The permaculture chapter: permaculture – definition and ethics

See HERE for the provisional contents page of the study,

which gives you a proper chronology of sections.

Note: the content below is all in first draft format. It will change considerably during the time it takes for the study to be completed (especially by way of more academic support, generally). I post now ‘for interest’s sake’.

Permaculture: definition and ethics

Note: this is a first draft of a section of my research. It will change considerably during the time it takes for the study to be completed. I post now ‘for interest’s sake’. Click on the PhD tab if you would like to find sections referred to in this post.

The word ‘permaculture’ is a neologism coined by Mollison (1979: ix), formed by parts of the words permanent and agriculture[1]. The Permaculture Association ( reiterates the focus on permanent agriculture, but adds that permaculture is also ‘about’ “permanent culture”[2] as well. The association explains further (Ibid) that permaculture

is about living lightly on the planet, and making sure that we can sustain human activities for many generations to come, in harmony with nature.

The Association immediately adds a comment (Ibid) to allay any scepticism about the use of the word ‘permanent’, seeing as one might rightly be suspicious of any claim to permanence in a world that is obviously is a state of constant flux[3]:

Permanence is not about everything staying the same. It’s about stability, about deepening soils and cleaner water, thriving communities in self-reliant regions, biodiverse agriculture and social justice, peace and abundance.

Furthermore, Mollison (1979: ix) states that permaculture is “the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems” (Ibid); this focus on design is reiterated by the Permaculture Association[4]: it refers to permaculture as “an ecological design process”[5] and immediately observes that permaculturalists “are learning from nature. Design methods are used in conjunction with permaculture principles to create an overall pattern or plan of action” (Ibid).

Mollison continues: permaculture “seeks first to stabilise and care for land, then to serve household regional and local needs, and only thereafter to produce surplus for sale or exchange” (Ibid). Permaculture is the “the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way” (Ibid). It is based on what Mollison (Mollison 1979: ix) calls the “philosophy behind permaculture”:

The philosophy behind permaculture is one of working with, rather than against, nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action; of looking at systems in all their functions, rather than asking only one yield of them; and of allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolutions.”

Before comment is made and analysis conducted in light of the above defining points, it is important to highlight what both Mollison and the Permaculture Association refer to as permaculture ethics. What follows immediately below is from the Association[6], which reiterates Mollison’s work (1988: 2). Note that the third ethic (‘fair shares’) is articulated as it is below by both The Association and Mollison; but in wider permaculture literature it widely known as ‘fair shares’ or ‘fair share’[7]:

Neatly summed up as “Earth care, people care, fair shares”, the permaculture ethics give purpose to our work, and connect us with the many millions of others who are also working towards a fairer, healthier and more harmonious human culture.[[8]]

  1. CARE OF THE EARTH: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. …
  2. CARE OF PEOPLE: Provision for people to access those resources necessary to their existence. …
  3. SETTING LIMITS TO POPULATION AND CONSUMPTION [a.k.a. ‘fair share’]: The third ethic recognises that: a. The Earth’s resources are limited. b. These resources need to be shared amongst many beings. …

Comment and analysis:

It is immediately obvious from consideration of these initial definitions that something entirely different from ACID (advanced competitive consumer capitalist industrial democratic dominion – see Chapter 3) is denoted. As it was seen in Chapter 3, the overarching qualities of ACID are rigidly promethean – dominance and dominion over nature are firmly entrenched as the status quo, nature is reduced to a standing reserve of resources for humans to exploit, nature is increasingly ‘mastered’ and ‘possessed’ by human beings, the assumption that endless growth is possible inherently underlies human economic activity as it has historically ‘developed’ by way of preceding Promethean paradigms, etc. (see Chapter 3) – evidently, these points indicate an inherent Promethean trait of ‘working against, rather than with, nature’. Some of the definitions from the Permaculture Association above  explicitly state direct opposite ‘qualities’ – light living on the planet, sustainable human activities, harmonious interaction with nature, “deepening soils and cleaner water”, creating “thriving communities in self-reliant regions”, working towards “biodiverse agriculture and social justice, peace and abundance”. This has all been summed up succinctly by Mollison (1988: 35) as working with, rather than against, nature: “Work with nature, rather than against the natural elements, forces, pressures, processes, agencies, and evolutions, so that we assist rather than impede natural developments”. This central permaculture imperative resonates perfectly with the character of the Orphic as it has so far emerged in this study.

