Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share. Every permaculture course starts out explaining the three ethics as the core, the touchstone, the litmus test of permaculture. The ethics are the origin to which we return. They are the axis around which we spin – our philosophical zone 1.
Throughout a PDC we explore earth care in depth. Days are spent on the science and technical details of forest systems, soil science, hydrology and ecology. We explore People Care as ways of meeting human need – farming in ecological ways, natural building and the use of appropriate technology. We relearn what the modern world has erased from our knowledge bank – how to meet our basic needs from the bounty of the places we find ourselves in, without destroying those very places.
Fair share is explained by many permaculture teachers and texts as the return of the surplus. The return of surplus, you know, like sharing extra apples from your harvest with the food bank or your neighbors, a permaculture teacher might suggest. Or perhaps it means sharing your fruit harvest with the birds and the squirrels rather than chasing them off in a fit of anthropocentric greed. These are absolutely valid examples of fair share, but they lack a definition. What surplus? How did it get there? And just how much is fair?
To truly engage the ethic of fair share is to engage equity and social justice. This connects the physical ecological resources that have been unfairly distributed, seized and manipulated to the social landscape -people systems that structure their use. Our current lack of ecological and social equity cannot be understood without proper context. To engage equity means to engage history, and furthermore, a particular lens on that history. How have humans constructed and perpetuated unfair sharing thus far? What legal and social patterns have led to, enforced, and expanded social inequality? How do these patterns overlay onto the permaculture movement, the history of its development, and the call for a different way of being that so many of us in the movement are yearning for?
When we see Fair Share as a mandate to explore the implications of equity and social justice we have the potential to develop a more egalitarian vision of permanent culture. We have the potential to set aside social programming and deeply engrained patterns that have rippled into our hearts, minds, and souls. When we are able to see inequality more accurately, as social patterning and structuring that we have been indoctrinated into, rather than individual acts of meanness, there is no need for defensiveness, guilt, shame, or fear that many privileged individuals feel around conversations about race, class, ability, gender, sexuality and other manifestations of inequity.
How do we address social justice in systems thinking? How can we apply the principles of permaculture to the design of relationships and social structures? Just like food forests, natural building, and swales, social patterns as we have coined them, are not new territory. Advocates for racial equity, women’s rights, workers’ rights and LGBTQ rights have been examining social patterns and intervening to re-pattern our laws and social norms for a very, very long time. The lessons we have to learn from them are as many as the lessons we have to learn about dryland farming from the indigenous people of the Southwest U.S.
The implications of engaging social justice in permaculture are immense. Permaculture has flourished in largely first world white cultures. When we examine this phenomenon as an observation rather than as a judgment (remember, we are looking at patterns, not the details of individual stories or feelings) we begin to see patterns and context.
The popularity of Permaculture in Australia, The US and Europe is perhaps in part because it offers a door through which we, the residents of the global consumption class, the sons and daughters of colonizers and neo-colonizers, the unwitting inheritors of stolen land and blood money, might be able to step out of our role as consumers of the world’s energy, food, and exploited human labor. By default, in the mainstream context we were born in, we find ourselves often unwillingly and even unknowingly exploiting the world’s resources and the communities from which they are extracted. What a relief to find Permaculture! It offers us a meaningful way of re-making meaning and culture in a society that encourages us to define ourselves through objects, cash, and conspicuous consumption. It offers a means of reconstructing community around a shared almost utopian vision. As we bond through dirt and sweat, we find a deeper and more authentic connection that fills a void that a new car or a pumpkin spice latte will never be able to fill, despite 1000 ads working to persuade us otherwise.
With our hands in the soil we are able to exhale fully, perhaps for the first time. Reconnecting with our place, re-structuring our community and embracing the undeniable reality that the earth provides all that we need – food, shelter and water, when we work together with not just our fellow humans but our fellow ecological beings brings a sense of deep peace that is hard to describe in an essay, but can be seen as a glimmer in the eyes of PDC graduates, and visitors fresh from a functioning intentional community. It’s akin to the glimmer in the eyes of someone who has just fallen in love for the first time.
I’ve seen that same glimmer in the eyes of protesters, firm in their vision of a better world. I’ve seen that passion as sit ins were staged, as activists were released from police custody, and even as conversations and organization took root as organizers began to circle and forment their thoughts.
Those glimmering permaculture enthusiasts have seen the fundamental flaw in the story we’ve been told by Mother Culture, the origin story of the modern world. We’ve seen an alternative vision to this story, and we have chosen a different adventure, an alternative ending to the story of human. This alternative path is difficult though. It’s been neglected in our part of the world, unmaintained. We don’t know this path less traveled very well, and often we find ourselves bushwhacking through brambles, taking comfort in facing the task together. Often the lack of clarity in our path leads us to wander back to the main road, old habits, old ways of thinking, old assumptions and old stories that we kept with us without considering them. It is here that we find ourselves now, having wandered back to the main road when we consider some of those old stories from Mother Culture. How do these stories and their social patterns keep us on the main road? What proverbial baggage have we carried with us that needs to be set down before we continue this journey towards permanent culture? How can we grow our movement and step off this road together, in equity with all of our fellow humans?
As permaculturists, first we must observe and interact. We must make a base map of the site, analyze the patterns, and dig into the history of our place and our people. We must acknowledge the stories and the patterns that exist on the main road and examine what stories about race, class, gender, sexuality and ability we’ve been carrying with us. Only then can we repack with stories to reshape permanent culture ahead.