Permaculture 101 ~ Ethics

This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”

~ Dalai Lama XIV, The Dalai Lama: A Policy of Kindness: An Anthology of Writings By and About the Dalai Lama



I am guilty: I started this new blog as a way of spreading Permaculture to mainstream, to “regular” people; I also wanted to share the struggles to use Permaculture in the life of a city dweller living in a suburban townhouse surrounded by disconnected neighbours where the grid is the only source for most of our basic needs: from shelter to water, to waste management to food to energy…

I took a detour when I was also assigned to post about education and group work for the PIDP program I am still taking. And I justified it because education is a big part of Permaculture: it is only through stretching the boundaries and spreading the word and practices that we have a minimal chance to make a difference and switch from unsustainable, eroding and depleting patterns and relationships to sustainable and regenerative ones.

I had a relapse to the flue this past weekend and my younger son also fell ill so I missed my advanced Permaculture class, a class I attend as we go to church and temples: to see my people, those who understand and care for the same things I do…and as a way to “make it right” for my missed classes and the main goal of this blog, I want to post about what sustains Permaculture: its ethics.

I sat thinking how terribly sad it was that people are made in such a way that they get used to something as incredible as living. One day we suddenly take the fact that we exist for granted – and then, yes, then we don’t think about it anymore until we are about to leave the world again.”

~ Jostein Gaarder, The Solitaire Mystery

Permaculture Ethics

Angelo, a Permaculture practitioner and educator founder of Deep Green Permaculture defines Permaculture as:

         “… a holistic design system for creating sustainable human settlements and food production systems. It is a movement concerned with sustainable, environmentally sound land use and the building of stable communities, through the harmonious interrelationship of humans, plants, animals and the Earth.

Angelo also has one of the most complete and beautiful posts about Permaculture ethics I’ve seen, so my intention is here is just emphasizing some of his points and adding a bit to what he said back in 2012. (I do encourage those of you truly interested or just curious, to go and read Angelo’s post on ethics!)

What are ethics?

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines Ethics:”The field of ethics (or moral philosophy) involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior.”

The study of ethics can be divided into three groups:

  • Meta-ethics, about the theoretical meaning and reference of moral propositions and how their truth values (if any) may be determined
  • Normative ethics, about the practical means of determining a moral course of action
  • Applied ethics draws upon ethical theory in order to ask what a person is obligated to do in some very specific situation, or within some particular domain of action

(Source: Wikipedia)

Right is right, and wrong is wrong, and a body ain’t got no business doing wrong when he ain’t ignorant and knows better.”

~ Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Why do we need ethics? Can we function without them?

The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”

~ Martin Luther King Jr.

You can say that a cat and a tree live without ethics and they are fine, right?…I could go into a metaphysical discussion here of what ethics are and are not, but I rather go by Angelo’s approach: cats and trees need to do certain things ‘right” otherwise they die or put other members of their species in danger: no cat would collect more mice than what they need to satiate their hunger today and no cat would destroy an ecosystem for fun or greed as they instinctively know that that would be bad for them (the cats)…similarly, no tree would take more water or more CO2 than what they need and they wouldn’t shade their leaves before fall is here either…

Some people may argue that both cats and trees are governed by Nature’s rules imprinted in their DNA or what some call instinct: they can’t help themselves because they don’t have “free will”…but there are plenty of reported cases of lions living in peace with deer and pigs and other extremely rare behaviors that contradict the idea of ‘instinct” or “DNA imprint”

So, if we come back to common sense and facts we know (here and now, in this world we all experience), there are some ethics that apply to all:

Everything you do (or don’t) has a consequence:

  • You use finite resources in an unsustainable and irresponsible way: they’ll eventually become scarce and disappear
  • You hurt somebody or some being: this being will suffer and may not forget you
  • If you overshoot (have more population than a system can carry), you will eventually end up with famine/starvation, pandemics, resource depletion and die off
  • If you take more of what would be a fair share of a finite total, you are impacting other/s who may end up with less or nothing

Like it or not, everything is connected to everything and we are all inter-dependent:

  • We all need air, water, food, some type of shelter and protection from the elements
  • Many species also need others to function as a community as in most cases, the loner doesn’t survive very long by herself (at least, this is true among humans)
  • Even with species whose individuals are loners, such as bears and wolves, they depend on other species to survive: you may see a wolf living by itself but you will never see a wolf surviving without their prey or without water or the appropriate climate…

What are Permaculture ethics?

