An Impassioned Plea for the 3rd Ethic

Here’s my impassioned plea for the original 3rd ethic, and David Holmgren’s simplified version of it, “Fair Share.” To me, this is the single most important, personally impactful, and societally transformative concept in all of Permacutlure. “Setting limits” is the source of all wealth and abundance.

For those who don’t know, the Permaculture design process is informed by three ethics, and there has been a fair amount of controversy around the third ethic, which was originally “set limits to consumption and population.” Later simplified by David Holmgren to “Fair Share.”

Now, with the controversy over the third ethic, there are at least a dozen alternative versions I know of, including “parity,” “equity,” “careful process,” and “future care.“ As a teacher, this makes me grumpy, because I have to remember them all and waste class time going into needless detail covering all of these so that my students can have discussions with other Permaculture people and not get in fist fights.

A lot of the controversy has been caused by some confusion over what exactly Permaculture is. If we mistake Permaculture for a system of governance, belief system, or a religion (or a world view or “lens” which is really a religion) then the original is very problematic!

For example, if we believe Permaculture is a set of rules for running a society, and “population limits” is one of those rules, then we get pretty quickly to a justification for Eugenics. If we believe in setting limits to consumption, then that might justify consumption laws and review boards. “Who gets to decide what’s fair?” People often ask of “Fair Share.”

Thankfully, Permaculture was never intended to be a lens or belief system for governing a society, because it wold be a terrible tool for that job! Surely actual religions, complex world views, ethical systems and life philosophies are better for that than Permaculture. My Buddhist ethics based on pursuing happiness with Skillful Means is a far better system for a worldview or guide to personal conduct than the Permaculture ethics and principles!

Permaculture was created to be an appropriate design tool, useful for “regular people” like you and me to make things, like gardens, farms, greenhouses, community organizations, businesses, and villages.

For that purpse these simplified ethics and principles are just the right size to provoke useful consideration, without being too complex. (My Buddhist ethics, meanwhile, would be a poor tool for designing a community garden.)

But Permaculture would be terribly limited as religion, an ethical system or world view! Imagine going to court and arguing whether or not stealing a car “cared for the future.” Of course, both sides would claim having the car cared for THEIR future and their people.

Taken in the context of design, “setting limits to consumption and population,” or “fair share” means we set limits for the design, for ourselves. If we’re consulting with a family or community, we get people to think about setting limits for themselves and their land.

As Permaculture DESIGNERS, we’re never going into a position where we’re imposing limits on other people. That’s not Permaculture Design, that would be Permaculture Authoritarianism, and there’s very little opportunity for us to do that while designing a garden or farm business. That’s just not what we do. If someone wanted to hire me as a Permaculture Designer to design a system of national laws, my first step would be to hire someone else more qualified for doing that job!

But this is part of why I consider “setting limits” and “Fair Share” to be the most important concept in Permaculture. It allows us to have discussions of population dynamics, carrying capacity, and the impacts on biodiversity in the context of encouraging people to make mindful choices FOR THEMSELVES. It is a way we can talk about this and think about this important issue WITHOUT advocating for governments imposing population limits, which almost always gets to be Eugenics. We can acknowledge the vast amount of research demonstrating that at certain population densities humans will necessarily cause a reduction in the biodiversity of any ecosystem and eventually the health of the ecosystem. We can acknowledge that there’s a limit to how many humans a piece of land can carry before ecosystem services collapse. We can have those discussions without advocating for national policies limiting the reproductive rights of other people.” We can support African scientists advocating for family planning tools, without being like generations of white environmentalists lecturing brown people globally to get their reproduction “under control.”

So the context of personal life design is the right one to have that discussion.

And, design is also a great context to have discussions of “setting limits to consumption,” or thinking about “Fair Share.” In political discussions, “Fair Share” often brings about a response of defensiveness, “who gets to decide what’s fair?”

But in the context of design, it means we get to decide for ourselves, but that we must consider it and give it due depth of attention and care.

In the context of design, we see that “setting limits” is the source of all wealth and abundance. This is what gives us a feeling of “plenty,” of “enough.” It is what ensures that our lives will be easy and resilient, because there is the padding of space around what we need.

Limits give us a container to fill with wealth and abundance, and a goal to set where we’ll fell content. Without that container we can continue consuming too much, but still feel impoverished. Without that limit, nothing is ever enough. We can become “misers” who pursue consuming ever MORE even at the expense of what really matters, the detriment of our health, our community and the world.

Setting limits makes us feel rich. Not setting limits means there’s never enough, even if we’re harming others and the planet.

And it is GOOD that this is controversial and makes people think.

As I said earlier, nearly everyone thinks they’re caring for the earth, people, and the future, for example. You could walk into the Bayer Monstanto boardroom and they’d say, “yes, that’s what we do! Future care is what we do!” Every dictator who ever lived thought they were caring for their people and the future!

“Fair share” is where the rubber meets the road. Fair share is where we actually prioritize putting resources into caring for people and the earth. Fair share causes uncomfortable conversations and that’s how we grow.

And that’s what we’re seeing in the Permaculture movement. “Fair share” has caused us this discussion, this growth, because it is impactful, because it does have real meaning, and it challenges us. A discussion of “fair share” will always be a transformative one. A discussion of “careful process” or “future care” does little more than convey our good intentions to people who already care about the future.

Perhaps at this current rate we’ll have 100 new “3rd” ethics in a few more years, and we’ll require a whole seperate 72 hours course just to cover the history of the changing 3rd ethic. But I will be sticking to the original, with all its complexity and impact.

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