Mutations in nature can be good, they can be neutral, or they can be harmful. Any idea or philosophy or science can also mutate as time and people influence it. Oftentimes, these mutations are truly beneficial for the maturation of that science or philosophy, and other times these mutations can be very detrimental to its credibility and acceptance.

I believe there are two mutations that have occured in Permaculture that have been detrimental to its credibility and acceptance in the world. These mutations have kept Permaculture from becoming more mainstream. It is only because of the integrity and grandeur of the design science we call Permaculture that it has still has gained such international recognition.

So what are these two mutations? The first I will save for my next article. The second is that years ago people bastardized the Third Ethic of Permaculture. I wrote an article outlining all three ethics in this previous article, but I only touched on this topic. I think I was trying to be more non-confrontational at that time, but a recent experience has fired me up a bit more.

The three Permaculture Ethics are:

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

As I explained in my previous article, the original third ethic was “Set Limits to Population and Consumption”. But that is not what it is anymore. The Third Ethic is now “Return of Surplus”.

People often wonder a few things when they hear this. Who decided to change it? Why did they change it? And did they have the “authority” to change it?

Let’s start with a little history. Bill Mollison and his graduate student, David Holmgren, are named as the co-originators of Permaculture. They published the first book, Permaculture One, in 1978. I truly believe that Holmgren played a very significant role in the origination of Permaculture. However, after the initial creation and huge success of the book, Holmgren sort of disappeared from the international world of Permaculture. He states that he wanted to put these concepts into practice, and he did that for the next decade mainly on his mother’s property and then on his own. From online resources (granted this may not be accurate), David didn’t start formally teaching Permaculture until 1991. During this time, Bill Mollison had travelled the world many times over teaching everyone he could about Permaculture. He became the world leader of the movement. During this time, Bill Mollison founded the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia (PRI). PRI has been the home of Permaculture ever since, and it is truly the hub (or “mothership” as some have called it) for the worldwide teaching of Permaculture.

With all that said, it was PRI who changed the third ethic to Return of Surplus. To be honest, I don’t know when this official change occurred, but these are the three ethics that have been taught for years by PRI. Geoff Lawton now runs PRI, and some may try to say that it is Geoff Lawton who changed it. However, Bill and Geoff taught this information together many times, so it was not that Geoff changed Bill’s original idea.

In my opinion, this ethic was refined or clarified… not really changed.

I believe this ethic was restated as Return of Surplus, because so many people started to use this ethic as a tool to push their own social agendas and political ideals. I also believe that as the science of Permaculture matured, and it is still a relatively new science in the grand scope, a refining of the core ethics may have been needed. This is a common practice in science. A concept or “theory” needs to be refined as more information is discovered and as more applications of that science occurs.

In 2002, David Holmgren published Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability. In this book, Holmgren restates the third ethic as Fair Share: Set Limits and Redistribute Surplus. This is a very interesting interpretation of the third ethic. The first part, “Fair Share”, has been used by Geoff Lawton to help describe the third ethic (Return of Surplus). I have said before that “Fair Share” is nice because it rhymes with the other two ethics (Earth Care, People Care), but it is rather vague on its own. “Set Limits” sounds a lot like the original text of the third ethic (Set Limits to Population and Consumption). But “Redistribute Surplus” has a lot of connotations, and depending on your personal worldview, it can mean a couple of things.

If you are of the same mindset as Bill and Geoff at PRI, then this can easily mean “Return of Surplus”, i.e. redistribute the surplus energy back into the systems that care for the Earth and care for People. However, if you are a person with a more socialist or communist worldview, then it can easily mean, “if you make more than you need, then you should give it away to other people… including those who have done nothing to earn it”. Whether this is what Holmgren meant or not… I don’t know. I honestly doubt it, but it is still out there as a competing Third Principle of Permaculture.

There is nothing wrong with being altruistic. In fact, I encourage it. I also think the idea of communisim is rather nice, but time and time again history has proven it to be unsustainable.  Unfortunately, the ideology behind this mutated iteration of the Third Ethic often gets pushed on new students. They are taught that if they really want to practice Permaculture the “way it was designed”, then they should live in a commune, own nothing, and give away all the things they produce. If you produce apples, then you can eat them or sell some of them at a Farmer’s Market to cover your rent, but the rest should be given away. And if you produce something like a book, then it should be given away for free, this is true of music and teaching as well.

This is the concept that has pervaded Permaculture for too long. This, I believe, is a big reason why Permaculture has not spread more through the world. Who wants to put all the work and effort, energy and resources into a project just to have a bunch of free loaders demand rights to the fruits of your labor? How will a person be able to feed their family and pay the bills if everything they work for is given away for free?

Here is an example I came across and why this article was written:

Geoff Lawton recently released an online Permaculture Design Course which I am currently taking and very excited about. It was not cheap, but it is less expensive than many live courses. It is half the price of the courses Geoff Lawton teaches in-person, and you don’t have to pay airfare to fly to Australia. In an online message board, one person stated with righteous indignation, “If Geoff was truly practicing Permaculture and adhering to Permaculture Ethics, then he would give this course away for free.”


Do I blame this person? Yeah, sort of. But I also blame the rest of the Permaculture practitioners who are either flat out promoting this ideology or are passively ignoring it. Permaculture is not about socialism. It is not about living in a commune. It is not about working for free. It is a science. It is about sustainability. These people do not understand that it is not sustainable to give everything away. They do not understand that making a good and decent living is not anti-Permaculture.

Until we can sever the idea of Permaculture being a new expression of socialism or communism, then we will not break into the mainstream. It is time we cull the mutated Third Ethic, and take Permaculture to the masses!

Next time, I will tackle my other reason Permaculture is not more mainstream. Stay tuned!


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