Permaculture ethics, that’s easy right? Earth-care, People-care Fair-share… everyone knows the mantra, but do we remember what these things actually mean when we recite them parrot fashion?
Recently I have seen online chat suggesting they should be updated, improved if you will, the suggestion is that of Future-care being floated as an alternative to the Fair-share – which was always a bit lacking and the least understood of the three. But no Future-care really doesn’t do it for me and its inclusion would greatly impoverish the ethics model.
Let us re-trace our footsteps a bit here and roll things back the 1992 and the Rio Earth Summit when the ‘S’ word entered the lexicon in a much bigger way than it had ever been used before. Sustainability, they told us is the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
Okay, so far so good, then Toby Hemenway in his lecture, ‘How permaculture can save the world but not civilisation’ pointed out that the definition is lacking in that it fails to define what a need actually is and come to that, why are we putting meeting the needs of the present before that of the future? What is a need? Do you really need that cappuccino or another pair of shoes, when it comes to it, who gets to define what a need is? One man’s need is another man’s indulgence.
If we are not careful we are back in the finger wagging judgemental territory most criticised of environmentalists who seem to want to tell everyone else what to do whilst at the same time alienating the vast majority of the population. Telling people they can’t have the stuff they feel they need or deserve or holding one’s own virtuous lifestyle up as some master template has yet to win over the masses.
The ‘S’ word is fraught with difficulty and within a few short years of Rio we have government ministers talking about ‘sustainable growth in the car industry’ or ‘sustainable economic growth’ or various other oxymorons. The word rapidly lost its meaning being hi-jacked left, right and centre to represent a vast swathe of viewpoints.
Back to the drawing board then. Actually before we ditch the ‘S’ word entirely it has something of immense value to offer us and this emerged in the mid 90’s with the idea of the triple bottom line in business. This was environmental sustainability, social sustainability and economic sustainability. Sustainability is a three-legged stool is the metaphor and it needs all three to stand up. Yes to environment and society but what if we can’t afford it? How can we pursue goals that fail to endure economically? Somewhere in this lies the key to understanding the permaculture ethics especially the much maligned third ethic of Fair-share.
Full disclosure; I studied economics, not in its pure theory but within the context of sustainable development (yes that tricky ‘S’ word again). I studied economics and ecology at the same time and I have always understood that permaculture lies at the intersection of these two disciplines. Economics is about how we meet needs from available resources, ecology is about how we access those resources within an understanding of the mechanism of the living biosphere of which we are all a part. So balancing the needs of people and those of the planet; the earth and people care prospectively is the origin of the first two ethics. I think everyone gets that, although some go further and say screw people, the planet comes first but that is a hard sell in today’s consumer paradise. I think most people are with us on the People and Planet aspiration but the key question as ever is how do we achieve this finely balanced mix.
This is where the third ethic comes in to play and I strongly believe it is the key one… you can take the first two ethics as read… I really want to drill down into what this tricky third one is all about.
Yes it is about economics, it is about choices, it is about priorities and the ‘Fair-share’ epithet doesn’t do it for me. It is a handy mnemonic for sure but it fails to convey meaning and sounds dangerously like a naïve socialist doctrine, leaving us once again with the challenge of who gets to decide what is fair exactly?
Bill Mollison never explained it that way anyway, fair-share was a late arrival, an upstart if you will, one that could have come from a branding agency. The real meat on this bone is about setting limits to consumption, yes my friends at the heart of permaculture is the most radical idea of all, that there is such a thing as enough. In a world where consumerism is touted as an end in itself and conspicuous consumption is worn on the sleeve one might be forgiven for forgetting the setting limits to consumption bit, I guess this equates to Fair-share but still it goes so much deeper.
David Holmgren can help us here, I refer you to principles three and four of his set of twelve. Principle four being about setting limits and three is about meeting needs, obtain a yield, ‘You can’t work on an empty stomach’. It is not in any way selfish to meet one’s own needs, in fact it is essential, without breakfast you are no good to anyone, and can’t do a full day’s work. Anyone who has been on an airplane knows that in the safety demo they always tell you… ‘in the unlikely event of the cabin de-pressurising an oxygen mask will descend, take care to put yours on first before assisting others’. There you have it, you might be a great altruist with only your fellow passengers’ concerns at heart, but at the moment you go blue in the face and pass out you are no good to anyone, in fact you are now a burden to those around you. Meeting one’s own needs first is the first rule of survival for all. It is not selfish it is self empowering.
So with these ethics I would also argue we actually put them the wrong way round, from a permaculture perspective the process of empowerment and enabling positive change begins with meetings one’s own needs, whilst ensuring there is still a surplus for investment. This reinvestment of surplus turns out to be the key, the thing, and most likely to be overlooked. The reinvestment of surplus is the how, it is the mechanism that empowers us to achieve the people and planet aspiration.
The rule is you meet your own needs, setting limits and realising there is such a thing as a enough… only you know what is enough for yourself and this should and can be constantly re-evaluated. Where we set the line for cappuccinos or shoes is a personal choice and no one should be telling us as individuals what to do. However we need to know that if we go into deficit meeting our supposed needs we will never have the faintest chance of being sustainable or doing permaculture effectively.
Sustainability is the meeting of core needs whilst retaining a surplus for reinvestment back in the system. What we do with surplus is what defines us. I argue in my public speaking and teaching that what you choose to do with that bit left over after survival is the key decision each and every one of us makes. Reinvestment of surplus in social and ecological ends guarantees a world of constant improvement, an expansion of possibilities, sticking it away in the Cayman Islands for some possible rainy day is the thing that drains the life blood of any system and constantly impoverishes it.
We were chatting about this on Facebook recently and someone asked what if there is no surplus? Then of course the preconditions for sustainability in this case are not being met and changes have to be made, this rule holds true for all. If there is no surplus then changes must be made and a redesigning is in order.
I am an enthusiastic advocate of co-operatives, they are vastly superior to a PLC and I will tell you why. PLC’s are owned by shareholders who appoint directors to maximise the return on investment. Profits are siphoned out of the company to channel towards personal ends, tax havens and consumerist endeavours. Co-operatives exist to benefit their customers, users and members and any surplus is used to reward loyalty and is reinvested in the co-operative so that it can continue to benefit its stakeholders. Co-ops reinvest surplus, PLCs extract it and put it elsewhere.
This is the key difference and this is why to my mind Bill Mollison is absolutely right to state the ethics are… set limits to consumption and reinvest surplus, for the enablement and betterment of other people, society and planet i.e. people care and the environment.
Put simply, as an example, I live in a housing cooperative. We set our rent at a level that covers our bills and responsibilities and returns a small surplus we can spend on improving the environmental performance of our home, insulation, heating etc. and allowing us to choose socially responsible alternatives for our food, services etc. So I am sorry if it does not scan as well, or make a great t-shirt but these are and will forever be the permaculture ethics… saying Future-Care… as I have seen proposed, tells us nothing, it is already covered by the first two anyway.
The third ethic gives us the mechanism by which to achieve our ambitions of not just sustainability but regeneration and genuinely sustainable growth; one that builds soil, stores water and nutrients and protects and enhances biodiversity, the very tools we need to sustain our own needs.