What are Ethics?
“Ethics is nothing else than reverence for life. “
– Albert Schweitzer
“Let me give you a definition of ethics: It is good to maintain and further life, it is bad to damage and destroy life.
– Albert Schweitzer
What better place to start than to define exactly what ethics are, then we can proceed to look at why we need them, and what they’re doing in an ecological design system such as Permaculture.
Ethics is one of those terms that people more-or-less know the meaning of, but can’t exactly define. In common usage, the word “ethics” is often incorrectly used interchangeable with the word “morality”, and though the two concepts are tied together, they are not the same…
So, let’s look at definitions of these two concepts to determine what they’re all about:
- Morals are principles of what is right and wrong
- Ethics are a codified or formalised system of morals of a particular person, group etc.
So, in a nutshell, Ethics can be defined as a set of formalised principles of what is right and wrong conduct.
Why do we need Ethics?
“Ethics is what you do in the dark when no one’s watching.”
– Rushworth Kidder (2003), the founder of the Institute of Global Ethics
Why are ethics important? Put simply, they keep people from engaging in conduct that is wrong, it’s as simple as that. Without ethical guidelines, an individual may do the wrong thing if they believe it will benefit them and that they can get away with it, without getting caught.
Systems of ethics can originate from various sources, such as from laws, religions, organisations, ideologies, personal values, societal values, etc.
The major issue that arises when discussing ethics is the question – what is morally right? While trying to define what is right and wrong seems to defy academics and philosophers, who tend to conclude that what is right or wrong shifts and changes with society, such abstract intellectual posturing serves no purpose in the practical design system of permaculture, which deals with real-life scientifically quantifiable systems. There are absolute wrongs and rights when dealing with biological systems on a scientific level. This may be a controversial statement to make, so read on and I will explain this further.
The Ethics of Permaculture
“Relativity applies to physics, not ethics”
– Albert Einstein
“A man is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as that of his fellow men, and when he devotes himself helpfully to all life that is in need of help.”
– Albert Schweitzer
As a basic definition, Permaculture is a holistic design system for creating sustainable human settlements and food production systems. It is a movement concerned with sustainable, environmentally sound land use and the building of stable communities, through the harmonious interrelationship of humans, plants, animals and the Earth.
By this very definition, this system necessitates that our conduct is focussed on the good of the planet, Nature and the people. It cannot work otherwise.
In Permaculture, we are dealing with scientifically definable and measurable systems here, biological ecosystems and human communities. What is beneficial or detrimental to either of these systems is not a subjective matter bound in the realms of personal opinion and conjecture. What is good or bad for living systems is objective scientific fact that can be observed, measured and the results readily reproduced, it is not idle philosophy abstracted from reality and relegated to the towers of academia.
“Any living system, when viewed scientifically, has required inputs which sustain life within that system”
Any living system, when viewed scientifically, has required inputs which sustain life within that system. A plant needs sunlight, air, water and soil to sustain it. Naturally, these inputs occur in a clean, unpolluted state. If we impair these inputs in any way, we harm plant life. When we extend this example to animal life (and yes, that includes us humans too!), it’s works exactly the same way, just with greater complexity.
If people’s actions are detrimental to the inputs required to sustain life in a living system, or if the actions are directly harmful to the living system itself, that is, the organisms within it, then it’s unethical, period.
Now, if anyone’s wondering, “hey, what about eating plants and animals, isn’t that harming life”, there’s a simple answer to that tired old question, a basic axiom of biology, which is “life feeds off life”. From bacteria upwards, life feeds on other life forms to sustain life. There is a qualitative difference between the cessation of life (plants included) to sustain life, and the pointless destruction of life. If you eat a lettuce to stay alive, that’s understandable, but if you dump radioactive mining tailings into a river and cause untold destruction of life, that’s completely unjustified and unethical! Would living systems be harmed if uranium mining ceased? The simple answer is no! No living system needs uranium as an input to its basic biological processes. Life existed before it was mined, and will continue if it were to stop. It’s essentially a peripheral human activity primarily aimed at deriving financial profit, secondarily as a means of providing materials for creating weapons of mass destruction and for energy generation, the absolute necessity both of which is questionable…
There is a stark and glaring difference between the taking of life to sustain life, and the taking of life to support a lifestyle!
Actions, whether ethical or unethical, can also be a matter of degrees, there is a quantitative difference between what is sustainable and what is destructive folly.
