The Third Ethic


The Permaculture Designers Manual, 1988, gives these as the permaculture ethics:
1) Earth Care
2) People Care
3) Reducing Population and Consumption

For all sorts of interesting reasons, some permaculture teachers later changed the 3rd ethic to 'Fair Shares'.     

Here are some of the (continuing) debates about this.





Article Against original Ethics

Here is an article called "Permaculture and the myth of overpopulation", published in August 2015, which gave rise to an interesting discussion that you can see both below the article and also in some Facebook discussions.   



Arguments for Keeping original Ethics


This reply from Stella (coordinator Integral Permaculture Academy) was posted in a Women in Permaculture thread in FB.  Point 4 is particularly interesting from a systems thinking perspective.   



Thanks for bringing up this issue which I do think needs discussing, although I disagree with your conclusions (and most of the facts you present in this article).

Just a few:


The Actual Numbers


1) It is very misleading to use a graph of decline in percentage of rates of population growth for this article!
Would anyone in their right minds argue that climate change becomes ‘a myth’ when greenhouse gas emissions start to decrease in percentage rise (they’re still rising exponentially, just slightly less than before)?

Doing this ‘very bad math’ is especially misleading given how many people don’t understand graphs and how notoriously bad humans are at understanding the explonential function. A rise of 0.77% is still huge amounts of extra people.

Here are the projections of *total* population rise:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Projections_of_population_growth
which is actually what this ethic is about and (should be) the whole point of this conversation.

And here is a 'world meter'counter for world population in real time, which is even more graphic.

What the small-sounding percentage rises actually mean is that world population is growing at a rate of some 100,000 *extra* people every day (net figures, meaning births minus deaths: every day we are growing by that huge number of people).
*And* also note that 200 whole species are destroyed every day.
These numbers are related: the 200 species per day is all biomass of other species + their whole habitats – going directly into creating human biomass + all the crap we produce. That’s what living on a finite planet means.

Pointless to argue whether it’s numbers of people OR consumption per capita we need to limit, when the ethic specifically states *both* need to be addressed: “Reduce population and consumption” … means “so that OTHER species also have a chance to live here: we are meant to share this planet”.



Empowering Women


2) You say: “The myth of overpopulation has lead to solutions of population control and fertility treatments, rather than overall health care and women’s rights. ”

Also very misleading: (apart from overpopulation not being a myth – see point 1 – and repeatedly calling it a myth doesn’t make it one), it’s also not at all fair to suggest that noticing the human overpopulation pattern can only lead to horrors like genocide, forced steralizations, etc. Because that only happens if we’re desiging very badly and don’t have a people-care ethic.

A big point of this being one of these 3 ethics is in fact that IF we ever put our designer heads together to seriously try to solve the human overpopulation problem we would very quickly come to the conclusion that improving women’s rights and health care is THE best (mini-max, multi-functional, etc.) way to reduce population, *and* increase real standards of living (happiness, ie. reduce consumption) for everyone.
Because it is the only way that human populations have ever naturallly reduced (by choice, not violence of any kind).

So taking the original 3th ethic seriously – instead of changing it – might even have helped to make permaculture more feminist. What a wasted opportunity :)



Cause or Symptom


3) but the biggest confusion this article perpetuates seems to be whether overpopulation is a ‘root’ problem or just a symptom. And it actually doesn’t matter a bean, in this case.

Because the reality (certainly as far as designers of solutions are concerned) is that it sometimes *does* make sense to address symptoms, especially if they are sufficiently big symptoms (and this one is huge), and most especially when root causes are difficult to change without addressing the feedback loops that keep them in place.

As is this case here. Eg. women who already have 3 – 5 children to look after are very unlikely to have time to get educated or liberated in any way.. but if a special effort is made to educate her daughters is it less likely they will keep the tradition of big families going. It’s obvioustly a chicken-and-egg situation, and changing the culture is the easiest way into this. Which is why it’s put as an ethic: we are being asked to think differently.

And I totally agree that overpopulation is a symptom. But it’s a symptom of patriarchy, of anthropocentrism (also very evident in some of the answers given above), of agriculture, imperialism, stupidity, not understanding basic thermodynamics … of so many things… and it’s a symptom that keeps feeding all those root causes.



Key Leverage Points


4) Also, I would suggest we’re quite missing the point if we don’t notice the significance of putting “reducing population and consumption” as an ethic – & not lower down in importance or visibility as (say) a directive, goal, objective or aim, for example, in our design system.

