Putting Some Teeth Into the Permaculture Ethics

The following is a recent essay by New England permaculturalist Rafter Sass. In my opinion, Rafter does a great job of taking the usual discussion on permaculture ethics to a deeper and more challenging level. What do you think?

(1) Care for the Earth
(2) Care for People
(3) Redistribute Surplus

These three ethics have always been at the heart of Permaculture thinking and teaching. At least, that is what folks in the Permaculture movement claim – including me. They are hard to disagree with too strenuously, no? This is partially because they so vague. This abstraction is part of their strength – they are widely appealing, and serve as a commonsense and positive entry point to draw people into a conversation.

The trick is, their abstraction is also part of their weakness. I have often found that the Ethics are taught in a watered-down and feel-good style, that does more to create good vibes and excitement than it does to challenge students, or help designers navigate the sometimes-murky waters of choosing clients, partners, and projects. If they get reduced to a story about tending our garden, then sharing our kale with our friends, and then composting our “surplus” kitchen scraps back into the garden, then what does the movement really gain by having ethics at all? Other than to say – in Permaculture, it is so easy to be ethical!

The way I think about the Ethics – and the way I train future designers – revolves around the idea of putting some meat – and maybe even teeth – behind the Ethics. That “care” is a tricky term, after all – it can refer to emotion alone. Like: “In my heart, I truly care for the Earth, and so I shed a single tear every time I turn the key and start up my Hummer.” I prefer to think that, as used in the Ethics, it actually refers to the action of caring – of taking care of something. So the question becomes, how do we know when we are taking care of the earth, of people?

We can and should choose indicators and benchmarks, to help us know when we are following the Ethics we espouse, and when we are coming up short. Specific measures are up to the designer, but there are a few questions that I think the Ethics demand that we ask – and ask repeatedly.

Care for the Earth: What, really, is our measure of ecosystem health? The most popular in the Pc movement seem to be biodiversity and energy capture, but I would easily accept topsoil depth, presence of top predators, decreasing levels of nutrient or contaminant runoff in surface waters, structural/functional diversity, etc. What matters to me is not which indicator is used, but that there IS one. We need ways to measure our results – and to see if we measuring up.

Care for People: What is our measure for social health? A trickier question, even, than measuring ecosystem health, but we still have to actually think about it if we want to accomplish it. The questions that emerge from this Ethic are:

How is this project helping this community USE AND CONTROL it’s own resources sustainably – or regeneratively? How is this project helping a community take control of its own destiny – to self-determine?

It may not be as easy to come up with a number or a measure for this, but I want to hear you (and me) at least make an honest and compelling case for how our work is doing this.

Redistribute Surplus: Trickier still, this third ethic, and most often neglected. And exactly as crucial as the other two. This one merits a little digression.

Most introductory Permaculture presentations start with an “Evidence” section – a presentation of the evidence that we need to be doing something different – that we can’t go on as we have been. That’s classic Pc, as many folks are aware – to spend just a few minutes on doom and gloom, and then focus on solutions for the rest of the time. I present the usual littany of bummers for my evidence section – deforestation, soil loss, climate, peak, etc. etc., and then as the last item, I put up a slide on “Inequality.” I use this graphic for the slide:

Source: contexts.org/graphicsociology/files/2009/05/conley_champagne_distribution.png

I leave this slide up, while we have a little discussion on “Why is inequality an ecological problem?” The discussion that follows is generally very productive.

My own answers:
(1) Because of the environmental EFFECTS of inequality: poor communities are unable to defend themselves against toxic contamination, and have no buffer against instability in the economic and ecological systems, so bear disproportionate effects – especially disproportionate when compared to comparatively tiny ecological footprint of these same communities.

(2) Because inequality is an environmental DRIVER: as long as their are people making decisions about production and extraction who are making a killing from it, and who can also shield themselves indefinitely from its effects, while at the same time those who do the work and actually bear the brunt of industrial fallout don’t have any decision making power about production and extraction, there will be no sustainability. Research supports this statistically: in counties, states, and nations (3 different studies) the more inequality, the worse environmental outcomes. When the benefits go to power-holding decision-makers, and the detriments go anywhere else, why would we even expect the system to change?

(3) And finally, because it’s just freaking ecological, isn’t it? The movement of energy and matter through complex living systems is the stuff of ecology, and we can use that lens, and those tools, to understand it and to change it.

SO, back to the 3rd Ethic. The way I see it, the question that the 3rd Ethic “Redistribute Surplus” demands of us is this:

How is my work helping, in some way, to begin to flatten the terrible mountain of inequality that lies between us and true sustainability?

Or, to reverse the metaphor…

How is my work helping to fill the chasm that separates the 80% world from the 20% world, that MUST be filled to regenerate our culture and our biosphere?

These are the questions that I try (and sometimes fail) to put at the root of my Permaculture practice – including design, research, and education. These are the questions that I try and inculcate in the slowly growing horde of amazing, inspiring change-agents, that I am privileged and amazed to call students. These are the questions I would like us to be asking each other all the time, and asking of the projects and partners we consider supporting – especially but not only the ones we call Permaculture.

