What is it that guides permaculture? The question is one of ethics. The answer is really contained within the definition of ethics itself. In the words of philosopher Slavoj Žižek, “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 sustainable 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.
To seek “moderation” or “avoid 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 the products of the system is greater over the system’s lifetime than the inputs needed to create and maintain the system.
All this leads us back to permaculture ethics, or, using Žižek’s approach, Permaculture’s guidelines for avoiding excess.
- The first tenet is to care for the Earth. 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 final tenet is to return surplus to the Earth and to the people. Energy has to flow, as nutrients have to cycle. Stagnation leads to unfit systems. The products of a system have to go back into that system to maintain its health and future viability.
These are not only the guiding principles we use in permaculture design, they also separate permaculture design from other design work.