The Controversial Third Ethic of Permaculture

Permaculture’s core is rooted in the philosophy’s adherence to three equal ethics. The first two, Earth Care and People Care, have been widely accepted by the community for what they are – straight-forward and logical. The third ethic, however, has been the subject of some debate among permaculture practitioners for many years.

In fact, the ongoing discussion around the various interpretations of this third ethic can offer some explanation as to why the philosophy of permaculture hasn’t become a more mainstream concept – despite the fact that it has been embraced by communities and practitioners all around the world.

Limits and Fairness

Initially, the third ethic was introduced as “Setting Limits to Population and Consumption,” but has been expressed in a wide variety of different ways since then: “Fair Share,” “Limiting Resource Use and Population,” “Redistribute Surplus,” and “Living within Limits.” While there is obviously quite an overlap between these expressions, the idea that the third ethic is somewhat open to interpretation leaves a bit of a question mark as far as the application of these principles in permaculture design.

The meaning behind the third ethic, according to the Permaculture Designers Manual written by Bill Mollison, is the theory that “by governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the above principles,” referring to the previous two ethics of permaculture. However, when the phrase is abbreviated to just the idea of “setting limits to population,” it can lead to misunderstandings – particularly by campaigners for social justice, who have raised concerns surrounding the overtones of genocide and eugenics that could be read into this phrasing.

In the 1980s, Danish permaculture pioneer Tony Andersen rephrased the third ethic as “Fair Share,” in an effort to prevent any discussion about these controversial overtones. But while this simple phrasing sounds pleasant when combined with the other two ethics, it leaves out one of the main ideas behind this third ethic – the concept of designing within limits.

Population vs. Resource Use

Ecologists define “carrying capacity” as the population size that an environment can sustain over a period of time, taking into account the various resources available within that environment. When the amount of resources required by a species is equal to the amount of resources available, carrying capacity is reached. If the population continues to increase and the amount of resources doesn’t, nature corrects the imbalance by ensuring that death rates rise above birth rates – dropping the population back below carrying capacity.

This is the challenge presented by permaculture’s third ethic – living within limits, to keep our global population and resource use under carrying capacity. As our population rises, there will obviously be fewer resources available to each individual. Permaculture attempts to use sustainable design to determine an average resource use that can be maintained over a long period of time, which is part of the theory behind this controversial third ethic.

As global food shortages loom as a result of climate change’s negative impact on crop yields, the idea of carrying capacity and living within limits becomes even more necessary. The biggest problem our planet faces, however, isn’t necessarily an increasing population in less-developed countries – rather, it’s the over-consumption happening by western populations that contributes the most to our unbalanced use of resources.

This third ethic tries to address this issue, confronting one of the ugliest parts of human nature: greed. It’s this greed that drives us to accumulate resources far beyond what we could ever use – even as others struggle to provide enough for themselves or their families. Not only is this wrong, it’s unsustainable in the long term.

Permaculture and Socialism

Part of this third ethic means understanding that permaculture includes the idea that everybody’s basic needs should be met – encouraging fairness not just among humans, but also between humanity and other species. But even this interpretation is subject to an individual’s worldview. People with more socialist or communist leanings could take this idea to mean that “if you make more than you need, you should give it to others – including those who have done nothing to earn it.”

While altruism is certainly to be encouraged, history has shown that the governing concepts of socialism and communism have been unsustainable. The iteration of this ethic as one of the driving principles of permaculture can partly account for why the philosophy has not been more widely embraced – it promotes the thinking that in order to practice permaculture the way Mollison and co-founder David Holmgren intended, they must give away all their belongings and live on a commune with other permaculturists.

This idea has even been taken one step further, theorizing that any of the surplus produced through permaculture design should be given away – including knowledge. Rather than accepting payments for teaching, consulting, or writing, this information should be shared free of charge. It’s a nice idea, but it’s hard to convince people to put their energy and resources into a project where the rewards will be shared with people who haven’t done anything to earn them.

Permaculture isn’t socialism. Practitioners aren’t required to live on a commune, working for free and giving away their excess. Permaculture doesn’t preclude you from earning a decent living – in fact, permaculture can bring practitioners all kinds of benefits, including financial ones. But as long as this belief continues pervading mainstream society, it will be difficult for permaculturists to bring this science to the masses.

Moving Forward

Instead, this controversial third ethic should act as a guiding light to help individuals examine their own resource use more carefully – looking at reducing their consumption and addressing the social challenge of sharing not only surplus, but also labour and production. Permaculture is about community, about resiliency, and about sustainability.

