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Permaculture Ethics: Why Permaculture Is Different

By Chuck Burr

22 July, 2010
Southern Oregon Permaculture Institute

I was originally attracted to permaculture because it was the only system that made sense—that could begin to reverse and repair the damage we are doing. Among many things, permaculture is a shortcut to older wisdom. Daniel Quinn calls this Leaver wisdom, the wisdom that enabled humanity to thrive in harmony with the earth for three million years up until the agricultural revolution where we lost our way.

The Prime Directive of permaculture is The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence. The corollary to this is It should be our responsibility to put the plants that we use where we are and leave nature alone! That is Bill Mollison’s very powerful drive.

Permaculture ethics are part of what sets permaculture apart from universities, colleges, churches and any other solution—we have ethics, “we have morality” as Bill Mollison says.

Bill adds, “Native plants belong in the bush and the only reason we needed to clear them is because we developed an agriculture which was strictly unnecessary. Everybody lived quite happy in the village context with their food and the rest of the country was wild. Before the agricultural revolution, we never went into this broad scale devastation. People are coming around by the thousands to these ideas.”

The ethical basis of permaculture as stated in Bill Mollison’s book Permaculture: a Designer’s Manual:
1. Care of the Earth—Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply.
2. Care of People—Provision for people to access those resources necessary to their existence.
3. Setting Limits to Population and Consumption—By governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the above principles. Some also describe the third ethic as share the surplus.

I describe permaculture as a holistic design system using nature as our model. When we are in the forest or any other undisturbed landscape we are in the teacher. In permaculture we achieve our ethics by what permaculture is by definition, a no-till perennial or horticulture design system. Again, we bring the plants we need where we are and we leave nature alone.

This concept of a design system based on older natural wisdom plus an ethic is culturally shattering. It leads us away from the failed story that the world belongs to man and back to the story that we lived by for 99.7 percent of human existence humanity belongs to the earth.

Modern Taker culture has literally no ethics. Is there any limit to its resource extraction, industrial agriculture, pollution or population growth? Instead of requiring parking space for new dwellings, why not require garden space? Weren’t food and land once free?

Our culture is based on the false assumption that there is only one right way to live and that civilization must continue at all costs and is unsurpassable. The slowly spreading oily plume in the Gulf of Mexico reminds us that we have lost our way.

Permaculture offers us a way home starting right where we live—from container gardening on an apartment patio, to a suburban backyard, to a homestead or even on an organic farm.

For those new to permaculture, I encourage you to take the SOPI or any other Permaculture Design Certificate course (PDC). Listings of courses in the US can be found in Permaculture Activist magazine; international listings can also be found in Permaculture magazine in the UK.

We also offer the best of several of permaculture books in our amazon book store.

Now that my 10 year anniversary with permaculture is coming up, I feel that it is the ethics and principles that keep bringing me back. Next time I will talk about the principles of permaculture. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren are the co-founders of permaculture which to me means permanent-culture.

The Southern Oregon Permaculture Institute (SOPI) is located in beautiful Ashland, Oregon. We teach the Permaculture Design Certificate course (PDC), Advanced Permaculture Design: Edible Forest Gardens, and Teachers Training. 541 941-9711 • [email protected]. Chuck Burr is the author of Culturequake: The Restoration Revolution.