Thursday, August 09, 2012

Exploring the Permaculture Ethics: The Second Ethic, Care of People

This is the third of a four part series on the Permaculture Prime Directive and Ethics.  In today's post, we'll be discussing the Second Ethic: Care of People.  If you haven't yet, read the first two posts in the series on The Prime Directive of Permaculture and the First Ethic of Permaculture.  They'll give you some good background leading into the Second Ethic, although this post should mostly make sense by itself.

In the Permaculture Design Manual, Bill Mollison describes the Second Ethic as "Care of People: Provision for people to access those resources necessary to their existence."  I think the importance of this ethic is often overlooked by people in our time.  Too often, people who consider themselves environmentalists see human beings as just a problem to be mitigated, and not a part of the ecosystem just as important and needing to be looked after just like any other part.  Any environmentalism-motivated action that does not consider the impact on human beings as part of the system is not truly an environmental decision because human beings are part of the environment.  It is irrational and against nature not to have a healthy sense of self-preservation, which is what considering environmental action without also considering humans seems like to me.  On top of this, it is irresponsible to think that considering the system sans human beings can fix a problem.  There is no such thing, and will be no such thing for a long time, as a sans-human environment.  If we are to reverse course, we must learn how to design to the betterment of the environment as well as the betterment of humans.  It is my belief that humans in need are far more willing to do harm in the name of self-preservation than humans who want for little.  Therefore, we must take the Second Ethic very seriously and design systems in which humans want for little or nothing, so that they have room for interest in preserving more than just themselves.

I think this Ethic, of the three, most directly reflects the Prime Directive of Permaculture.  As I eluded to above, we must also make sure that our children are setup to be well taken care of by the systems we create (as well as their children and so on unto the 7th generation), so they have room for interest in more than just themselves.  Only by creating an environment in which our children have reason to and can become interested in preserving that environment can we reach sustainability and pursue regeneration.

The idea that human beings are part of the natural world, and not somehow detached and superior to it, leads me a the logical conclusion that it makes more sense to cooperate with something of which we are a part, rather than compete against it.  In the Design Manual, Bill Mollison describes the Principle of Cooperation as "Cooperation, not competition, is the very basis of existing life systems and the future of survival."  Further, "Life is cooperative rather than competitive, and life forms of very different qualities may interact beneficially with one another and with their physical environment."  He quotes Lewis Thomas in saying even "the bacteria... live by collaboration, accommodation, exchange, and barter."

So, clearly cooperation is imperative.  We must cease seeing ourselves as outside of nature, which leads to competition with the very system and the creatures within it that are providing for us, and instead learn to cooperate with that system and create what Paul Wheaton describes as "symphonies between man and nature."  But cooperating with nature is not the only important skill we must learn.  We also, probably more than anything, must learn to cooperate with each other.  Naturally, I have more from Bill Mollison on this.
"Having developed an earthcare ethic by assessing our best course for survival, we then turn to our relationships with others.  Here, we observe a general rule of nature: that cooperative species (like mycorrhiza on tree roots) make healthy communities.  Such lessons lead us to a sensible resolve to cooperate and take support roles in society, to foster an interdependence which values the individual's contributions rather than forms of opposition or competition.

Although initially we can see how helping our family and friends assists us in our own survival, we may evolve the mature ethic that sees all humankind as family, and all life as allied associations.  Thus, we expand people care to species care, for all life has common origins.  All are 'our family.'"
This statement brings the first two ethics full-circle, and reiterates my point that we are not outside of any natural system to speak of.  Because ecosystems build upon themselves in a cycle of growth, consumption, and decay, earth care leads to an easier time with people care, which ultimately can be broadened to species care, which really is just nurturing all the species in the production-consumption-decay cycle, and is therefore earthcare.  A beautiful cycle, just like the many others found in nature.  The Third Ethic of Permaculture helps close the loop more thoroughly by explaining by what guidelines the second ethic should get "converted" into earthcare, but that is of course for next week's post.

Until now, I have only shared my own and Bill Mollison's thoughts on the Second Ethic.  I would definitely be remiss if I didn't at least include David Holmgren's thoughts as well.  On, David Holmgren has this to say on the Second Ethic:
"If peoples needs are met in compassionate and simple ways, the environment surrounding them will prosper.... Care for people starts with ourselves, but expands to include our families, neighbors, local and wider communities.  The challenge is to grow up through self-reliance and personal responsibility."
While I think Holmgren reconnects the second ethic with the first, he falls short a bit because at first it seems his true end in taking care of people is only healing the environment, and in my opinion he doesn't focus enough on human well-being as an important end unto itself.  However, he brings up a good point about self-reliance and personal responsibility.  There are too many people who do not care about striving for or achieving either of these traits.  In this way we act like adolescents, waiting for someone else to take care of us or fix the problem while we waste our lives away in front of a screen (my readers obviously excluded of course) and blame others for our boredom or lack of fulfillment.  To this point, Holmgren says:
"By accepting personal responsibility for our situation as far as possible, rather than blaming others, we empower ourselves.  By recognizing that the wisdom lies within the group, we can work with others to bring about the best outcomes for all involved.

The permaculture approach is to focus on the positives, the opportunities that exist rather than the obstacles, even in the most desperate situations."
Wise words.  I know that in my own life, when I started to take responsibility for the way things are, it motivated me to change my behavior.  When I realized that I too was responsible for the poisoning of our air, waterways, and soil with chemicals and heavy metals; I changed the products I used, I started driving much less, I became conscious of the products and companies I supported, etc.  I began thinking of how I could effectively "vote with my dollars."  I stopped blaming entirely the politicians and corporations who condone and commit acts of eco-destruction, and realized that I was just as complicit for the way things are because of what I chose to support, and so I chose to stop supporting them.  This blog and my homesteading passion are my attempt to make the best of a desperate situation, and to see the opportunities presented to me rather than the obstacles.  Even though I primarily feel that I am writing this blog much more for myself or possibly (hopefully) my progeny than a captive present-day audience, I keep writing in the hopes that it might awaken somebody to a way of living responsibly on the earth.  And to be perfectly honest, it is selfishly my little way of saying "look at me!  I'm trying to do good things," because I think it's important that people know that other people are trying.

In summary and conclusion, I would like to quote Carl Sagan from page 103 of his book Cosmos.  He writes,
"Are we willing to tolerate ignorance and complacency in matters that affect the entire human family? Do we value short-term advantages above the welfare of the Earth? Or will we think on longer time scales, with concern for our children and our grandchildren, to understand and protect the complex life-support systems of our planet? The Earth is a tiny and fragile world. It needs to be cherished."
I doubt that when Carl Sagan wrote those words he had ever even heard of permaculture or its ethics, but he clearly would have been on board.  Permaculture is obviously the practice of cherishing the earth and all the living beings supported by it.  There are a tremendous number of ways to go about cherishing the earth, and I believe if many of us learn the permaculture ethics and use them as guidance on how to go about cherishing it, we will soon create those "symphonies between man and nature."  After all, it is the only responsible decision to make, is it not?

Thanks for reading!

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