More people are starting to embrace the concept “Return of Surplus” as an expression of the third ethic, which may be more in line with this ethic’s original meaning. Rather than creating waste, permaculturists are encouraged to return excess back to where it came from. This can apply in an environmental sense through practices like chop and drop or allowing over-ripened produce to decompose and fertilize the soil.

But the concept also applies to other aspects of permaculture, including your investment of time, labour, and resources. Returns on those investments, financial or otherwise, can be turned around and put back into your permaculture practice – ensuring sustainability and resilience.

When applied to permaculture practice, these ethics should be used to guide the kind of strategic planning that will help us work toward a future where we not only care for ourselves, but also for other human and non-human populations, and even for the earth itself.

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Originally Published: http://worldwidepermaculture.com/controversial-third-ethic-permaculture/

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14 thoughts on “The Controversial Third Ethic of Permaculture

  1. Socialism and communism are based on the idea that the amount of work needed to meet the needs of a population requires only a percentage of that population to perform the work.

    The culture of the permaculture movement started out steeped in the ethos of individualism from what I can tell, growing in popularity among those who have acquired the means to pursue it within the current paradigm. This raises troubling questions in my mind about the radical nature of the permaculture movement. There seems to be a lot of confusion about how to interpret permaculture as a practice in comparison to previous, more distant historical epochs.

    The implication of the article is that the problem with communes is largely seen as one of a perception of unfairness by members who think they are working too hard while others not at all. This could be a real problem, but it could also easily be a misperception.

    The only solution to this problem is to balance rights and responsibilities. That really shouldn’t be very difficult. The first step is to reverse the cultural disposition against labor. This conditioning is a result of the perpetuation of the idea originating in the oppressing classes of previous epochs by those who saw labor as beneath their “noble” status.

  2. On one hand, you seem to be accepting Mollison’s words but then proceed to say As our population rises, there will obviously be fewer resources available to each individual.

    Either we have limits or we do not. When words such as social justice, genocide and eugenics are interjected into the discussion, discussion is usually immediately terminated. Many, maybe most, maybe all of our social, economic and environmental problems have their roots in numbers. I’m not going to explain this statement but one need only choose a problem and assess whether it is related to the number of people. I’ll give an example: “Why is this road under construction again? Didn’t they just fix it?” The answer is because the large and increasing number of vehicles using it means that it needs to be repaired more frequently.

    OK, so let’s fast forward to the end of the examples to the inevitable So what do we do about our population problem? My short answer is I DON’T KNOW. But I do know that until we start talking about the problem, we will never have an answer and the problems that result from population will destroy us.

    Many of us seem to accept the statement that you cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet but have difficulty with the population aspect.

    But it’s not just a population problem. The most important word in Bill’s original framing, Setting Limits to Population and Consumption, is the word and. Blake Alcott at CASSE explains:

    It isn’t true that population size (relative to the size of the earth and its resources) is the “main cause” of unsustainable environmental impact, or the “main problem” when it comes to depletion, pollution, and other concerns over health and happiness for people today and in the future. It also isn’t true that “the real problem” is too much consumption per person by rich people. It is both. It is P x A in the formula:

    Impact = f(Population, Affluence, Technology), or simply IPAT.

    Time to start talking, folks. As a start point, read Population matters in ecological economics at http://sci-hub.bz/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2012.06.001

  3. I’m pretty sure Bill Mollison was not referring to eugenics or genocide when pronouncing his third ethic. Anyone who thinks that really hasn’t done enough background research. I’m fairly certain. He would have been talking about something like zero population growth, two people replacing (or not) themselves but no more than that. When Mollison began writing about Permaculture he was of the generation who talked about this at length. Most thinking people did when it became obvious that fertility could be controlled fairly successfully… and thst was back at a time when climate change was just somebody’s academic thesis on the very edge of possibility.
    I wish he was around to tell us exactly what he meant but like all gospels, his writing will be subjected to reinterpretation and the watering down of the difficult bits. He wasn’t someone who was shy about taking a down to earth stance even if this offended some people, yes he was talking about “fairness” but he was a very practical man and I’m sure he would have been right behind zero population growth.
    I get really fed up with people with four or five kids telling me how “green” they are, sorry guys but your little darlings will consume way more than some slum family of ten… and yes, I’m child free by choice, and in the twenty first century, very glad of it!
    Yep, go for it, flame me now…

