Permaculture Ethics and Principles

In permaculture certain ethics and principles are used as a guide to ensure that the actions we take result in regenerative, living relationships.

These ethics and principles are derived from observing natural systems and how they self-regulate, as well as understanding the practices of communities around the world who have managed to maintain their health and happiness without degenerating natural resources.

The three ethics Care for Earth, Care for People Care and Fair Share always remain the same. While the list of principles below is an amalgamation of principles from various permaculture writers and teachers including Rico Zook, Toby Hemenway and the founders Bill Mollison & David Holmgren.


These keep us on course and ensure we make the right choices. Without following these ethics, our project will fail.

  1. Care for Earth

    This is also described as the “return of surplus to Earth and people”. In order to ensure the wellbeing of the earth and people, we need to share the surplus we acquire. E.g. Share produce, but perhaps even more importantly, seeds and cuttings; document and share our experiences (knowledge sharing); share information, tools, resources, solutions; joining in with hands-on work; sharing time, ideas.

  2. Care for People

    Our work must help our fellow humans achieve health and happiness and maximise quality of life for all involved by promoting self-reliance and responsibility towards the greater community. We must take responsibility for more than our own future and look to help our community by sharing knowledge and experience to skill people up so that they can provide for their basic needs.

  3. Fair Share

    This is also described as the “return of surplus to Earth and people”. In order to ensure the wellbeing of the earth and people, we need to share the surplus we acquire. E.g. Share produce, but perhaps even more importantly, seeds and cuttings; document and share our experiences (knowledge sharing); share information, tools, resources, solutions; joining in with hands-on work; sharing time, ideas.


The principles are more specific, and these directly guide our design decisions. The Permaculture Design Principles are a set of universal design principles that can be applied to any location, climate and culture, and they allow us to design the most efficient and sustainable human habitation and food production systems. Permaculture is a design system that encompasses a wide variety of disciplines, such as ecology, landscape design, environmental science and energy conservation, and the Permaculture design principles are drawn from these various disciplines. Using these principles, we can know how best to integrate all the separate elements into a whole system, we can easily create efficient beneficial relationships.

  1. Observe

    Before we do anything, we practice thoughtful and protracted observation. Everything is site specific and the design has to be integrated with the realities on ground, taking into account the uniqueness of the site. This creates harmony and allows the design to work with existing natural processes. Observation is and ongoing process, you’re never finished.

  2. Connect

    Every element is placed in relationship to another element so that they can assist each other.
    The number of connections is more important than the number of elements. Therefore, use relative location and placement (the relationship between that part and the other parts of the system) e.g. place the compost close to the kitchen.
    Also important is right location or placement – i.e. the relationship between the part and the landscape. For examples, the compost is accessible from the kitchen garden – think about where the compost is needed, easy access.
    The resilience of the systems you create is a direct result of your relationships.

  3. Catch and store energy and materials as high in the landscape as possible

    “Make hay while the sun shines” - by developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can save energy and use them in times of need. One example would be to store water high in the landscape so that gravity assists in distribution.

  4. Stack functions

    Integrate rather than segregate

    Every part of your design should have at least three different functions/relationships. One element does multiple functions. e.g. a fence can either just be a concrete wall or it can be a living fence that: keeps grazing animals out while acting as a windbreak, provides wildlife habitat, mulch and green manure, a cool microclimate and food for animals and people all while being beautiful to look at.

  5. Support each function with multiple elements

    Redundancy provides resilience. Create synergy. e.g. get water from more than one source. Compare using borewell water for all your irrigation needs to: having an open well, rooftop rainwater harvesting, recharge wells and earthworks to infiltrate stormwater and so on.

  6. Make the least change for the greatest effect

    Find the leverage points, where the least work accomplishes the most change. The system will start changing itself if instead of trying to impose change we just go in and make a little tweak.

  7. Use small-scale intensive systems

    Start small and simple, mistakes will be smaller. In an intensive system you learn more. e.g. plant 10 diff types of greens on a small patch and see which works best. Simple steps, with increased complexity over time. This is also how nature works. Build on our successes. Layering and linking things results in a highly complex system.

  8. The problem is the solution

    A problem is the system trying to communicate with you; giving you feedback. See the problem as an opportunity e.g. pests as a sign of nutrient imbalances in the soil or as an opportunity to create a water body which will attract .

  9. Optimise edge and value the marginal

    Systems having edges, where they interact with other systems. The interface between things is always an important area because it is a zone of interaction. You have both the elements from two systems, and new elements that only exist in that edge zone; often the most productive, diverse and valuable elements in the system. E.g. mangroves.

  10. Use local and renewable resources and services

    Make the best use of nature’s abundance (living things that grow!) to reduce our consumption and dependence on non-renewable resources. How we use something determines whether or not it is renewable.
    Looking at ‘embodied energy’ is a way of understanding the true cost of something. Might there be a better choice in terms of care for earth, care for people?
    Keeps things locally cycled (not importing and extracting through exporting). Localised, economical – , more appropriate for local culture, building and strengthening local economy. Access resources as close to the site as possible.

  11. Get a yield

    “You can’t work on an empty stomach”. Need to create immediate feedback, and get immediate rewards to sustain ourselves, it isn’t about working with only long-term goals. Immediate benefits keeps the process going, more sustainable. More fun.

  12. The yields of the system are theoretically unlimited

    There’s more potential out there than we’re actually able to realise. The greatest limit are the boundaries and limitations we put on ourselves. There’s always potential for more.

  13. Collaborate with succession

    Systems will evolve over time, often toward greater diversity and productivity. Work with this tendency, and use design to jump-start succession when needed.

  14. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

    We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.
    Mistakes are tools for learning, evaluate your trials. Making mistakes is a sign you’re trying to do things better.

  15. Everything gardens

    Everything changes/interacts with its environment for its own benefit. We can design our system to integrate these animals that do helpful jobs as part of their natural behaviour. Not only animals but water tanks and buildings create microclimates.

  16. Mimic nature

    Work with nature rather than against it. Nature is the ultimate designer. Nature will support your design if your design mimics its processes.

  17. Design from patterns to details

    By taking a step back from the nitty gritty details we can get a better perspective on how best to achieve our goals. Observing and incorporating patterns from nature and society can give our designs a solid foundation upon which details can be build over time.

  18. Use and value diversity

    The more diverse the parts are, the more diverse the relationships. More complex, layered and therefore more resilient the system is.