As I’m diving into permaculture for my diploma I’ve spent some time thinking about computers and software through the lens of permaculture. This has been on my mind for quite som time and finally the moment found me to write about it. This text will not go to any great depths as I simply know too little about the specific processes, even so I believe I know enough to make some general assumptions. I’ll be exploring both computer hardware and software through the lens of the three permaculture ethics set forth by David Holmgren. Shortly summarized they are:

Earthcare
Means making sure our actions and the systems we design leave the
earth better than before – both the planet and the local soil.
Peoplecare
Means making sure all the people involved are left off better than
before.
Return of surpluss (fair share)
Means making sure that we only take what’s needed and that any
surpluss are returned or divided. This means making compost or giving
surpluss lettuce to your neighbours.

Now, as I understand these they are a sliding scale. That is permaculture is not a binary yes or no; rather it’s a question of how much permaculture a system is. To be considered permaculture a system cannot go against any of the ethics; though a system can be permaculture without clearly fulfilling all three – a weak permaculture system, but still permaculture.

Computer Hardware

So first off the hardware, the stuff your software runs on. Computer hardware contains a whole range of metals and other components we dig out of the earth. I have to say I’ve never been to these places but I’ve followed a bit of the work of the fairphone company and while they do a much better job of caring for their people, even they seem to break both the ethics of caring for the earth and caring for the people. And so far we’ve only looked at extraction of raw materials.

Factories in and of themselves are neigh impossible to run with respect to the workers in them; simply because the whole concept is built on hierarchy and authority. In an industry pressured by mass production and pricing to accomodate ‘a phone a year’ I cannot see how people care is possible. Pollution once again breaks earthcare.

I cannot say much to the return of surpluss, only that I’m aware that a lot of the metals in the components are extremely difficult, impossible some would say, to extract for reuse. There is also the question of how electronic wastes are treated; which I again know too little about.

Free Software

Like permaculture has three ethics, free software has four freedoms any given software needs to give it’s users. They are:

Use
The freedom to use the software for whatever purpose and in whatever way you want.
Study
The freedom to study how the program works, this requires access to the source code – the recipe of the program.
Share
The freedom to share the software with whoever you choose.
Improve
The freedom to improve and change the program to make it do what you need, this also requires access to the source code of the program.

Reading through these it may occur to you that a lot of the software we use does not grant these freedoms. And you might be wondering why this matters, after all the nonfree software may do what you need. Let’s look through the lenses of permaculture ethics. Software in itself has little direct impact on the earth, so I will skip this ethic here.

With free software we ensure a return of surpluss because all investments, work or otherwise, will be available to everyone. That is – if I pay someone to make a free software pdf reader capable of reading epub files the result would most likely be shared with everyone. Free software in itself offers us this ethic up front. The opposite, with nonfree software, the program is usually unavailable to anyone lacking money, or recently, anyone unwilling to share their private information. Nonfree software also cannot be improved or changed unless the developers of the software choose to do so.

When we look at peoplecare free software makes it possible to help others both by sharing the software, by enabling improvements by the community and also by choosing to keep your privacy and data your own.

The problems of nonfree software are innumerable, and I’m not going to spend much time on it here. For anyone interested I recommend the following texts:

Checking if a program is free is often simple, most free software boast being free, others just have a link to the source code under contribute or download.


As I’ve outlined I don’t think there exists computer hardware in use that could be considered to be in the permaculture spectrum. I think obtaining a yield is important and I see the impact internet and computers have on spreading information and building knowledge. Yet I cannot leave the ache behind that these are systems degrading our planet, our soils, our human wellbeing and our freedom.

We could do much better. This text could have been more thorough. We could try making our own computers – Hah! I think our energy is better spent elsewhere. As of now the most permaculture advise I can give is to reuse hardware and install free software on it.