Resilience Through Functional Design


Permaculture – Foundational Ethics & Principles

Permaculture is often referred to as a design science. To label permaculture as a science however connotes an inherent separation – between the observer and the observed. Permaculture, unlike modern reductive science, asks that we, the observers, become participants – that we both observe and interact.

Practicing permaculture also inherently means that we are biased, that we take sides, for if a thing does not increase the capacity for life expression within a natural system, it is inherently at odds with the principles that form the foundational pillars for permaculture-guided design and inquiry.

Much like the Hippocratic oath that (in theory) guides the practice of allopathic western medicine, permaculture has a prime directive and three ethics that provide a compass heading – towards greater life expression – in which to apply the twelve foundational principles. Actions out of alignment with the prime directive and the three ethics are inherently at odds with natural patterns that increase life expression.

The Prime Directive Of Permaculture

When learning about permaculture, we often hear about the ethics and the principles. Less often do we hear the prime directive, which is unfortunate, because it frames up the ethics and principles beautifully as guidelines for moving one’s own life into greater alignment with natural pattern based on individual action. We don’t have to wait for anyone to bless us with the ‘right’ or ‘privilege’ or ‘freedom’ to live more in alignment with nature. That power is is available to all of us because it resides within each of us.

Prime Directive

The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children.

Make it now.

The Permaculture Ethics

The ethics of permaculture further differentiate permaculture from traditional scientific inquiry. They ask us to lengthen our time horizon and broaden our scope when deciding upon a course of action (or inaction) based on the second, third, and fourth order consequences of that action. The permaculture ethics connect us to the rest of the web of life that is much greater than each of us, in so doing instilling a sense of purpose. Instead of enabling us to divide, separate, isolate and reduce, as is central to the scientific method as currently practiced (and modern consumption-centric life in general), the ethics drive us towards increased unity, community, integration and expansion – of our thoughts and deeds with increasing life expression.

Permaculture Ethics

  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 for their existence.
  3. Reinvestment Of Surplus: By governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the first two ethics.

The Permaculture Principles

The principles of permaculture are the foundational guideposts that help us align our feelings, thoughts, decisions and action with increasing life expression via ecosystem function – i.e. natural pattern. They are flexible, meant to applied across a variety of contexts, and adapted appropriately to lead us to solutions that create no new problems. Presented below are two sets of principles, the Mollisonian Principles, which come from Bill Mollison, and the twelve principles that form the foundation for permaculture design as spelled out in the Permaculture Designer’s Manual. The Mollisonian Principles make excellent additions to the twelve foundational principles.

Mollisonian Principles

  1. Work With Nature Rather Than Against It. If we throw nature out the window, she comes back in the door with a pitchfork. – Masanobu Fukuoka
  2. The Problem Is The Solution. Everything works both ways. It is our perception that makes a thing advantageous or not.
  3. Make The Least Change For The Greatest Possible Effect. Look for the cascade trigger. Little hinges swing big doors.
  4. The Yield Of A System Is Theoretically Unlimited. The only limit is the imagination of the designer.
  5. Everything Gardens. Every creature modifies its environment to better suit its needs.

Permaculture Principles

  1. Observe And Interact. Recognize patterns.
  2. Catch And Store Energy. Everything in nature is self-sufficient.
  3. Obtain A Yield. Provide for your own needs.
  4. Self-Regulate And Accept Feedback. Mistake are tools for learning.
  5. Use And Value Nature’s Gifts. Nature provides everything we need.
  6. Make No Waste. Waste = Food.
  7. Design From Pattern To Details. Top-down thinking precedes and informs bottom-up action. Energy efficient planning.
  8. Integrate, Don’t Segregate. Each element should have multiple functions, and each function should be supported by multiple elements. Build redundant, resilient, anti-fragile systems.
  9. Choose Small-Scale, Intensive Solutions. Manage intensively in a small footprint. Test at small scale for successful extensive application with less intensive management when scaling systems.
  10. Optimize The Edge. Edge = energy translation = most diversity = most productivity.
  11. Make The Least Change For The Greatest Effect. Find and use leverage points. Little hinges swing big doors.
  12. Collaborate With Succession. Align design with succession towards maturity. Nature has broad shoulders, let them do the work.

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