Care for the earth

By Mary Logan

connectthedotsdoomerhumorThere have been a flurry of public conversations recently about the importance of protecting the biosphere. We are paying more attention to the environment again, after forty years of neglect. And many people are finding this website after googling a surprising question, “Is ecology good for economies?”

There is a growing recognition of the importance of the environment, but there is still a disconnect in understanding the link between environment and economy, and inertia about how to begin to make changes we need to make. How do we convert the basic cultural assumption or value that what is good for us is good for the world? How do our values and ethics shape our culture for adaptation to a future of energy descent? Are values more important during times of scarcity, and how must our values change if we are to survive?


I recently read Holmgren’s 2002 book, Permaculture; Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability. The developing science of permaculture applies systems ecology principles to a new way of living—a permanent culture that honors the environment. Permaculture respects our energetic limits, as a means of restoring the environment while adapting to our future of less energy. Holmgren begins his book appropriately with a description of the three ethical principles of permaculture: care for the earth, care for people, and fair share. The second and third principles are derived from the first, which is primary. I was going to write a general review of Holmgren’s book, but then realized that I needed to spend an entire post discussing his first ethical principle of Care for the Earth. The review will have to wait until later.

Holmgren recognizes the increasing importance of environmental protection during the collapse of a society in overshoot. As the culture evolves to fit a lower energy pattern, societies that survive will be those that care for and protect their ecosystems. Too many people with too much technology will put extra pressures on the biosphere. Our growth-oriented values, ethics, and religion will have to evolve over time if we are to survive. What might that look like?

Ethics and values as codes for living

First, what are some rather loose descriptions of the scales of ethics, values, laws, and religion? Ethics are the cultural codes for a society, which balance self-interest against the communal interests for the greater system. In contrast, laws can be viewed, perhaps, as the least ethic, or the least ethic of personal behavior that is required for cooperative living. Values are personal beliefs that may or may not be supported by the ethical system which the culture at large advocates. Religion is a pattern of beliefs that are shared by groups to help explain values and behaviors. Morals, then, are personal rules of right and wrong derived from these larger frameworks. So ethics and religion work at the larger, collective scale, while values, laws, and morals work at the personal scale, to keep people doing what the systemic goals require. All of these serve to guide personal and group behavior towards what is considered right, and all are subject to change as the system at large changes, albeit more slowly due to time lags.

During the industrial age, ethics have shifted from a cooperative, utilitarian focus to a more deontological, individually focused code that better suits a society undergoing rapid growth. Our values have followed suit, as the media from the culture at large reinforces growth through feedback of ideas and behaviors that promote growth. This shift maximized empower, or power flow through the system. Fossil fuels allowed us the cultural freedom to afford more types of personal rights in health care, political systems of social justice, and other parts of society too. Fossil fuels have allowed us the perception that we are separate from nature–the ethics that result lead us to competitive, individualistic values.

How do our values and ethics shape our culture for adaptation to a future of energy descent? In the western world, the new story that we will need to tell will require reconstruction of our culture from the ground up, within the limits of our constraints. Ethics will help us, by creating a set of values for cooperative communities that teach people how to live within limits of energy and other resources during descent. Odum suggested a set of energetically based ethics for all scales, based on the idea of maximum empower, which is inescapable. Following these ethics could help communities and societies to fit within constraints of limits, within functioning economies, without destroying ourselves.

a man-pram?
a man-pram?

“Although most humans in the recent century of rich and rising energy have lost awareness of environmental responsibility, the role of humans is one of service. Humans provide complex control and management actions back to maximize the main power and survival of the whole system” (Odum, 1977, p. 117).

  • Seek satisfaction through useful contribution
  • Help maximize real wealth (empower)
  • Reinforce environmental sources
  • Treasure genetic and cultural diversity
  • Adapt to natural hierarchy
  • Minimize luxury
  • Minimize waste
  • Adapt to system rhythm
  • Share information
  • Optimize efficiency
  • Circulate materials
  • Circulate money
  • Fit the earth
  • Reproduce only as needed
  • Have faith in self-organization (Odum, 2007, p. 329)
from a March 2012 talk on the ethics of limits
from a March 2012 talk on the ethics of limits

How do we convert the basic cultural assumption or value that what is good for our environment is also good for our economies and good for the world?  Maximum empower suggests that for the most part, people will not change until it becomes clear that we need to change to survive. Maximum power dictates that if we do not use available energy, someone else will. But I think we are there now in many ways, as evidenced by economic cues. What are those cues telling us ? The monetary cues tell us that we need to be more conservative and live more simply to avoid debt and poverty. The cues tell us that we can’t afford to keep building anew in cities while not maintaining the old. The cues are telling us that competitive, dog-eat-dog behaviors are lessening as a source of status to strive for. The cues suggest we can no longer grow thoughtlessly, without regard to the future, without permanently endangering our life support system. Resource scarcity, pollution, and other degradation of the environment is becoming obvious, creating a higher interest in sustainability for those not locked into consumptive behavior.

