(first published 21 June 2011)

Any philosophy has its own set of principles or ethics whether they are written or not. Permaculture is no different. When Bill Mollison and David Holmgren developed the formal ideas of Permaculture, they also developed three guiding ethical principles. These principles were designed by evaluating indigenous, sustainable civilizations from around the world through history. One of the things that kept these civilizations going for so long, sometimes for over a thousand years, was that they had some set of ethics to guide them in the decisions and actions they made. The ethics from these civilizations could be distilled down to three core guiding ideas. Here they are…


Permaculture Ethics

  1. Earth Care
  2. People Care
  3. Return of Surplus

Now first, let me point out that these principles are all EQUAL in value; one is not more important than the other. There are consequences to generally treating the Earth as more important than Humans, and there are consequences to generally treating Humans as more important than the Earth. There are many ways to interpret these ethical principles, and this is my attempt, my version, my interpretation. I do not hold these as scripture, because Permaculture is not my religion. But it is a marvelous tool.

Earth Care


The Garden of Eden, Jan the Elder Brueghel – 1612

I am immediately reminded of what the Bible says in Genesis 2:15: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (emphasis mine)

I have seen some people get their feathers ruffled when anyone in Permaculture mentions the Garden of Eden. Their anger is more telling I think than anything else they would say, but that is getting a bit off topic. I think there are a lot of people who have forgotten one of mankind’s first duties. Take care of the Earth. Understand that our life is sustained by what we have on this planet. Air, water, soil, and all forms of life are interconnected. Whether you call it the Butterfly Effect or Chaos Theory, a person’s actions will have a consequence or domino effect on every other part of the whole system… the Earth. I don’t mean this in a spiritual way. I mean it as scientific fact. If we cut down the rainforest, we lose species of plant and animal for ever. Was there a new cure for cancer in one of those plants we just lost? Did we just destroy yet another one of God’s amazing species in our mismanagement of the forest? That loss of forest just increased worldwide desertification and contributed to the extremes of weather we are now calling climate change.

A parasite is a creature that slowly sucks up all the resources from its host while giving nothing in return. When people treat the Earth with no regard for the future, then we are no better than planetary parasites. I am truly not an eco-fanatic, but I am an ecologist (defined: a biologist who studies the relationship between an organism and its environment). I have a biology and medical degree, and I have a keen interest in the relationship between our environment and our health. I have seen that when people care for the environment, they are caring for themselves.

Which leads me to the next ethical principle…

People Care


Do Unto Others, Norman Rockwell – 1961

I am very interested in Wilderness Medicine. One of the first things I was taught when dealing with a wilderness emergency is to assess scene safety, whether it is an avalanche, flood, or landslide. Only when I know the scene is safe do I enter and help others. This is not selfish. If anything it is the opposite. If I heroically give my life to save another person, and I am the only one with medical knowledge in the disaster area, then dozens more people may die because I am not there to help them. I have to survive to help others. This is also true of my family and my community. I need to care for myself so that I may continue to care for others.

When we put our focus on caring for ourself so that we can care for others (as opposed to caring for ourself as the final goal), our whole attitude shifts. We start to think more about our family. We also begin to think about the children in our life and their children’s children. We think more about the actions we are taking today that may effect them and their future. This ties into how we use our land, the chemicals we choose not to use, the trees we plant that will live for hundreds of years after we are gone… ultimately then this ties right back to the first principle: Earth Care.

Finally, our mind starts to focus on neighbors and community and ways we can help to build it. As Jesus said in Matthew 7:12:, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” We start to reach out and help others that are less fortunate or who are lacking the information that we have. We begin to teach others to take care of themselves. When we give a man a fish, we feel good about ourselves for doing something nice, but this is an example of caring for ourselves as the final goal, not others. When we teach a man to fish, we are now truly helping him. If we teach him how to raise fish and then he sells them, we are now helping the whole community.

And this leads me to the third ethical principle…

Return of Surplus


The Four Elements – Earth, Joachim Beuckelaer – 1569

The original third ethic was “Setting Limits to Population and Consumption”. It has more recently been sometimes stated as “Fair Share”. This is nice and simple and rhymes with the other two; however, this is not what is taught by the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia… the organization that Bill Mollison created and ran until naming Geoff Lawton the director. I think the reason Bill Mollison changed this to “Return of Surplus” is that this third ethic was often interpreted to be some form of socialism or communism ideal, and I think this is why there are many neo-hippy communes that crop up around Permaculture centers. In my opinion, Permaculture is not about giving away everything you worked so hard for to others that did not work. This is one trap of human nature: expecting others to do your work for you. And it is wrong.

Here is another trap of human nature: preventing others from caring for themselves and their families and communities so that you can accumulate beyond your ability to use. And this also is wrong.

What this principle is talking about in my opinion (and according to Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton) is about setting limits to your consumption. If you produce excess, then store it away for yourself or your children to use later, or sell it or trade it to those that want it so you can have other things that you need or desire. But do not limit the ability of another person to do the same. And do not take too much from the Earth that it has to recover and cannot provide for your children and their children.

Ultimately, this third ethic is stating that all the permacultures we design must have a surplus if it is truly going to be sustainable. This surplus must be returned to the system for the design to work. The Earth and People are the recipients of the surplus… this is why it is sustainable!

And that is it. Earth Care. People Care. Return of Surplus.

It is that basic, but it is not always simple. When we are managing our land and communities in a way that is environmentally sound (Earth Care), we are producing for our family and community in a healthy way and encouraging others to do the same (People Care). When we are cycling the excess energy back into the system (Return of Surplus), then we are truly sustainable, and then we are practicing Permaculture.


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Photo References:

  • http://permacultureprinciples.com/images/ethical_principles_image2.gif
  • http://www.terminartors.com/files/artworks/1/3/7/13713/Brueghel_Jan_the_Elder-Garden_of_Eden.jpg
  • http://psyc.queensu.ca/~psyc382/rockgold.jpg
  • http://agweb.okstate.edu/fourh/aitc/images/agart/4elementslge.jpg