as human beings, we must temper our egos.


ACTIVITY: ONLINE EXPLORATION

There are some wonderful teaching tools available online that have become almost universal in their use because they are so accessible. Many of your teachers will be refer to these, so it will be important to be able to recognise their sources.

  1. Spend 5 -10 minutes time on each of the following online resources for learning about about permaculture principles:
  2. Permaculture Principles — by David Holmgren and Richard Telford.
  3. Permaculture Fundamentals — by Brett Pritchard
  4. TreeYo Permaculture Education — by Doug Crouch
  5. Reflect on these questions:
  6. Which presentation of the principles do you like best?
  7. Was there a feature that you really liked on one site or another?
  8. Bookmark these sites to your browser favorites for easy access later. We will come back to these sites later.

The Holmgren and Telford site, PermaculturePrinciples.com is a very popular resource. The teaching tools there are highly accessible due to their visual appeal, each principle with an icon, a proverb and memorable name, and a series of anecdotal narratives. There are free downloads there and range of learning aids to shop for. If you are a visual learner, and statistically most people are, this version sticks.

If you are a auditory learner, then you might have honed in on the Formidable Vegetable Sound System recordings, that appear on PermaculturePrinicples.com. That is a great way to learn them too! Get up and dance to the principles I say! (Seriously, do it. You can stream them, or buy a CD here: Permaculture: A Rhymer’s Manual).

Pritchard’s site, PermacultureFoundations.com, arranges the principles and ethics in way that appeals to spatial or kinesthetic learners, like me. Because of the pyramid and the categorical arrangement into layers, there is a different understanding to glean there. The relationship among the principles is apparent in the layout. There is an economy of information with one image per “card”, Mollison’s quotes from the Permaculture: A Designers Manual (Mollison, 1988) and Intro to Permaculture (Mollison, 1993) providing explanation.

Finally, Roach’s website TreeYoPermacultureEdu.wordpress.com is a comprehensive website for reading along with in his PDC. It is designed to be a online book, modeled after Bill Mollison’s opus: Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual.


PRINCIPLES PRACTICE

For this article, I have set my usual go-to teaching tools aside and made some social-media-ready teaching tools. Your task is observations of living systems. I feel they are open for interpretation.

obtain a yield
be creative
strive for diversity

PRINCIPLES DECK

If you like you can print these Permaculture Principles Cards.pdf

Finding the practical ways to apply the permaculture principles and ethics in your design work will be the challenge from here. The rest of this course will expand upon the many ways to get there both in the landscape and our relationships. In this short video, I am explaining how to also use the principles of obtain a yield, relative location and stacking functions in your design process.

Reflection

Rosemary Morrow offers some questions in reflection on the ethics in her book Earth User’s Guide to Teaching Permaculture.

  • Who needs to practice these ethics — us or them?
  • How would practicing these change our lives?
  • How can we implement these ethics?
  1. Share a section of your reflections on social media with the hashtags #PermacultureEthics #permaculturewomen

Mini Design Challenge/Thought Experiment

Another one of my teachers, Lisa Fernandes often says that any design challenge that stretches us, can be very useful for the design process. Design constraints, or limiting factors can lead to greater creativity in solutions.

For a few minutes, we are going to think about our lives and how we would function in the world with a major disruption, nearly an overnight reduction in fossil fuels by half. Then we’ll reflect on activity and look at some of the ways the principles can show up.

  1. Now draw a line down the center of a blank sheet of paper. Then put a line across the top to make a “T” on the page. Write the words “Problems” and “Solutions” as heading on the page over the two sides.

ProblemsSolutions.pdf

  1. Think about your life, how would you function with 1/2 the fossil fuel inputs that you currently depend on?

In your notebook or on a piece of paper imagine:

  • What might change about your food, shelter, transportation?
  • What relationships would change?
  • Would you go to the same places?
  • What things might change for the better?
  1. Using a timer, brainstorm about the various problems and solutions for 3 minutes. Try to balance your attention on each side of the page in the time that you have. You can also do this with other people in your life. If you like, contextualize this by framing the situation first by considering first your personal behavior, or functions at home, the school, or work, neighborhood, town, then bio-region.

Worksheet Debrief: The Problem is the Solution

What was that like?

What it as easy to brainstorm on both sides of the page?

Did you move to solutions quickly or did you dwell on the problems more?

Did you think of only your behavior or the behavior of other people too?

It is significant to know how we will operate when facing a challenge like this, but the practical solutions are sometimes embedded the problems themselves and the act of thinking creatively emerges spontaneously! In the exercise that you just did, some of you might have experienced that.

