Relaunch coming in July!

We are archiving this site and upgrading.

The relaunch will feature:

  • New articles
  • Design resources
  • Free and premium courses
  • Forum space for you to connect with others

If you would like to be notified of our relaunch, sign up for our newsletter.

Sign up

Friday, November 04, 2005

New Geoff Lawton Interview

On October 1st this year, I grabbed Geoff Lawton on the last day of a Permaculture Design Certificate Course he was teaching with Permaculture founder Bill Mollison. Geoff had some alarming things to say regarding the state of the world's environment.

DJEB: The last time I saw you, 2004, you mentioned two events – one was a possible event, but the first one you mentioned was the tsunami that you did work on in ’98; and we of course had the big one in December. And the other event was New Orleans, which you mentioned to us and told us what could possibly happen and it wasn’t a conspiracy theory or anything like that. It happened. What are your thoughts on those two events?

Geoff Lawton: Well, the tsunami was one that took everyone by surprise. And the size of the event obviously shocked everybody, you know, how vulnerable people are at a distance to a natural event like that.

One of the great results from the recovery, sort of the design side of the tsunami, was that some of the government agencies listened to our research that we had from the New Guinea tsunami. And the fact that we had researched the fact that tree belts buffered the impact and particularly filtered out the destructive debris in the waves and were a lot less fatal to people when there was a tree belt on the foreshores. And that was very easy to reference in the December Indonesian tsunami because there was so much footage. And it was easy to see if you scanned through the footage that where there were dense tree belts on the foreshore, there was hardly any damage behind and a very significant drop if any loss of life at all behind large tree belts. Although those shots weren’t shown on the news very much because the media, as usual, concentrated on the sensationalism of the catastrophe and the biggest damage. But particularly the Indian government surveyed the aerial footage and they could see very easily that where there were tree belts, there was less damage. And they initiated a planting of 8 million trees in the first wave of repair along foreshores. And they also looked at using trees that would grow on the foreshore and be functional and productive. So, they choose some productive species that would also handle those situations. And they put in a theme of honoring all the people who were lost in that there were trees that were donated to victims, and their families were given permission to plant trees at ceremonies, so they [the trees] are kept alive. So that was good.

One of our directors, Andrew Jones, actually got the job of heading up the post-tsunami rehabilitation assessment consultancy team in Indonesia, based in Jakarta. And we’ve got permaculture education systems going up in the repair of Aceh on the people-scale to start with and the initial reconstruction. And there’s still talk of total redesign in a more sustainable way – but there’s been a large problem with the bureaucracy throughout the Indonesian government on the spending of the money and how it will actually be processed. But we tried our hardest to get those sorts of permaculture initiatives in. And permaculture is written as the main part of the rehabilitation assessment consultancy for the UNEP. So that work goes on.

There’s a gentleman called Steve Cran working for the Bali… well, the Indonesian permaculture group IDEP ( who are based in Bali. Steve Cran is teaching courses there in Aceh. And there are people working on the ground with reconstruction. So hopefully that goes on as research that will go further into helping any future tidal wave, tsunami-type disasters. It’s obvious that tree belts, appropriately dense tree belts on the foreshore mitigate the power of the tsunamis and definitely filter out destructive debris.

Then we have New Orleans. It was only a year ago when we were there in August the year before Katrina and we were teaching a course there and we were evacuated when Hurricane Ivan nearly hit New Orleans. A million people were evacuated, and we were part of that. And we were half way through a Permaculture Design Course which we had to shift up country a few hundred miles. And now the scenario that’s been painted for a long time, the drowning of New Orleans – there was even a book, The Drowning of New Orleans that described exactly the scenario that’s happened. And the reality is there.

What has become really obvious is the knock-on scenario that when you have a disaster in a first world country, you have this enormous amount of ongoing residual damage because of the amount of possessions and property and equipment ownership of first world people. And the knock-on event that happened with the oil refineries and the oil rigs where 12% of America’s oil got knocked out of production and out of circulation. And that doesn’t sound like much, but because America consumes so much oil, that’s a very large amount of oil out of the world circulation. And it’s had world repercussions, and that’s just one little storm, really. It’s knocked out one city, really, or one area with one major city. So I think what’s happened from that and is still happening is there’s a real serious look now at the global situation of global warming, weather patterns, what’s causing it, why the northern hemisphere is hotter than the southern hemisphere - which is obviously because there are more industrialised human settlements in the northern hemisphere and the separation of the weather systems around the Hadley cell at the equator. And I think it’s crunch time and Bill Mollison’s been saying this for over 20 years; and he’s actually been naming the time frame – “within 50 years,” he said in 1983 when I took my course [Permaculture Design Certificate Course] “you’re going to see major changes.” And here we are just 25 years later, we’re only half way into it and you’ve got it, you’ve got it happening fast.

