Permaculture Ethics

Designing A Custom Native Plant List

The first Permaculture Ethic is Earth Care. This can be realized in many different ways depending on appropriate context. Personally, as my family is preparing for our move to the farm, I have been in massive planning mode. For us, one aspect of planning for Earth Care will be the planting of native plants. There are a number of reasons for planting native plants including:

  • Restoring a native ecosystem
  • Increasing wildlife habitat
  • Increasing wildlife food sources
  • Pollen and nectar source for native pollinators
  • Pollen and nectar source for beneficial insects
  • Pollen and nectar source for honeybees
  • Ancillary forage source for domestic animals on the farm
  • Sources of herbal/plant-derived medicinals

Again, there are a number of things to consider when compiling a list like this, and I thought I would share how I built my list. I wanted plants that are:

  • Native. These are plants that should, typically, be designed/well-suited for my climate and grow the best. Of course, this is not always true with how the land has been used/abused/cleared.
  • Commercially Available. Yes, it is possible for me to find wild specimens and collect seed, divide, etc. But this is significantly less practical right now. I may do this in the future, but for now I will need to purchase these plants. Ideally, I will be able to get seed for these plants.
  • Attract Beneficial Insects, Pollinators, and Honeybees. This was described above, but it is important enough to reiterate. These plants provide food sources for birds, bats, native bees, bumble bees, parasitic wasps, predatory wasps, predatory insects, etc. All these animals greatly reduce pest damage (and many diseases by reducing the pests that introduce the diseases) and increase pollination rates. This equates to higher yields with less damage. It also increases general biodiversity with its many known and unknown benefits.
  • Non-Toxic… mostly. When I started looking through all the plants that met the above criteria, I decided to eliminate certain plants that were known to be highly toxic to people or livestock. Plants like White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima var. altissima), Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberose), and Green-Headed Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata), to name but three, attract beneficial insects, but can also kill a cow or a child. That is not compatible for us. There are a number of plants I did chose to keep that are potentially toxic to horses, but since we don’t plan on keeping horses, these plants fit within our context. In addition, there are other plants, Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) is one example, that is known to have toxins in pretty much all parts but the fruit; however, the birds and I enjoy the fruits so much that I thought I would keep this one on my list. Finally, I kept a number of plants that have “some reports of toxicity”. This may mean that if a plant or person eats too much of it, they can get sick, so keeping a wide variety of plants mitigates this risk. I believe that many plants are harmful if eaten in excess, but a cow taking a nibble once in a while may have a health benefit – the plant may be slightly anti-parasitic, or it may contain certain trace nutrients an animal needs in very small quantity. I do know that these plants existed with grazing and browsing animals for a long time before we got rid of them, so it stands to reason that if a plant is not deadly toxic in small amounts, it likely deserves a place on a regenerative farm.
  • Non-Invasive. This can be a little controversial. I will likely be adding some plants to my landscape that some people would not because of a “risk of invasiveness”. I believe many “invasive plants” are only invasive because we have degraded the land so much that these plants are the only ones able to grow on it anymore. If we are dealing with healthy soils and pastures and forests, then many (NOT ALL) of these invasive plants are not a problem. With that said, I will not actively be planting Ironweed (Vernonia spp.) or Trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans).
  • Finally, and this is more of an organizational method, I wanted a variety of plants that would flower throughout as much of the year as possible. You will see below how this works.

Let me know walk you through how I created a list of Native Plants for a Tennessee Permaculture Family Farm. How do you start?

You may happen to live in an area where someone has already created a seed mix. Peaceful Valley has a seed blend for California called the Good Bug Blend. For the rest of us, we need to make our own list and obtain our own seeds.

One great resource for lists of North American native plants that attract pollinators is the Xerces Society. Their site has a List of Regional Bee-Friendly Plants. Find your area and start a spreadsheet or list of plants for your area.

