Geoff Lawton – “All the World’s Problems Can Be Solved in a Garden”

Linda Buzzell, M.A., M. Journalism, M.F.T. is a member of the Santa Barbara Permaculture Guild. She took her Permaculture Design Course in 2006. She is the founder of the International Association for Ecotherapy

Photo credit: Craig Mackintosh

On Thursday August 28, 2008 one of the world’s top permaculture designers, Australian Geoff Lawton, spoke to a standing-room-only audience at Santa Barbara City College in Santa Barbara. The presentation was sponsored by the Santa Barbara Permaculture Network and the SBCC Center for Sustainability, led by biology professor Dr. Adam Green.

Lawton described some of the projects he and his Jordanian wife, Nadia, have been doing around the world and showed some of the You Tube videos about their work (see resources below).

What distinguishes Lawton is his sophisticated and even shocking land repair technique, probably best illustrated by the “Greening the Desert” video that shows the “before” and “after” pictures of a project near the ancient Middle Eastern city of Jericho. One of Lawton’s favorite phrases is “getting a result” and his results have been so impressive that he now travels the world starting up new permaculture land repair operations in many places.

He is currently working in a number of Middle Eastern countries, Africa, Vietnam and other locations rehabilitating land and he also works with the UN on an ambitious set of projects to rapidly create sustainable human habitat for the armies of refugees the world’s growing political, economic and environmental crises are now creating. Lawton and his Permaculture Research Institute teams design solutions, get land repair, food and natural building housing projects started, train local people and outside students on the site and then leave a sustainable food forest behind in good local hands after three years. Most crisis aid is anything but sustainable – flying in temporary food and medicine from elsewhere, creating temporary shelter and then leaving refugee populations in unsustainable circumstances – so this is an exciting new design for solving a critical human problem.

Lawton’s work is based on permaculture principles laid down in the 1970s by Australian permaculture founders Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. The work Lawton and many other permaculture designers do could be considered a form of “land doctoring” that heals whole ecosystems, including the human and animal communities that depend on healthy land.

Permaculturists don’t consider themselves conservationists but rather land improvers, and focus on building soil, the basis for all life. They like nothing better than to be confronted with a truly ill patient. Mollison loves to chuckle that nothing is more fun or challenging for him than a piece of really trashed land that he can bring back to life. And as one soon discovers, fun appears to be a critical element in the permaculture way of doing things.

Because the first principle of permaculture is observation, a lot of time is spent with the prospective patient (the land, the community) before a diagnosis and prescription are forthcoming. All forces affecting the land – wind patterns, sun, human needs etc. – are examined and an appropriate, sustainable solution is designed. The goal is minimal intervention for maximum, ongoing impact. But once the design is clear, the “land surgery” can be impressive, with sculpting of ditches, damming of streams for better water infiltration and even major earthworks in critical situations.

The next moves, however, are nature’s. Rain, however slight, is a key ingredient (Australians, like most dryland folk, have a deep reverence for water) and is captured and cherished. A careful choice of plants (in natural succession) is next. The goal is always to create an ecosystem that mimics nature in its ability to sustain human and natural life in abundance over time.

One interesting thing about these Australian teachers is that although they are perfectly aware of the challenges of energy descent, resource depletion and climate disruption (and have been since the 1970s), they don’t take a doom and gloom attitude. In fact many of them are cheery, enthusiastic, cheeky and even rather swashbuckling in their approach – which probably accounts for the huge enthusiasm they engender in the many young people getting involved with permaculture. They offer hope, and a concrete prescription for not just surviving but thriving.

An example of the upbeat permaculture approach is the “perma-blitz,” which is being used to rehabilitate suburban land. David Holmgren describes it as capturing “the enthusiasm generated by Permaculture Design Courses to stimulate direct action to retrofit houses and gardens for greater self reliance and pleasure while eliminating waste and environmental impact. By collective and collaborative action permablitz simultaneously attacks apathy and lack of resources and skills to give homemakers the boost along the path of self reliance and minimal ecological footprint. Permablitz (also) allows new designers to gain experience by working with colleagues, homemakers and helpers.”

In typical permaculture design fashion, it’s a win-win-win solution with multiple “yields.”

Unlike some environmentalists, permaculturists don’t view people as some sort of overbred virus on the planet. A basic permaculture principle is that “the problem is the solution” and Geoff Lawton points out that just as humans have been the source of our current environmental problems, so too are humans the solution. He’s busy training up new generations of land and community healers to do just that.



  1. I want to join Linda in her enthusiasm for the presentation. Geoff Lawton’s presentation was inspiring and certainly built enthusiasm for Permaculture in Santa Barbara. Geoff and other fine Permaculture teachers who have visited our city have played a big role in helping our local Permaculture community to grow, and reach “critical mass”.

  2. Dear Geoff Lawton, your videos have struck me like a lightning. I am ready to do it! This is the system, this is the way I want to live and raise my kids. You are a dalai-lama in the garden, great hearth that I can feel over the video! Thank you!

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