In this light, the Liberation Ecology curriculum is all about an in-depth, design-driven exploration of the Ethics. What does it take, after all, to create a project that can answer this set of questions substantively, and in the affirmative? It takes more than the Principle of Multifunctionality and the Scale of Permanence, I figure. I’m pretty sure of this, actually! If we want to build a movement that works – that gets us the world we want to live in – then I think it’s (past) time to put some more of that critical design thinking that we pride ourselves on into the design of the movement itself. Leavening the feel-good and inclusive nature of the Ethics – with some provocative questions – is one way to do it.


Garden Like Nature: Denver’s first Public Forest Garden

Forest gardening is a permaculture technique for creating a self-sustaining, multi-leveled, perennial polyculture. In a forest garden, A fruit or nitrogen-fixing tree or shrub generally is the centerpiece of a surrounding “guild” of plants, which are either self-seeding or perennial. Plants in these guilds are well-adapted to the local climate, and in addition to producing edible yields, often have other benefits to the ecosystem as a whole. Some add fertility to the soil by fixing nitrogen or drawing deep nutrient sources that other roots can’t reach. Some attract pollinators and predatory insects, and some have medicinal or aesthetic value as well. Once the plants in a forest garden are established, the only work to be done is watering (which can be done through a drip and timer system) and applying new layers of mulch every couple of weeks. The majority of the mulch comes from plants within the forest garden, and we just use what we cut back or dies to mulch with.

This past Sunday, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic group of gardeners joined Adam, Kenzie, and I for the installation of Denver’s very first Forest Garden at Ekar Farm, a five-acre urban farm enjoying its first season of growth. The workshop was meant to not only teach the principles and practice of Forest Gardening, but to install one as well.

We began as most garden projects do – by pulling weeds. We then began digging out sunken beds – a key permaculture technique in a dry climate like Denver’s, where we need to use every technique possible to slow, spread, and sink water that enters the garden site. We dug down about 6 inches and piled the excavated dirt onto the pathways to build them up. With the whole group of 25 or so participants working, we were able to dig out the beds and build up the paths within an hour or so.

The next step was digging little holes for our larger woody shrubs, which we wanted to secure in the ground before mulching. The lesson learned in this step was that holes do not need to be very deep if digging into an already sunken bed. Most of us had to refill our holes quite a bit to secure that the top of the root-ball would only be equal to the top layer of mulch. Some shrubs planted included: nanking cherry, western sand cherry, lead plant, rocky mountain bee plant, sea buckthorn, serviceberry, and siberian pea shrub.

With shrubs secure, it was time to begin the mulching process. As with any sheet mulching, we sourced what we had on site: cardboard, compost, and straw. We laid our weed barrier (cardboard) down first, then did three alternate layers of compost and straw with a final layer of topsoil. Kenzie watered the mulch consistently as it was constructed and while remaining plants were planted. The day was finished once the final layer of straw was placed and the drip line wound through the Garden.

Time and time again I am amazed at the power of community. The rapidity to which we weeded, dug, planted, watered, mulched, planted, and mulched was rather mind boggling and completely owed to the willingness and strength of our twenty workshop students. Beyond being a day of learning and accomplishment it was also clearly a day of laughter, joking, and play. The premise of the workshop was to combine lecture with hands on work and I believe there is no better way to learn. We alternated between feasting on the many yummy snacks provided by participants and Ekar farm under the shade and working under the hot sun. Lectures consisted of principles behind permaculture, proper planting techniques, sheet mulching techniques, and plant and species selections. A handout detailing the design process was distributed to participants and the facilitator’s receipted feedback. Permaculture does not happen without community, that is why gatherings such as this past Gardening like Nature workshop are essential to the cultivation of greater local independence. It was a true gift to be able to work with so many motivated people and to help people remember such a natural and beautiful was of farming.

Permaculture City style

The following post is the first in a series from Wild Green Yonder associate Patrick Wilhelmy about urban permaculture in Denver.

The past six months for me has been a complete immersion in the world of permaculture. I received my PDC in January with very little awareness of the art, and then moved to the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute, where I interned from March to June. Three weeks ago I made the transition from the remote CRMPI site to the city of Denver to work with Wild Green Yonder Permaculture and other Urban Agriculture enthusiasts. The reason for this move lies in firm beliefs of the importance of food justice for all people, the importance of healing people and places through working with soil and plants, and the importance of educating people. The recent transition has really rounded out my understanding of permaculture and the past three weeks have been full of inspiring conversations with many people working to counter a failed system that drives the mainstream.

There is immense potential for food production within the city of Denver as well as all cities. Closing loops by tapping into the waste stream of the city provides an abundance of organic materials as well as food and building materials. There is also an abundance of people in the city. This means there are a lot of people to feed, but it also means there are a lot of people willing to work. The key is education, especially of the youth. The GrowHaus is currently running a summer program for teens teaching about gardening, healthy foods, and healthy lifestyles. So far the classes have been an incredible success and continue to improve as the students become more enthusiastic about their future with food awareness.  People from all backgrounds recognize the benefits of a healthy diet but most people are denied that option.

