What is it that guides permaculture? The question is, of course, one of ethics. The answer is really contained within the definition of ethics itself. In the words of philosopher Slavoj Zizek, “Ethics is ultimately the ethics of moderation. Ethics tells you ultimately how to avoid this extreme…”
Permaculture is positivistic. It does not give a decree or series of commandments against wrong deeds. Nor is it a system of critique. In fact, part of Bill Mollison’s motivation behind the creation of ecosystemic systems (ie. permaculture) was disillusionment with the environmental movement at the time, which was merely a system of critique. There is nothing wrong with pointing out a problem, but a lot of critique is really a plea to authority to enforce a top down change. In the world of environmentalism, it is making pleas to governing bodies (which on the whole are built up of the very class that is largely responsible for, and profits from, the protested environmental destruction in the first place) to enact and enforce legislation to protect the environment. In short, it is asking for gifts from power. This is not to say that these gifts are never awarded, they occasionally are. However, they are also taken away occasionally. (See the Ethyl Corporation versus Canada or Methanex versus California, to give two of many examples.)
To seek “moderation” or “avoid [the] extreme” is to seek sustainability. Unfortunately, the word “sustainability” has been all but reduced to yet another marketing term. It’s meaning is, in the words of Herman Daly, “dangerously vague.” (Daly, Herman E., Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development, Boston: Beacon Press. 1996. p.1)
To be of any use to anyone other than advertisers, a sustainable system needs to be defined as one in which the energy made available by a product of the system is greater over the system’s lifetime than the inputs humans put into the system. For example, although avocadoes can be grown in Tokyo and the market for them in Tokyo could be met through urban gardening in Tokyo, they are all imported (mostly from Mexico). This means we must look at not only the inputs at the Mexican end, but also the embodied energy each avocado gains on it’s flight across the Pacific Ocean to reach Tokyo supermarkets. As the fuel required to bring the avocado to market is not sustainable (nor are the agro-chemicals of modern agriculture, for that matter), the avocado itself when grown internationally is not sustainable.
All this leads us back to permaculture ethics, or, using Zizek’s approach, Permaculture’s guidelines for avoiding excess. The first tenet is to care for the Earth. Obviously, puerile fantasies of space colonization aside, we are all dependent on a healthy planet to sustain us. To endanger life on this planet is to endanger ourselves. This is clear enough. All life has an inherent value. Once this is recognised, thoughtless environmental destruction can be avoided. The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development is a step in the right direction: “In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied…”
The second tenet, contained within the first, is to care for people. People need access to clean air and clean water. To borrow from Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, [sensible, sustainable] housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
The last 25 years have seen the rise, or rather reemergence, of a Puritan ethic in which personal well-being is seen as directly proportional to one’s piousness, be it religious piety or some other deserving quality. Under this ethic, poverty is seen as evidence of some moral failing, usually laziness, and is thus to be condemned. Thus the myth of the rugged individual was spawned. The reality is, however, that the survival of every individual is a collective affair. In the industrialized world, we enjoy a collective infrastructure. In any society, we benefit from collective knowledge and our lives are built on the backs of those who came before us. Similarly, future generations depend on us for their survival. The myth of the rugged individual is a myth established as an excuse for greed.
The final tenet is to set limits on growth and consumption and to return surplus to the Earth and to the people. Growth here is not only in the economic sense but also refers to population growth. Population growth is most detrimental in industrialized countries because they are the greatest consumers of resources. For example, Americans require 9.57 hectares per capita (the highest level in the world) to produce the resources to sustain their lifestyles. Bangladeshis on the other hand require 0.50 hectares per capita (the lowest level) (See the Ecological Footprint of Nations 2004 by Redefining Progress). In other words, if there were 3.8 Earths, everyone on the planet could live like Americans. (The flaw in this calculation is that it is dividing the hectares that would used by the total population of the world by the total land surface area. Obviously, however, not all the surface of the Earth is available to us.)
In returning our surplus to the Earth and to the people, we help to ensure a life for future generations.