To continue in the vein of working with, rather than against, nature: Mollison, in one of the aforementioned definitions, explicitly states that the first priority of permaculture is to “stabilise and care for the land” – this imperative, along with the Permaculture Association’s focus on “light living” in “harmony with nature” – are powerfully ecocentric qualities, conspicuously absent in the analysis of ACID (see Chapters 1 to 4). Indeed, the dominant Promethean characteristics of ACID have already in this study been inculcated as prime causal factors behind the current ecological crisis. This broad context of ‘eco-crisis’ (see Chapter 1) that in this study has been directly linked with the spread of the practices, industries and economy of ACID (explored in Chapter 2) is surely partly why Mollison, in the first quoted defining sentence, defines permaculture as “the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems” (emphasis now added). Human beings have actively been destroying natural systems for centuries (see chapters 1 and 2), replacing them almost exclusively with Promethean systems, symbols for which are agricultural monocrops, oil fields, concrete-dominated cities, etc., hastening the precarious ecological plight of the planet. The need is therefore urgent for systems to be established that have the qualities listed by Mollison – i.e. diversity, stability, resilience. Taking as axiomatic the point that such ecosystems are necessary for human survival (a point that bewilderingly is overlooked or downplayed by punters of Promethean dogmas), and in the context where Promethean systems destroy ecosystemic diversity, stability and resilience, it is encouraging to see in permaculture a commitment to restore some of the extensive ecological damage human beings have caused while pursing Promethean priorities.

Despite frequent explicit Orphic ecocentrism in permaculture (as has already been glimpsed, and as will be seen throughout this chapter), it should already be clear from the defining sentence just discussed – permaculture is “the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems” (emphasis now added) – that another priority in permaculture is to provide for the needs of human beings, because agriculture is a human domain. So permaculture is not exclusively ecocentric, and increasingly in this chapter it will be seen that Permaculture does not endorse a ‘binary opposition’ between anthropocentrism and ecocentrism. In permaculture, the provision for human needs is achieved via numerous means, but to begin with, the focus is on agriculturally productive ecosystems. Contrast first the kinds of agriculturally productive ecosystems to which Mollison refers with the Promethean[9] approach to agriculture (explored in Chapter 2); He comments on the latter (1979: 3-6) early on in The Designer’s Manual[10]:

[L]arge holdings and few people create vast grazing leases, usually for a single species of animal. This is best described as ‘baronial permanence’ with near-regal properties of immense extent, working at the lowest possible level of land use (pasture or cropland is the least productive use of land we can devise). Such systems, once mechanised, destroy whole landscapes and soil complexes. They can best be typified as agricultural deserts.

Mollison’s use of the word ‘mechanised’ invokes much that was explored in Chapter 3, where mechanisation has historically been influenced by, and simultaneously perpetuated, Promethean paradigms – see Chapter 3, specifically sections 3.3 and 3.4. All of the sections constituting Chapters 1 and 2 directly implicate Promethean mechanisation[11] as instrumental in the human onslaught against the natural world, an onslaught that has resulted (partly) in the ‘agricultural deserts’ mentioned by Mollison.

In contrast to an agricultural desert is a forest, a powerful symbol encountered in permaculture. Mollison (1979: 6) first says that forests,

not seen by industrial man as anything but wood, are another permanent agriculture. But they need generations of care and knowledge and hence a tribal or communal reverence only found in stable communities. This then, is the communal permanence many of us seek: to be able to plant a pecan or citrus when we are old, and to know it will not be cut down by our children’s children.

Note here that the word “industrial” used in the preceding quote could quite easily be ‘Promethean’, for Promethean ‘man’ (as discussed in Chapter 3) has an explicitly reductionist view of nature (i.e. reducing trees to wood), specifically of nature’s ‘resources’. In this instance of industrial/Promethean ‘man’ seeing the forest only for its wood, and not proverbially for the trees, Mollison’s words invoke the image of the classical reductionist, reducing nature to a ‘standing reserve’ (Heidegger’s words – see Chapter 3) of resources for humans to plunder at will. Mollison (Ibid) is quick to point to what are clearly dangers of the Promethean approach, and he furthermore alludes to characteristics that have been identified as Promethean in this study:

The real risk is that the needs of those people working ‘on the ground’, the inhabitants, are overthrown by the needs (or greeds) of commerce and centralised power; that the forest is cut for warships or newspaper and we are reduced to serfs in a barren landscape. This has been the fate of peasant Europe, Ireland, and much of the third world.

Commerce and centralised power have been under scrutiny in previous chapters of this study. ‘Free-market’ Capitalism is the centralised commercial (i.e. economic) system discussed in section 3.5, where it was seen that Capitalism inherently must ‘grow or die – hence Marx’s expression ‘all that is solid melts into air’[12]; the unstoppable expansion of this kind of economic system[13] is what accelerates the ‘reduction’ of natural entities like forests into standing reserves of resources; and the more resources that are processed for economic growth, the more the human population increases and consumes. It was seen in section 4.3 that democracy cannot exist in a Capitalist system (despite misguided widespread belief that Capitalism is synonymous with democracy) because, as explained by Barnes (via Speth) in that section, democracy is an open system that has been infected by the closed system of Capitalism; in theory political leaders can be ‘voted out’ and thus the seemingly democratic process is upheld, but once Capitalist policies (e.g. the money supply being printed by Reserve Banks – see section 2.9; the golden imperative to grow the GDP – see sections 3.5 and 4.3) have been established, the phenomenon of ‘inheriting the cheque book’ occurs and the (falsely) democratic system is an economic slave to (and perpetuator of) the Capitalist system. Furthermore, Mollison’s reference to a ‘barren landscape’ is a fitting description of some of the effects of Promethean industries explored in Chapter 1 – loss of topsoil, loss of biodiversity, water issues, landfill waste, etc. People have to live in such a ‘barren landscape’ (the opposite of a ‘thriving community’ partly aimed for in the defining points made by the Permaculture Association), and via an ecologically sensitive design approach, practitioners of permaculture work to mitigate Promethean problems and create instead systems that have the resilience and integrity of natural systems. It is in this way that people’s needs are met in permaculture: by first establishing systems that have the resilience of natural systems, and then aligning productive human action with the natural functionality of the designed system.

