The Three Permaculture Ethics: Earth Care, People Care and Returning The Surplus


“For centuries, the goal of liberating the tomb of Christ could fill the hearts of poor and rich alike with wild dreams and make them prepared to pay the ultimate sacrifice. Today, in contrast, the dream of a heated swimming pool no longer shifts tired bums ten unpaid steps over the street” Asfa-Wossen Asserate.

Such is the state of morality in western society, few would see the point of liberating the tomb of Christ. Perhaps if there was a luxury hotel nearby with good Wi-Fi, the trip would be bearable. Society has become petty and materialistic, we dream of fast cars and care greatly about our image, something that is carefully crafted and presented to the world through social media.

I believe that religion typically reflects the morals of a society, in that religion embodies and gives authority to the values, standards, and ideals of society. In this context, it is no surprise to me that so many have discarded faith, turning instead to the worship of money and fame.

When was the last time someone outside your immediate family asked you about your morals or your values? Most are embarrassed to engage in a meaningful conversation, preferring to talk about celebrities, sport or whatever we are told to care about by the mainstream media.

Why does any of this matter?

Because when a society loses its values and its collective sense of morality, great injustices are permitted and empires fall.

German poet Matthias Claudius tells us how this occurs: “If a man ignores the prompting of his better nature or lets his baser nature express itself untrammeled, then his conscience gradually speaks more and more softly and is ultimately completely silenced.”

This is evident in the world today as incredible destruction continues to be inflicted upon the natural world. Yes, there are pockets of resistance, especially in the permaculture movement, however protest is futile unless the full weight of society gets behind a movement. Our collective inaction and silence is a direct message to big business and government that they can continue to do what they are doing, because in our current paradigm neither the environment nor our well being are being priced into the economy, which allows corporations to take short term profit at the expense of all else.

In a society where high moral standards are actively upheld, the travesty that is the Alberta tar sands would not be permitted, the slow death of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia would be fiercely opposed (and not just because it may have an impact on tourism), the Amazon Rainforest would be protected, renewable energy would be phased in over 10 years at a cost of 3% of GDP, our armed forces would fight desertification rather than our fellow humans, and of course I could go on.

Permaculture ethics provide a guiding sense of obligation, and they act as a code of behaviour. They are the basis for the principles of permaculture and provide the foundation for permaculture design.

“Ethics are culturally evolved mechanisms that regulate self-interest, giving us a better understanding of good and bad outcomes. The greater the power of humans, the more critical ethics become for long-term cultural and biological survival” (David Holmgren).

There are three ethics in Permaculture: Earth Care, People Care and Returning the Surplus. By designing principles around these ethics, we move from the realms of philosophy to the real world, where these ethics can be applied to landscapes, buildings, relationships and more.


Earth Care

All life on Earth has an intrinsic value and individual life forms have certain functions that must be valued, such as how a forest acts as the lungs of the planet to provide the clean air that we breathe. It is in our interest to value natural processes and ecosystems in a living state rather than as a product that can be bought and sold.

Earth Care can also be taken in a literal sense to mean caring for the soil. Industrial agricultural techniques often destroy the natural balance of the soil through tilling. Fertilizers are used to compensate for the subsequent loss of fertility, and pesticides are needed to keep nature at bay. Nature wants to build resilience through diversity, climaxing into a state of stability, such as a vast grassland or a forest like the beautiful old-growth forests in Tasmania.

Because a monoculture works against the natural order of things, enormous effort is needed to maintain a crop, exemplified by the loss of a crop if left unattended for as little as a few weeks. Nature is determined and patient, and in the long run, she always wins.

Industrial farming and monocultures have also lead to dangerous rates of soil loss, to the point where it has become a serious risk to the future stability of our society. Permaculture looks to rebuild soil by avoiding tilling, by covering up exposed soil with mulch, by choosing perennials over annuals where possible, and by managing livestock whereby we replicate the movements of wild herds:

“Before the prairies were settled, plowed, and fenced, wild herds moved back and forth across them, never staying in one place after the grass was cropped too short. These moving herds distributed minerals from their droppings and remains, for it is well-known that wild animals usually maintain a good mineral balance by visiting salt-licks and varying their pasture-grounds” (Albrecht 2015).

Earth Care also guides us to change the way we act as a consumer. Rather than the linear process of buying, using and discarding, permaculture encourages us to use less, to recycle, to create our own solutions using what we have available, to borrow, and to buy used items.

By imitating the natural world where closed loop systems produce no waste, we can apply holistic solutions to our life that are applicable in any setting, including cities.

In the broad landscape, Permaculture focuses on areas that are already settled, as most human habitat is in drastic need of redesign and rehabilitation. We do not need to clear new land, but rather we need to re-think the way we use the resources that we have available to us.