Another amazing resource (if you live in the USA or Canada) is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center of The University of Texas at Austin. They have an extensive listing of native plants that are commercially available. There is a listing for each plant that also provides its blooming time. I recommend you find your state or province on their Collections Page. Add this list to your master list.

Next, I evaluated each species for invasiveness and for toxicity to humans and livestock. I utilized a number of sites for this including the NRCS Plant Factsheets, the Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health, and Cornell University’s Plants Poisonous to Livestock.

Using the above resources, I created a list of plants that met my criteria (yours will probably be different). I then made a table where I highlighted the months when the plant blooms. Next, I rearranged the table so that the plants were listed in order of bloom time. In addition, I left a blank for additional notes, and I color-coded the plant name based on its growth habit (Vine, Herbaceous, Shrub, or Tree).

This is the result:

Microsoft Word - Design Your Own Good Bug Blend - 4.docx

Microsoft Word - Design Your Own Good Bug Blend - 4.docx

Microsoft Word - Design Your Own Good Bug Blend - 4.docx

 

Click to download a PDF of this document: Native Plants for a Tennessee Permaculture Family Farm

I hope this article provides you with some tools and motivation to produce a custom native plant list. While it takes a bit of research and time, this list will be a reference for your land forever. To me, that is time well spent!

 


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Photo References:

  • https://kimsmithdesigns.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/cornus-florida-rubra.jpg

 

Who is in charge of Permaculture?

People often wonder who is in charge of the Permaculture movement. In the past few months, I have read a number of comments, emails, and threads on boards where people are discussing, or asking about, who is really in charge of this whole thing. I believe that there are a lot of people who think Permaculture is run by a central person, organization, or entity. That is just not the case.

There are some prominent organizations in the Permaculture world, but there is not a central organization. Permaculture is not a franchise. These organization are trying to organize and lead, but they have no authority over anyone. I support almost all of these organizations, because their goals falls in line with the Prime Directive and Ethics of Permaculture. Unfortunately, some of these organizations don’t always get along, and some struggles for power have developed. I was disheartened to read an email from a reader in another country. He explained how there were two “leading Permaculture organizations” in his country, and they have been fighting and waging a war of words against each other. I think this is an example of people who have lost sight of what Permaculture is all about. Fortunately, this is a pretty rare occurence.

There are also a number of primary “leaders” in the Permaculture world. But again, they are not making decisions that hold any authority over anyone else. Almost all of these leaders are doing their best to research, teach, and implement Permaculture as much as possible. I am so very thankful for their efforts.

I should add that Bill Mollison requested that anyone who uses the word Permaculture to market themselves should take a 72-hour course based on his lesson plan. The course could be taught by anyone who completed a similar course themselves. Bill Mollison did not want royalites or payment in any form for this. There is no binding law to this. It is what I call an ethical copyright. By and large, this has been followed everywhere around the world.

Now, to me, asking who is in charge of Permaculture is like asking who is in charge of Physics. Permaculture is a science. Granted it is different than many other sciences, because it is an ethical science. However, being a field of study, it is not going to have a person or organization “in charge”. I would say that Galileo Galilei, Sir Isaac Newton, Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman, Albert Einstein were all leaders in the field of Physics, but they were not in charge. Their words carried a lot of weight. Their opinions mattered (no pun intended) a lot. They had a lot of influence in the world. But they were not in charge and could not dictate to anyone.

The same is true in Permaculture. We have some foundational leaders (Mollison and Holmgren). We have some amazing teachers and practitioners (Lawton, Hemenway, Wheaton, Doherty, and more). We have many others who are doing their own thing, and we or they call it Permaculture (Holzer, Salatin, Savory, and more). But none of these people are able to tell anyone else what to do. Well, they can, but it doesn’t have to be done. It may be a good idea to listen to them, but they hold no power of anyone else.

Just like in Physics or Biology or Mathematics or Music or any other field of study, anyone and everyone has the ability to be a leader. Anyone can make a new discovery that can sweep the world. Anyone can study it and practice it. Anyone can create an organization of like-minded people to promote that field of study. It is open to anyone. Permaculture is no different.

