Permaculture’s core is rooted in the philosophy’s adherence to three equal ethics. The first two, Earth Care and People Care, have been widely accepted by the community for what they are – straight-forward and logical. The third ethic, however, has been the subject of some debate among permaculture practitioners for many years.

In fact, the ongoing discussion around the various interpretations of this third ethic can offer some explanation as to why the philosophy of permaculture hasn’t become a more mainstream concept – despite the fact that it has been embraced by communities and practitioners all around the world.

Limits and Fairness

Initially, the third ethic was introduced as “Setting Limits to Population and Consumption,” but has been expressed in a wide variety of different ways since then: “Fair Share,” “Limiting Resource Use and Population,” “Redistribute Surplus,” and “Living within Limits.” While there is obviously quite an overlap between these expressions, the idea that the third ethic is somewhat open to interpretation leaves a bit of a question mark as far as the application of these principles in permaculture design.

The meaning behind the third ethic, according to the Permaculture Designers Manual written by Bill Mollison, is the theory that “by governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the above principles,” referring to the previous two ethics of permaculture. However, when the phrase is abbreviated to just the idea of “setting limits to population,” it can lead to misunderstandings – particularly by campaigners for social justice, who have raised concerns surrounding the overtones of genocide and eugenics that could be read into this phrasing.

In the 1980s, Danish permaculture pioneer Tony Andersen rephrased the third ethic as “Fair Share,” in an effort to prevent any discussion about these controversial overtones. But while this simple phrasing sounds pleasant when combined with the other two ethics, it leaves out one of the main ideas behind this third ethic – the concept of designing within limits.

Population vs. Resource Use

Ecologists define “carrying capacity” as the population size that an environment can sustain over a period of time, taking into account the various resources available within that environment. When the amount of resources required by a species is equal to the amount of resources available, carrying capacity is reached. If the population continues to increase and the amount of resources doesn’t, nature corrects the imbalance by ensuring that death rates rise above birth rates – dropping the population back below carrying capacity.

This is the challenge presented by permaculture’s third ethic – living within limits, to keep our global population and resource use under carrying capacity. As our population rises, there will obviously be fewer resources available to each individual. Permaculture attempts to use sustainable design to determine an average resource use that can be maintained over a long period of time, which is part of the theory behind this controversial third ethic.

As global food shortages loom as a result of climate change’s negative impact on crop yields, the idea of carrying capacity and living within limits becomes even more necessary. The biggest problem our planet faces, however, isn’t necessarily an increasing population in less-developed countries – rather, it’s the over-consumption happening by western populations that contributes the most to our unbalanced use of resources.

This third ethic tries to address this issue, confronting one of the ugliest parts of human nature: greed. It’s this greed that drives us to accumulate resources far beyond what we could ever use – even as others struggle to provide enough for themselves or their families. Not only is this wrong, it’s unsustainable in the long term.

Permaculture and Socialism

Part of this third ethic means understanding that permaculture includes the idea that everybody’s basic needs should be met – encouraging fairness not just among humans, but also between humanity and other species. But even this interpretation is subject to an individual’s worldview. People with more socialist or communist leanings could take this idea to mean that “if you make more than you need, you should give it to others – including those who have done nothing to earn it.”

While altruism is certainly to be encouraged, history has shown that the governing concepts of socialism and communism have been unsustainable. The iteration of this ethic as one of the driving principles of permaculture can partly account for why the philosophy has not been more widely embraced – it promotes the thinking that in order to practice permaculture the way Mollison and co-founder David Holmgren intended, they must give away all their belongings and live on a commune with other permaculturists.

This idea has even been taken one step further, theorizing that any of the surplus produced through permaculture design should be given away – including knowledge. Rather than accepting payments for teaching, consulting, or writing, this information should be shared free of charge. It’s a nice idea, but it’s hard to convince people to put their energy and resources into a project where the rewards will be shared with people who haven’t done anything to earn them.