A good example is the harvesting of trees. We can sustainably harvest timber to for use as shelter. which is one of our basic needs as a species. The key word is sustainably – we can select what we take, where we take it from, how much we take, and we can choose to use the resources responsibly. The other approach is that we can clear-fell forests to “grow food” and in the process, disrupt the natural systems which precipitate rainfall, trigger soil erosion and salinity, and end up creating a situation where there is insufficient rainfall to grow food, and soil becomes unusable or gets washed away.
So, therefore, from a Permaculture perspective, ethical actions are simply those that support life, and unethical ones are ones that harm or destroy life needlessly.
Permaculture therefore starts with ethics, which form the very foundations of this design system, and all actions we undertake in Permaculture activities are strictly always in agreement with the ethics of Permaculture.
The three ethical principles of Permaculture are as follows:
- Care of the Earth
- Care of People
- Return of surplus to Earth and people (also called “Fair Share”)
Let’s look at these ethical principles in greater detail.
1. Care of the Earth
The Earth is the very thing that sustains us, it provides us with all the essentials that keeps us alive – air, water, food, shelter – and it is the only source of these essentials, we can’t get them from anywhere else! We depend on the Earth and all the living systems on the planet (which, incidentally, are all interconnected in a complicated, interdependent web of life) for our survival.
Taking care of the Earth’s systems which keep us alive would logically be seen as “enlightened self-interest”, doing what is right to ensure one’s own survival – not polluting the air we breathe, not poisoning the water we drink, and not destroying the land which provides our sustenance.
“Care of the Earth” includes all living and non-living things, such as animals and plants, as well as land, water and air. Why? As science shows us through the disciplines of ecology and biology, all living and non-living systems are interconnected and interdependent. When one is affected, all are affected.
Caring for the Earth also means caring for the soil. Life is dependent in life, and the soil itself is actually is a very complex living ecosystem which supports plant life. Plant life in turn supports higher living organisms and provide us with our source of food, directly or indirectly.
Beyond food production, caring for the Earth means caring for our forests, which are the lungs of the planet, ensuring a supply of clean air. Forests are also inextricably linked into the process of rain formation and the water cycle, and therefore play a key role in ensuring our supply of fresh water. It means caring for our rivers, which are the veins of our planet, circulating the water which all life depends on.
2. Care of People
All living things are interdependent on each other, including people. In reality as the saying goes, “no man is an island”, humans by their very nature are communal and social animals, and just like the rest nature, of which they are a part of, are cooperative in nature.
If you doubt the veracity of this statement, then cast your mind back past the psychologically delusional industrialised society in which we find ourselves in and look at history. Traditionally, the punishment for serious wrongdoers in ancient societies was banishment or exile, being forced out of the community to fend for oneself. This was equivalent to a death sentence, or at least a cruel, lonely and unsafe life of severe hardship. Beyond just physical interdependency, humans psychologically need community, modern studies have shown that having community is beneficial to the mental health of an individual, and lack of community is clearly detrimental. The ancients knew that humans needed community, hence the nature of the punishment. Pity modern society forgets this today and individuals banish themselves to an isolated and meaningless technological prison they call modern life, where they selfishly pursue their needs and never get to know their own neighbours.
Self-sufficiency is a myth, and a harmful one too!
“Care of People” is about promoting self-reliance and responsibility towards the greater community. It is importance to point out that we are talking about self-reliance and not self-sufficiency here. As I mentioned before, “no man is an island”, one person cannot do everything, and it is ridiculous to expect any one person to do so in any lifestyle other than the most primitive. Self-sufficiency is a myth, and a harmful one too! As Bill Mollison once stated, “I might grow food, but I don’t want to have to make my own shoes, I can trade food I’ve grown with someone who makes shoes…”. That’s the essence of community! It’s about sharing and supporting each other.
So, what is promoting self-reliance about? It is about taking responsibility for more than one’s own future, and looking to help one’s community by sharing knowledge and experience, to skill people up so that they can provide for some of their basic needs. The essence of this is captured by the expression “give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for ever”. It is about a collaborative effort to bring change to one’s own life and that of others.
When people collaborate to support each other, and to meet their needs, both physical and non-physical, this creates a bond which builds a stable, supportive, and emotionally healthy community which prospers.
“Care of People” importantly has to begin with the person closest to us, our self! It’s hard to care for others when we can’t care for ourselves, and there’s no point in caring for others while neglecting oneself. Such martyrdom is unconstructive, because if we are interested in helping others, then it is in our best interests that we are in an optimum state to be helpful to others. Beyond our individual selves, “Care for People” then extends to the next closest circle of people in our lives, our families, then our neighbours, our local community and then the greater community, and ultimately, all of humanity.