DJEB: The other day you mentioned the first south Atlantic hurricane in history.

Geoff Lawton: Yeah. Well it hasn’t really been much spoken about in the general press because it didn’t cause a lot of damage. But Catarina was the name of the hurricane in the southern Atlantic below the equator and there they’ve never been recorded. That’s the first ever and meteorologists are really worried about that because that indicates something that’s a first and a new phenomenon. In quite cool water with quite cool weather patterns we got a very large hurricane forming in the south Atlantic for the first time. So that’s a spillover, I think, of the northern hemisphere weather that’s now pushing over into the southern hemisphere. That’s a spill out really. I think that’s how it’s being seen.

And a scenario that’s happening right now is the release of CO2, particularly the release of CO2 in the ocean, which is speeding up with the arctic meltdown. There’s always a knock on scenario. The lack of reflected light from the polar icecap now is speeding up the warming of the northern oceans, and you’re getting a release of CO2 in the oceans at a much faster rate than was expected. And that is becoming carbonic acid, and the pH of the ocean is dropping dramatically. So, you’re acidifying the oceans. And they’re now talking about a possible doubling of the acidity in the oceans in the next year. And that’s dramatic change. That’s whole life systems getting knocked out. There are lots of sea creatures – sea life – that just won’t take that. And that’s more release of CO2 when that death rate comes on.

So, the inquiry for solution-based systems now is, I think, going to exponentially increase. And when you’re sitting in the position that we are as designers and consultants, it’s actually a bit of a worry that you’re going to just get overloaded with inquiry and if it’s possible to get the resources to get the job done – which is really training people up as quick as possible.

DJEB: You have classes coming up, of course. Any aid work coming up for you?

Geoff Lawton: Well, I have aid work coming up in Vietnam and in Thailand next year, and I’m on consultancy, at a distance, with a lot of different aid work scenarios. And right now, there’s a group of us seriously looking at the possibility of formulating a permaculture aid organisation which can establish NGOs in many places. All of that has to be speeded up, I think.

Click HERE for the 2004 interview with Geoff.


Scott A. Meister said...

It's absolutley wonderful to have this in print. Thanks for doing the interview Geoff, and Douglas.

It was nice to hear Geoff talk about some of these things in the course, but he added a lot more here. Acidifying the oceans...dang. What's the Permaculture fix for that?!

I also liked the...

"There’s always a knock on scenario."

The Sensitive Dependance on Initial Conditions strikes again.

There's a lot to worry about here, but the thing about the Butterfly Effect is that it doesn't have to be a negative one. Now that I've taken a course, and know more about the possiblities of Permaculture, I think that we can turn things around with a little PRACTICAL design, and some sensible life-style practices. It's going to take a lot of convincing for the rest of society though.

However, when the effects of good designs are witnessed...the idea will it has in the southern hemisphere.

Sometimes, it has to get worse, before it gets better. Perhaps things will get really bad before the Northern Hemisphere decides to change. Necessity is the mother of invention (or should it be motivation?) afterall.

I've got more to say, probably, but I want to think about this a bit more.

That's just what struck me off the top of my head for now.

DJEB said...

Actually, sensitive dependence on initial conditions is something a little different. That merely demonstrates how in models of chaotic systems, even the slightest change in the system eventually has a dramatic change over a similar but different starting point as the system cycles through.

The feedback or knock on effect is more about webs or connections that perhaps hadn't been seen or thought of before (like the vital role played by deer mice in Canadian forests).

In this case, the knock on scenario really, really scares me. There is a lot of methane sequestered in the permafrost in the Arctic - particularly Siberia where is has been bubbling out of the thawing ground. The warming effect of methane is 12 times greater than that of CO2 (if memory serves correctly), so the effect of arctic warming could be accelerated warming. I'd rather not think about what could happen if the oceans warm enough to melt the methyl hydrate deposits on the sea floor.

Unfortunately, I can't do anything at all to prevent such a pass. I can try not to make it worse, though. For example, burning a gallon of gasoline produces 9 kg of CO2 which would take a large, mature tree one year to absorb. (Before some world-killing PR shill working for the logging industry shows up here, no, the answer is not to cut down all the trees (with government subsidy) and replace them with tree plantations. Your wet dreams would create more CO2 as the waste wood decayed and as the paper products your bosses manufacture ferment into methane - see above - in landfill sites at the end of the products lifecycle.)

