Monday, February 6, 2012

Permaculture Ethic #3: Return of Surplus

The third ethic is a bit of a problem for me - there are a lot of different versions and interpretations:

  • "Setting limits to population and consumption: by governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the above principles." -- Mollison, Permaculture A Designer's Manual

  • "Fair shares, is a matter of acknowledging that the Earth has limits" -- Whitefield, Permaculture in a Nutshell

  • "Surplus Share. This involves the contribution of surplus time, money and energy to achieve the above two aims of earth and people care." -- Mars, Getting Started in Permaculture

  • "Reinvesting the surplus that this care [earth and people] will create." -- Hemenway, Gaia's Garden

I've arranged these in increasing order of resonance for me.

Mollison's definition makes me very uncomfortable - not that comfort should be expected when you are trying to change the world, but because it conjures for me the image of a benevolent state forcing its citizens to do good regardless of what they want. Working from the personal level, no one thinks about setting limits on their own population; instead, they make individual choices about having children - population limits can only be externally applied on a group level. It is difficult to persuade people to your ideas by explaining to them why and how they are wrong. But the rest of it captures the key idea for me - setting aside resources.

Let's keep going - Whitefield's is better (and it makes a nifty rhyme: "earth care, people care, fair share"), but it still leaves me discomfited. Who decides what is "fair?" I really hope it isn't the five-year-old who doesn't get the toy he wants. Again, this has the flavor of externally imposed requirements and not personal choice. Understanding that the earth has limits should drive your own behavior, but it doesn't give you a license to compel others.

Okay, they last two really do it for me. By introducing the concept of "surplus" this becomes an individual choice, and one that can be scaled up to groups/communities and beyond. Each person gets to decide for themselves what their surplus is and how they will share it.

Why does this wording matter? There are some folks who treat the third ethic as a license to steal - turning it into a justification for taking that which is not volunteered. If someone can make a $30,000 profit on their perfectly raised pig, then it is up to that person to decide how to use that money. If one author publishes a book and chooses to give it away for free, that doesn't mean that every other author is required to do so. No one has the right to decide what someone else's surplus is.

These ethics should uplift and encourage, so to me the central idea is "voluntary." Taking from someone, forcing someone to change their behavior or go against their cultural norms will only cause resentment. Allowing each individual to choose what they consider surplus and how they will share it empowers them to see the need for change and make that change.

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