Permaculture ethics are based on practical, common-sense “ethics” such as what was described in the former question: if you are smart and caring, you’ll care for the Earth (it is where all your needs’ supplies come from); you’ll care for people (starting with taking care of yourself and extending to family, friends, community and then the world: otherwise you’ll live in hell and won’t be able to provide for all your needs) and finally, you will fairly share the surplus, taking care of not going overshoot and not using what’s beyond your portion of the cake.

The three ethics can be summarized as:

  • Care for the Earth
  • Care for the People
  • Fair-Share (also stated as: “set limits to consumption and reproduction”)
  • In some places, a fourth ethic is being used: “Accept transition” which means that judgment and trying to be pure may not work in a world that is trying to go from unsustainable and unjust to sustainable and fair: we may need to accept using car tires even when they leak as they are already here and for many, the only available “resource” to be used as a garden bed or a house foundation…similarly, we may have to accept the least damaging of two ”bads” just because that is what we have…

Aren’t ethics attached to religions or a religious view of the world?

No, ethics are beyond religions and apply to both religious and secular people. As a matter of fact, some religions have really contradictory teachings that would be scary if analyzed through the lenses of ethics: practices supported by the idea of domination and oppression, where a species or a group is considered to have a right over others and is able to devastate, dominate, abuse and rule over others (think humans above all other species, elements as “resources” for our consumption, some peoples as better than others and men over women as just a few unethical religious teachings)

Are ethics related to laws, feelings of right and wrong or social norms?

Feelings, laws, and social norms can deviate from what is ethical: we had laws that approved slavery in the past, and we have laws that allow a country to accuse other of “protectionism” when it tries to save the local economy (WTO), none of them are “ethical”…

What ethics have to do with a design system?

“The thinking (person) must oppose all cruel customs, no matter how deeply rooted in tradition and surrounded by a halo. When we have a choice, we must avoid bringing torment and injury into the life of another.”

~ Albert Schweitzer

Ethics, if seen as a foundation supported by common sense and logical, physical laws (such as the “consequence-law” stated in a former question) need to underlie any design system: if you design a garden with nothing but your wishes/needs of getting food or beauty out of it and don’t follow any ethics, you would eventually have to affect the consequences of your decision: you may end up with flood, draught, unhealthy soil and plants, poor harvest, pest infestation or a lawsuit from your neighbours…

This applies to anything you design: your life, your relationships, your work (livelihood), the design of your home, your use of energy and so on…

Aren’t ethics “relative” to culture and society, dependent on time and location?

Acting responsibly is not a matter of strengthening our reason but of deepening our feelings for the welfare of others.”

~ Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

Some philosophers argue that ethics and values are a human invention and therefore, they are “relative” to the culture, time and place and even the circumstances. This is called “relativism”…however, as mentioned before, there are certain things relativism can’t solve: try to starve yourself and you’ll see what happens…try to live without air, or water, or some type of shelter, company, etc. and let me know how relative those things are…

Whatever your approach to ethics is (metaphysical: “values are universal and eternal and beyond humans” or relativism: “values and ethics are a human invention and relative to human groups, times and location”) you can’t bend some universal rules: 1) everything is connected to everything else and interdependent and 2) everything you do or don’t (or any other being does or doesn’t) has a consequence… Permaculture sustains itself in the above two universal truths.


How three basic ethics such as Earth-Care, People-Care and Surplus-Share/Setting limits to consumption and reproduction can help us make decisions about our lives or about designs?

“The most subversive people are those who ask questions.” ~ Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

Permaculture not only has basic ethics: it also has principles based on observation of how Nature works. You can use a combination of both ethics and principles to analyze and evaluate your design or even a decision in life….but don’t take it as a religion: use your own brain and heart and ask questions:

  • How would this design/decision affect the systems I depend on (i.e. water, air, climate, soil, ecosystems: planet Earth)?
  • How would this design/decision affect people (you, your loved ones, those you don’t know but who are still affected by your actions or inactions, including future generations)
  • How would this design/decision affect what you and others get now and in the future (and include other beings here)…would there be enough for you, your loved ones, the beings in the ecosystems upon which your life depends, etc?


And here, I leave you with these thoughts:

Your beliefs become your thoughts,

Your thoughts become your words,

Your words become your actions,

Your actions become your habits,

Your habits become your values,

Your values become your destiny.”

~ Mahatma Gandhi

I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance


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