Permaculture Ethics- Return of the Surplus

Today I’ll be discussing one of the permaculture ethics- return of the surplus. Check out the vlog post below and please like and subscribe to the channel if you like what you see!

Permaculture Ethics Overview

The permaculture design methodology is grounded by three main ethics that guide all decisions made during the design process- Earth Care, People Care, and Return of the Surplus. This final ethic is also known as Fair Share or Future Care and is often the one that most people have a hard time understanding.

The ethics are written in order of importance and must be followed as a set. Let’s take a look at the first two ethics before diving into the third more deeply.

Earth Care

The first ethic, Earth Care, has to do with taking care of the Earth both globally and locally. This ethic is paramount to all decisions made in permaculture design.

When designing or carrying out activities on your farm, homestead, or backyard, consider how your actions may be affecting the land- both positively and negatively. Not all actions can be considered positive (take plowing for example), but one negative action may lead to the potential of more positive actions. The goal is to have a net positive effect on the land based on the design choices you make.

Take the plowing example above- in general, plowing disturbs soil structure, killing soil life for the benefit of looser soil to plant into. If you plow on a regular basis and produce food using conventional agricultural methods, you’ll be constantly degrading soil quality and leaving behind a net negative effect on the land.

regular plowing does not permaculture ethics
Regular plowing and conventional agriculture destroys soil structure

However, using a plow once to prepare a compacted, degraded area for perennial food production may yield a net positive result on the land over the lifetime of that project. The fossil fuels burned to run the tractor to plow the land can be mitigated by a long term increase in soil health through carbon sequestration, nitrogen fixation, and fungal pathway development through perennial food production and holistic management.

Keeping the Earth care ethic in mind when designing a property helps you make informed choices over the lifetime of the project. If your primary goal is to leave the land you’re working on better than you found it, the actions you take will be following the ethic of Earth Care.

People Care

Permaculture is a human-centric design methodology. It recognizes that humans are the primary contributors to potential land and soil degradation while also understanding that we can be the biggest benefactors to the land.

The people care ethic teaches us to create systems that provide for all of human’s needs while still protecting the deliate balance of the ecosystems around us. Remember, the ethics are in order of importance- Earth first, people second.

It also guides our decision making processes for how to provide for all of our needs. If producing enough food for our population results in exploitation of humans through poor working conditions or inequality, we are not following the ethic of people care.

Using permaculture design methodolgies, we focus on how to provide an abundance of clean air, clean water, nutrient rich foods, sensible shelter, and perhaps most importantly a deep connection to other people through community.

Community supports the last of the permaculture ethics-return of the surplus
Life’s more fulfilling with a community to share it with

Taking care of your family and the community around you becomes very important when following the people care ethic. Permaculture is not an individualistic endeavor- it requires community

Sharing, instead of hoarding, becomes routine when following the people care ethic, which relates directly to the third permaculture ethic- return of the surplus.

Permaculture Ethics- Return of the Surplus

Now, let’s dive deep into the final ethic, known as return/redistribution of the surplus, fair share, or future care.

This is perhaps the least understood of the three permaculture ethics, as apparent by the various phrases its known by listed above.

To put it simply, the third ethic has to do with keeping our design systems running indefinitely. Let’s use banking as a metaphor to help explain.

Natural Capital

Say you have a savings account with a nice nest egg to support you in times of need. That resource (money) is stored in your bank and collects interest slowly over time.

One day, you decide to dip into that account because there’s a new product that you’ve been eyeing for some time and can’t wait to have, so you withraw some funds, make the purchase and carry on with life. Let’s say this happens a few times over a few months.

When you get your bank statement, you realize you’ve pulled out much more than you thought without adding back into that savings account, and your funds are dangerously low. Your balance decreases with each withdrawal, and without adding back to your account, there will be a net decrease in value.

return of the surplus metaphor- money growing on trees
Money doesn’t grow on trees, but the natural capital principle abides.

The same principles apply to permaculture design. When we harvest from the land, be it vegetables, fruits, eggs, meat, hay, or anything else, we are withdrawing from our natural capital. Mineral nutrients, carbon, water and other resources are used to produce those products and they all come originally from the soil.

The occasional harvest would likely result in very little change to the overall balance of your landscape. But over time, regular harvests begin to take a toll as you export material from the land to your plate or elsewhere. Your account begins to deplete until it can no longer support your needs, and the system fails.

Return of the Surplus

The third permaculture ethic requires that you continue adding into your natural capital savings account.

Say you’re growing corn. Once you’ve harvested your ears and have enjoyed them, shared some with your community, and saved some seeds for next year, all of the bulk organic material from the stalks should be returned to the soil. This can be as easy as chopping it into small pieces and leaving it on the ground or a little more complex by composting the stalks and returning the surplus as finished compost to your bed.

On my backyard homestead, I use my chicken compost system to do the work for me. All of the food scraps or excess food that we dont eat goes to the chickens. They’ll eat what they want to and scratch the rest of it into their deep bedding. I also add all the bulk organic material from weeding beds and doing yard cleanup into the chicken pen as food and extra bedding. Anything I take from the land ends up either in the kitchen or in the chicken pen.

Managing my Chicken Compost System
The chickens produce compost while I journal in the hammock

Eventually, I harvest this bedding and bulk organic matter and use it as a base material for a compost pile that I build within the chicken pen. As the compost matures, the chickens become more and more interested in it as any seeds present start to germinate and bugs start to make their way into the pile.

Once complete, the resulting compost is returned to the garden beds and around trees throughout the property, replacing the nutrients, biota, and organic matter that I took from the site. My compost applications serve as a deposit into my natural capital account, which keeps gaining interest as I take care of it.

Fair Share & Future Care

The third permaculture ethic is also known as fair share or future care by some. Both of these work just as well to describe the overall meaning of the ethic.

Fair share is a great way to loop back to the people care ethic. It’s about taking only what you need and sharing the surplus with your community or with the animals that coexist with you- both domestic and wild. Leaving enough fruit and veg for the animal populations on your site will yield amazing results as you see an increase in pollination and beauty as it returns to a more natural, “managed” wild state.

Future care pairs well with the Earth Care ethic, as we should be mindful of how our actions will affect future generations on the same site, both human and animal. If you take action to ensure a bountiful future for your community and return the surplus, you’ll also be following the Earth care AND people care ethics, creating a symbiotic relationship between all three.

Wrapping up: Permaculture Ethics- Return of the Surplus

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post focusing on the third permaculture ethic. You can’t understand one without understanding all three, so this general overview with a deep dive into “return of the surplus” should help you make the connections needed while designing your future.

If you like the post or have any comments or questions, please leave them in the comments or head on over to the contact page to get in touch.

Best of luck along your permaculture journey. Thanks for reading!