The Ethic of Transformative Action: Seek Happiness Skillfully

In our modern world, every new action tends to start with one single consideration:


Will this new action make a good profit?

But one may wonder: what good is more money, if we made a wreck of the community and ecosystem we live in to get it? And in most cases, research shows more money doesn’t even make us happier!

So instead, I recommend starting every new action and adventure with the goal of seeking happiness skillfully.

First, if our actions, like accumulating more money (or land, or workers) won’t actually make us happier, then we need to reevaluate the whole plan. For example, if we’re told we need to spray pesticides to control “invasives,” but we don’t feel happy about having to spray chemicals we know will harm birds, insects, and other wildlife, then we might want to think of an action that will be more in alignment with our happiness. This brings us into internal alignment and a position of listening to our emotions and intuitions.

You see, deep down we already know that if we destroy our ecosystem, or make a mess of our community, then we ourselves will have to live in a degraded environment. If we get rich by exploiting our community members, or building a dump, then we have to live in a community with social inequality and people who consider us responsible for creating it. Or we’ll have to run away to a gated community of other unethical people who’ve destroyed their own communities.

They say “misery loves company.”

This simply is not a very skillful way to be happy. Someone who is skilled in the art of happiness, will be able to create abundant joy with as little cost as possible.

Someone who is a true master of happiness will understand that our environment is one of the biggest influences on our outcomes. So, the master happy-maker will understand that creating a vibrant, egalitarian community where all are able to pursue art and meaning, will be a big support in achieving legendary happiness. Being surrounded by a rich, lush, healthy natural environment will be a big boon in the happiness factory.

Where would YOU rather live, a degraded miserable, polluted dystopian city plagued by poverty and crime, or a healthy lush paradise marked by community, meaning, and cultural riches?

Truly, the choice is ours. We make it with each action we take.

The Ethic of Transformative Action and the Permaculture Design Ethics

In this way, we’re following after Permaculture’s founders, who suggested that we should start everything by considering the ethics involved first. If we let the ethics lead, instead of profitability, we would have a very different world.

Permaculture’s founder Bill Mollison experimented around with different ethics, then finally settled on 3, which his collaborator David Holmgren eventually simplified into the catch phrase: Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share.

The ethic of transformative action shouldn’t replace the 3 ethics used for design! It should be a complementary ethic for ecological, and socially conscious Permaculture ACTION.

While these 3 simple ethics are excellent to help us guide DIY level design work for the home or garden, many have found them lacking when applied to larger societal issues or actions. In some ways, they are probably too vague, and perhaps a little simplistic. And so Permaculturists have been fighting over the ethics for 40 years.

For example, they are so vague that even Bauer/Monsanto, arguably one of the word’s most unethical corporations, has claimed that they follow these 3 ethics! Meanwhile, they are simplistic to the point that others will feel it’s self-evident that Monsanto does NOT follow them.

This has caused 40 years of fights and divisions when some practitioners feel that others are not properly following these simplistic ethics that are vague and open to interpretation. In the confusing times of Covid, economic hardship, and reignited fascism, these simplistic ethics have been stretched thin. They were probably never meant to handle such difficult topics. They were just meant as a check-in as we started a DIY design process.

This limitation of the Permaculture ethics is highlighted in this paper, written by a Permaculturist/academic, which basically predicted the current political schisms in Permaculture. Karey Harrison makes an excellent argument that proscriptive ethics like the permaculture ethics have an inherent relationship with authoritarianism and conventional destructive approaches to economics.

The permaculture ethics essentially are passed down as law by a central authority, Bill Mollison, David Holmgren and the body of permaculture teachers, and “given” to the community. This reinforces central, hierarchical power. This has set us up for a schism between central and decentralized authority, and individualism vs. community good.…/Ontological_Commitments_of…

Instead, the ethic of seeking happiness skillfully is considered a “virtue ethic,” which comes from inside of YOU. Instead of being imposed from above, virtue ethics are about wanting things that will bring about a better world, wanting what is virtuous. The ethic of transformative action implores you to think about your actions and your highest values, and let your own vision of a better world, and that golden compass in your chest guide your actions. It appeals to something that every single one of us actually wants: to be happy. It just recognizes that some of us become confused in how we seek it.

Rather than calling people out as breakers of these dogmatic ethics (as is common by certain modern Permaculture practitioners) the Ethic of Transformative Action invites us to call others in by appealing to how different actions could be more life-enhancing and happiness-generating. It doesn’t assume the “problem” is bad people. It assumes the problem is a lack of good information and options.

And so this internally motivated, but community-minded ethic may provide us with better direction in the complicated ethical situations we face today. And it may provide more nuance for situations beyond simple design.

This ethic also has a long history in Eastern thought, as the underlying ethic of many schools of Buddhism and Taoism, and in Greek thought, championed in the Socratic dialogs, and by Epicurus, and is seen underlying the ethics of many indigenous societies, such as the ethics of the Blackfoot nation.

And there are now several papers examining why this ethic may be the best one for an environmentally conscious ecological civilization, giving it a firm grounding in the good evidence.…

Again, that doesn’t mean that the 3 ethics aren’t useful for DIY design, and to communicate the values of Permaculture in a catchy 3-second rhyme. But, when it comes to bigger questions and broader questions of our daily actions, we have this other ethic of skillfulness that has guided complex actions and held together large communities for millennia.

And considering this ethic isn’t a simple black and white thought where one either cares for the earth or doesn’t. (We know everyone really cares for the earth!) It instead leads us down a rich, nuanced, complex road, where we have to be vigilant and do our best with each new step. It instead invites us to ask: HOW do we care for the earth with our actions? It calls us into continuously looking for how we can build a better world as we create our own rich, happy lives.

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