In permaculture, this order of first establishing systems that have the resilience of natural systems, and then aligning human action with the natural functionality of the designed system, cannot be the other way around. I.e. natural systems cannot come second, because, axiomatically, all creatures on the planet (human beings included) need healthy ecosystems in order to survive. Exclusively anthropocentric, Promethean worldviews have acted to mould nature to fit the ‘needs’ (and greeds, as Mollison commented above) of human beings and in so doing have resulted (partly) in the ecological crisis. In permaculture, the issues that constitute the ecological crisis are mitigated by placing people second and ecology first. An irony is that Promethean worldviews, by placing human beings ‘above’ nature in order of priority, greatly jeopardise the well-being and long-term survival of human beings (Chapters 1, 2 and 3 all work partly to evidence this point), whereas in permaculture, by placing nature ‘above’ human beings, the well-being and long-term survival of human beings is made possible (as increasingly evidenced in this chapter).

So far in this sub-section, permaculture has been defined, and ‘earth care’ and people care’ have been discussed at some length, with the emphasis being on the prioritisation of ‘earth care’ over ‘people care’ – but it is crucial to bear in mind that the favourable, possibly counter-intuitive consequence of this ordering of priorities is that the needs of human beings are optimally met via the alignment of human systems with natural systems, as discussed above. Moving now to the third and final broad principle in permaculture: ‘setting limits to population and consumption’ (1998: 2, 34), more commonly known as ‘fair share’ or ‘fair shares’. Setting limits to (human) population and consumption does indeed promote an atmosphere of ‘fair share’ in the sense of, first, ensuring that human beings do not have a negative impact on other forms of life and their environments, because (to state the obvious) a considerably smaller human population that consumes less per person (i.e. takes fewer resources from nature) will result in far less of an impact on nature compared to what was glimpsed in Chapters 1 and 2, where the human population hovered at a staggering 7.4 billion people[14], approximately. Second, setting limits to population and consumption ensures a fair share of allocated resources between human beings themselves because (axiomatically again) fewer people consuming fewer available resources will likely result in more resources available per person and thereby achieve a state of human affairs where one receives a ‘fair share’ of available resources, or at least a ‘fairer share’ of them.

[1] Note that Mollison was not the first person to use the phrase ‘permanent agriculture’; it was certainly already mentioned in a book called Tree Crops. See the Wikipedia entry for Bill Mollison.

[2] accessed 18 January 2016

[3] See the extensive comments made by Mollison on this issue in the focus on principle 3, ‘obtain a yield’, below.

[4] accessed 18 January 2016

[5] accessed 18 January 2016

[6] accessed 18 January 2016

[7] At the Permaculture Association website, the term ‘fair shares’ is listed initially (as quoted) at the top of the page, and then the longer term ‘setting limits to population and consumption’ appears in elaboration of the ethic.

[8] Immediately here there is a sense of permaculture resonating with the ‘unnamed movement’ of Blessed Unrest, as well the Occupy Movement, where the overall goal is the same; see Chapter 5.

[9] Note that during the research and writing of this study, the name ‘Prometheus’ nor the adjective ‘Promethean’ were encountered in Mollison’s writing, and the same is the case with the term ‘Orpheus’ or ‘Orphic’. Regardless, the themes, observations, theory and practice of permaculture as delineated in The Designer’s Manual all clearly resonate with the relevance of the dichotomy between ‘the Promethean’ and ‘the Orphic’ as explored in this study.

[10] …though he does not use the word ‘Promethean’.

[11] Note that the argument here is not that mechanisation is ‘bad’, and that a return to some sort of ‘archaic’ labour-intensive lifestyle is ‘good’. Quite to the contrary: as it was seen in Chapter 5 where the focus is on the Zeitgeist movement, mechanisation can be used for social and ecological good. The argument in this study, as is already clear from the content of previous chapters, is that mechanisation in its explicitly Promethean format – which is to say mechanisation as it has historically ‘developed’ alongside industrial, reductionist materialist science, and capitalism – clearly fits as a central ‘tool’ used by Promethean ‘man’ in a violent onslaught against the natural world.

[12] “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” accessed 29 March 2016

[13] The Capitalist economic system should at this stage of this study be considered an anti-economic system considering that the definition of economy and ‘economise’ involves “thrifty management; frugality in the expenditure or consumption of money, materials, etc.” ( accessed 10 March 2016), which is evidently not what Capitalism does – see Chapters 1, 2 and 3.

[14] accessed 10 March 2016

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