Permaculture Principles & Ethics

What are Permaculture Principles & Ethics?


“Ethics is nothing else than reverence for life. “ 
Albert Schweitzer

“Ethics is what you do in the dark when no one’s watching.” 
– Rushworth Kidder (2003), the founder of the Institute of Global Ethics

“A man is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as that of his fellow men, and when he devotes himself helpfully to all life that is in need of help.” 
– Albert Schweitzer

As a basic definition, Permaculture is a holistic design system for creating sustainable human settlements and food production systems. It is a movement concerned with sustainable, environmentally sound land use and the building of stable communities, through the harmonious interrelationship of humans, plants, animals and the Earth.
By this very definition, this system necessitates that our conduct is focussed on the good of the planet, Nature and the people. It cannot work otherwise.

The following definitions are those that appear on the Permaculture Association web-site where there is a vast repository of knowledge on Permaculture.

Earth Care


Provision for all life systems to continue.

Permaculture works with natural systems, rather than in competition with them. It uses methods that have minimal negative impact on the Earth’s natural environment. In everyday life, this may involve buying local produce, eating in season, and cycling rather than driving.

It’s about choices we make, and how we manage the land. It’s about opposing the destruction of wild habitats, and the poisoning of soil, water and atmosphere, and it’s about designing and creating healthy systems that meet our needs without damaging the planet.

People Care

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Provision for people to access those resources necessary to their existence.

As a part of this planet, you matter! This is about ensuring the wellbeing of both individuals and communities. As individuals, we need to look after ourselves and each other so that as a community we can develop environmentally friendly lifestyles.

In the poorest parts of the world, this is still about helping people to access enough food and clean water, within a safe society. In the rich world, it means redesigning our unsustainable systems and replacing them with sustainable ones. This could mean working together to provide efficient, accessible public transport, or to provide after-school clubs for kids. When people come together, friendships are formed and sustainability becomes possible.

Future Care

Image by MoteOo from Pixabay

By governing our own needs, living within limits and consciously co-creating, we can create a sustainable world where the needs of all things are met, not only today but in the future as well.

Living within limits is not about limiting people’s free movement, tight border controls and a one child policy. It is about conscious efforts to achieve a stable human inhabitation of the Earth, respecting the genuine needs of other beings. Key social strategies include: helping people to meet their basic needs of clean water, nutrition, shelter, warmth, in addition to essential healthcare and education, including equal rights for all.

The third ethic recognises that:
a) The Earth’s resources are limited, and
b) These resources need to be shared by many beings.

Permaculture seeks to create and distribute life-giving resources fairly amongst people, animals and plants alike, not forgetting future generations who depend upon our conscious stewardship of the natural systems of the earth, which provide food, water and shelter.


Like the systems and eco-systems that it works with and designs, Permaculture itself has evolved and whilst the ethics remain the same the principles have expanded to match that evolution.

From its beginnings in Australia in the 1970’s, when co-workers Bill Mollison and David Holmgren conceived and developed Permaculture, originally meaning ‘permanent agriculture’ it has expanded to stand also for ‘permanent culture’.

It now encompasses principles across a growing number of fields from regenerative agriculture, rewilding,  community, and organizational design and development. 

The original Principles from "Permaculture: A Designers' Manual" by Bill Mollison

Work with nature, rather than against it

Make the least change for the greatest possible effect

The problem is the solution

The yield of a system is theoretically unlimited

Everything gardens (or modifies it’s environment)

David Holmgren 12 Principles

Observe and Interact

Catch and Store Energy

Obtain a Yield

Apply Self-regulation and Accept Feedback

Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services

Produce no Waste

Design from Patterns to Details

Integrate rather than Segregate

Use Small and Slow Solutions

Use and Value Diversity

Use Edges and Value the Marginal

Creatively Use and Respond to Change

Principles from "Introduction to Permaculture" by Bill Mollison & Reny Mia Slay

An edge between two ecosystems is an advantage as resources are available from both systems. This creates more biodiversity and therefore more productivity.
“Successful and permanent settlements have always been able to draw from the resources of at least two environments.” Mollison and Slay. An edge, used as a boundary net, can also be used to ‘collect drift’ caused by other elements.

