Integrating ethics and principles

One of the best things about teaching permaculture is that it motivates me to create resources for students and that gives me the opportunity to reflect upon my own processes. Here’s something I put together today about using the ethics and the principles in an integrated way, as both a design tool and a self-assessment tool.

It’s my opinion that the ethics and principles often get taught early in a PDC and then somewhat ignored, or at least parked in the corner. It’s as if just learning them will somehow translate into their practical application. For some people this happens, but for others a process that helps them to revisit the ethics and principles at various stages in the design process is hugely beneficial. Here’s just one way to do that:

Using ethics and principles as part of the design process

The ethics and the principles of permaculture are not just theoretical. They are used as a practical design tool to help us create and evaluate our designs.

Determining whether or not any design is good can be problematic. What one person thinks of as beautiful, elegant or desirable might be considered ugly, clunky and inefficient by someone else. The advantage with permaculture design is that we have a clear set of ethics and principles as our criteria.

So, you’ve started with lots of observation about your design project and you have used the information you collected to gain a comprehensive understanding of the site or (for social permaculture) the situation or group. Your ethics should have already come into play. Have you collected information in a way that cares for the earth and cares for people? Have you shared fairly with others during this process?

Once you have a comprehensive understanding of your context for this particular design, you will move into the creative phase. This is when you can use the ethics and principles to help with ideation (generating ideas and options). You might also use other design tools at this stage, including random assembly, NFP analysis, SWOT analysis and zoning (just to name a few) but I highly recommend using the ethics and principles as part of this process. It’s how to ensure your design really IS a permaculture design.

Perhaps the simplest way to do this it to frame the ethics and principles as questions. I ask these questions in relation to the whole of the plan, and also in relation to the main subsystems within the plan.  Please remember that they are interdependent, so changes in one will impact another and there are plenty of opportunities for multiple functions; your zone 5 can also be a carbon sink and a source of animals that benefit other parts of your system (wild birds and other pollinators); the location of your water storage can impact your disaster prevention; the design of your home will determine how much roof surface catches water. A check list helps you to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything but, as always, it’s the relationships between these subsystems that determine the quality and efficiency of your final system. For a land-based design, these are my main subsystems.

Water: catch, slow, sink, store and clean: Water is the basis of all life and without it our plans will fail.

Disaster prevention and mitigation: This comes early because of wind and fire breaks.  Planting a boundary to reduce the impact of wind or the risk of fire will alter your gross microclimate.

The build environment including housing, fencing and access: Getting these wrong is expensive! I’ve recently been thinking we need a whole short course just on the design of these elements. Access roads can absorb or reflect heat and can divert water towards or away from different locations. Thermal mass, insulation, breezeways, water catchment….so many things to think about. Just the colour of the roof matters!

‘Zone 5’ creation, restoration or preservation: It’s not compulsory to use zones in design but they are an excellent way to consider how human energy will be used. Zone 5 is used here as shorthand for those places that we set aside for all of the other forms of life on the planet. This should not be our left-over bit, but an integral part of our design.As well as our ethical obligation to preserve or restore wild places, they contribute significantly to the diversity and resilience of our designs. Nature remains our best teacher.

Food production including integrated animal systems where applicable: Our goal is to be as productive as possible on as little land as possible so that we release as much as possible to zone 5. Keeping domestic animals is not compulsory but all systems will include some kind of animal life. Soils are dirt without animals. Birds will enter the site and leave deposits. Wild creatures will wander in. How will our design integrate them?

Carbon sequestration:This has not traditionally been included but given climate chaos I don’t think we can claim to address earth care or people care without it. I believe we have an ethical duty to actively maximise the carbon sequestration in all land-based designs and to considering the minimisation of our carbon footprint in all social permaculture designs.

Appropriate technology: There are now so many choices that it’s worth giving this topic some special consideration. It is also a useful process for testing our assumptions about some of the ‘green’ options. As an example, solar panels measured against the earth care option will come out ahead of coal and gas, but still fall well short of ‘sustainable’ when you consider manufacturing, transport and end-of-life disposal. We also recently discovered that a hail storm can significantly shorten the life of your solar system! They remain our current best option but I like to revisit the state of the technology every time I design because innovation keeps happening.

Site specific considerations: I always ask myself what I’ve missed. Sites all throw up their own challenges and having a defined category helps to remind me to revisit my observations. What have I missed? What is peculiar to this site? A SWOT analysis if often useful here.

As I said, these are broad categories and I always refer to everything as my current design model because it is always my intention to keep refining it. Please let me know if you think it can be improved.

The ethics are used for each subsystem and also for the entire design. Ask these questions:

How will this design care for the earth? As you know, I’m fond of saying that earth care is first for a reason. Without it we are all dead. It’s the reason I came to permaculture and the reason I’m so passionate about teaching others. The earth needs more permaculture.

How will this design care for people? The design needs to care for those that will be part of the system and those that will be impacted by the system, including direct neighbours.

How will this design reflect fair share (or future care)? Fair share continues to be problematic in a world where most of the people able to afford a designer belong to a small and privileged group. I notice that some parts of the world are using ‘future care’ as their third ethic. Reminding those of us with privilege that we are privileged has merit, but pragmatically, people of privilege are unlikely to offer up their worldly possessions to those in need. Future care asks us to consider those that will come after us.

Remember that a permaculture design must reflect all three principles. You can’t trade one off against another. If an element meets the criteria for people care but damages the earth, it is not permaculture. It’s possible for something to be neutral in relation to one of the ethics. It may, for example, care for people while having no impact on earth care. This is my continuing struggle with ‘fair share’; how can anyone in the developed world lay claim to it?