No action without an emotional impetus

How do we move forward in acting on our changing values? Here are some thoughts this week about the usefulness of the emotions of hope and grief from a panel in Anchorage that included Raymond Anthony, an environmental ethicist at UAA, as summarized by McCoy in the Anchorage Daily News:

“Now, declining diversity on the planet is likewise deemed dismissible. These exclusions matter, Anthony argued, because stripping concern cancels emotion, and emotion is where action comes from. So where exactly does hope come in? If we mourn our losses openly, we see that we aren’t alone in our melancholy or even despair, Anthony said. From here, feelings of emotional solidarity can arise and push us to act ethically and responsibly. As David Hume, the 17th century Scottish philosopher wrote, “There is no action without an emotional impetus.”

Les temoins indifferent - indifferent witnesses
Les temoins indifferent – indifferent witnesses, Gilbert Garcin

We’ve stripped the emotions from our science to deal with the cognitive dissonance of a runaway economy on a finite planet, perhaps. Science that supports growth will have to change, along with everything else. It’s time to put the emotions back in, and to bridge the gap between science and society. It is time to speak out about these issues. First, we need to honor our feelings of environmental grief or mourning, and to nurture a sense of hope for the future.

Then we need to ask ourselves, how do our existing values intersect with care for the earth?  How can we replace the right to develop with the right to share environmental support? What can we do to help heal the biosphere? Creating changes that help us live more peaceably with mother nature will also help our community adapt to energy descent, as the two goals are the same. Changing things within our personal realm, that we can control, also provides psychological resilience, as apathy can lead to helplessness and depression.  And the changes help our wallets, too.

Emergy ethics

from Adbusters
from Adbusters, Kalle Lasn

One way to revalue our society is to become better educated about the energy basis, energy memory or emergy of processes and things, especially if you live in a country that burns a lot of energy.  Make decisions that honor the emergy basis of processes by avoiding waste of energy and using things for their highest and best use. Learn which energy sources offer net emergy and which don’t. Examine processes on an emergy basis and not “carbon,” which is an incomplete accounting of the true cost to the environment. Those solar panels or “clean green” nuclear are actually cumulatively devastating to the biosphere. Do not use money as a measure of empower–those relatively cheap solar panels are actually stealing resources from other countries and from future generations. And treat the remaining non-renewable fuels with great respect, avoiding waste by considering their highest and best use in working towards a goal of a new, lower energy society. Because of waning net emergy, wasteful use of energy in the future will increasingly damage the planet. Waste and luxury, such as heating a 5,000 square foot home, buying cheap solar panels based on unfair trade, or maintaining a green lawn in the desert, will put increasing pressure on our failing biosphere. We’re at the point where our own actions impact the globe, whether it is a super-typhoon in the Philippines, a nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan, an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, or air pollution in China. It’s all connected, and there is no free lunch.

If you live in a suburban neighborhood, you might consider converting some or all of your lawn, either through sheet mulch, or back to native vegetation and vegetable gardens. Plant more trees to shade the house. Reforest in native vegetation where possible. If you live in the desert, you can xeriscape your lawn. If you live in the subarctic, strive for more energy efficiency for the home. Compost, and cut your waste streams by monitoring the trash. Consider how you can cut what comes into your house, too. If your house is too big, add some tenants or extended family. Build your community, by stepping across polarized political lines at your local level to make friends. Share information freely and widely. And if you live in a big city, consider whether living there is even sustainable in an era of energy descent. Care for the earth will eventually mean going back to the earth, back to the land. Choose and rank actions according the empower basis, which reflects the relative impact of your human actions on the earth.

From David Holmgren's Money vs Fossil Fuels lecture 2010
Holmgren’s Money vs Fossil Fuels lecture 2010 How do you value the earth? Or not?

Consider how reliant you are on large, personal cars, and reorder your life so that you can drive less, either through mass transit, biking, or walking. Encourage your community to wean itself off of fossil fuels, to stop building new roads and buildings and to better use and support what we already have. Choose maintenance and contraction over growth. All of these changes will also benefit you in terms of security during descent.

The winter holidays are coming up, which are traditionally the most consumptive time of year. Begin new traditions that hearken back to more traditional times. Make your holidays merry and bright without excess consumption. How can you make gift-giving more experiential and spiritual, and less about the stuff? When was the last time you spent meaningful time together in nature with others? Consider the messages you send your children on a daily basis about what is important in the world. What messages do you send to others about status and what is important for the community?

bioaccumulationdoomerhumorWestern medicine is one of the most energy-intensive constructs on the planet, and it is not sustainable in energy descent. Also, the kinds of health problems that we will be dealing with in energy descent may not even be solvable or available through traditional healthcare fixes. Protect your health through preventive means such as weight control, a good local diet, and regular exercise. Consider your coping mechanisms and whether you have addictions as a substitute for life. Clean up your relationships. Increasingly, chemicals such as pesticides, radioactive isotopes and heavy metals will threaten society.   Learn about these increasingly present pollutants, and how to avoid them in your food. “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” as Pollan would say. Opt for local food of known provenance and safety, and protect the land locally. I already have a list of foods that I avoid, unless I know who grew them and how. Life in descent may be buoyed by some technology, but it will be complicated by additive pollution and more health problems through cancer and other diseases caused by a polluted environment.

