Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Exploring the Permaculture Ethics: The Prime Directive

The three permaculture ethics - Care of the Earth, Care of People, and Setting Limits to Population and Consumption - are the nucleus around which all permaculture design ideas are built.  As the foundation of these, the Prime Directive acts as a baseline goal by which everyone should make their decisions about how to live their lives.  In this post, and on the three following Wednesdays, I intend to analyze and evaluate the meaning of the prime directive and the permaculture ethics as described by the permaculture greats such as Mollison and Holmgren, as well as the descriptions provided by permaculture teachers I respect such as Toby Hemenway and Paul Wheaton, and finally I'll include my own interpretation and opinion of the core of permaculture in light of what I have learned from the aforementioned people.  Today, I'll be analyzing the Prime Directive.

I want to start with a bit of a disclaimer.  In these posts, I'll be quoting some sections of the writing of others, and then analyzing it.  My analysis is my opinion, and therefore is subject to scrutiny in a respectful manner.  Should you disagree with my opinion, you are welcome to share why and try to persuade me otherwise.  However, if there is a disrespectful comment, it is likely I will delete it.  I don't anticipate this being a problem with the prime directive or the first two ethics, but I know from experience that the third ethic can generate some heated debate.

So, on to the important stuff.  I'm going to start with the basics as described in Permaculture: A Designer's Manual, by Bill Mollison.  Bill is considered the founder of permaculture, although he describes his work as having rediscovered what many aboriginal peoples already knew for centuries.  Bill outlines the ethical starting point for permaculture in the first chapter of the aforementioned book, and I'll refer to that frequently in this series on ethics.  I highly recommend purchasing the book for a full in depth analysis from the father of permaculture.

In order to understand the ethics, it is important to view them in light of the Prime Directive of Permaculture.  The Prime Directive is:

The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children. Make it Now.

Clearly, Mollison believes what I and I'm sure anyone reading this blog believes... the actions we are currently taking as we occupy this planet are less than responsible, and we need to decide now that our own lives and the lives of our children are no ones responsibility but our own.  I interpret this as a baseline of sustainability.  If you are taking real responsibility for your life and your children's lives, then you have no choice but to act and live sustainably, which is a minimum for true continuation of life on this planet.  If everyone made this the prime directive of their lives, I believe it would solve 95% of the problems we face as a species, and of the problems we are currently imposing on the other species in our ecological community.  Degenerative decisions would mean we were not acting responsibly, and they would cease.  With our inventiveness and energy freed up to act regeneratively rather than chasing our tail by enacting degenerative solutions to the problems caused by degenerative solutions, the remaining 5% of the problems to tackle would be easily deciphered.  Viewing sustainability as a baseline rather than a goal broadens our horizons to the true potential of which humans are capable.

To carry my interpretation of Mollison's thoughts on the Prime Directive yet further, I will quote another passage from page 2 of the Design Manual:
For every scientific statement articulated on energy, the Aboriginal tribespeople of Australia have an equivalent statement on life.  Life, they say, is a totality neither created nor destroyed.  It can be imagined as an egg from which all tribes (life forms) issue and to which all return.  The ideal way in which to spend one's time is in the perfection of the expression of life, to lead the most evolved life possible, and to assist in and celebrate the existence of lifeforms other than humans, for all come from the same egg.
If, indeed, the ideal way to spend your existence is in the perfection of the expression of life, then is taking responsibility for your life and your children's lives enough? Clearly, sustainability is not enough.  To quote Toby Hemenway from a talk he gave at Duke University, "If someone said, 'How's your marriage?' and you said 'Oh, it's sustainable.' then, ok, it's not all that good."  He was referring to the fact that we spend so much of our time doing degenerative things, that if we reach sustainability and stop, then we've done nothing to repair the damage to the environment we've caused over the last few centuries.  Indeed, if in your marriage you fought a lot and caused much pain and and heartache for your partner, then stopped and were tolerable but did nothing to repair the psychological damage done to them, then your marriage would just be sustaining a place of heartache and emotional turmoil.  Likewise, we have been harmful in our relationship with the earth and the other lifeforms inhabiting it with us, and we need to begin to usher in a healing process for the damage that we've caused.

It is this interpretation of the Prime Directive which I will use to analyze the Permaculture Ethics.  In the tradition of the Iroquois, the Great Law reads, "In every deliberation, we must consider the impact of the seventh generation... even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine."  This Iroquois Law is the logical extension of the Prime Directive of Permaculture, and the difference between sustainability and regeneration.  If you are only thinking about yourself and your children, you may not plan for what is left for their children.  But if you are thinking about what will be left for your great-great-great-great-great grandchildren, the only way to ensure they receive a planet that is as or more healthy than the one you currently have is to try to regenerate the health, fertility, cleanliness, and livelihood of every living system you interact with and that they will interact with as well.  Those living systems are what support the livelihoods of you, your children, and 7 generations to come.  You also must teach each subsequent generation you have the privilege of interacting with to think and live the same way.  As soon as we begin leaving the gift that is the fruits of thinking this way to our seventh generation, we can truly say that we are living ideally, that we are practicing perfection of the expression of life, and that we are living responsibly and to our fullest potential.

Through this intellectual lens, I will explore the three ethics of permaculture over the next 3 weeks.  It is the lens through which I choose to operate, which of course makes it my own opinion.  Bill Mollison never expressed it this way, and perhaps I am carrying it too far.  If you see it differently, please express your opinion in the comments, as I'm sure that I have a long way to travel on the path to enlightenment on this topic.  As always, thanks for reading.

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