There are now a number of different sets of principles and while there are subtle differences between them there is also strong alignment. I encourage people to play with different sets until they find one that’s a good fit. I don’t think there’s a lot of merit in arguing over which set is ‘best’ because each has its strengths and weaknesses. I also believe that the diversity of the principles reflects the dynamic nature of permaculture. If you can’t find a single set you like, maybe write your own or assemble your own from the existing choices. Just be prepared for some self-reflection about why you would leave anything out.

For the purposes of this exercise I’m going to use the five condensed from Holmgren and Mollison. Here they are framed as the questions I ask during the design process:

How will this design align with the core ethics of permaculture?

We’ve done a bit of ‘multiple functions’ work here because this question has already been answered by specifically addressing the three core ethics.

How will this design build resilient and diverse communities?

Diversity is an important component of resilience and considering how each important element will be supported by multiple functions will happen here.

How does this design cooperate with nature?

This will include harnessing natural energies like gravity, sunlight, decomposition, growth and thermodynamics as well as utilising the lessons of succession to minimise the maintenance the design will need. Nobody weeds or fertilises a forest. How do we create systems that are largely self-sustaining?

How will I design from macro to micro?

 This is a reminder to check that the design is responding to our global challenges, is appropriate to this bioregion, has considered the particular characteristics of this site and has identified and utilised the various microclimates it presents. Failing to design from macro to micro can result in a design that is an assembly of elements that do not fit the context and that are not related to each other: an access road above a house that causes flooding, a chicken coop uphill from it that pollutes the water running towards the house and a composting system so inconveniently located that nobody uses it are all examples of designing backwards. Failing to design from macro to micro can also result in important components of the design, like carbon sequestration, being omitted.

Where is the energy? Where does it come from? Where will it go?

This final question reflects the principle ‘Energy is everything and everything is energy’. Energy cannot be created or destroyed. It changes form. All of the energy cycling though our site, including our own, is an opportunity. Can we make our design any bit more energy efficient? Where will the energy come from to maintain this system? What waste are we likely to produce and how will that be dealt with (because waste is lost energy)? How much energy will we need to import and how can we reduce that? As our system grows and stores more energy, how will it change?

Ideation makes for good designs

Working through the ethics and principles as part of the design process will greatly improve your designs. The process of ideation is all about generating lots of ideas and options. We tend to go with our first idea, and it’s not necessarily our best one. Ideation asks us to slow down and consider alternatives. It also invites us to be creative, playful and imaginative.

Another way to frame the ethics and principles is to ask “what if?”

What if this design was a great example of caring for the earth?

What if this design achieved complete alignment with the ethics and principles of permaculture?

What if this design was the standard for fair share?

Think up some of your own questions and use them to generate more ideas for your design. My process is to get a design to concept stage before filling in the details. This is another example of working from the macro to the micro. I use a base map and overlays to store not just my sector and site analysis but also my ideas for the final project. Using cut outs of different elements can be helpful here because they can easily be moved around a base map. This is much cheaper and more energy efficient than making mistakes onsite!

Repeating the process after your concept design is finished

Once I’ve completed the concept design there is an opportunity to repeat the process, and to challenge the design using the ethics and principles all over again. This is optional, but even doing it quickly sometime throws up issues or problems with the design that you wouldn’t otherwise have considered. I had one very nice plan all ready to go and realised that the ‘people care’ component might include providing access for a wheelchair within the next couple of years!

Work back through the questions and use them as a self-assessment on your design. What can be improved?  You might like to reframe them as ‘have I..?’ questions.

Using the questions to evaluate other designs

Framing the permaculture ethics and principles is also a useful tool for understanding and evaluating your group designs, or the designs of other people. Go online and find an example of a permaculture design (Aranya has a wonderful portfolio) and try running through the ethics and principles. This will help you to develop an appreciation of the why, what and how of other people’s designs and will, in turn, strengthen your own designs.

The ethics and principles are also the best tool for determining anyone’s claim to permaculture. We recently had someone staying with us who was concerned about a company using the term ‘ocean permaculture’ for methods that were dubious. I encouraged her to test the business model against the ethics and principles and this resulted in an essay on why she did not consider their claim to permaculture to be a valid one.

Remember that the ethics and principles are supposed to inform everything we do. They are not just theoretical but a useful pattern based on both the natural world and successful indigenous cultures. Used well, this pattern supports us in creating systems that meet human needs while increasing ecological health.

Following the original publication of this post, someone on the Permaculture Australia Facebook Page suggested that a better way to frame these questions is to ask, “To what extent………?” For example, “To what extent does this design build resilient and diverse communities?” I like this language. It recognises that integrating the principles is not black and while, but a sliding scale of shades of grey. We are not ticking boxes. We are leveraging opportunities and trying to find ways to edge our designs even closer to the ethics and principles. I would now add, “And how can we improve that?”

This process is ongoing. More than twenty years after we first designed a permaculture system for this site we are still finding ways to improve it. The permaculture ethics and principles continue to be the best framework for that.





3 thoughts on “Integrating ethics and principles

  1. Great post, thanks Meg – it is essential that the ethics and principles are brought into (and are not only revisited) each step of the design process. On our PDC we were coached to at each step evaluate how the principles were adhered to (and it should have included the ethics too.) You can swing that the other way round too – to which extent is each principle addressed. (Because, for the designer, you want to highlight where the principles may possibly be “better” addressed.)
    I personally find the “what if” questions a bit too open-ended though. For me, it becomes almost, so what? It may just be my style of thinking… But when I apply the questions, I would ask them as “To what extent… is this design an example of caring for earth?” “To what extent… does this design facilitate care for people?” And so on, as it requires an evaluative answer.


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