Geoff Lawton on food, fairness and permaculture design.
By rob hopkins 15th September 2015
One of the highlights of the recent International Permaculture Conference in London was a keynote by permaculture educator and designer Geoff Lawton. Geoff is renowned through his website for his online videos and courses, and is perhaps best known for his greening the desert work. The second day of the conference looked at scaling up, strategies for taking permaculture to the mainstream. This was the subject of Geoff’s talk, which he has very kindly allowed me to publish in full below. In the context of our theme on fairness, his talk could be considered a meditation on what a fair food system might look like.
“Bismillahh. It is great to be here presenting in my home country, I was born Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire 1954, parents move to Bournemouth 1956, where went to school and grew up fishing the Stour, Avon and Hampshire Dorset coastlines, and studying the forest ecology, especially the New Forest in Hampshire and its commons. I moved to North Devon in 1974 and started surfing and winter travelling which led me to Australia in 1979 and in that first year I came across permaculture and I have become move involve every year since and now in 2015 I will be 61 this year I am pretty sure………. its a terminal infection. [Here is the video of the session in which Geoff speaks: he starts at 1:01:00].
If we looked at our planet through the eyes of an intelligent visitor from another world and assessed the earth’s biggest challenges, the most obvious would be the problems created by the human population. 99.9% activity seems to be fuelled by self interest with competitive greed, not co-operation, with exploitation of people and resources, with just a 0.1% positive patterned action facilitating productive ecosystem abundance.
Throughout our existence, the human race has been responsible for creating tremendously harmful imbalances impacting both the living and non-living systems of earth. Our planet is currently suffering unparalleled rates of species extinction and biodiversity losses. These problems are symptoms and large indications of a major evil in action. Ecosystems, on a worldwide scale, are unable to endure continuous negative human forces. Our major climactic stabilisers, are collapsing across the earth.
These life rich systems are the shock absorbers that allow points of balance to be restored after massive fluctuations in energy, such as a hurricane or some other natural catastrophe. Without them, our own existence comes into question as well. Story, ecosystems as energy storage systems, with expressions of full diversity from top predator to mass life weight diversity expressed in soil organisms, with soil creation as a consequence and indicator of energy charged capacity.
Energy being constant, as Einstein stated, as we simplify and destroy global eco-systems our climate becomes more energetic. The variations in our global climate extremes are more volatile every year, and exponentially increasing. In every region of the world we are experiencing record breaking extremes in all directions: simultaneously reaching the upper limits of one system and the barest bounds of another. The hottest, the coldest, the biggest drought, the biggest floods, the biggest winds everywhere worldwide at the same time.
This doesn’t have to be the reality we live in, as we know the attitude, the approach, and the science which can cure all that ails us. After 25 years of designing, teaching, and consulting on every continent throughout the world, I feel the solution is very obvious. With permaculture design, we can not only impede our current negative effect, but also reverse it into a positive one with the potent potential of permaculture like an infectious global pandemic. All we have to do is hone in, and pay close attention to the natural systems.
Through our enhanced observation skills, anyone can see the very obvious cause and effect reactions in all the biological systems. Using both climatic moderation and ecosystem species richness as gauges, positive feed back loops intensify beneficial effects. These are what both people and the environment need, a massive increase in positive feedback loops. Permaculture specialises in this field, finding beneficial interactions between elements, and creating as many of these connections as possible.
The approach of permaculture design can solve all of the global challenges bearing down on our strained biosphere. Our initial action should be to stabilise our systems. Only then can we, and we absolutely without a doubt can do this, convert these systems into reliable, consistent, and permanent resources possessing true and useful value.
The problem is the solution. Every problem is a potential opportunity. It is up to us to change our perceptions.
It is up to us to allow for unlimited abundance and positivity with our vision of the emerging future we can all achieve together. First and foremost, we must engage with our current water management and access crisis. Water is essential to our life systems; we look for it on other planets because it is the chief indicator for a world’s ability to conceive and sustain complex life systems.
Personally, I have been fascinated by water all my life. I have been intensely engaged in all its aspects, from small scale harvesting systems built by hand to immense landscapes built with enormous earth moving machines. I have in-depth understanding and long-lasting expertise with aquatic dynamics and their crucial role in building life rich systems. In the extreme climates and landscapes, water is the priority in design. Clean drinking water is becoming extremely rare in the natural world and is now becoming only a manufactured product in most locations.
The World Health Organisation reports that more than 750 million people lack adequate access to clean drinking water. Diarrhoea caused by inadequate drinking water, sanitation, and hand hygiene kills an estimated 842,000 people every year globally, or approximately 2,300 people per day. Irrigation water is also in more demand all the time. Industrial agriculture is increasing the world’s dependency on irrigation technology due to its ever growing thoughtless actions without regard to the holistic integrity of natural systems.
The signs of water strain globally are the flood and drought regimes which are rising in frequency and more importantly, in high-end variability. By implementing permaculture design, and constructing productive ecosystems that are sensitive and aligned with the holistic integrity of natural systems, we can reverse this effect. To appropriately design life rich systems that harvest, pacify, and allow access to ample clean water, all while providing for our needs, is the ultimate indicator of our ability and intelligence. We have an obligation and responsibility to achieve this as an evolutionary process.