So, who is in charge of Permaculture? No one and everyone!

Whos_in_Charge03

 

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The Problem with Intervention

Humans want to intervene. It is in our nature. We see a problem, real or imagined, and we want to help. There are many perversions of this tendancy (e.g. “if I help out, I’ll be making myself look really good…”), but deep down, most people are trying to do the right thing. But any intervention has consequences. Often, that is exactly why we are intervening. If we see a child fall in a lake, we intervene so that the child may live. That is a good thing. If we are placing ourselves at risk, then it is a heroic action as well.

I intervene as a physician on a daily basis. Personally, I actively try not to intervene as much as possible. The human body is amazingly adapted to heal itself, but unfortunately, as a whole and not considering accidental injury, we humans make so many unhealthy choices and live such unhealthy lives, that we are severely limiting our body’s chances of healing itself. Sometimes I end up having to choose the lesser of two evils in deciding how to manage a medical problem. That is not by my choice. It is the patient who ultimately decides to do, or not do, something that will improve their health. Their history of action, or inaction, is often what brings them to my office. The course of action has consequences. Hopefully there are only good consequences, but sometimes there are negative consequences. And sometimes, there are consequences we never even considered. This is what I want to delve more into today. Let me start with a few examples:

Example 1: C-sections
I have delivered my share of babies (actually, the mother delivered the baby. I was just there to catch!), and I have assisted in many cesarean section deliveries. Most of these C-section deliveries were needed… the baby was doing very poorly, the mother had medical problems and she could not have a vaginal delivery, the mother was in labor for days (literally) and could push no more, the baby was too big to fit through the birth canal… these are all legitimate reasons. Yes, there are way too many c-sections in general. I saw one report which stated that most unplanned C-sections are done on Fridays, indicating that the doctor didn’t want to ruin their weekend (I am still trying to verify this). Many physicians would rather deliver a healthy baby via c-section than risk the chance of something really bad happening to the baby or mother. This may be out of fear for their patients or fear of lawsuits, but the result is the same. Additionally, we have also lost many of the skilled midwives who would/could spend hours and hours with one patient for a vaginal delivery; many of the patients who could potentially have delivered with a midwife years ago now have c-sections. When I lived in Turkey, one Turkish obstetrician told me that about 80% of insured women have c-sections; it was a sign of status (there were a few other reasons that I will not get into today). That is incredible.

What is the unintended consequence of increased C-section rates?
If we would go back 100 years only, many of these mothers and babies would have died. My wife is one of these women (that is my daughter in the photo above!). She has a narrow birth canal, and our big-headed babies are just not going to be delivered without a C-section. Due to the advancement of obstetrics and surgery, the doctors were able to intervene and save the life of my wife and our children. But the result is that my daughters are much more likely to need a C-section if and when they have a baby of their own, and my sons are more likely to have daughters that will have narrow birth canals and require C-sections as well. All my children are more likely to have children with big heads! While I am insurmountably thankful for my wife and children’s health and well-being, I have to acknowledge that fact that we have bypassed natural selection. We cheated, so to speak. The more people do this, the more dependant humans, as a whole, will become on C-sections. While it is unlikely that women will ever stop having vaginal deliveries, I firmly believe that the percentage of childen born via cesarean section is going to steadily increase as time goes on.

 

HIV virus in a scanning electron microscopy image.

HIV virus in a scanning electron microscopy image.

Example 2: HIV treatment
I spent a month working in Nigeria at a free HIV mission hospital a number of years ago. I was able to meet an amazing group of people who are saving and changing lives on a daily basis, and for a short time, I was a part of that. I would meet someone on almost a daily basis who would tell me (usually through a Hausa-English translator) how they had wasted away and were days from death. Then the providers at this clinic gave medications that brought the patient back from the brink. Now these patients were living on “borrowed time”. Anyone who has been afflicted with this terrible disease knows that HIV has no qualms about infecting “good” people, or “innocent” people, or children. It is a disease, a fatal one at that. Treating HIV-positive patients is a good thing. Period. Don’t misunderstand my next paragraph. I think we should continue to treat HIV-positive patients, and we should never stop looking for a cure.

