Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Exploring the Permaculture Ethics: The First Ethic, Care of the Earth

Today's post, the second in a four part series about the Prime Directive and Ethics of Permaculture, is on the First Ethic of Permaculture, Care of the Earth.  It is also huge, so grab the beverage of your choice, sit down, and hold on.  As I did last time, I'm going to share the thoughts of some of the great minds in permaculture on this ethic, as well as intermixing my own thoughts and interpretations.  I'll quote the greats where I can, and I'll call out when something is my opinion.  I invite respectful discourse on these topics, as it helps me and anyone reading to grow.  Please refrain from being disrespectful in any way towards someone else's opinions if they differ from your own.

Enough preamble, let's get into it.  In Permaculture: A Designers Manual, Bill Mollison defines the first ethic as:
"Care of the Earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply."
This seems to be a very simple ethic, and in truth in permaculture circles there is not much controversy over its definition and application.  Basically, try to allow for abundance by encouraging the growth of all living things.  Life that is currently on this planet evolved to be here for a reason, so in every way we can we should let nature take its course.  Of course, we are also here for a reason, and cannot help but have an impact on our environment.  The difference is that we are conscious to our actions in a way we cannot attribute to any other living creature that we know of, so we must take responsibility for our actions as such.

Many people do not choose to take said responsibility.  Outside of permaculture circles, there are certainly people who do not share the first ethic, and it shows in the state of the natural world today.  There are people who not only believe that the economy is not part of the environment... they believe it's more important!  Somehow, they do not see that it is the environment we live in, the natural world, that provides all of the things we manipulate within the economy.  Without the environment, without diverse and healthy ecosystems, there cannot be life as we know it, let alone an economy.  Therefore, it is important that we follow this first ethic and care for the earth, and provision for all living things.

Let's get some more input on the first ethic.  David Holmgren is typically thought of as the co-founder of permaculture.  He studied at the College of Advanced Education in Hobart, Tasmania, the city in which Bill Mollison was a lecturer at the University of Tasmania.  They met in 1974, and their conversations on gardens (and agriculture), sustainability, and the interactions of natural systems eventually led them to collaborate on Holmgren's doctoral thesis, which later became Permaculture One: A Perennial Agricultural System for Human Settlements.  David Holmgren also wrote a book called Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, from which I'll draw information on this ethic as well as the next two.  This, in my opinion, is Holmgren's magnum opus, and an important read for permies.  Holmgren defines the first ethic as:
"The Earth is a living, breathing entity.  Without ongoing care and nurturing, there will be consequences too big to ignore."
This seems a bit different than Mollison's definition, with a focus on the Gaian aspect of ecology in which the earth is viewed as a large organism of which we are but "cells", which is a strong focus for Holmgren.  When we read more of what he has to say about it, it becomes clear that Holmgren and Mollison's definitions are essentially the same:
"Care of the Earth can be taken to mean caring for the living soil. The state of the soil is often the best measure for the health and well-being of society... Our forests and rivers are the lungs and veins of our planet, that help the Earth live and breathe, supporting many diverse life forms. All life forms have their own intrinsic value, and need to be respected for the functions that they perform - even if we don’t see them as useful to our needs."
I like that Holmgren includes what most people would not normally think of as living and breathing creatures, like rivers and lakes, and makes them just as important to take care of.  He also calls attention to the fact that the soil is alive as well... without life in the soil, it is simply dirt, and cannot provide abundance.  In fact, Holmgren says "there are many different techniques for looking after soil, but the best method to tell if soil is healthy is to see how much life exists there."  Finally, I really appreciate Holmgren's attention to the fact that just because a life form doesn't provide a function that is of direct benefit to us as human beings doesn't mean that it has no benefit. "All life forms have their own intrinsic value" is something that everyone can learn from, "native" species enthusiasts as well as those who hardly care for the environment at all.

