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.
Douglas Barnes: 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.
DB: 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.
DB: 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.