What is the unintended consequence of treating HIV-positive patients?
When a person has HIV, they are contagious. They can be careful. They can be “safe”. But the fact remains, they have the ability to spread this disease to another person. Despite what is occasionally reported in the media, this is almost never a malicious act. It is a sad reality. Before medications were invented to treat HIV, an infected patient had a much shorter life expectancy. HIV does not kill as fast as the flu and rarely as fast as most cancers, but the result is a significantly shorter life. But with modern HIV medications, an HIV-positive patient has the ability to live a drastically longer life. These medicines do decrease their contagiousness, but it doesn’t bring it down to zero. The result is that an HIV-positive person now has an increased ability to spread the disease, potentially for decades more than they would have if these medicines were not available. Again, this doesn’t mean we should not treat these patients, but it is an example of an intervention having an unforseen consequence.

 

American Chestnut Trees before the blight and government intervention.

American Chestnut Trees before the blight and government intervention.

Example 3: Chestnut blight
Before 1900, there were an estimated four billion Chestnut trees in North America. Some of these trees were over 100 feet (30 meters) tall and over 10 feet (3 meters) in diameter! Then a fungus arrived from Asia dubbed Chestnut Blight, Cryphonectria parasitica. The Asian Chestnut trees were able to live with the fungus, but the American trees were not. The U.S. acted as quickly as it could to try and eradicate the disease, but all attempts failed. Within 40 years the Chestnut population was devastated.

What was the unintended consequence of trying to eradicate Chestnut Blight?
Many people are unaware that in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease, millions and millions of uninfected trees were chopped down. Once one Chestnut tree in one area was found to have blight, all the surrounding trees were logged. There is a decent chance that one or more of these millions of healthy trees had a natural ability to live with the blight, i.e. they were naturally immune. But we chopped them all down, so we will never know. In addition, these trees (healthy and infected) were sawn into lumber and shipped all over the country spreading the disease even faster.

I’ll also add that the government did not learn their lesson. Not too long ago (January 2000), South Florida was introduced (again!) to Citrus Canker, a bacteria (Xanthomonas axonopodis) which significantly weakens citrus trees and greatly reduces fruit production. This scared the orange industry in Florida. The decision was made to eradicate all citrus trees within a certain distance of an infected tree. An untold number of citrus trees were lost due to this mandate, including the ones in my parent’s backyard… as a child, I probably spent the cumulative equivalent of well over a month straight in those orange, grapefruit, and tangelo trees, and now they are gone. Six years after the eradication campaign began, with no surprise to any student of history, the Florida Department of Agriculture deemed the eradication effort infeasible.

 

Artificial insemination of a virgin queen honeybee... not quite a natural process.

Artificial insemination of a virgin queen honeybee… not quite a natural process.

Example 4: Modern Bee Husbandry
Honeybees are amazing creatures. I can’t wait to get my first hive. Now, if I followed the modern commercial method, this is what I woud do (please excuse my generalities as I have never managed a commercial honey company). I would purchase all my hives and equipment first. I would receive my queens and initial bees via mail for each hive. The queens would already be mated and ready to lay eggs. Once the hives were established, I would move the hives to an area that had a lot of flowers blooming, like an apple orchard. Then, when the apple flowering started to slow down, I would load up the hives, and drive to another location of flowering. I would do this through the flowering season, moving many times all over the state and sometimes the country. At the end of the season, and maybe even during the season, I would take out some of the honey laden combs. The caps would be removed from the combs, and they would be spun to extract all the honey. The empty combs would be placed back in the hive. During the colder months, the bees would go into hibernation back at my base of operations. If I thought I took too much honey from them, or even as a matter of policy, I would provide some sugar water or fondant or high-fructose corn syrup for them to make it through the Winter. During the growing season, if one hive was not doing very well, I would combine it with another hive that was not doing to well, resulting in one stronger bee colony. I would probably replace my queens every year. I would get a lot of honey. I would do a lot of work.