In the graphic that Holmgren uses to demonstrate the Ethics, he includes the words "Rebuild Natural Capital" as a summary, which I think is a terrific way of expressing the goal of the first ethic, if not the ethic itself.  Allowing life to grow and flourish today paves the way for more life to be present tomorrow, just as allowing your savings account to grow today allows you to grow your monetary capital tomorrow.  When we deplete life through unnecessary "pest" or "weed" management, we're throwing away some of our natural capital and depleting our reserves.  Likewise, when we spend too much of our monetary capital to purchase and over consume products and services, we deplete the environment (and our future generations) of clean air, clean water, metals and minerals, fossil fuels, etc. Being conservative with our spending, of both natural and monetary capital, is an obvious benefit to ourselves and future generations.  And as I wrote about in the last post in this series, it is of crucial importance to be thinking of what is good for our great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren as much or more than what is good for us.  Oh, and everything else that is alive with us now, and may be in the future.

So, essentially, the first ethic is an ethic of preservation and conservation.  It is an ethic of consideration for what kind of world we are leaving for our descendants.  As a start towards a method for accomplishing this, I would like to include something Mollison wrote in the Design Manual on this topic:
"For a great many case histories we can list some rules of use, for example the RULE OF NECESSITOUS USE-- that we leave any natural system alone until we are, of strict necessity, forced to use it.  We may then follow up with RULES OF CONSERVATIVE USE-- having found it necessary to use a natural resource, we may insist on every attempt to:
    • Reduce waste, hence pollution;
    • Thoroughly replace lost minerals;
    • Do a careful energy accounting; and
    • Make an assessment of the long-term, negative, biosocial effects on society, and act to buffer or eliminate these."
Mollison is writing these rules and guidelines as applicable to all three ethics, so remember them when we discuss the second and third ethic.  As for the first ethic, I do think it is a fantastic outline for how to approach preservation and conservation primarily, and so I'm including its discussion here.  I particularly find the Rule of Necessitous Use an important one to focus on.  I think the zone model of permaculture (which will be discussed in more depth in a future post), is a good litmus test for this rule.  In brief, permaculture designs are usually designed around zones, which range from Zone 1 which is the area of highest use, such as the house; to Zone 5 which is an area of pristine (or as close as you can come to it on your site) wilderness.  To test our design, and our practice of the Rule of Necessitous Use, we merely need to observe our Zone 5.  Is it becoming more or less wild?  Is it expanding in size because our zones 1-4 are acting so effectively that they don't need to be as large, or is it shrinking because we're finding that we need the space to fulfill our needs.  The answers to these questions doesn't necessarily inform us as to our failure or success as designers, but it still provides us with critical information about our design and its overall effect on the environment and our place in it.  There's nothing wrong with a shrinking zone 5 if your design is efficient as possible, but it does inform you of something to strive for, does it not?  Lastly, the Rule of Necessitous Use is one where profit and conservation can come to a head, but I will discuss more about profit and permaculture in the post on the third ethic.

To speak on the Rules of Conservative Use, I think it is important for everyone to read, learn, and embrace them as a part of their everyday lives.  Each may carry a slightly different meaning to someone else, but my thoughts on them are:

