Permaculture Ethics: Care for the Earth, Care for the People and careful consideration of the needs of others

Permaculture is based on three social and environmental ethics
people using permaculture ethics and sharing land access
You can see more illustrations by Katie Shepherd at

One of the first things you will always learn about in permaculture is the ethics:

  • care for the Earth, because she is what sustains us;
  • care for the People, because we ARE people, and because people who aren’t cared for tend to mess up the Earth;
  • and the third ethic, which has been interpreted a variety of ways but, for the purpose of this class, I am summarizing as “careful consideration of the needs of others,” meaning other of ALL species, not just our own.

(For a thorough explanation of the permaculture ethics, and the “Heather Jo Flores assertion” about what the third ethic should be, read this article.)

However, though we learn and teach about the “permaculture ethics” in every class, course, and workshop, we too often discuss these ethics as if they are apart from ourselves, and herein lies the rub: if we are not willing to strictly adhere to these ethics ourselves, and to make a commitment, as permaculture designers at whatever level of expertise, to BE the change, rather than just preaching about it, then we’re wasting our time.​

And so, for today’s class, we’re asking you to say it out loud, wherever you are right now: I promise to try, every day, to study, honor, and exemplify ALL THREE ethics in my permaculture practice.

Ok yes that feels great…but HOW?​

Through your relationship with the land. 

tree of permaculture ethics illustration by Heather Jo Flores

Permaculture is: patterns-process-principles-PLACE.

Access to land, gaining it, sharing it, maintaining it, and respecting it are the core ingredients that make permaculture possible. Even if you’re absolutely focused on Social Permaculture, you’re still sleeping somewhere, eating somewhere and, whether you acknowledge it or not, deeply connected to the solid ground on which you conduct your day-to-day existence.

If you can’t find a space to practice your permaculture ideas, you’re not gonna get very far. Yes, of course you can grow pots on your patio and catch graywater from a bucket under the bathroom sink to water them…but that’s not really permaculture, and it would be remiss to pretend like it is. You can practice permaculture in the city, and you can do it if you don’t own property. But if you don’t have access to land, on some level, then you have to get out there and find it.

By the same token, if you DO own property, and your plans are to create a permaculture design there: unless you create space within your project to include and support those less fortunate than you, then you’re neglecting the third ethic, and probably the first two as well. Caring for the Earth, caring for the people, and considering the needs of others will always require us to reach far beyond our own property and family’s needs.​

Bottom line:

If you have it, share it. If you don’t have it, share something else.

land access piechart

Urban Permaculture: access to land in the city

​Becky Ellis, who teaches the Urban Permaculture module in our certificate course, offers a ton of amazing resources, including her Permaculture for the People podcast. Here, she discusses ways to find space in the city.

A note to landowners:

If you happen to have access to land, consider opening up a section for nearby urban dwellers to come and grow food. Or, if that’s too much for you, perhaps host local school tours?

A case study:

In Eugene, Oregon, there’s a 33-acre organic farm called River’s Turn, and for the last 40 years, farmer John Sundquist has hosted school buses from all over the county for annual farm tours. The kids come in hordes and follow John around the farm, where he talks about growing food, taking care of animals, managing the water, and so much more.

As such, now there are several thousand grown adults, all over the Eugene area and far beyond, who went to River’s Turn farm during their elementary education, and now their kids are going to the farm too! It’s truly extraordinary how that one farmer was able to influence how so many kids think about food, plants, land, and life…simply by opening his doors to the school buses a few days a year.

Big picture, little picture….​

Now, there’s a HUGE discussion about privilege, capitalism, and colonization, that we could get into here, and one could posit that controlling a population’s access to land (and water) has been the primary tool of murderous regimes, for millennia. If you want to discuss these topics, you are absolutely welcome to pose them in our group. We just ask that you stay calm, present, and open to the inevitably challenging conversations that will happen. Ultimately, if our movement is to gain lasting power, we will need to have these hard conversations, and more.

However, for today, focus on your own plans for a permaculture design that works, for you. Come and join the discussion, share your thoughts on the big picture…but don’t get so distracted by it that you neglect the hands-on practicality of applying these ideas to your life, right now.


Questions to Ask

  • What’s your own version of the third ethic? How can you define it, in a way that you can commit to, for your daily life?
  • If you have access to land, what are some ways you can share it? Make a list of at least ten ideas that would feel comfortable for you…and don’t be afraid to stretch that comfort zone! Growth is good!
  • If you don’t have access to land, make a list of other types of resources you could exchange, to gain access. Time, labor, ideas, artwork, organizing…be as specific as possible; really articulate what you would be willing to offer as a mutual exchange. After brainstorming about it, try writing up a few paragraphs you could include in an email, asking a local landowner about gaining access through them. 

Stuff to Do

  • Go out into your community and walk around. Look up, look down, look all around, and make a list of all the places you see that could be shared into a permaculture design that would benefit the community in some way.
  • Extra credit: take pictures of your favorite spots and write up your ideas, then share them in our group.

Relevant Links and Resources​

So much great stuff on this topic! 

Why My Farm isn’t a Permaculture Farm
If you live in the country now, or if you dream of buying a farm of your own someday, read this insightful piece from Marit Parker, who teaches several sections of the PWGPDC. Want her for your dedicated faculty mentor? Great! Just check her name in the box on the orientation form, after you enroll.

Marit Parker teacher of permaculture design course

My land is your land
A provocative, creative approach, from the brilliant folks at Milkwood.

tomato plants in urban garden with diy greenhouse Kansas City

Gaining Ground
Excerpted from Food Not Lawns, How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community, here’s a quick-n-dirty rundown of 8 ways for non-owners to find land on which to grow food.

food not lawns in portland urban vegetable garden with dog

TreeYo Permaculture
Doug Crouch has created a ton of really useful content, all available for free.

Doug crouch permaculture pioneer 

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