Dana Meadow’s famous “Places to intervene in a System” scale, is important for mapping this:

a) the level of “numbers” is still a leverage point (so even if we just see it as a numbers problem, we’re doing ok)

b) but much bigger leverage (to change systems) points are “the goals of a system” – and this 3rd ethic, by being placed in such an key level for designing, is meant – I would argue – to contradict the type-1 error goal of the destructo-culture, which is “growth” – and which we unawarely keep perpetuating (the green version of this being things like ‘more organic food’, more ‘eco’ houses, etc.)
c) and the biggest leverage point is “The mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises” – and putting “reduce population and consumption” (for humans) specifically as an ethic, also suggests to me that it is meant to contradict the main toxic mind-set of our destructo-culture which is antrhopocentrism: the crazy idea that this planet was created to support mainly human life, that we’re somehow the centre of creation, etc.

Which many permaculture designers don’t ever get to question (also evidenced by the answers above).. which is why ‘Fair Shares’ doesn’t cut it at all as an ethic: most permis, in my experience, still interpret that as ‘sharing amongst humans’ even if that is not the meaning ascribed originally: too easy to forget for anthropocentric humans, that other species should have equal have rights to us.

Ethics exist to remind us to do precisely the things we don’t normally even want to do.  The fact they are uncomfortable doesn’t mean they are wrong: they are MEANT to stretch us in better directions, to push us to really change things- especially to really change ourselves, our ways of thinking.

So I think one of the biggest – and most telling – mistakes we ever made as permaculture designers was to dilute our ethics. Earth Care and People Care are aready quite vague … so to change the only pointed and explicit ethic we had to ‘fair shares’ is interesting. Because it means exactly nothing – it’s a platitude at best (it makes the whole 3 together sound like platitudes), just designed to make us feel good and not have to think about the most critical uncomfortable issues of our time – like how deeply anthropocentric we are, how addicted to growth we are, and probably also how frightening most of us would find the idea of actually liberating women world-wide. Deep down we know that would really revolutionize things :)



Self-Regulating Systems


So that was our most feminist ethic, really  ..

Note that liberating women would self-regulate population in terms of first/third world also. 
Am not making any judgements as to how many children any woman should have: just that it should be a real, truly free choice, for the system to self-regulate.

In the west for example ... clearly it has been women's liberation that has mainly resulted in smaller families ... but it's also not *enough* women's liberation that leads a lot of women to not have any children or fewer children than they would actually like.

Because childcare support is still crap, because it's still too difficult to combine maternity with a  career, because women still take the burden of most of the childcare and housework, etc. because motherhood is still devalued (by our culture, NOT feminists as some ignorant people try to push..) with respect to 'real' jobs, because it's difficult to find un-sexist men / ones mature enough to want to make a family with, etc. (all of these are feminist issues)

So more (real) women's liberation - which would also mean liberating men to being better fathers - would sort out the 'underpopulation' problem ... wherever it is a real actual problem.

Although I don't agree there's anything to worry about if European populations - say - decrease dramatically, per se - that's just a racist fear, at root, since immigration from overpopulated countries - if we stopped trying to prevent it - would balance that out naturally. The 'problem' is just in the heads of white people who can't stand the idea of 'too many brown people'.

For places where women are culturally expected or forced into having more children than they would like (or they would prefer if they had any other real choices for finding personal fulfillment), women's liberation (starting with educating all girls) leads to smaller families and better child-care in the family, automatically.


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All about Culture


Like everything in the curriculum, the ethics have to be interpreted and explained. That's why we teach the PDC (hopefully an interactive, dialogue-rich process), not just give people a list of stuff to read.

"Reducing population" to an informed whole-systems designer should translate directly as "empower girls & women" - because that's the only humane way population has ever self-regulated. Anywhere.

And obvioustly we're looking for 'humane' since another ethic is 'people-care', and we're looking for 'self-regulating' because that's the whole point of permaculture design.

But guess which bias (that both men and women carry) stops us from seeing this fairly obvious thing? Patriarchy puts huge blinders on all of our eyes - it has been the dominant culture globally for eons.

We are meant to design SYSTEMS where these ethics can happen - and it's our massive (cultural) bias towards individualism and linear thinking that makes us interpret them in a way no systems designer ever should.    In the end it's all about culture: the paradigms we carry. And of course I think we can learn to see beyond them, I wouldn't bother to mention any of this if I didn't think that.

Obvioustly it's insulting to sugges that 'reduce consumption' should apply to people who are already starving, and it's interesting that so many people (in the west) read 'reduce population' so directly as 'though shall not have kids'. That's very individualistic, totally linear way of thinking (which is why our cultural bias are critical). And that is a perspective we teach, also, if we aren't aware of it.

Since the whole point of the third ethic is to stay within carrying capacity of an ecosystem, obviously it's total population that matters - not necessarily how many children any individual family has. And we know people are starving in some places because of over-consumption in others. The ethics are there to remind us we are meant to design with ALL of that.











in 'world of meters',
a real-time counter
that shows births, 
deaths, etc.






There's a dialogue related to this page in the Integral Permaculture FB group (click icon to go there)

There's a dialogue in our FB group about this subject (click icon to go there)