What is the unintended consequence of raising honeybees in the modern method?
The modern method of beekeeping is far removed from how honeybees normally live. Commercially, a young, virgin queen bee is artificially inseminated with sperm from a number of crushed (i.e. killed) male bees, known as drones. In nature, a virgin queen would go on a mating flight; only the quickest drones would be able to mate with the queen – we’ve have a loss of optimal genetics with this method. Next, commercial bees are moved all over the place. In nature, bees don’t travel over the country. They stay in one spot, and occasionally the hive splits (swarms), but they really don’t travel very far.  By moving all over the place, we’ve lost adaptations to local conditions with this method. In addition, commercial bees are “fed” from the same type of flower for weeks at a time. In nature, bees forage from a wide variety of ever changing plants – we’ve probably lost nutrition quality for the bees with this method. Also, commercial bees are exposed to all the chemicals sprayed on the fields they have been moved to – there is growing evidence that some of these chemicals are causing colony colapse disorder. Modern-raised bees use combs that have been used over and over again for years – the wax accumulates toxins and pests and disease with this method. Modern-raised bees are robbed of their high-quality honey and given unhealthy alternatives – these can cause the bees to become sick, and they also likely result in a less healthy colony. Commercial colonies are combined when they are not doing well. In nature, if a colony is not doing well, it dies. There is probably a good reason for this; maybe they are infected or sick or not good foragers or any other number of problems. By combining weak colonies, we are propping up and propagating weak colonies resulting in weaker bees for the future. Modern-raised colonies are requeened every season. In nature, colonies requeen from within, when needed. Requeening the colony results in additional loss of adaptation to local conditions.

 

In conclusion, I want to say that I know some intervention is needed. Whenever we develop a Permaculture site, intervention is required. But we need to open our eyes to the bigger picture. We need to understand that there are consequences to our actions. Sometimes the consequences are good. Sometimes they are bad. If we follow the Ethics of Permaculture, and if we use small and slow solutions when possible, we will greatly reduce the negative impact of our interventions.

 

 

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Photo References:

  • http://www.ciber.science.uwa.edu.au/Tour/aitransfer.jpg
  • http://i1-news.softpedia-static.com/images/news2/Researchers-Claim-the-Discovery-of-a-Possible-Cure-for-HIV-2.jpg
  • http://www.ourstate.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/The-American-Chestnut-Tree.jpg

 

My Grand Experiment… The Permaculture Diet (Part 1)

The Permaculture Diet (Part 1): How it started. An Ethical Diet. Health Benefits. Community.

This started as a bit of a tongue-in-cheek response to being called “Dr. Permaculture” for the hundredth time. Every celebrity doctor has a diet plan, I thought, so why not embrace my new moniker and create a diet program to go along with it! I posted it on Facebook about a month ago (see image above). Well, what started as a joke has been marinating in my mind over the last few weeks. I realized that when you apply the Ethics of Permaculture to anything, even in jest, the result is going to be something true and maybe even profound.

As an experiment, I decided I would try following my own diet plan for one week. I am on day number 4, and I have had numerous thoughts and revelations about the Permaculture Diet so far. But first, let me start with some general observations…

Ethical Diet
The Permaculture Diet is an Ethical Diet. It does not specify what foods to eat, but rather guides our decisions on selecting the source of our food. By applying the Ethics of Permaculture (Earth Care, People Care, and Return of the Surplus) to our decisions on food, we can lay the groundwork for an ethical diet plan.

