Transition Ethics: The Art of Compromise

This post first appeared on Numundo on 16 February 2016. We are re-posting it here with the permission of  Shayna Gladstone and author Scott Gallant.

To introduce the post, we’d like to share with you why we were so excited to read Scott’s post. Written by Scott Gallant from Rancho Mastatal Sustainability Education Center in Costa Rica, the post is based on his experience teaching the three permaculture ethics during the center’s Permaculture Design Courses, and the realization that a fourth ethic is required in order to facilitate a conversation about compromise.  They filled the gap with the Transition Ethic. Scott quotes Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein, authors of Practical Permaculture, who acknowledge that “the transition ethic says that no one is going from zero to sustainable overnight. Making the transition takes time.” He goes on to say that “We have to meet people where they are at.  We must understand their cultural context.”

He goes on to acknowledge that as one of the leading natural building centers in South America they “still use concrete in our foundations and metal on our roofs.  We don’t love the environmental impact of either of these materials, but we have done the due diligence to know that they make the most sense in our current context.  These are compromises we must make in order to protect our infrastructure investments from rain, earthquakes, termites, and the tropical climate.  This infrastructure allows us to operate as a world-class education center, without it our livelihood and mission fails.  It is a compromise we must make.”

Scott’s post really resonated with us as natural builders living off-grid in South Africa. In a country with a massive housing crisis we need to be realistic. A great proportion of the population still live in township shacks built out of metal sheets and cardboard. The RDP housing scheme unfortunately can’t keep up with the demand. Can skills training in natural building help close this gap so that people are empowered to build their own homes? Perhaps, but ask yourself where will the materials come from? The very thing that makes natural building accessible and potentially more affordable than conventional building is also what may make it not so – locally sourced materials and easily learned skills and techniques. However, many townships are built on old dumps or sand dunes, and the shacks themselves are tiny. The owners can’t excavate and they can’t afford to import materials.

But, what if new housing was developed that incorporated earth with recycled materials that are available abundantly for very little to no cost, for example tyres, cans, glass bottles and eco-bricks (plastic bottles stuffed with plastic)? Some of these materials are already being incorporated into shacks, but with the thermal performance of mud suddenly a wealth of opportunities start opening up. One of our partners QPT has been doing excellent work along these lines with shack replacement schemes in Bloemfontein. We are also working in collaboration with QPT, Los Técnicos and MyLifE Trust and building a school out of earth and recycled materials in the rural Eastern Cape.

So while you are reading Scott’s post below, ask yourself: Do we as ethical natural builders have a right to deny someone a home simply based on the argument of its purity? Surely it’s about having the humility to acknowledge that sustainability is about economy and social justice as much as it is about ecology. To reiterate, we have to meet people where they are at. In closing, we leave you with this quote from Arthur Ashe: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

 

By Scott Gallant, from Rancho Mastatal Sustainabililty Education Center; first posted on Numundo.

Permaculture Design is many things to many people, but one of its pillars is a set of three ethics.  These as originally laid out by Bill Mollison are

  • Care of the Earth
  • Care of People
  • Redistribution of the Surplus

These are our primary directives for how to act to sustain the earth.  Or on a simpler level these are the ways to a good life.

Scott profileTeaching these ethics during Rancho Mastatal’s  annual Permaculture Design Certification (PDC) course is one of my favorite topics.  It inevitably brings up pointed and challenging conversations, commonly around how to live these ethics in a world that often does not care for the earth, nor its people. How do we live and design for today’s world and for the parallel world we want to create?  This discussion leads to fear and anger based responses, a tear-it-down approach easy to rally around in a classroom of like minded, fed up and passionate souls.  Unsurprisingly, this is not an effective route for change.  It became apparent to our teaching team that this conversation on ethics lacked a route to speak about compromise.  To fill this gap we utilize a fourth ethic in our PDC curriculum; the Transition Ethic.

The Transition Ethic is a guide for how to be effective in creating change. In their recent book Practical Permaculture (one of the few references to the Transition Ethic in permaculture) Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein state that “the transition ethic says that no one is going from zero to sustainable overnight. Making the transition takes time.” We have to meet people where they are at.  We must understand their cultural context.

When I first began learning about the industrial food system and what it was doing to our personal and environmental health, I was angry.  I desperately avoided all participation in that system.  This was easier to embrace while living and working at Rancho Mastatal, a NuMundo impact center. But it was challenging when I returned to my parents’ home during the holidays.  While they eat healthy by many standards, I was disappointed to find apples from Chile, processed meats, and corn-syrup fueled snacks around the kitchen.  It was not a local food paradise by any means, so I jumped on my soapbox and preached.  They needed to support local economies and take care of their bodies!  Didn’t they care about the amount of pesticides used on those tomatoes?!

Scott

They responded with kindness and listened, like the wonderful parents they are, but were likely rolling their eyes in the background, and not much changed.  A few years latter though, when I was able to show them how excited I was to manage a farm in Costa Rica, bake my own bread, and build my own furniture.  I began to see them make real changes.  As soon as my ideas came from a place of positive examples versus negative critiques the transition began for them. Their garden as expanded, they save and share more and more seeds every year, and the kitchen has a few more jars of ferments upon my home arrival.

This instilled in me that even though I was ready to change, the world around me operated at a different pace.  So the question became: how do I navigate the series of compromises needed to encourage change?  The original three ethics of permaculture speak to this in varying ways, but they don’t provide a road map as clearly as an ethic of transition. For me it is a road map of humility, recognizing that we are all coming from different places and we can’t begin to guess the context of others’ lives.

Design work

Rancho Mastatal is one of the leading natural building centers in the Americas.  Yet, we still use concrete in our foundations and metal on our roofs.  We don’t love the environmental impact of either of these materials, but we have done the due diligence to know that they make the most sense in our current context.  These are compromises we must make in order to protect our infrastructure investments from rain, earthquakes, termites, and the tropical climate.  This infrastructure allows us to operate as a world-class education center, without it our livelihood and mission fails.  It is a compromise we must make.

PDC

The Transition Ethic makes it clear that these compromises are ok and often necessary.  The key take away that I share with our students is that we can never compromise our ethics but we can make ethical compromises.

Most of us use fossil fuels, don’t eat only local organic food, and participate in a globalized economy.  We may wish this wasn’t true, but this is the world we live in; and it requires an art of compromise.  So how do we make choices and design our lives for the current world and the one we are creating and visioning for the future?

Permaculture design is one tool at our disposal to navigate these waters (primarily through good design of our lives, homes, and land) and with a Transition Ethic in place it becomes an even more robust tool.

You can learn about using good design to meet our ethical standards during our upcoming April 2016 PDC at Rancho Mastatal Sustainability Education Center in the tropics of Costa Rica.  For more information on the Ranch and this course please see our website.

2 thoughts on “Transition Ethics: The Art of Compromise

  1. I have recently moved to Bloemfontein and would like to make contact with the folk you mention who are working in this field here.

    Can you share their contact details with me? Or alternatively, could you give them my email address and cell number 083 500 3090.

    I am currently laying out “no-dig” and mandala systems, in conjunction with the local agricultural media, as this area is facing terrible drought conditions and it would be great to get these systems known at grassroots levels.

    Perhaps we can get together and share some efforts.

    Thanks in anticipation,

    Chris Godfrey 083 500 3090

    • Hi Chris
      Thanks so much for reaching out. Anita from QPT will be thrilled to connect with you as she’s very keen to get food security projects on the go.
      I’ve sent an email to you and her for a virtual introduction.
      All the best!

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