    1. The ethics are stated as a whole and each have an explanation in the PC Designers Manual which if we are fair to the authors should be spoken of in full rather than in soundbites. They are after all some of the simplest set of ethics I have come across yet possibly the ones I feel most comfortable with. The first ethic, ‘earth care. provision for all life systems to continue and multiply’ for me ditches any of the eugenics and genocide accusations. The second one is people care and the third is ‘setting limits to population and consumption, by governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the above principles’. The key here are the words ‘governing our own needs’. This is about personal choice and not imposition by others and should never be that way. At present many millions of people are dying each year through war, famine, disease and pollution. We see a natural balancing of populations in many richer countries to the extent that in some nations there is concern about the low birth rates however consumption per person in such countries is the prime problem. It is possibly the opposite in poorer areas. When I first heard the term ‘fairshares’ I was disappointed as I felt it avoided the big issues of human consumption and population. I still think I prefer this original ethic but am fine with fair shares for others as in essence they are almost the same concept although I must admit I do not know if like the other ethics it has a brief explanation. Also does anyone know if the ethics stated in the manual are those of Bill Mollison and David Holmgren? I always liked the idea that two people formulated the idea rather than there being one ‘figurehead’.

      1. Sorry I re-read my comment and I made a statement about the fact that many people are dying in the world now and possibly did not clarify why I made the statement. I was pointing out that at this point in time, this is the situation in the world and something needs to change as most of this would not occur in a world where we thought and acted differently. It was simply the fact that I think there is no harm raising the issue and it is about time we had the resolve discuss such issues and if accusations of genocide etc. are made then this possibly allows people to look at the ethics in more detail as I really cannot see how they do infer a negative.

  4. On a planet like Earth,
    which by herself is a limited space
    with limited resources, …
    we would be wise – and out of free will –
    to limit our growth, (the Chinese did this by one-child-law).
    Everything else will become a threat
    for the whole planet.

    Humans have not yet learned this basic lesson,
    that every housewife knows:
    If you cooked a soup for 10 people,
    maybe with some water and adding more herbs
    20 hungry people will be fed,
    but if there are 100 hungry people,
    they will kill each other in the fight for this soup,
    and it is also possible that during this fight
    the whole soup will be lost,
    at the end there are only loosers.

    Take your time and read this book free on:
    http://bookzz.org
    Jared Diamond Collapse

    Civilisations which survive are the ones
    which act wise and respect the natural resources
    (native tribes that live in harmony with their surounding) AND which manage birth – and (YES) death-rates,
    as there where native peoples, where some old or weak men sailed out into the sea, with the intent to never come back again and
    with this act of LOVE they helped their tribe to survive times of shortage or lack.

    Can you imagine super rich old people like Mr. Soros or Mr. Rothschild, the Queen or even the The Institution Church to give away their money to save billions of people?

  5. @ Silure Dumnonji
    nobody will flame you by your conscious decision to have no child – you just gave your birthright to another mother :).

    @ to all:
    The whole world is out of order, what we can see everywhere – in Europe f.e. the Germans.
    There are about 80 Million of them and they are getting less, so, they built a natural harmony on the one end of the scale – to the massive growing of human population on the other end of the scale.

    And what happend?
    Industry and economy are screaming out loud, that this social system will not be able to be held, as there are fewer people growing up.

    And the UN?
    Planning, organizing and implementing the Replacement Migration to bring in millions of fresh blood “workers” from all over the world, …
    to outbalance Europe and bring another continent to suffering and war –
    instead of having learnt the lesson and having become wiser
    bringing the knowledge of Permaculture and building conscious communities in every corner of the planet.

    The Soup will be lost – for all of us.

  6. Hmmm, some interesting comments. As I look at the comments made, the one consistency I see is that we are all limited in our understanding and even awareness of any given situation. Our opinion can only be based upon what we know and in “all” cases that awareness is limited. Is zero population growth the way to go? Why? I don’t believe there is enough date so support that direction. As for “infinite population growth,” come on! We don’t have infinite population growth; we have an increasing population. Some of the concepts are flatly based on false assumptions. Such as the following: 1) Peak oil – we’re not there. More energy sources are continuing to be found. 2) Peak potable water. Hey, the world is 70% water and we have the technology the make potable water. 3) Manmade global warming! Come on! Do you really understand that man is responsible for something like 6% of the atmospheric pollution! It’s not at a tipping point unless you use false data, of which there is plenty. 4) War – It may be nice to think any modern water was caused by anything other than quest for power, but I don’t believe it’s valid.
    If you want things to continue, then ‘mankind’s quest for power is what needs taming. Regulating population, who gets what food, what one can do for a living, where one can live, who one can marry, what mode of transportation one can have or use, how far what can travel, what and how much of anything one can consume (not relative to eating), are futile discussions. Because none are the root cause. The problem does not go away unless the root cause is dealt with. Quest for power is perhaps the root cause, but then again, my understanding is as limited as all of the rest of you and my thinking can only be shaped by that understanding. Hmmm…

  7. I think that we have to be careful with regard to population control and all the answers show, why.
    There are example of population decline in Europe, on an ecological basis we can say less people, so possibly less pollution (growth increases population per capita often). The smaller population would be ageing, how do we pay for the pensions, cut them, make assess only at 70. I lived in Spain in the 90’s it is ageing fast like Italy.