As a species, I know we’ve found the holistically designed science system capable of this feat. Permaculture is the vehicle of our evolution.
The other large-scale challenge created by industrial agriculture is soil depletion. Industrial agriculture is degrading and destroying soil fertility and physically eroding soils on a global scale at a permanent loss rate faster now than ever before in history. Soil is the core of sustainability. A sustainable system produces more energy than it consumes, and enough in surplus to maintain and replace its component parts over their lifetimes. By measuring and improving of soil quality, while creating new soil with appropriate interactions we can begin the journey towards soil abundance.
Soil is the the most complex living system in the known universe, it deserves our appreciation and respect. Agriculture in its present form does not stand the test of time. It is a very bad idea to develop and structure any system to be eternally reliant upon finite resources.
Our biggest mistake in history has been to try and provide our needs from living elements without taking the responsibility of paying serious attention to the damaging effects they have on the natural world.
Poverty is the end result of this environmental injustice. Worldwide hunger is growing and it’s not slowing down, the sad fact is … more children go hungry every day. The United Nations estimates that about 805 million people of the 7.3 billion people in the world, or one in nine, were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2012-2014. The reason is very, very, simple. We aren’t interacting with our planet in a balanced way.
The destruction of our basic survival resources is creating a perpetual increase in global poverty. While the corporation wealth funded science and technology profit production and consumption lobby continues to promise a saviour, people are starving to death. It is not GMO, it is letting poison companies control our global food supply, it is ethical design science in action that will get us out of this mess. The definition of wealth has been manipulated, disfigured, mutilated if you will. We’ve been led astray.
We need to move the goal posts, we need to alter our aspirations. When we do this, we will all achieve true wealth by NOT only understanding, but by USING permaculture design as THE directive for positive action. We have, as a birth right, very basic requirements in life that we are all entitled to. I feel we, as an international community, we should make every possible effort to reclaim these basics in order to become truly wealthy.
The core requirements for true prosperity are;
- an abundance of clean air
- an abundance of clean water
- and an abundance of clean nutritious food.
With these fundamentals in place, we can continue on to creating an abundance of sensible passive energy designed housing with low embodied energy, thereby providing for an abundantly supportive community unified in action by permaculture ethics. This WILL create the ultimate evolution of humanity’s potential. The revolution is no longer disguised as gardening but obviously sedition and permaculture people power.
A meaningful existence fulfils us… we need to progress on from where we are… to where we want to be… this in itself is a VERY meaningful process. With the widespread adoption of permaculture design globally we will have no need for industrial agriculture in its present insensitive form. Conventional chemical as well as organic farming both lack…. sensitivity for natural patterning,….. appropriate scale,…… and beneficial positioning of interactive diversity. Industrial agriculture is inherently inefficient, obviously and inevitably unsustainable.
I have been passionately teaching people how to rapidly make soil on a small scale for many years. With specific techniques and creating local compost, it’s very feasible to design productive ecosystems to facilitate the creation of soil over large areas. Mass education is now possible so that ALL children and adults willing to learn can become completely fluent in this patterned language to a level of understanding that can be expressed in eloquence. Let’s strive towards positive solutions.
It is essential that intentional permaculture design is adopted as the core of all relevant science. With our ethics at the core as we go into action, then and only then will we engage a serious effort FOR all people. We’ll start to implement and invest in a completely global extension of true sustainability, that will repair the earth and create absolute abundance. The current crisis is actually our ultimate opportunity to evolve as a species.
We’ve been presented with the chance to learn from the transformation we HAVE to make. The path FROM the negative death and destruction economy, rooted in the production and consumption system must begin. We have a duty to the advance into the endlessly expansive economy of ecology that will produce a balanced global environment with a stable and plentiful world for all future generations. There is no limit to richness in natural living systems and the more we engage in permaculture design systems the more intricate and refined they become.
By starting with the core ethics that govern our actions, and by allowing the systems that we implement to demonstrate their evolutions… we will inevitably create a world so abundant, it will exceed the edges of our imagination. True wealth will become endlessly available to us. True wealth is achievable by design and now is the time. Our ethos of taking action is to make sure that we care for the earth, care for each other and to leave a positive legacy for future generations. A complete transformation of humanity’s action is possible.
We can grow from the most destructive species on earth, and return to our rightful position as the facilitators of the earths ecological function through permaculture design. Our common goal unifies the global community and is our true inheritance. A return to observing and learning from nature is non-negotiable, from observation, we can take those lessons and turn them into directives for action. With this ethical design framework, and its principles inspired by nature and an emphasis on low-cost solutions, we can meet our everyday needs. From Greenland to Australia, from Korea to South Africa, across the globe we can live in absolute abundance.
We can be very optimistic that this can be achieved as everything we need to know is available to us. There needs to be a global effort to redesign the systems that meet our basic needs along ecological principles, this will dramatically change our fortunes with a realistic prospect of a positive future for all. With 40 years of testing and experimentation, permaculture is ready to scale up.