Permaculture Design: Ecological Solutions to Planetary Problems

For the purposes of sorting out the issues our world currently faces and quelling the fires which threaten to consume us there is one system of ethics that seems particularly well suited. This system, developed from the synthesis of indigenous wisdom about Earth systems and modern best practices in the management of human populations is called Permaculture. Coined by Bill Mollison, the term permaculture is a combination of the words permanent and agriculture (or culture). However, it is an approach that involves much more than simply means of human provision: instead permaculture design attempts to view systems holistically, accounting for the needs (and outputs) of all elements within a system, rather than just the human element.

Adapted from David Holmgren’s Permaculture Ethics Diagram, accessed July 2019.

When utilizing permaculture design, we are motivated by 3 main ethics or guidelines. The first is to care for people: this is an acknowledgment that a design that does not adequately care for, provide for, or consider humans is inherently unsustainable (from a human perspective). The second ethic is to care for the Earth: in recognition that without our home planet, we have no system of provision on which to rely, and that we will ultimately fail without its support. Finally, permaculture mandates that we return the surplus generated by any designed system back to either the people or the Earth (natural system). This ethic teaches us to fairly share what we accumulate, a concession that endlessly stockpiling resources in a single location ultimately generates waste (at the very least in the form of opportunity cost, but usually also in the form of expired, decayed, or otherwise non-useful goods).

Based on these 3 ethics, Permaculture Design urges us to reexamine the relationships we maintain in our lives to better understand how the energy flowing those relationships could be more efficiently utilized for the benefit of the entire system. By way of example, let’s look at the relationship between urban trees and the human populations that surround them. A great deal of effort has been spent studying this coupling, and it’s been found that in communities that contain mature, well-managed trees, crime tends to be significantly lower than in areas where the trees are absent.

In this sense, we could say that Earth care is equivalent to people care: by doing the right thing for the planet (helping to bolster vegetative cover in areas where it is absent or lacking) we can also do the right things for our communities (by improving social and health outcomes).

Ecosystem services provided by urban trees.
“The True Cost of Urban Forest Pathogens – A Cost+Benefit Analysis of Dutch Elm Disease, Emerald Ash Borer and Historical Tree Canopy in Milkwaukee, Wisconsin” Richard Hauer, 2015. pp. 13

Other examples abound: even before the coining of the term ‘Permaculture’ people were organically working toward solutions in keeping with its ethics. Take this text, by J. Russel Smith. Originally published in 1929, this work outlines (in the style of its time) means by which humans could take real-life steps to profitably manage land for the provision of food, fuel, and other necessities, while at the same time regenerating and retaining soil. Of course, this work was published long before discussions about embodied energy or ecosystem services heated up (let alone environmental justice), yet it fits neatly into these discussions: trees provide a deeper range of ecosystem services than annual plants, and have stronger effects per unit area planted to them (i.e. an acre of oak trees captures more carbon annually than an acre planted to wheat).

The diagram shows a natural ecosystem, intensive cropland and cropland with restored ecosystem services. It shows that for natural ecosystems, infectious disease mediation, regional climate and air quality regulation, carbon sequestration, water quality regulation, water flow regulation, preserving habitats and biodiversity and forest production is high, but crop production is low. For intensive cropland, crop production is high but the other services are low. For cropland with restored ecosystem services, all services are high.
“Ecosystem Services in Agricultural Landscapes – A study on farming and farmers in South Africa and Sweden” Rebecka Malinga, 2016. pp. 11


We here at Grounded encourage you to think about the relationships that you foster: with plants, with animals, with the planet and its people. Consider the energies that flow through these relationships. If there are excesses (sunlight hitting bare soil around your favorite flower plant in your yard for example) how can you capture and redistribute that energy to create some benefit (perhaps your favorite flower plant could use a companion!)? We hope that you’ll find ways to care about one another, to care about the place we all share, and to do what you can to give back to the system that gave rise to you!

Remember that for the time being we live in a world on fire: strife between nations and neighbors, starvation and scarcity ever-increasing, all against a backdrop of wanton environmental destruction and degradation. As is often the case, those originally responsible for setting these events in motion are probably long since deceased, having bequeathed this turmoil to future generations.

In the face of the aforementioned calamities, however, there are many boons. Throughout human history, we have never experienced a greater moment of opportunity: never have we been more able to share our greatest insights, nor have we ever had the capacity to move the sheer volumes of material we’re now capable of shifting.

In conducting our lives, each of us (often unwittingly) wields significantly more planet-altering power than our parents or grandparents ever had the opportunity to touch. As evidence: the smartphone. Many of us own one (perhaps two, or three) of these devices. Each such device contains within it significant embodied energy, which represents the total energy required to produce the object (before it is operated or disposed of). Just about any technological item created today will contain more embodied energy than its historical analog, thanks to the incorporation of state-of-the-art materials, multi-nation production chains, and the requirement for more highly trained personnel to produce the item.

Not-to-mention that when you’re holding and utilizing your smartphone, it gives you significantly more influence over the larger world than your parents’ (or grandparents’) old rotary phone. You can order pizza, just as your predecessors could… you can also send email, text, and utilize the software for both admirable and nefarious purposes. You can start a fundraising campaign to preserve a piece of land that’s culturally significant to your community, or start a trash-talk campaign that squanders healthy debate and conversation.

So with all this power we wield every day, how do we decide how to exercise it? The systems of law that have governed humanity in all its various refugia are woefully ill-equipped to guide us through these days of explosive technological growth: each of these systems is reactionary and slow, requiring first an instance of “we think you shouldn’t do that” followed by a lengthy debate about exactly what “that” is and how to dissuade people from trying it again.

"The law sets minimum standards of behaviour while ethics sets maximum standards."
Adapted from Dr Eva Tsahuridu’s post “Why ethics and law are not the same thing”. Accessed July 2019

Especially in the case of technology, but also for other human behaviors, a better decision-making tool has already been devised: ethics! Rather than getting bogged down in specifics as laws tend to, ethics help to guide their users in a more general sense. Instead of defining only those behaviors which should not be done, ethics can also help guide us in the affirmative, telling us to “do the right thing” when we’re unsure.

From these permaculture principles, we understand that the “right” action should always involve consideration for ALL humans, the WHOLE planet, and it should result in the DISTRIBUTION of wealth, rather than its accumulation. Whenever you’re unsure of what to do, try to find ways to share with, consider, and care for others, and you’ll be acting in accordance with permaculture principles.


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