For more information on the Ethics of Permaculture, please read my articles here:
Permaculture EthicsThe Third Ethic… it’s time to identify the mutationIdentify the Permaculture Mutation (Part 2)

There are a number of ethical diets in the world today, but from what I can ascertain, they all deal with religion. There are a number of semi-ethical diets that people embrace. Eating “organic” or vegetarian or vegan and even fruitarian are a few examples. I call these semi-ethical, because they are often attempting to counter what is wrong with our modern diet or with modern agriculture. In my opinion, a true ethical diet is one that starts off with neutrality to eating, develops ethical guidelines, then identifies how our eating is influenced by these ethics. With that strict definition, I think only religious diet regulations would fall into this category.

Eating “certified organic” food also may do little to promote sustainability. There are USDA Certified Organic farms that are thousands of acres. While these megafarms are not using chemicals that harm the environment, they are far from sustainable. It is healthier for the land and produces better food, but we should be clear that organic farming is not necessarily ethical just by sheer virtue of being “organic”.

Eating vegetarian also may do little to promote sustainability. One can eat completely vegetarian or vegan and only consume food produced in a very environmentally poor, chemically sprayed, non-sustainable manner. This may be ethical to the animals, if that is your moral world-view, but it is not ethical to the Earth.

So in reality, a style of eating is not alway ethical. There must be something deeper that guides it. What we have with the Permaculture Diet is a set of ethics that are neutral to eating. These ethics were not created by me, but I firmly endorse them. The ethics are a way toward true sustainability.

Health Benefits
By its nature, an ethical diet does not guarantee health. It is not a prescription for eating or not eating any one particular food. This is important to keep this in mind, and this is true with almost any diet program. Vegetarians can eat sugar and white potatoes all day long and be very unhealthy while never breaking the vegetarian rules. While I have never seen it this extreme, I have seen a number of very unhealthy vegetarians (and to be honest, a lot more unhealthy non-vegetarians). They are very devout in their beliefs, but their health is failing. It takes more than just ethics to be healthy.

Well then, can an ethical diet have health benefits? Let’s examine this. Step One of the Permaculture Diet is: Produce all your own food in a way that cares for the Earth and for People. The first part, “Produce your own food” has many health benefits. When we produce our own food, we have a vested interest in the quality of that food. We care more about it. We are more mindful, more careful, and more intentional. We are more likely to harvest food at its peak and consume it before it loses nutritional quality sitting in a boat, plane, or truck, or on a grocers shelf. We are going to pay more attention to soil quality, which will provide more nutrient dense food. We require less food when it is nutrient dense (as opposed to still feeling hungry when we consume many calories of nutrient-poor food) which means less total calorie consumption. When we are producing our own food, we are outside, we are exercising, we are in nature. All of these things are also correlated with good health.

The second part, “in a way that cares for the Earth and for People” also has health benefits. Again, if we are being mindful of people, we are going to be significantly less inclined to douse the food in chemicals before we eat it. If we are being mindful of the Earth, we are not going to be destroying ecosystems to build fields of monocropped species. We will build the soil. We will build ecosystems. We will build systems that moderate water instead of promote flood and drought cycles. When we care for the Earth in a truly sustainable manner, we will be caring for People at the same time. These two concepts are synergistic, not oppositional, to each other. When we are producing food in this manner, it is healthier for us.  When we live in a healthy environment, we are healthier as well.

Step Two of the Permaculture Diet is: If you cannot complete Step One, then get to know the people who produce all your food, and make sure they are caring for the Earth and for People. By supporting these producers, we are promoting all the benefits as outlined above for ourselves as well as the producer and others who purchase from them. We are helping to build healthier communities. Healthier communities will promote and maintain healthier individuals.

Step Three of the Permaculture Diet is: If you cannot complete Steps One and Two, then don’t eat. This step serves two functions. The first is fasting. Fasting has traditionally been a religious exercise, and while not all that enjoyable at first, fasting has numerous health benefits. We do know that fasting is not a healthy way to lose weight, but there are a number of studies that suggest fasting can increase lifespan, aid in detoxifying the body (protects/repair the liver and assists with filtration), improve chronic diseases, and may reduce inappropriate inflammatory and immune responses in our body. There are also a number of other claims made about fasting which have not yet been validated by modern science. Obviously, if a person is pregnant, malnourished, or very sick, they should not fast. The second function of this step is motivation. If we are dedicated to following this plan, then skipping a few meals is a pretty good motivation to keep gardening and/or to find a person producing ethical food.