Permaculture isn’t socialism. Practitioners aren’t required to live on a commune, working for free and giving away their excess. Permaculture doesn’t preclude you from earning a decent living – in fact, permaculture can bring practitioners all kinds of benefits, including financial ones. But as long as this belief continues pervading mainstream society, it will be difficult for permaculturists to bring this science to the masses.

Moving Forward

Instead, this controversial third ethic should act as a guiding light to help individuals examine their own resource use more carefully – looking at reducing their consumption and addressing the social challenge of sharing not only surplus, but also labour and production. Permaculture is about community, about resiliency, and about sustainability.

More people are starting to embrace the concept “Return of Surplus” as an expression of the third ethic, which may be more in line with this ethic’s original meaning. Rather than creating waste, permaculturists are encouraged to return excess back to where it came from. This can apply in an environmental sense through practices like chop and drop or allowing over-ripened produce to decompose and fertilize the soil.

But the concept also applies to other aspects of permaculture, including your investment of time, labour, and resources. Returns on those investments, financial or otherwise, can be turned around and put back into your permaculture practice – ensuring sustainability and resilience.

When applied to permaculture practice, these ethics should be used to guide the kind of strategic planning that will help us work toward a future where we not only care for ourselves, but also for other human and non-human populations, and even for the earth itself.

3 thoughts on “The Controversial Third Ethic of Permaculture

  1. I was originally introduced to the 3rd ethic as “return of surplus”. I can make no logical arguments for any other meaning as return of surplus takes care of both the earth and it’s peoples. Fair share and redistribute surplus does neither. I eagerly share the fruits of my labor with my neighbors, but I often try to incorporate their children’s help when it planting and harvesting time as this teaches kids the fun of growing their own foods and introduces them to foods they would either not normally have access too or would not wish to try. Planting, watching grow and harvesting all adds to the anticipation of the bite and many times a pleasant reaction. I do not consider this fair share, nor redistribution, but rather I consider it people care.

    In fact I do not consider the fruits, vegetables, nuts, fiber, medicine, etc. surplus at all. These are yields, not surplus. Another tenant is “obtain a yield” while another is “produce no waste”.. The products produced and which we consume and use is the yield while the “waste” is the surplus. Examples of this include chop and drop (we did not remove the weeds from the garden, we returned those nutrients mined by the plant back to the soil), returning eggshells (another “waste byproduct”) back to the garden to return the calcium back to the soil. Return of surplus could even be building a hugelkultur mound out of excess trimmings we needed to remove to allow light and air to penetrate the canopy.

    Setting limits to population and consumption is something we must manage because we are managers of the land. In a natural system, mother nature limits population naturally by creating an ecosystem where only so many organisms can exist. There are natural predators and disease as well as only so much available resources such as food, water and shelter. In an artificial environment, such as a residential yard or a ranch, we must determine the limits of population or there will be nothing left to consume and pollution and erosion will reign. Let’s look at a chicken operation. Tyson produces 10 million birds or so on a small area by inputting food and water and crowding the birds into small cages or large barns. If a homesteader were to raise chickens, they would need to take into consideration the bird’s needs and then design a system where his amount of land can be beneficial to the chickens with minimal inputs and the birds would benefit the land by scratching, fertilizing and keeping pest populations down. There is a natural limit to the population in this instance because too many birds would inflict damage instead of rather than benefit.

    I could go on and on in support, but I will just say this. Fair share or redistribution of surplus is what got us into the mess we are in at the moment. If you were to come to my permaculture site and request (demand) I give you food, fiber or medicine for someone far away and that if I didn’t give it up I would be punished you have now harmed people. For why would I work so hard developing a system that rewards me and my family only to have it taken away. You have also harmed the recipient because they also will not work hard to develop a system that will feed them. Lastly you have harmed the earth because neither of us are building and managing sustainable systems that enrich soil life and you have to transport and store my “surplus” to the other individual so mining is being done that is also impacting the earth.

    So, there can be no rational argument for any of these ideologies except Return of Surplus.

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