Inuksuk--pointing us in the right direction Natural Habitat PhotoTours
Inuksuk–pointing us in the right direction Natural Habitat PhotoTours

A recent interview with Russell Brand raised the question, should you vote? As people divest from the larger society, they may become less interested in large-scale politics. How much effort is useful at the national scale versus local? Consider contributing more effort towards relocalization in general, including politics. Gary Snyder (1974) suggested:

”More concretely, no transformation without our feet on the ground. Stewardship means, for most of us, find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there—the tiresome but tangible work of school boards, county supervisors, local foresters—local politics. Even while holding in mind the largest scale of potential change. Get a sense of workable territory, learn about it, and start acting point by point. On all levels from national to local the need to move toward steady state economy—equilibrium, dynamic balance, inner-growth stressed—must be taught. Maturity/diversity/climax/creativity” (Snyder, 1974).

faithis takingfirststepPassivity at this point is either denial, or a fear of the need to change our way of living and being. Changing ahead of the crowd allows us to learn and adapt in a calm, controlled, fashion, avoiding the rush when a crisis comes. Creating an ethic of limits is the right thing to do, for us and for our children’s children. It is time to write new stories for ourselves that describe our care for the earth.

Human Value System, from Odum, Zygon, vol. 12, no. 2, June 1977 (art by Ann Odum)
Human Value System, from Odum, Zygon, vol. 12, no. 2, June 1977 (art by Ann Odum)
  • David MacLeod

    Excellent post!

  • Great post, I was wondering if I could repost it on the website? I’d be happy to send you a 2014 Permaculture Calendar as a thank you.

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  • Holger Hieronimi

    I apreciate this review of the ethics (not exclusive to permaculture by the way) and I´m curious about your review of Holmgrens book – for me, coming from the context of PC, this book was the gateway to investigate and understand Odums energy concepts – my own understandings of the erhics are reflected in two articles in spanish (directed mainly to PC activists):

    • Hi, Holger. I am mired in a looping rerun of “This Old House,” working on deferred maintenance on a 60-year old house. The review may have to wait a bit. What I have read so far is very readable, and a good introduction, as you say.

      “Celebrar la abundancia en la naturaleza y aceptar sus limitaciones,” si.

      • Holger Hieronimi

        However…your article is excellent…gracias

  • Abdulqadir Bashir Hussein

    Thank you for an inspiring post.
    My name is Abdulqadir and I am currently a student of urban, energy and environmental planning in Copenhagen.

    I have a special interest in the interlink between the restoration of the environment and economy of Africa. One of my major interests has become Permaculture and I would like to share your writings on my blog if possible:

    Thank you in advance 🙂

    – ABH

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  • Virginia Hamilton

    I read Environment, Power, and Society back in the 70’s as a new book in the college library, and I was so taken by his vision I ordered a copy and still have it. I’m also interested in permaculture, but all I’m really getting out of it is a sales pitch. Too many books talking the talk, too many workshops I can’t afford. My late grandmother kept a garden that may well have put any of the permaculture showcase ones to shame. I read an article by an agronomist who doesn’t seem impressed either. He claims permaculture is being oversold. He tells me that without industrial fuel/material inputs into the production system, that permaculturists wouldn’t do much better, and likely wouldn’t do as well as my grandmothers ways and means, and she never heard of permaculture and thought anything green is organic. The agronomist stole the Prosperous Way Down logo and defaced it by replacing “all” with “some.” Your lawyer might want to know.

    • Hi, Virginia. I agree that going back to the old ways will one of the best ways to adapt–hopefully with modern conveniences such as this conversation and flush toilets to make things easier and more palatable. Thanks for the heads up on the logo–in the future, the lawyers will need to find new ways to operate or new jobs– that is already happening, perhaps. Suing people over intellectual copyright is not a good business model for the next generation. Sharing information is power. That logo is actually Enrique Ortega’s, which he allowed me to use.

      • Virginia Hamilton

        That many professionals will have to redefine themselves may be a good thing. Lawyer jokes aside, my aunt is one of those bleeding-heart lawyer do-gooders who will be looking at the list above to see where she fits in. Since Ortega writes in Portuguese, could I make a wild inference that the “Prosperous Way Down for All” is your’s? That the way down could be prosperous for all is a point worth making, even pleading for. Could be, as in a low probability could be. Perhaps a good tactical move that increases the probability that the visitor will read on. Using “for Some” may be a better guess, but I’m thinking I’d just go with “Prosperous Way Down” and leave the cornucopian “for All” off, and leave off a “for Some” or a doomer “for None.” Using “for All” immediately loses the doomers, which may be a good thing, but it also gives the sub-cornucopians concern that this is a feel-good site and some of them may hit the back button.

        • The “for All” is Enrique’s optimism–I used his logo as is. HT debated the words meaning prosperous for many months of dinner table conversations in the late 70s, early 80s while writing the original draft. And he wanted “the” PWD–I talked him into “A” PWD. Yes, words matter.