Other times, it takes time to reflect and see things differently; to sleep on it or walk away, and coming back to it later.

The problem is the solution is a permaculture principle. In the landscape, we see a problem, too much sun for the lettuce pants, or too much sun for the patio so no one wants to be there. In both of these practical examples the sun loving plants are the solution.

What loves the sun, and can grow and shade the crops or the humans? Pole beans are an option in the lettuce, grape or schizandra for the patio.

Depending on analysis of the problem of too much water in the landscape you might make a design choice that sends that water up into the biomass, a variety of basket willow perhaps. You could pool more water in the landscape in the form of ponds, or cut swales along a slope, or swales to slow, sink and spread the water.

As a side note, when you practice this more and more multiple problems can often be solved with one design choice. These are big wins. Often the best course of action is to wait and see all the relationships trends in the landscape before setting our mind on the solution. Otherwise, we can have pet solutions and we end up finding problems for it. “To the hammer everything is a nail.”

Same goes for the social landscape.

LEARNING ACTIVITY

Materials:

  • sketch pad or paper
  • digital camera or camera phone
  • pencils, or other art supplies
  • glue or tape (or pitch)
  • wifi
  • social media
  • printer
  • scissors

Instructions:

In this assignment, you are going to use the “Principles Desk” to begin your own interpretations. Each one has several questions to facilitate reflection on your design process. The text is adapted from he writing of Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein (2016). All photos are from my own collection.

The memes are condensed and therefore they do not elaborate on specific implementation strategies, or provide examples.

  1. Scroll through them all.
  2. Select three for a deeper dive.
  3. Research the ones you have selected to see what the literature says about them. Use any permaculture books you have.
  4. Visit the principles websites that you saved to your browser again and look for examples and an explanation of it. Make notes on your study aid.
  5. Make a teaching tool/study aid of your own for each of the three.
  6. How you chose make the copy is up to you. You may render a poster by hand, or digitally; make a word and image collage; print them and make notes on them, or the save images to your device.
  7. Post each of your three memes to social media and ask your friends what they think they mean.

Use hashtags: #permaculturewomen #principles #PDC

  1. You will be using the three principles you chose in your final design projects. You will research the ones you have selected to see what the literature says about it. You will find strategies for implementing this principle in your site plan, and in your process.

“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” — Masanobu Fukuoka, One Straw Revolution

HANDS-ON LEARNING SUGGESTIONS

Here are two optional assignments that will deepen your learning offline:

Sit Spot. Pick a sit spot near your home to go on a regular basis to observe. Structure your time so you can visit your special spot daily or weekly, but on a regular basis, and during any kind of weather. The practice is integration rather then segregation, see what you notice and also what notices you.

Game Pieces. Start a set of “game pieces” for our design practice like the elements cards I shared in above. Pick some elements from the list that you imagine using in your designs and render them on to a half of an index card. You may draw copies of what I have done above, or use a landscape graphics book for ideas. I used architects drawing pens size #005, #05 #03 and Prismacolor ink markers, the same pens I use in my final designs. You can use what you have, you can build on this as you do more design work.

Much of this article comes from the module I’m teaching in the Permaculture Women’s Guild Online Permaculture Design Course.

FURTHER READING

Bloom, J. & Boehnlein, D. Practical Permaculture for Home Landscapes, Your Community and the Whole Earth. Timber Press, 2015. Print

Bridges, W. (1991) Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. De Capo Press Books, Print

Harland, M. Redefining the Third Permaculture Ethic: Future Care. Permaculture Magazine, PM95 Spring 2018. Print and online https://www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/redefining-third-permaculture-ethic-future-care

Hemenway, T. Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Homescal Permaculture. 2nd Ed. Chelsea Green, 2009. Print

Macnamara, L. People and Permaculture. Chelsea Green, 2012. Print

Mollison, W. Introduction to Permaculture, Tagari Publications, 1991, 1994, 1995. Print

Mollison, W. Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, Tagari Publications, 1988, 1991. Print

Morrow, R. Earth Users Guide to Teaching Permaculture, 2nd Ed. Permanent Publications, 2014. Print

Formidable Vegetable Sound System. “Look Around.” Permaculture: A Rhymer’s Manual, Charlie Mgee, 2013.

http://music.formidablevegetable.com.au/album/permaculture-a-rhymers-manual-album

Inhabit: A Permaculture Perspective. Dir. Costa Boutsikaris. 2014. Vimeo. February 2018. Film

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