Permaculture Ethics and Design Principles

a mother oak
a mother oak
being ducks
being ducks

The originators of the permaculture concept, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, are very clear about the foundational role of ethics in their writings. If you look into it deeply, my feeling is that you will see that many(if not most) of people’s destructive activities stem from a lack of abiding internal ethical principles. External laws often don’t seem to help so much, and indeed often legalize and enable activity destructive to both the earth and people. Indeed, the source of such harm actually has a location, which i indicate with hand gesture as being somewhere in our heart/head area. To change this we will need to teach and help each other internalize these ethics, which many humans have done before, and which are actually few and quite easy to remember. Good luck, and let the fun begin.

In Permaculture: A Designers Manual(a must see–sorta encyclopedic and biblical), Bill Mollison begins by stating the “prime directive,” which is “to take responsibility for your own existence and that of your children.” This a truly and awesomely(imo) radical notion in a culture where we all(both individually and collectively) routinely offload, externalize, deny and  ignore the harmful results of our actions! Then he follows with the ethics: 1) Care for the earth–nuture life 2) care for people, and 3) reduce personal consumption and reproduction, and share the surplus, or “fair share”. That’s it! So in other words, if an action harms the earth, or harms people, we ought to avoid that direction. Further, and still quite simply, we aim to adjust our habits to consume less, and to share what’s available. Easier said than done, yes? So that’s the practice it seems, and once again it’s a moment by moment action by action thing, so to speak. Of course this reflects the guidance offered in most of the wisdom traditions, and which, as it turns out, benefits ourselves too. For me one of the most profound principles to try to enact  is the one of cooperation—there seems to be so much possibility in it, and there is a clear clear need for more people on the land here in Nova Scotia, so how do we get that to happen–for ourselves to begin with? ain’t much leadership, looks like so far, yet principles can help guide thoughts and actions, and i for one find permaculture principles just so helpful in a practical and grounded common sensical and compassionate way. So here we are, trying to learn and help each other understand integrated/ integral design.   permaculture is not a destination, but a direction…

David Holmgren’s latest book(2002), Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability(another must read, very key book–describes “core” thinking tools), besides further discussing and clarifying the ethics, presents twelve principles that can help guide design. I will list them below, and if you want a little more discussion, go here.

Holmgren’s 12 Design Principles( his words in quotes) with a few of my own comments

1) Observe and interactthere is much to learn by informed and careful observation–this is indeed how most leaning in wild nature happens–nature has been evolving designs from beginningless time, and we can enact mindful, careful action — it’s being done.  observing takes time, and the learning is cumulative– see if you can spend 10-20 min. daily in a “sit spot.”  learn  about patterns of all kinds. look at how things are designed–try to see the causes and effects of things. observe that this is not separate from that. the i ching symbol.

2) Catch and store energy– our choices thus far have been mostly to burn it up, and if that’s not enough, to burn some more. this can change by understanding and design, and there’s little time to dally!  food is energy caught and stored by plants. most of us have never seriously  for any prolonged period had to think much about energy costs or availability– not so in our future. learn about thermal mass. understand the difference between contemporary solar and fossil energy. build a rocket stove. design so the sun heats most of your water. a jacket helps you catch and store your own heat, yes?  sometimes it’s simple.

3) Obtain a yeild— in future this will be a must do, in ways we never thought of. we so often pass by opportunities offered, from edible weeds to discarded objects–get creative!  All primary wealth yeilds from the earth and sun dancing together– including our hands and brains, and it can be such fun!

4) Apply self-regulation and accept feedbackwe become more mindful of the effects of our decisions & actions, and less stubborn about changing our ways. Perhaps we can even dissolve or temper some of our desires for the benefit of others. We begin to see larger systems, larger loops of cause and effect,  and how we fit into it–and perhaps our imaginations may flow with some joy and vigor  as we see that our actions make a difference.

5) Use and value renewable resources and serviceswe begin to understand and use biological services more: ferment rather than boil, horse rather than tractor, urine as fertilizer, solar ovens. use the dryers for something else, storage or reflective surfaces or plant containers or all three. clean air and water and soil are  ultimate examples– this is nature’s doing.

6) Produce no wastewhat a challenge! remember, permaculture is a direction, not a destination, yet we better go more this way quickly.  wake up to the law of return!!  now is just fine–take it to heart. read the humanure handbook(free online) get creative!!   less consumption is how it begins. no more leaves hauled off and away! just imagine if everyone cut their garbage output by 1/2–or more. easy, and why not?

7) Design from patterns to detaillots of learning to do here!  we need to be able to recognize natural patterns again– which is how energy flows, be it a tree, spider web, or traffic circle(yikes!). we expand our view for bigger pictures, look and see for how the dots connect, and then act at our own level. mosaics of energy everywhere, with some seemingly healthier than others, yes? cooperation is a pattern. cycles are patterns. your movement thru a room generally has a pattern.  spirals  of light in space–galaxies–is that us?.

8) Integrate rather than segregatea really fun one, and of course integrated with all the rest. design for multifunctionality– grow food with yer flowers, get tote bags fer yer bikes, attach that greenhouse to yer home, buy food with yer neighbors, share a garden. sharing is integration. create different functions for stuff–new combinations. pull together.

9) Use small and slow solutionsSlow down!! crashes of big things(or projects) at higher speeds cause way more damage than slow bumps. the precautionary principle at work. most all screw-ups, and not just with land projects, are due to oversized scale. study the question of scale–see how we’ve scuttled(mostly) our human scale–and how that’s affected both us and the planet. do we really want such big cruise ships? nano tech possibly another serious scale boondoggle.

10) Use and value diversitymore learning… to recognize and appreciate and use differences… mix it up. lots of habitual patterns to overcome on this one– esp. when dealing with others. no one said it was easy. study  the dynamic between niches and diversity and the shape or design of things. work at integrating diverse elements in beneficial ways.

11)Use edges and value the marginal– so much action happens on the edges–“don’t think you are on the right track just because it’s a well-beaten path.”  sidewalks are edges, beeches,  entryways, a fence. the soil and atmosphere form an edge. edges are extra rich in species diversity. change usually enters from the edges, the margins. this is how it is in the relative world.

12) Creatively use and respond to change— vision is not seeing things as they are but as they will be.”  This will be so important as more things change and reorder themselves(like fuel prices!) and upheave and collapse–chaos can be very good news!  ( or maybe not). find out why. don’t get stuck– but if you do, use it as an opportunity to learn!


There are also other versions of permaculture principles, which can be seen through the link above. they will naturally come up in  design contexts, and perhaps in later posts or pages, and we heartily encourage you to spend some time looking into them, and discussing them with others using specifics on the ground.