Permaculture Ethics

 

 right-and-wrong-decisions

 

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 look at why we need them, and what they’re doing in a 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, lets 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

 

So, 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 believes 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 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 select what we take, where we take it from, how much we take. and we 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 system. All actions undertaken strictly hold to ethics of Permaculture.

 

The three ethical principles of Permaculture are as follows:

  1. Care of the Earth
  2. Care of People
  3. 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 that 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, plants, land, water and air. It includes all of them because, as science shows us through ecology and biology, all of them are interconnected and interdependent. When one is affected, all are affected.

Caring for the Earth means caring for the soil, which is a living ecosystem, on which plant life depends, and therefore, our source of food. It 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 won 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 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 in how much we resources we consume in our lifetimes. We can live sustainably, and avoid destroying the Earth’s living systems that sustain out 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 builds 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!

 
 
 
 

23 Responses to Permaculture Ethics

  1. David says:

    Great explanation and I couldn’t agree more. Thanks

    Like

  2. I Bongo Guma Ruhinda choose to be part of the solution.

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  3. My mission is to train and qualify to adopt Pamaculture.

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  4. Mariette says:

    Thank you so much for doing this blog, I am learning so much and starting to truly understand and appreciate my surroundings. I will be passing this on to anyone who wants to learn about it and hope to radically change at least half of our garden to it’s full potential (due to complicated circumstances I only have half the garden to play with, but luckily it’s fairly big). Thank you!

    Like

  5. biennetam says:

    “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.”

    When sin expresses itself like the way the author described and in the form of GREED is good culture, humanity is crippled, and all other forms of life suffer tremendously. People expect the earth to serve their own selfish and unsustainable interests, and they will reap what they sow … <edited>

    “Permaculture” is really about urging each of us to return to the original design and purpose for life God meant it to be from the very beginning when He created all things … <edited>.

    Humanity is heading toward mass destruction through their false hopes, wrong philosophies and poorly understood and carried out ethics… <edited>

    <please note – unrelated subject matter been edited out to keep it on topic>

    Like

    • Blackthorn says:

      Our ethical systems may arise from many different world views and perspectives, religious or secular. All positive, life-affirming views, philosophies, religions and spiritual systems that respect living things and have a reverence for Nature fit in well with Permaculture.

      Like

  6. Robert Pulson says:

    Just awesome, one of the best articles I have read all year, this needs to be in public schools, above mantles in homes an so on, it reflects
    and mirrors my beliefs and values perfectly. Namaste Love and Light 🙂

    Like

  7. Sharon says:

    Thank you for taking the time to write this information and share your knowledge with those who are interested in learning. I have been gardening for 25 years now and have always been an organic gardener and over the last few years I have been searching/reading material about permaculture and also aqua phonic gardening – I find myself reading your information each night and being inspired to now include some fruit/berries into my veggie gardens. I will start by transplanting a couple of dwarf varieties and see how I go.

    Thank you

    Like

  8. Simone Harrington says:

    Thank you for creating your website. Just wished to say that I commend and appreciate the effort you’ve taken. Am only a few pages in and wish to read everything! Have been on an increasingly environmentally friendly journey since – moreso since attending some Beyond Gardens events + avidly reading Jackie French’s books whilst trying to decide + progress on less lawn and more dedicated fruit + vege garden layout. It all takes me back to Tom + Kit’s garden through the small gate in my back fence – it was a secret wonderland with so much growing and somehow Tom would always catch me snacking on a snowpea :o) So this is fabulous and wished to encourage you to keep on keeping on.
    Thanks
    Simone (Perth)

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  9. RIR says:

    Brilliant post. Thanks for this. There is a lot of excellent info in this piece. That is perhaps one of the best pieces I’ve read explaining the ethics of permaculture. Now that I understand them, to be fair, these ethics are also ethics of a lot of religions, spiritual paths and ideologies, not just permaculture. But permaculture is a “way” or “system” of putting them into practice.

