Fairness is not an attitude. It is a professional skill that must be developed and exercised. - Brit Hume
Permaculture has a set of three ethics that serve as a foundation for the principles that guide decision making. These are Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. These ethics are the basis of Permaculture philosophy, appropriate to apply to all aspects of life, including business. This framework allows us to make informed decisions when there is not a clear best choice. The balance of Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share can act together as an ethical gyroscope to inform decision making.
The first two permaculture ethics are simple to understand - at least superficially. Earth Care and People Care have clear objectives. Although they might take a lifetime to perfect, the goals of maintaining natural resources and demonstrating compassion are simple to detect.
The third, Fair Share is a bit more complicated. Fair Share is the principle of limiting our harvest of a resource and reinvesting surplus appropriately to boost the health of the system. This considerate and calculating behavior is in contrast with the Starvation Mindset, in which goods are hoarded against famine, without regard for the status of security of the system. But how is fair share calculated, and when does limiting how much to take make sense?
In permaculture examples, tree metaphors are common; trees are both familiar to us and also prolific function stackers - they create valuable yields, while representing many inputs and outputs simultaneously. A mature apple tree, in a good year, will produce an abundance of fruit - far more than one family can collect or use. By permitting your neighbors to harvest the surplus, you strengthen the community bonds that you may one day depend upon when your own resources run low.
This isn’t altruism in the strictest sense, since altruism requires you to give something that is a cost to yourself for no benefit. The transaction above deals only with surplus raw value, not something that costs us to share.
This is the core resource cycle within Permaculture: obtain a yield, and stack those yields so we generate abundance at every opportunity. Then, store that yield to provide for the future. When we have enough to fulfill our design, we reinvest the remainder within our community and our environment.
This is fairly easy to accept when we’re talking about apples. Firstly an apple is a perishable commodity, which means that without processing, they go bad. Secondly, apples are difficult to trade without an apple-trading infrastructure like a working orchard. When an apple is traded, it is normally traded for other similar foods - apples are largely a fungible commodity. Thirdly, there will be apples again next year, effectively without fail. Requiring minimal effort and providing a dependable yield, apples are a completely renewable commodity.
Commodities that are perishable, fungible, and renewable are easy to share. They are also the easiest to set up recurring systems for, and I suggest you surround yourself with yields of this type, because it will greatly enrich your life. They are also unfortunately the least valuable for trade, which brings our attention to the other end of the spectrum: A good that is nonrenewable, has a mercurial exchange rate, and appreciates with time.
Of course, the prime example of this sort of good is money itself, and that’s what most of us are used to trading. Regarding money is where the rubber of fair share really makes contact with the road of business. Our nature as proponents of industry, as entrepreneurs ( as mini advocates of capitalism ) is to take every penny on the table, and either invest it internally or return it to our principals.
I’m not sure there is a common school of thought in any business program that teaches us to think about the guy on the other side of the table, but we need to consider all of the stakeholders in a system for a design to be successful.
Perhaps we can explore this perspective with another classic example: a concise view of foxes and rabbits. In a computer simulation of the predator-prey problem, there are three simple assumptions: Rabbits only die when foxes eat them or by starvation, foxes only die of starvation, and the interactions between them can be described by a mathematical function.
Population growth and decline for both species can be defined as “the population at the current time will be equal to the population of the previous time PLUS the previous population multiplied by the birth rate, MINUS the previous population multiplied by the death rate.”
Pt = P(t-1) + (B * P(t-1)) - (D * P(t-1))
If no bunnies or foxes die (D=0) and the birth rate is 5% (B=.05) then 100 rabbits then means there will be 105 rabbits in the next generation. It’s the same with foxes.
The interesting bit comes when those two populations are allowed to interact. Fox birth rate is dependent on available rabbits - if there isn’t enough food, not only do they starve more frequently, but also less are born, as the birth rate drops when there isn’t enough protein and fat to go around. The rabbit population is kept artificially low by the fox population, but if it rises above a certain level, then all rabbits may starve simultaneously, when the bunnies’ food is exhausted.
In an environment with the right amount of interaction - IE, plenty of brush cover for hiding and mild winters, the rabbit and fox population can both rise to very large levels, with a stasis forming. The two populations depend on each other for survival.
If the brush cover becomes too overgrown, the interaction coefficient drops, and less rabbits are eaten over a season. They overgrow their resources, and the rabbit population crashes. When this happens, so does the fox population, without enough rabbits to hunt.
If a harsh or long winter kills back the vegetation considerably, interaction grows, and a short-term gain in fox satiety results in a drastic rabbit depopulation. Too many foxes have too many babies, and once again, we see a corrective crash in the ecology.
This simple simulation represents how removing a predator from a chain, like cattle ranchers have with wolves in the midwest US, results in changing the entire ecosystem; driving dramatic shifts in ecology, topology, hydrology and cartography.
We, as business foxes, hunting our rabbit customers, need to consider their population’s health during our endeavors. Overhunting - extracting every possible cent from a client - can leave that client weak and unable to sustain us in the future. Raising our prices can can force the client to raise prices, and that in turn can cause their customers seek other solutions. If we make our clients non-viable, they may go out of business or choose another vendor.
When reinvesting our surplus, we need to consider those we ‘prey’ upon and also with the customers they interact with, culturing a healthy ecosystem for our endeavors to live in.
We need to set budgets and stick to them, not look for infinite growth at every opportunity. Delaying gratification, building savings and spending wisely - even when resources are abundant - not only prepares us for less abundant seasons and reduces the burden on those who we depend upon, it allows us to survive the unforeseen lean times without starvation or scarcity driving our day to day tactics.
We are what we eat. We depend on them. It’s common and easy to think of those we do business with as “responsible for their own problems”. We extract as much money as we can from them, and they in turn must extract as much as possible from the next level in the chain. This is essentially the core of trickle-down economics, the belief that by concentrating money at the top of the chain, it will overflow from and cascade back down to the bottom.
But this only works if people are sufficiently reinvesting at the top of that chain, into diverse and marginal ventures. Unfortunately, the nature of people who rise to the top of such a chain can be just as affected by Starvation Mindset, driven to capricious behavior and hoarding, instead of making sustainable decisions.
The successful at the top of this chain may also take the concentrated cash and use it to commit a full body press on smallpox, or to create an amazing library, but philanthropy is not reinvestment - that money hasn’t gone back into stabilizing the foxes and the rabbits, it’s been granted to the eagles and the snails. Now, snails and eagles are valid and there is no reason to begrudge them libraries and the end of disease. This doesn’t change the fact that the engine that keeps the philanthropy running can crumble from supporting eagles and snails, instead of it’s own native fauna. Philanthropists who pull resources out of the top of the system and redistribute it unevenly may do so unsustainably, without regard for the ecology of the entire system. The foxes and the rabbits, prone to wild swings in population, could both wind up starving as a result.
New here? Reading “what is permaculture” will help you catch up quickly.
Alice, the artist of the image above, edited and proofread this piece, and was inspired by it to create this illustration. Thank you, Alice!