Identify what areas require the most attention, which wild elements occur where and how they can be utilised .
Zones – those nearest require frequent attention, those furthest away need minimal attention.
Sectors – identify which wild elements occur where i.e. wind, fire, rain, sun light & plan accordingly.
Slope – what problems can gravity cause? what systems can it assist?

“Every resource is either an advantage or a disadvantage, depending the use made of it.” Mollison and Slay.
Instead of viewing elements as a negative problem consider how they can be used for positive gain; for example, areas with high wind which is disruptive to growing can be used to harvest energy with wind turbines.

All elements have a purpose and the permaculture design process uses multiple elements to support the main element and its function.

Ensure, where possible, that elements can peform multiple functions. For example a hedgerow can perform many functions; a windbreak, a habitat for lichens, mammals, insects and birds, food for human and animal forage, a boundary marker or a stockproof barrier.

By using what is already growing in the environment, understanding the dominant elements of an area and choosing crops that will thrive around these elements, it is possible to maximise the use of land.
Wild areas or ‘unimproved land’ are areas where the natural process of the environment have developed with the correct species.
“Raising organic levels artificially by using mulch, green manure crops, compost and other fertilisers to change the soil environment. This enables us to plant more quickly.” Mollison and Slay.

Energy Cycles are a fundamental principle in permaculture which seeks to keep the energy flow and resources within the system. This results in Permaculture food production reducing the need for marketing, sales and disribution costs.
A good example of this is kitchen waste; instead of allowing it to be thrown out to genereal waste it can be composted.
“Good design uses incoming natural energies with those generated on-site to ensure a complete energy cycle.” Mollison and Slay.

Diversity enhances resilience and can ‘future proof’ a system. Weather conditions and climate change can eliminate a single crop, creating diversity enables stability where the loss of ALL crops is unlikely.
Guilds – where a main element (such as a plant or animal) is surrounded by other elements that complement it allows them to work together and share the resources needed. This can simply mean that the surrounding elements do not harm each other or can mean that they actively support each other. “Hence the concept of guilds which rely on composition and placement of species which benefit (or at least do not adversely affect) each other.” Mollison and Slay.

“Information is the most portable and flexible investment we can make in our lives; it represents the knowledge, experience, ideas and experimentation of thousands of people before us.” Mollison and Slay.
Used with the ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful (imagination) this information can produce the solution to any problem.
The way to be effective using permaculture is to educate and practice the theory behind it.

Relative location refers to the ‘optimum’ location for an element, which in Permaculture  means how an element relates to its surrounding elements to ensure all factors are used efficiently.
We ask specific questions about how an element benefits its surroundings and how its surroundings benefit it.
“It’s not water, or a chicken, or the tree. It’s how the water, the chicken and the tree are connected.” Mollison and Slay.

Small scale systems can be managed with less resources to a high quality whilst also ensuring that the energy is being used efficiently. “At this moment, it seems clear that planning for highly intensive, biologically-based food production at the doorstep is the only way out of future crisis.” Mollison and Slay
Recognising what can share the same area is also an effective way to use the land.
Plant stacking enables you to grown different crops in the same area, “Taller and short species, climbing plants, and herbs, placed according to their heights, shade tolerance and water requirements.” Mollison and Slay

Permaculture promotes the use of biological resources as a replacement for fossil-fuel based systems. Biological resources are a long term investment, enabling sustainability for the land. In any ecosystem it is the animals that perform the function of returning nutrients to the land.
“Animal Tractor – chickens and pigs are well-known for scratching and digging up the ground in search of worms, insects and roots.” Mollison and Slay. They also fertilise the land at the same time.

Whatever system is being designed it is always done within ‘Permaculture Principles & Ethics’; this also applies to all parts of the design process. Otherwise it is not Permaculture.

If you wish to learn more about Permaculture check out our ‘Learning’ section for our Talks, Workshops and Courses.

You can also see the Permaculture Associations ‘Knowledge Base’ –