That out of the way, Scott, I agree that sometimes "it has to get worse, before it gets better." As the nice lady who drove us out to George's farm pointed out to us recently, many U.S. farmers are faced with the prospect of not being able to grow next season as they can't secure loans to operate due to high fuel prices. Add to that the fact that China can no longer feed itself and has become the world's largest wheat importer. I don't know what shape the Canadian and Russian farmers are in, but there is a chance that 2006-2007 will see a food crisis. Time, of course, will tell. But if the American's are out of the game in large enough numbers, who's growing the food?

"[T]he market in it's infinite and mysterious wisdom" has proven itself over time to be totally incapable of meeting the needs of mankind. I think that trusting it with our future survival is foolish in the extreme. The thing that gives me personal hope is that you and are are accelerating our efforts. Our current mutual project's design is nearing an end and there is another big one starting at the end of the month that I'll be consulting you on. I've sent off specs to Canada for a consultation there and will be going there within 5 months to work on 2 projects - and hopefully more once I get there. (I'd love to design an ecovillage there.)

Jez said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jez said...

I'm a little out of my depth here, but perhaps 'things getting worse in order to get better' is exactly what is happening in our 'Muslim ghettos' right now..

DJEB said...

It has looked to me for my entire life that people don't like to think about what it is they are doing, let alone the consequences of what they are doing. And if what they are doing is ruining their environment, they usually continue to do so until it has very serious consequences for them.

With the myriad of problems facing the world coming to the fore, things are going to change. When you tell them that, they don't get it, though. They think that their lives as they are today are going to continue on forever - something that is physically impossible due to the finite nature of resources. They are going to chance, but, in their case, when the change comes, they are not going to like it.

Frankly, I'll be overjoyed to see an end to needless air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution, noise pollution and waste, though I'm sure virtually everyone around me will hate it.

Jez said...

Thing is, how much of a reduction of pollution can 'normal' citizens bring about without governments and industry making the first step?

DJEB said...

It think the thing is that government won't do a damn thing unless the people make them do it. And I think the greatest, most impacting change comes from the bottom up.

What causes pollution? The industrialisation of our lives. And what has this given us? The X-Box, plasma screen TVs, microwave ovens, cappucinno makers. Gadgets. If you were to lead a really "hard" life living in the Kalahari as the bushmen there traditionally do, you would have to work 700 hours a year, which is the high end of yearly work hours for indigenous peoples leading traditional lives. Now, the life you have to look forward to, Jez, will be 2000 to 3000 hours a year, mostly for gadgets and fashion. To me, that is a cost I will not pay. We don't need to live that kind of life. The choice is not that or primitivism, either. I can live in a modern house (better than the standard modern house), eat great food (better than what's available at the market), drink clean water (better than what the munciipality would give me from the tap), live in a house with electricity, hot and cold running water all while leading an environmentally low-impact life and working around 10 to 12 hours a week. I like that better than the alternative. And I think that when people saw my alternative, a lot of them would choose it.

I think we should remember who we are. We are the majority. There is no need to let overly wealthy people shape our society, or the politicians they own, or just plain old miss-guided politicians for that matter. We can change it now, or continue as we are, use all our fossil fuels, continue to muck with our climate, then change out of despiration when there is no energy source left. The first way will prevent a lot of people from being starved to death, but, I suppose, if people insist on their gadgets, they can always pass the bill to their children.

Jez said...

fi true fi true. what about innernet-can we still surf the information highway?

DJEB said...

The danger I see with the information highway is the danger I have with the information stupor highway: addictive behavior. I watch about 2 or three hours a week of TV and that is often DVDs. I do, however, spend a lot of time online - too much time.

I recently read about the experiment in which chimpanzees were put in a room that had twelve buttons with symbols on them which the chimps could push to get what they wanted (food, affection, water, etc.) The test was designed to see if chimps could learn symbols, but it showed something else. It showed that when removed from their stimulus rich environment and put into this simple, man-made environment the chimps suffered many of the malaises of modern life, including addiction.

I can't help feeling like one of those chimps...

Jez said...

Yeah, but we're not chimps...we're supposed to be intelligent enough to resist addiction.

DJEB said...

Key words "supposed to".

Jez said...

Cue the philosophy class question:
Does individual freedom exist?

DJEB said...

Only if I allow it...

Tomoko said...

It's been nearly two months since we took the Permaculture Design Certificate Course. It was so great. I also talked with Geoff. He said that he has tried to grow up permaculture students who are active people. That impressed me. Therefore I have got the most important thing for permaculture or whatever is doing something. I don’t know what I can do, but I can try to do everything so yes, I would like to try as possible as I can.