By Peter Bourgelais (aka #Pete)
This is a critique of Jesse Watson’s article “Embracing the 4 Ethics of Permaculture”, which was published in our most recent newsletter. To read it, click here: http://midcoastpermaculture.com/4-ethics-of-permaculture/
In writing this blog post, the author feels a little like a high school English teacher asking to see a student after class who needs to make numerous changes to their term paper. I know from one or two such experiences on the students’ end how awkward this can be, but there is some seriously questionable reasoning in Jesse Watson’s “Embracing the 4 Ethics of Permaculture” that needs to be addressed. This post will argue that the concept of limits to consumption and growth is implied in the first two ethics, that Bill Mollison simplified the third ethic for a more general audience in Introduction to Permaculture, and that the third ethic can be easily described in one sentence to a general American audience without splitting it into two ethical principles. This post will speak to the additional material in Watson’s post, and it will claim that his discussion therein rests on a philosophical tradition that is incompatible with permaculture principles.
Watson begins by observing that, while the first two permaculture ethics of Earth Care and People Care can be easily explained to an American audience in an elevator pitch scenario, the third ethic of Fair Share, “set limits to consumption and redistribute surplus”, can take longer to explain. Watson spends the next several paragraphs separating the two concepts into their own ethical principles. As claimed above, the necessity of limits to consumption naturally follows from any proper understanding of Earth Care and People Care. Bill Mollison seems to have understood this in his own writing. The definition of Fair Share that Watson quotes above is very close to that on page 2 of Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, published in 1988: “SETTING LIMITS TO POPULATION AND CONSUMPTION: By governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the above principles”. The much shorter Introduction to Permaculture, published in 1991, defines the third ethic as “the contribution of surplus time, money, and energy to achieve the aims of earth and people care” (p. 3). There is no language related to growth and consumption limits in this definition because the only real way to follow these ethics is to set those limits. The modern global economy passes very real limits of consumption and production every day, and does so by not practicing the three permaculture ethics. Amazon doesn’t practice people care when its workers have to give up bathroom breaks (1) to meet productivity targets and are forced to urinate in bottles, it doesn’t practice Earth Care when it uses fossil fuels to ship packages, and it doesn’t practice Fair Share because its sole purpose is to maximize profit for shareholders. This violation of limits is a symptom, not a cause, of deviation from the permaculture ethics. When limits to production and consumption are understood to be a natural consequence of the three ethics, the third ethic can be explained in one sentence: “Use the surpluses—of food, water, money, animal manure, etc.–for Earth Care and People Care”. This obviates the need for a fourth ethic while addressing the problem Watson set out to solve.
The English word essay derives from the same word as the French verb essayer, to try. This has been pointed out by countless English teachers as part of a broader point that an essay should introduce a problem, attempt to resolve it in the main body of the work, and conclude by summarizing the reasoning that the author has laid out. While Watson’s blog post makes sense to conclude after describing the (unnecessary) fourth ethic, it continues on for another 1,800 words beginning with the section “The role of catalytic change in the PDC” with no clear transition to the next stage of the post. There may be such a transition several paragraphs in with the sentence “An explicit and central awareness of limits can be a helpful antidote to this religion of progress”. This “religion of progress” seems to refer to “The myth of progress with its faith in Star Trek fantasies and a technology-based Rapture where we metamorphosize (or is it metastasize?) and expand across the solar system”. This myth expresses itself in American permaculture circles with statements like “A future of less energy could be better than the one we have now”. Watson talks about this myth of progress after defining religion as the “narrative, metaphor and myth we generate as a result of inferring patterns out of the chaos of sensory stimuli from the universe”. In describing the various dimensions of religion under this definition, he includes not only persons and works that the average reader would associate with religion (e.g. Jesus and the Bible), but political and economic theories such as Marxism and scientific concepts such as “atoms, gravity, electrical forces and spirals of DNA”, adding that for most people, “meaning and purpose comes not from rational or logical thought or understanding of the universe”, but from these and other wellsprings of meaning. In order to understand why this line of reasoning conflicts with the theoretical underpinnings of permaculture, we have to look at the recent history of Western philosophy, where permaculture fits in said history, and the inevitable contradictions created by lumping in the scientific method, which is embedded in the permaculture design principles, with any religious text.
In a different context, Youtuber and trans woman Natalie “ContraPoints” Wynn created this concise summary of the past 300 years of Western philosophy. Brackets and emphasis are mine, and parentheses are to denote references to authors shown in the video:
“Early modernism is the philosophy developed by a bunch of boring, 18 th century queens [sic] (Voltaire and Rousseau) which says that we can form universal theories about the world through observation and reasoning, aka the scientific method [aka the permaculture design principles “Observe and Interact”, “Apply self-regulation and accept feedback”, and “Design from patterns to details”]. Now that turns out to work pretty well for whatever questions you have about plants and crystals and how to medically configure human genitals, but it has some limits, which was pointed out by David Hume…Hume argued that, from a strictly empirical perspective, you can’t really know much about important things like morality, causation, and the self [Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share], because those aren’t the kinds of things you can observe. Then the late modernists came along and they said ‘F*** Hume! We’re gonna do science about those things anyway!’. So the late modernists were a bunch of boring, 19th century neckbeards (Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, Marx and Engels) who, one way or another, tried to discover universal scientific truths about humans. So for example you have psychoanalysis, which said human nature can be understood in terms of unconscious drives…and you got Marxism with its analysis of bourgeoisie [the 1%] and proletariat [the 99%], you got early sociology and anthropology, which started out with racist social evolutionism (Herbert Spencer and Auguste Comte), and progressed to a kind of ‘we’re all the same universalism’ (Margaret Mead and Claude Levi-Strauss)…Postmodernism is skepticism about modernism, so whereas modernists try to create eternal and universal theories about reality, history, and humanity, postmodernists say ‘Actually, no, that’s not possible’. For example, the French postmodernist Michel Foucault wrote intellectual histories of subjects like psychiatry, medicine, and criminal justice in which he argues that we should not understand these histories as straightforward progressions toward liberty and scientific truth, but rather as mere shifts in the way that power orders our institutions and populations.”
Wynn goes on to describe how late modernist conventional feminists, who argue for concreteconcepts of gender to organize around for women’s rights, are regularly in conflict with postmodern feminists, who are interested in deconstructing the very idea of gender. Likewise, and with the above context, permaculture is clearly a late modernist school of design thought. How can one make designs for specific parts of the earth and particular humans without first basing them in universal principles about the natural world and human nature derived through observation and reasoning? Lumping the permaculture ethics together with a wide variety of ideologies and labeling it as just another possible shift in how people can order their institutions undermines the very design principles on which permaculture is based. Postmodern permaculture is a contradiction in terms.
In conclusion, while Watson is to be credited for writing about the permaculture ethics, this post is offered in the spirit of “only a true friend will point out that you have toilet paper hanging off the side of your shoe”. The need for a fourth ethic of awareness of limits is obviated by any careful reading of two of the foundational texts of permaculture, and an argument for a postmodern permaculture ethics (which the latter 2/3rds of this post appears to be) has several fundamental flaws given the inherently late modernist structure of the permaculture ethics and design principles.
Peter Bourgelais is a 2016 Resilience Hub PDC graduate who builds earthworks and medicinal polycultures on a 3.5 acre permaculture property in Phillips and maybe thinks too much about the permaculture ethics. Please don’t ask him to fix your computer.