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  10. I agree with most of it, save for one point – the idea that ‘greed’ is a learned behavior. If you offer a pile of fruit to a group of apes, you will see that some dominant animals will hoard more fruit than they need… just as humans do. Humans come by their behavior very naturally, because they are, after all, animals like any other. Greed is instinctive. It has to counterbalanced by learned behavior, and by other instincts (altruism, for example). There will always be some individuals with disproportionately strong instincts in some areas, who cannot learn to control their instincts. So, those people have to be acknowledged, accounted for, and compensated for… without making them feel as though they were ‘born bad.’

    In compensating for these variations in human nature, we run the risk of falling back on authoritarian solutions; rules, laws, regulations. This can lead to a reduction in essential freedoms in society in general, and wind up restricting or even harming those who were never its targets in the first place.

    If you can think of a workable solution to this, you will be a genius, indeed.

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    • Angelo (admin) says:

      You might be surprised that recent research in primate ethology by primatologist Frans de Waal seems to conclude that monkeys have a dislike of inequality, the act of equally sharing of food strengthens the cohesion of their groups and their behaviour isn’t driven by greed, but quite the opposite! (Reference: van Wolkenten, M., Brosnan, S., de Waal, F. (2007). Inequity responses of monkeys modified by effort. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(47), 18854-18859.)

      Humans can act from their lower nature and be controlled by their base impulses and desires, or they can let their higher faculties guide their conduct. Our commonly agreed and shared values are the foundations of our ethical systems, and without values, ethical systems have no logical basis! This is fine for the Permaculture community, we all agree on the value of people, the planet, community and cooperation, so we can agree on the three ethical principles discussed here.

      Unfortunately, most of the modern western world doesn’t know what it values anymore, or even agrees if anything actually has any real value! That should explain some of the mess the western world finds itself in right now. How did this disaster come about? Regrettably, during the inappropriately named ‘Age of Enlightenment’ in the late 17th & 18th century, our intellectually vain western society decided to abandon values as the basis of ethical systems and attempted to replace them with ‘reason’, hence the ‘Age of Reason’, an idea which grew out of separating church and state – and this was one of the biggest failures of that period. It’s no surprise that with no common shared values, ethics had no basis, no foundations, like castle floating in the sky, which ultimately collapsed! With no basis for ethics, only the agreed lowest common denominator of rules, regulations and laws enforced by the state are left to coerce the populace into maintaining social order. The result is a purposeless, meaningless nihilistic wasteland which we find ourselves in today, and that void in the lives of modern westerners is something that cannot be filled with the empty materialistic offerings they have available to them. They are deceived into believing that they can fill the void with incessant consumption, but somehow they are still left feeling empty. The use of the term ‘enlightenment’ to describe that historical period by the west seems presumptuous in this context. So, that’s the bed that western society has made for itself, now they have to sleep in it.

      Aren’t we all glad we have the permaculture ethical principles as guidelines! I know I am!

      Like

      • Laura Verderber says:

        One can be for skepticism, reason, separation of church of state and still have ethics. I very much agree with and try to practice permaculture, including the “culture” part. Permaculture uses science with provable results, that provides very clear expectations of ethics. The majority of government and organized religion is very corrupt. I am very glad their powers are not combined to push their agenda/superstition on me! For example, trying to pass off intelligent design in a science classroom.

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      • Laura Verderber says:

        Also, I just wanted to say that I really enjoy this blog and I am going to share this article with some of my friends. I just bristled at the implication that society needs religion enforced by a government to have common ethics. Those institutions often try impose ridiculous and frivolous restrictions on people in the name good for everyone. There are common ethical values worldwide by humans, no matter under what government or religion they have to be universal, such as the importance of family.

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      • Angelo (admin) says:

        Thanks for your comments Laura.

        Traditionally religion served many purposes, some very pragmatic and practical such as providing society with a common set of values and a code of conduct so people worked towards the same goals and conducted themselves in ways that benefited the greater good of the collective. This is something completely distinct and different to the aspect of religions concerned with cosmogenesis (creation and evolution of the universe) and theology (the study of the nature of God and religious belief).