Community
Again, Step Two of the Permaculture Diet is: If you cannot complete Step One, then get to know the people who produce all your food, and make sure they are caring for the Earth and for People. By supporting ethical producers, we are enabling that producer to keep producing. This is an important thing to understand. While many of us would like to be completely self-sufficient, it is almost impossible to do so. We need others in many ways, but especially for our food. Every time we eat, we are make a choice of who to support. I see so much inconsistency in people who are against genetically modified foods or monoculture agriculture systems or “big ag”, but they continue to eat breads and cereals which support these systems. If we chose to support only those people who are producing food in an ethical manner, then we are returning our surplus back into the sustainable systems (the Third Ethic of Permaculture), and this will keep the cycle going. It will make it easier for other motivated food producers to make a living producing food in this ethical manner. When we choose to give our money to those who are not-sustainable, we are delaying that change, we are promoting the status-quo.

Permaculture’s originally meaning was for Permanent Agriculture, but it quickly grew to include Permanent Culture. By supporting those who are producing ethical food, we are building community, we are building permanent culture. We are building sustainability.

 

(check back soon for The Permaculture Diet, Part 2: The diet in practice)

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Permaculture is an Ethical Design Science

Through the years it took to become a physician, I heard the maxim, “First, do no harm” repeated so often that it almost became a mantra in my head as I walked along the hospital halls at night. This phrase is so integrated into our medical education that it is impossible not to practice medicine through the lens of this ethic. In fact, it is so atypical for a physician to disregard this underlying principle. So much so, that when a physician intentionally inflicts harm, it becomes headline news. I am going to set aside the arguments that “modern” medicine inflicts harm through its goal of destroying disease instead of facilitating health… that is a deep discussion and not one for this site at this time. Regardless of your opinions on modern medicine, the hearts of most physicians, and mine without a doubt, is to do no harm. To be honest, there have been many nights I have been unable to sleep due to worry I may have been unable to prevent harm. I cannot fathom how I would handle being the one responsible for truly causing harm. It is a tough road at times, but well worth it in so many aspects. I pity the physicians who have become too jaded or cynical with humanity or the “system” with which we have to work. They have lost sight of the privilege and honor we have to serve as physicians.

It is with this same mindset that I approach Permaculture. We have sick lands and diseased waters. We have been given the privilege and honor to bring our environment back to health. And, as with medicine, we have an ethos to guide us… the three Ethics of Permaculture. I have stated in the past that Permaculture is a design science, but what truly sets it in a very limited class is that it is an ethical science. I believe medicine alone is the only other field of study that puts an ethical framework in place before one starts their education and training.

There are many techniques and skills one can be taught to function as a physician, but without the guiding ethic of, “First, do no harm”, that person is a very significant risk to others as well as themselves. The same follows with Permaculture. There are many amazing techniques and skills one may implement onto a landscape or into a community, but without the guiding ethics of “Earth Care”, “People Care”, and “Return of Surplus”, that person is dangerous to the Earth, to other people, and to themselves.

It is vital for us to understand the importance of what we are doing when we are practicing Permaculture. We are practicing medicine on the Earth and on our communities. We may be Primary Care Permaculturists, and at times we may be Earth Surgeons, but we are trying to heal the land and our culture, and it is indeed a privilege and honor to participate… and it must start with ethics.

To read more about the Ethics of Permaculture, read these articles:

 

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The Third Ethic… it’s time to identify the mutation

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.”

Wow!

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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Photo References:

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Permaculture Ethics

(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

EarthCare_Eden

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

DoUntoOthers

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

4Elements

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