People Care

If we are going to heal our society before it destroys itself, we are going to need to come together with compassion and collaboration to effect the change we want to see in the world. People care is about developing a permanent culture where the basic needs of humanity are met; including food, shelter, water, health care, and education.

People Care begins by living an ethical life. We grow by embracing self-responsibility, and through positive action, our circle of influence will expand and strengthen to include our family, our friends, and the local community. The focus should be on strengthening relationships at the local community level to become more self-reliant. By decentralizing and by sharing skill sets, communities can divest from the injustice and inequality that is perpetuated by big business and the current political system.

The Permaculture approach is to remain positive, focusing on solutions rather than problems, and on regenerative and thoughtful action rather than criticism and passivity. Strength lies in unity, which means we must see beyond our differences to recognize that we are all in this together.

As the Permaculture movement extends into the mainstream, People Care must evolve to accommodate all political viewpoints. Too often, permaculture gets caught up in progressive left-wing politics. As society seems to be at breaking point, permaculture must once again aim to act as a healing mechanism that brings communities together rather than picking a side to fight for. Bill Mollison was explicit in his belief of keeping permaculture away from politics. Positive change cannot be achieved through identity politics, and this creates a fantastic opportunity for the green movement to reinvent itself and lead the way forward over the next 20 years as the traditional pillars of society begin to fall.

People Care is about working together from a place of mutual respect. By developing an understanding that cultures have different beliefs, values, and practices, it will be possible to progress to a world where conflict and war are a thing of the past, however, it will mean taking back control from our governments through decentralization and the democratic will of the people. Grassroots initiatives such as the Transition Towns movement are a good start, however, permaculture is going to need to grow further into the mainstream and it is becoming apparent that time is not on our side.


Share The Surplus / Fair Share

Fair share combines the first two ethics to acknowledge that we are all in this together. We share this planet with all other living things, but we also have the right to meet our basic needs.

The insanity of having designed an economic system based on endless growth on a finite planet needs to be addressed with urgency. It is causing vast inequality between the west and the developing world and we are quickly destroying what is left of the natural world. We will be forced to change one way or another, however, if we let nature chose for us the circumstances will not be to our liking. When resources become scarce, humanity typically goes to war to fight over what is left. In the current nuclear age, this simply cannot be allowed to happen. We are going to have to lead by example with a positive outlook, and we are going to have to engage fully in the metapolitical debate rather than retreat to an isolated homestead within an unsustainable and violent society.

It is encouraging that so many are turning their back on popular culture. The mainstream media is dying and there is a genuine movement to reconnect with nature and to find joy in the simple things in life. Nature has provided for our basic needs since the beginning of time and society has then provided for our higher needs. It is complete madness to treat nature as a resource and our community as competition.

Fair Share can be applied at any level, from a fruit tree to government policy. A cherry tree can be left to grow so that birds can come into the garden and eat the fruit from the higher branches. By planting more trees than you need, you can design a system that is plentiful and abundant, allowing you to share your harvest with wildlife and your neighbors.

We have been taught to believe that we live in a world of scarcity. It is incredibly liberating to discover that we can live in abundance, simply by planting more than we need and then sharing the surplus with those who haven’t yet had the chance to experience permaculture.

Once established, permaculture systems will start to develop a web of relationships between different elements, increasing the number of yields, the system’s resilience, biodiversity, and health.

For example, in an orchard excess fruit can be left to fall to the ground, which can then be eaten by pigs that are rotated into an area of the orchard at the right time of year. The pigs can then be followed by chickens who will scratch in the pig poo, leaving their own patches of fertility in the process. This results in healthy soil that can then increase the nutrient density of the following harvest.

A permaculture business may choose to establish a profit share program where employees get to share in the success of the business. Alternatively, a percentage of profits could be donated to local charities or to permaculture projects around the world.

Since day 1, I have donated 10% of everything It Is Time To Change earns as a direct commitment to this ethic. It gives me great pride and encouragement to send money to my favorite environmental charities, and I encourage you to do the same.

Permaculture also encourages us to return to the ethics that we have traditionally held in society such as a respect for nature and to work together as a community rather than in constant competition. If we can stop this frenzied resource grab and take responsibility for our own actions both as people and as a society, we will be able to avoid the coming crisis to gracefully descend from peak madness into a vibrant, healthy, and peaceful society that is significantly more prosperous than today.

Permaculture also embraces technology, which gives us the potential to catapult us into a new and extremely positive paradigm. It is not a regression back to primitive or difficult times, but rather the synergy of traditional knowledge, ethics, and technology to create human settlements that focus on our wellbeing and regenerate natural systems back to how they were before the industrial revolution.