Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Exploring the Permaculture Ethics: The Third Ethic, Setting Limits to Population and Consumption, Part 1

This post will be the fourth in a five part series on the Permaculture Prime Directive and Ethics (the first and the second).  Today, I'll be writing about the Third Ethic, which could also easily be known as the third rail of permaculture.  There is an immense amount of debate about this ethic, so know that I am probably going to offend someone who is reading this.  If that is you, please know that I am expressing what I've read from the permaculture greats like Bill Mollison, and extrapolating that into my own opinion... which is just that, strictly my opinion.  I'll try to cover how I think the third ethic does leave some room for opinion, though not as much as some people believe.  If you are one of those people, well... that's just my opinion.

Now, onto the important stuff.  As usual, I'll start with what Bill Mollison has to say in the Design Manual.  He defines the Third Ethic as, "Setting Limits to Population and Consumption: By governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the above principles."  As you can see , Bill plainly states that the major goal of the Third Ethic is to utilize resources we are capable of setting aside (surplus resources) to further Earth Care and People Care.  Some folks have cleverly dubbed the Ethics as Earthcare, People Care, and Fair Share.  These monikers are accurate and clever, but as we'll discuss, easily misused in the realm of the Third Ethic.

Continuing with from page 7 of the Design Manual, Bill says:
"The real difference between a cultivated (designed) ecosystem, and a natural system is that the great majority of species (and biomass) in the cultivated ecology is intended for the use of humans or their livestock.  We are only a small part of the total primeval or natural species assembly, and only a small part of its yields are directly available to us.... Household design relates principally to the needs of people; it is thus human-centered (anthropocentric).

 This is a valid aim for settlement design, but we also need a nature-centered ethic for wilderness conservation.  We cannot, however, do much for nature if we do not govern our greed, and if we do not supply our needs from our existing settlements.  if we can achieve this aim, we can withdraw from much of the agricultural landscape, and allow natural systems to flourish."
In context in this book, Bill does not specifically mention that he is talking about the Third Ethic, but I choose to believe that he is.  After all, he speaks of regulating our greed and remaining within the boundaries of our current human settlements so that we can return agricultural land to nature.  This is obviously setting limits to growth and consumption, with an end of returning our agricultural land (now surplus) to nature (reinvesting resources in the interest of the earth and its ecosystems).  Finally, at the end of page 7, Bill adds:
"It is my belief that we have two responsibilities to pursue: Primarily, it is to get our house and garden, our place of living, in order, so that it supports us;  Secondarily, it is to limit our population on earth, or we ourselves become the final plague.

Both these duties are intimately connected, as stable regions create stable populations.  If we do not get our cities, homes, and gardens in order, so that they feed and shelter us, we must lay waste to all other natural system.  Thus, truly responsible conservationists have gardens which support their food needs, and are working to reduce their own energy needs to a modest consumption, or to that which can be supplied by local wind, water, forest, or solar power resources.
So, I think we probably have a rather clear idea on what Bill Mollison meant when he wrote about the Third Ethic.  Now let's once again turn to David Holmgren and his website  On his website, David describes that the Third Ethic is:
"... the taking of what we need and sharing what we don’t whilst recognising that there are limits to how much we can give and how much we can take.

 When a tree fruits, it usually produces much more than one person can eat. It makes sense to share what we can’t use. It takes time to pick, eat, share and preserve the harvest and there are limits to how much fruit we can produce and use...

...Sometimes we need to make hard decisions and consider what enough is."
I think all of these are important and wise words.  David acknowledges the hard truth that there are not infinite resources, and that there will be times that we must recognize that we may not have enough, but that others still need some as well.  In my opinion, this applies to both other human beings, AND to other species.  He mentions that in times of abundance, we should take only what we need to use currently and to preserve for later, and I agree with these things.  It leaves a lot open for interpretation, but I have to agree with them.  So where does the controversy come from?  I will quote David Holmgren in the caption under the graphic he chose to represent this ethic.  By doing so, I am in no way implicating David or his students in creation of the controversy.  I am merely pointing out a place where I see a difference in how the ethic is described.  My Bachelors degree is in Political Science, and so I am keenly aware of the connotations that certain words have in American society at least, and more broadly I believe.  Under a graphic of a pie with a slice cut out of it, David summarizes the Third Ethic as, "Fair Share: Set limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistribute surplus." [Emphasis mine.]

In American society, redistribute is a charged word.  Cries of socialism and greed can be heard from either side of the camp when this word is tossed around.  By using it in description of the Third Ethic, David Holmgren intentionally or unintentionally opened a can of worms that the Permaculture community is still struggling through.  I hope to reconcile this controversy to the best of my ability, but it is obviously a very large challenge.  It is so large a challenge that I am choosing to leave you with a cliffhanger, and discuss my own thoughts on the Third Ethic and how I believe the controversy surrounding it can be resolved in the next post.  (I'll also vindicate David Holmgren and make sure to leave no doubt that I think false political dichotomies, and not David, are truly responsible for this controversy.)

Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. great post! looking forward to reading part two :)