3. Fair Share
This is also described as the ethical principle of “Return of surplus to Earth and people”.
No matter how you look at it, the world’s resources are definitely finite, so logically it follows that there is a finite and measurable share of resources available to each person on the planet to support them.
If all the resources produced were a metaphorical “pie”, and each person has their “slice of the pie”, what happens when someone wants more than their fair share, when someone wants more than one “slice of the pie”? Simply put, someone else goes without.
Our Western society is driven by the unsustainable economic ideology of Consumer Capitalism, which incessantly chants the mantra of “continuous growth”, which in effect, implies continuously increasing consumption. This is a rather quaint concept, the idea of continuous growth in a finite system, for this clearly defies the laws of physics, and also the laws of common sense. It is a truly delusional principle of a flawed ideology, for it has no basis in ecology or any other science. If anyone for even the briefest moment stops to think of how you could possibly have continuous growth, and for that matter, continuously increasing consumption, on a planet of fixed size with finite (and diminishing) resources, then the nonsensical nature of this concept is clearly evident.
All our basic needs are met by the Earth herself, and our next higher needs are met through community with each other.
What we fail to see through the delusional haze of non-stop shopping, wide screen televisions and a myriad of electronic consumer gadgets is that Nature keeps us alive for free, as she has since we first walked the Earth! All our basic needs are met by the Earth herself, and our next higher needs are met through community with each other. It’s only in this 200-year-old experiment we call “industrialised society” that we have become disconnected from nature, and forgotten how to tend to our own needs through the resources provided to us freely by Nature. Yes, admittedly, a life sustained directly by Nature is much simpler and more fuss-free, which is probably why many people are opting to leave the cities, leave the rat-race far behind them, and move out into the country to lead a more balanced and harmonious life…
The reason I make the point about Nature supporting us is that when we live closer to Nature, we realise without doubt that Nature does provides us with what we need, as long as we respect it and only take what we need to survive. In traditional societies, hunters knew about sustainable harvests, they took what game they needed to feed their tribes, if they took all the game in a single season, firstly, they wouldn’t be able to use all the food, it would be clearly wasteful, and secondly, they would starve to death fairly soon afterwards.
To put our current world situation into perspective, imagine a village with an orchard of fruit trees, the yields are plentiful, the villagers can harvest fruit as they feel hungry, they take what they can eat, and they return day after day to harvest fruit for the whole season. Nature provides their needs, all for free.
Now consider this situation – imagine one greedy villager arrives early in the season, picks all the fruit, and does not let anyone else have any. He cannot possibly eat all the fruit himself, and it would naturally spoil in a very short period of time. He tells the other villagers that they can have fruit if they give him articles of personal property in exchange. He accumulates all manner of personal possessions, more than he needs, and the villagers get the fruit.
Now, both situations are identical as far as resources go, the only difference being in the distribution of the resources. The first example is collaborative, everyone receives their fair share for free, in the second example, where one individual is driven by greed and selfish self-interest, this resembles the consumer capitalist model of our modern world. I hope this illustrates the value of the system of “fair share” and also puts into perspective what is so wrong with our society currently.
If we overcome the incredibly irrational human preoccupation of amassing possessions, which is typified by the empty and life-devoid philosophy of “the one with the most toys at the end wins…”, and the frenzied resource-grab than ensues, we can take some responsibility for how much resources we consume in our lifetimes. We can live sustainably, and avoid destroying the Earth’s living systems that sustain our lives. This ‘exploitation mentality’ is not normal, we are brought up with it, it is learned, and can be unlearned.
Furthermore, when we share our surplus produce, when we share our skills, knowledge and experience, these actions build bonds between people which all works to foster a sense of stable, collaborative community.
So, what’s the point of “Fair Share”? If we take only our fair share, then there is enough for everybody, and there will continue to be in the future too.
What It All Means
The ethics of Permaculture, Care of the Earth, Care of People and Sharing of Surplus, promote a system which is life-affirming, and creates a sense of reverence for all life on the planet.
By embodying and living these principles, we ensure the continued survival of our species, the health of the planet and maintain a healthy respect for life itself.
Now, if anybody doubts the impact of a lack of a sound ethical principles, all they need to do is have a look at the world we live in. In a world driven by financial incentive, where ethical conduct takes a back seat, the consequences are both expected and inevitable. World consumption statistics clearly show the state of inequality in the distribution of resources worldwide, the excessive waste of resources by developed countries, and the unsustainable rates of resource and energy consumption.
The Permaculture ethics compel us to take personal responsibility for our actions. We can either “choose to be part of the problem or part of the solution”, the choice is ours!