A favorite project of mine that I have found in the city is SAME Café. SAME is an acronym for So All May Eat. It was started by a young couple Brad and Libby who spent years volunteering in soup kitchens. They noticed how these meals attracted only a certain group in need and desired creating a place where ALL people gathered to eat healthy, local, and primarily organic meals. The entire café is on donation basis and accepts work trade for meals. It is projects like these that truly inspire me and are needed to teach people about the importance of localizing our businesses, feeding people, and creating community. Another fantastic movement is the Denver Handmade Homemade Market. Two of these markets have taken place and they are a blast! The purpose of the market is to support people in their passions and hobbies on a home scale level. Crafts, produce, lotions, teas, granola, bread, cheese, and even haircuts are made available for trade or suggested donation. People are incredibly talented and should be allowed to pursue these passions sustainably. I love the market because it inspires people to create and share with each other and also demonstrates the non-dependence on corporate production and destruction. The city is an extremely important place for permaculture enthusiasts to be because permaculture does not exist without community and in this environment we can support each other in all our projects. The Salon of Urban Permaculture is a monthly potluck and discussion for people interested in farming, gardening, permaculture, community… anything. Two meetings have been successfully held with great talks and delicious food. We are hoping for these gatherings to continue to grow in the months to come. It is my deepest hope that we are in the beginnings of a new world and it is very exciting to be able to assist this movement and work with so many people positively working for change.

WGY June Newsletter

As the miller moths flutter about and cottonwood seeds begin to waft in on the breeze, there’s more than a hint of urban permaculture the air, as well… check out these four fantastic events in June that are taking permaculture to new heights in Denver!

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Salon of Urban Permaculture: “Local Abundance”

Saturday, June 12, 5:30-8:30 PM

City of Cuernavaca Park, 20th and Platte


The Salon of Urban Permaculture is a monthly gathering focused on building skills and community around permaculture in Denver. Each SoUP gathering showcases a different urban permaculture site and includes an informal talk, activity or workshop based around that month’s theme. People of all levels of familiarity with Permaculture are encouraged to attend.

Last month’s gathering drew over 35 people for an electric discussion centered around “Becoming Native to This Place”. This month’s SoUP is themed “Local Abundance”, and will take place this Saturday, June 12th at 5:30 PM along the Platte River, at Cuernevaca Park on 20th and Platte street. The discussion will be facilitated by recent PDC graduate Marcel Templet. Bring a small blanket and a little basket of goodies to eat/share!

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Permaculture at the Home Scale and Public Consultation

Sunday, June 13th 12:30-2:30 PM

4046 S. Quebec St. Denver, CO 80237

$10 suggested donation

Curious to know what the Wild Green Yonder’s home consultation service looks like? Want to get a few tips for how to apply permaculture thinking in your home/yard? This Sunday, we’re opening up one of our consultations to the permaculture public at the home of Jeri Ho in Southeast Denver. We’ll be discussing the essentials of permaculture at the home scale, assessing Jeri’s goals for the site, walking the property, developing specific recommendations of what to plant and build, and suggesting resources for further research.

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Denver Handmade Homegrown Market Club
Friday, June 25th 6:00-9:00 PM
Green Spaces, 1368 26th St (between Walnut and Larimer)

Free to attend, $15 to vend

The Denver Handmade Homemade Market is an alternative market for food/goods produced in local homes and backyards. The first market was a smashing success, with everything from hand-knit baby clothes to delicious fresh bread up for sale and barter. The next one, on June 25th, is sure to be even more bustling! Sign up to sell, or just come to meet Denver’s up-and-coming food entrepreneurs and sample their wares.

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Garden Like Nature: A Hands-on Forest Garden Workshop with The Wild Green Yonder
Sunday, June 27th 9:00am-1:30pm
Ekar Urban Farm, 6825 E Alameda Ave
$18 | Register here | RSVP on Facebook

Want to move beyond organic gardening to the next level of sustainability?

Forest gardening is a revolutionary method of designing edible perennial landscapes that mimic the diversity and resilience of forest ecosystems. Using permaculture, we can design forest gardens that provide delicious food, healthy soil and attractive habitat – all without the continual tilling, weeding and watering of a conventional garden.

Join us in this hands-on workshop as we install one of Denver’s first public forest gardens at Ekar Urban Farm. We’ll introduce permaculture and discuss the practical theory behind forest gardening before getting our hands dirty building a 15’x35′ sheet-mulched forest garden employing locally-adapted edible perennials.

With a mix of lecture and hands-in-the-ground work, you’ll learn:

  • How to create fertile soil from waste material commonly found in the urban environment
  • Which obscure edible plants are well-suited to Colorado’s climate
  • How to design and install self-maintaining edible landscapes that provide food, shade and beauty year after year
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Pssst – it’s not too late to plant!

Got a late start on the garden this year? Not to worry! There are still plenty of seeds that would love to meet the soil one of these warm June evenings. Beans, Beets, Chard, Corn, Eggplant, New Zealand Spinach, Squash, Peppers, Sweet Potato and Tomato all make great June starts! For more details about what makes sense to plant right now, check out WGY’s updated Front Range Planting Calendar.