Permaculture TheorySeries: Permaculture

Part 3, Permaculture design ethics

An introduction to permaculture ethics, the absolute foundation of any permaculture design

The permaculture design ethics earthcare, peoplecare and fairshare are the absolute foundation of any permaculture design. Rooted in the spirit of cooperation they provide an ethical baseline or moral compass for design.

Series Permaculture Part 3

In the last part of this series we took look at the meaning of the word permaculture. In this article we will examine the permaculture ethics and design principles as the foundations of permaculture design.

Last time, I introduced the permaculture concept: a holistic philosophy for ecological and sustainable living, that recognises our planet as an interconnected ecosystem. To allow everyone to best adapt the permaculture approach to their personal social and natural environment there is no set definition of permaculture. To nevertheless provide some orientation, the permaculture ethics and design principles are meant as a guideline that help designers align their designs with the wellbeing of society and our planet.

From a permaculture perspecive, ethical actions are those that support life and unethical ones those that harm or destroy life needlessly

The three permaculture ethics – earthcare, peoplecare, fairshare – can be regarded as the absolute foundation of any design in accordance with the permaculture spirit. As they were derived from the commonalities of many worldviews and beliefs, they appear natural, possibly even obvious to many people. However, by making them the foundation of the design process, ethics in permaculture are not merely an intellectual construct of philosophy, but tangible guidelines to be put into practice.

For additional hands-on guidance, there are different sets of design principles in addition to the three ethics — it is up to the designer to choose, which set of principles best suits his or her design project or personal understanding and application of permaculture. Of course, anyone is free to develop their own set of principles. For now, though, we will focus on the permaculture ethics (and have a closer look at different sets of design principles in the next part of this series).

The below graphic by Richard Telford illustrates how the three permaculture ethics are at the core and surrounded by the permaculture design principles (in this case, David Holmgren’s 12 principles).

Permaculture ethics

With the growing power of human civilisation, the growing impact on our ecological life-support-systems, and the growing concentration and scale of power within society, ethics are becoming evermore important in ensuring not only the long-term survival of humanity and all other species, but the very integrity of our planet’s global society and complex ecological systems.

The permaculture approach is grounded in the firm belief that a mindset of empathy and cooperation is fundamental to creating a more peaceful, harmonious, ecologially sustainable, and socially equitable world. Permaculture founding father Bill Mollison described it as follows:

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

Instead of asking the question “what can I get from this land, or person?”, we ask instead “what does this person, or land, have to give if I cooperate with them?”. Although seemingly insignificant, the former question fosters a mindset of exploitation, while the latter encourages cooperation. Rooted in the spirit of cooperation, the three permaculture ethics – earthcare, peoplecare, fairshare – are meant to provide a baseline or moral compass for ethical behavior in permaculture.


The earthcare ethic refers to the importance of caring for the living soil, which could also be described as fostering ecological sustainability. In permaculture, the state of the soil is a popular measure for the well-being of society, as the health of our planet’s web of life is closely linked to the health of the soil.

Earthcare reminds us that a permaculture design should be geared towards building soil and contributing to the regeneration of our planet’s interconnected ecological systems. Current forms and scale of human activity, including resource extraction, greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, toxic waste disposal as well as the resulting climate change, mass-extinction of species, loss of biodiversity and toxification of landscapes are increasingly undermining the functioning of our planet’s ecosystems.

Because of the severity of the current situation, permaculture designs should actively contribute to the restoration of ecosystems. In opposition to current trends of reducing our impact (“zero-waste”, “carbon-neutral”, “low-impact”), permaculture aims to maximising (positive) impact. If the right kind of waste is produced (organic, degradable waste) and if it is handled properly (keeping it in the cycle of life) more “waste” can actually mean more life in the soil.

Earthcare thus reminds us align our actions with the regeneration of our planet’s ecosystems by closing cycles, growing soil, maximising positive impact and fostering conditions conducive to life.

In practice, aspects that contribute to earthcare may include the following: caring for the living soil as the most fundamental resource of life; contributing to the restoration and establishment of living systems; fostering circularity and diversity in living systems; stewardship of our local environment.


The peoplecare ethic refers to the need for healthy human connections and the value of collaboration. Peoplecare always begins with ourselves, as our own long-term well-being is prerequisite for any meaningful actions we might take. However, as we are not separate beings, peoplecare also extends to our families, our neighbors and our wider communities – ultimately, the health of our human connections strongly relates to and is inseparable from our personal well-being (if you are interested in the role of  the psychological well-being of individuals, I can highly recommend Johann Hari’s most recent book Lost Connections).

Peoplecare is also a reminder that greater wisdom lies within a group of people and of the power of collaboration. Our current mode of human interaction (beyond our families) is largely built on on competition, exploitation and the maximisation of individual, monetary wealth. The resulting isolation of individuals and atomic family structures are undermining the power of collaboration in our lives and the joy of having close and meaningful relationships with (many) people. The skyrocketing cases of depression and anxiety and the loss of purpose that has been washing over the Western world for the past decades demonstrates the severity of the situation.

Peoplecare thus reminds us of the importance of human-connectedness and the power of community and encourages us to actively care for your own wellbeing and the relationships in your life.

In practice, peoplecare may include: Prioritising your own long-term health over any immediate actions you may take; caring for your relationships with your family, friends, neighbours and wider communities; actively seeking new relationships in your local environment and deepening existing ones; learning to be empathetic towards others and communicating in a way that is non-violent; and prioritising group efforts over individual “heroicism”.


The fairshare ethic is a synthesis of earthcare and peoplecare – it refers to the importance of taking only what we need and sharing what we have in surplus, while recognising the natural boundaries for physical growth.

The current expansion of human consumption and the concurrent destruction of ecosystems and mass-extinction of species is evidence for the impossibility of unlimited physical growth. At the same time, our focus on producing and consuming physical goods has resulted in a staggering loss of all the non-material goods, such as meaningful human-connections, community, or spirituality, to which there are no boundaries.

While fundamnetally rejecting our current, global industrial growth model, permaculture promotes a different type of growth. Instead of limiting growth, it might be worthwhile considering what kind of growth we are currently missing out on – growth in soil life, growth in biodiversity, growth in human connections, growth in connectedness to nature, growth of communities or growth in spirituality.

The health and wellbeing of our fellow human beings is just as important as the health of our ecosystems, in fact the two are inseparably interconnected. Extreme wealth, proverty and the vast disparities in wealth (both between and within continents, countries, cities and villages) all contribute to hostilities and ecological destruction. The rich are destroying the environment to fulfil their desires, while for the poor it is a basic matter of survival. In the meantime wars are fought to establish who will be rich and who will be poor.

The fairshare ethic of permaculture thus promotes a growth of non-material goods, reminds us to recognise boundaries of growth and invitues us to share any surplus we might generate.

In practice, fairshare means relying on simple solutions that are accessible to all; integrating rather than segregating; establishing physical and social structures that benefit all members of the community; actively making room for people who are suffering disproportionately more than others; sharing surpluses with people in need; and working towards building a gift economy.


There is an abundance of resources to learn more about the permaculture ethics. Here are the ones that I used for this article.

In the next article of this series we will take a closer look at the permaculture design principles.

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