    I have 4 children, we live on acreage outside town, we grow most of our own food, we bus to school and work. I buy from second hand shops (OpShops, here in Aus). Friends have one child, they use the lower expense to run two cars, fly regularly on weekend get aways and eat out more. Two other families we know have no children, they both travel by air all the time and have every gadget, but they have no generations to carry on or care about the future, really.

  8. @ ChadH, OK Infinite is a very long time. This graphic – https://web.archive.org/web/20170422074615/http://populationgrowth.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/current-pop-jpeg.jpg is more descriptive.

    When you say that Is zero population growth the way to go? Why? I don’t believe there is enough date so support that direction., what data would you like to see?

    A quick parse shows that your’s is the only use of any form of the word regulate. As you say, Hmmm…

  9. Very interesting article and the comments are revealing of many different levels of understanding.

    I use the term “return of surplus” for the third ethic, surplus being any energy produced over and above the needs of the system that is producing it. In my PDC, and in studying Mollison´s Designer’s Manual in depth, I have understood two things.

    First the question of limits to population and consumption. Let´s look at how this would be done in harmony with the permaculture principles and known biological patterns. If our systems are truly sustainable, meaning that they produce more energy than they consume, enough to grow, maintain themselves and reproduce over the lifetime of their components, we know that they are well designed. Elements are connected so that there is no waste and no need to consume inputs of resources from outside the system. A well designed and managed system will automatically limit our NEED to consume resources, especially those that reduce with use.

    A note about this: most of our over consumption is due to the fact that we live in a world where systems are NOT well designed and are NOT sustainable. Directly limiting (by law or by choice) our consumption does not address this fact, so the root problem remains. Limiting ourselves or others may make us feel good, but it does not resolve the problem.

    If we learn to design with permaculture principles, we will not design systems that are unsustainble. The best way we can limit our consumption of resources in practice is to use permaculture design to create systems of a different kind which produce more energy than they consume, allowing the build-up of resources which are simply stored energy that has been produced in the past, instead of the depletion of such resources.

    As for limiting population, some of you many have heard Geoff Lawton speak directly to this in his explanation of “the biological effect”, which states that when a population is surviving under continuous stress (poverty, hunger, war etc.) , the reproductive function of the population increases naturally and there are more births than in populations that do not live under such stress. We can see this effect clearly in plants that are suffering, for example, from lack of water or some other input that they need to thrive, when the fruits that produce seed are small and numerous. Nature is trying to assure the survival of the species by producing more seed and thus more offspring. This happens in human populations, as well. This effect was researched by Mollison and is explained for human populations on page 100 of the Manual, if anyone is interested. Perhaps if he had put that explanation in the Ethics chapter, instead of in Pattern Understanding, more people would have connected the two ideas.

    So, again, limiting population directly (by eugenics, birth control measures, forced abortion or whatever else) is not a real solution to the problem of “over-population”. These things will always be simply political or ideological actions. They are not nature’s way of doing things. To solve the problem we must design implement and manage systems that assure the first two ethics. Then, when we return the surplus yield (which can only happen in a system that has evolved beyond sustainable) of those systems to the first two ethics, we will be on the path to resolving the real problem.

    If others are not yet living in sustainable systems, our surplus yield (in one form or another) MUST be returned to the care of parts of the earth that are not yet sustainable and people who are living in extractive, unsustainable systems. How we do that is up to our good judgement and like everything else in permaculture, there is no recipe that works in all cases. Our assumption of responsibility for life and the future of life on earth and our capacity to observe, interact and adjust will guide us in choosing the right actions in each case.

    If we do not return to the earth and its living systems everything that is over and above what we need for our own system to thrive, we can truly be called “wasters” and “parasites” and I am sure that such waste, like all others, will be a constant source of contamination for both the living earth and humans.
    In my understanding, with the state of the earth and human populations being what it is today, we must concentrate on evolving the systems we can responsibly steward to the point of sustainability through good design and management practices and do as much as we can to share the information and experience we have with others who do not know about it yet and assist them in their understanding. Once we get to that point in our evolution, the third ethic kicks in and again, how we do that “return of surplus” is not specified in the ethic, but is up to our own sense of responsibility for life on earth.

    Knowing what our own human needs and the needs of our systems are is a first step in the right direction.
    If we confuse “what we want now” or “what makes us feel good” or “what is cheap and easy” or “what is in style these days” with our real needs, we will certainly go astray.

    I sincerely hope we can all do our part in turning things around, each according to his/her ability. We have all we need to go forward in the right direction. Doing so is up to us!

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