  • By reducing waste, and therefore pollution, we are mitigating the harm we do to the place we live.  If we live up to the sixth principle of permaculture as described by Holmgren (which we'll talk about more in depth in yet another series of posts), then we will do our best to produce NO waste.  Attempting to do so will lead us not to waste obvious resources such as kitchen scraps and leftover food, it will help us choose against obvious waste such as plastic packaging and single-use items, and it will encourage us to be creative in ways we haven't tried before such as repurposing old items around the house.
  • Thoroughly replace lost minerals, I think, can be expanded to thoroughly replace lost resources (where applicable).  Mollison's use of the word minerals reflects his focus on agricultural systems and soil at the time of writing the Design Manual, but I think replacing resources that can be replaced is very important as well, and if Mollison chose to revise the Design Manual I have no doubt he'd expand minerals into something more inclusive of systems outside of agriculture.  As an example, if you chop down a tree for timber or fuelwood, plant some new ones to replace it.  Better yet, design a system in which new ones are already growing to replace a tree long before you need to use it for fuelwood.  The same can be said for water... if you remove water from the natural world and use it for cooking, bathing, etc., use it in a way that a greywater system can thoroughly replace most of that water into the ecosystem from which it came in a way that does no harm.  This line of thought can be applied to almost anything, and the few things that it is hard to apply to (fossil fuels) are things which we should try to mitigate our use of as much as possible.  (That last sentence is also worthy of a whole series of posts, but I feel as if I'm deferring to that possibility too much in this post.  If I did not, however, this post would turn into a book in its own right.)
  • Doing a careful energy accounting is essentially measuring the amount of energy input for the amount of energy output produced.  For instance, according to some sources the amount of energy used to produce and transport one calorie of industrial food to your table is about 9 calories input to 1 calorie consumed (9:1).  Obviously this is not sustainable, and certainly is not regenerative.  To be sustainable, we'd need a ratio of 1:1, and to be regenerative, we'd need it to be 1:N, where N>1.  The higher N, the more regenerative, because there is more energy left for other elements in the system than just humans.  With this logic, even a ratio of 1:1 may not quite be sustainable, because it may not provide enough energy for all the living entities in a system to be sustainable themselves... but it's a goal to shoot for as a start.
  • Making an assessment of the long-term, negative, biosocial effects on society, and acting to buffer or eliminate them is a huge, seemingly impossible, and critically important step in acting conservatively.  Some of them are obvious, i.e. clear cutting a pristine forest eliminates the habitat for untold numbers of species.  But many can be less obvious, especially if we don't perform a thorough enough energy accounting that really documents as many of the interconnections we can think of in a system.  For example, what we put down our drains can be something that is easily overlooked.  However, if we use a greywater system, it can have a drastic effect on our designed ecosystems... especially if we end up recycling that water on our property to grow food for ourselves or our livestock.  Even if we don't have a greywater system, it is important to think of the chemicals we choose to flush/rinse down the pipes on a daily basis.  The Earth's water systems are ultimately one big greywater system, and whether we're keeping that water on our land or not, we're impacting something downstream.  It is, I believe, absolutely imperative that this step in practicing the Rule of Conservative Use is not overlooked because of its scope.  Doing no harm largely involves knowing what harm you might do, even in the slightest amount, and even if it is way downstream.
With that, I'd like to wrap up my discussion of the first ethic.  I think the spirit of the ethic must be clear by now... take care of the planet we live on.  For now and into the foreseeable future, it's the only one we've got.  We should also do everything in our capabilities to take care of the other entities we share this planet with.  To our knowledge, we're the only species in the universe with the capacity to do so consciously and deliberately.  Make that deliberate choice to look after your progeny, your fellow creatures, and the Earth now.  It's not too late to turn around the path we've been on for the last couple of centuries, but it's going to take a lot of work from as many people as can be reached.  Choose today to be one of those people.  This ethic is the first for obvious reasons... it is by far the most important.  Research more on the Rule of Necessitous Use and the Rules of Conservative Use.  Do some observation and contemplation and figure out how you can apply them in your everyday life.  If everyone does this even a little bit, it will help, but it'll take many people doing this a lot to have the impact we need, so share this message with your friends.

On that note, I'll do what I rarely do.  I implore you to share this blog, and especially this post and its siblings, with everyone you know.  I obviously do it for selfish reasons... I'd love to have more people seeing what I write, otherwise why would I write?  But I do it for altruistic and philanthropic reasons too.  I don't think I'm the greatest writer, or any kind of serious authority on permaculture or paths to regeneration, but I do think it's possible that if this post has spoken to and moved you even the slightest, it might do the same for at least one other person.  Try to share it with that person, and others if you can.  The main reason I write this blog and pursue what I'm pursuing is to try to make a slightly better world for myself and my descendants.  And I'm concerned for yours as well, as we're all in this together, and I know I need your help.  Help me help you help them.  I know this paragraph probably sounds over the top and somewhat pompous, but I really do think it's important stuff.  If nothing else, do it to humor this raving lunatic, eh?

Thanks so much for reading.  Next week I'll share my own thoughts on the second ethic, and more importantly the thoughts of the Permaculture Giants.

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