        By defining the boundaries of human conduct, above which resided the highest of human virtues and below, the behaviours which were deemed unacceptable (and often punishable), expectations were clearly set as a means of regulating the destructive extremes of human individual behaviour and encouraging positive constructive behaviour for the purpose of social cohesion and harmony. In the past, societies that worked together and supported each other thrived, those that were torn apart internally perished. Hence the universality of religions across all cultures and historical periods. Religions have survived the test of time because they worked in this respect, as have ancient eastern philosophies such as Confucianism (which is not a religion) whose influence has spread right through Asia and is an integral part of Asian culture to this day.

        In the modern world this function of social cohesion is now the responsibility of the government, which only defines the lowest common denominator of behaviour, that is enforced through its monopoly on coercion. Cross the line and you will be deprived of your possessions or your freedom, possibly your life. We call it ‘law and order’ these days. The government does not legally define an upper boundary of human conduct above which is desirable, virtuous or commendable, as it’s not the concern of secular governments.

        The interesting thing about human nature is that it can be driven by the highest and noblest ideals or the lowest and most debased desires, and actions arising from either or anything in the continuum between the two can and has been justified using reasons religious or secular, as history has shown.

        The Permaculture ethics do not dwell on our differences in belief, but focus our common values as human beings.
        Do we value ourselves (and by extension our partners, children, families, relatives, friends, community, other people)?
        Do we value the planet that keeps us all alive and is essentially our shared, collective life support system?
        Do we have a sense of fairness about what we take and use, and regard for others in terms of what that we share or leave for them (present and future generations)?
        These are the questions the Permaculture ethical principles ask us, and if we can answer “YES” to all three then we do have a belief system that is at its very core and essence life-affirming. If we conduct ourselves by these ethical principles, then our actions are also life-affirming and will make a difference in the present and for generations of humans to come.

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  11. Vincenzo says:

    Stumbled upon your website after watching your video with Geoff. You mirror my thoughts exactly on the state of affairs on this planet. I can tell you’ve done your research 🙂

    Your article is one of the best examples of what is wrong with modern western civilization.

    I believe the positive return to balance on this planet is Permaculture and a home economy. We must stop being materialistic consumers and start becoming producers again.

    There is no us and them there is only WE!

    I will greatly enjoy reading and sharing your website you are a blessing to humanity.

    Peace and blessings….

    Like

  12. uilyam says:

    A good ethics could use a hymn (or a few hymns) to reinforce important points. I propose that a song by Eric Bogle be one of those hymns. It speaks to the ethical point “Care for the Earth.” I quote some lines from the second verse of the “hymn” as a fair-use sample:

    “You can plant two strong young trees for every one you’ve taken
    You can make and keep a pledge for every one you’ve broken
    Or let your indifference make you blind, let your greed guide your hand
    You can care just for yourself, or you can care for the land”

    The full lyrics can be read on Eric’s website: http://ericbogle.net/lyrics/lyricspdf/carefortheland.pdf

    It can be heard on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7jTdQ2mgLhI

    Like

  13. I appreciate the inclusion of ethics as central to permaculture. Ethics as an integral part of endeavors seems to have fallen by the wayside a bit. Not all presentations of permaculture keep ethics so clearly front and center, as this course does. Thank you.

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      You’re welcome! Thanks for your comments, so true, ethics are one of the key foundation of the practice of Permaculture.

      Like

  14. senthil says:

    nice article . it touched my heart

    Like

  15. John Nzira says:

    Wonderful explanation of Permaculture Ethics, Does social media and technology part of fair share.

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      Hi John, the ‘fair share’ principle is as much about sharing knowledge and experience as well as surplus harvest, and is an important part of community building. Sharing your experience empowers people. Technology and social media can be used for the purpose of empowering people, that’s what this whole web site and my Facebook page are all about!

      There are a few other ways we can share our knowledge, skills and experience:
      Volunteering on community projects
      Writing articles for newsletters, magazines
      Running workshops and presentations
      Creating Websites that provide free information

      Like

  16. Euphorbia says:

    I live on ten acres and have grown food and flowers for twenty-five years. The curious aspect of permaculture/no-dig gardening for me is that I have SO much land! I am changing direction in part by establishing “no dig” beds on a site that overgrew with tall weeds every Summer which is right out my back door. I appreciate learning about the natural value of soil structure and how much is disrupted and destroyed when we dig up and till the soil.

    Like

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