Permaculture “Your Way To Sustainable Living”

by Geoff Lawton, first published in Veritas Magazine.

Permaculture is a design science that applies design to the way humanity needs to supply itself with its requirement to live sustainably and in a way that actually enhances the environment. So, the principles of permaculture turn the footprint of humanity into the most beneficial footprint on earth rather than the most damaging footprint. And that’s how nature works.

Permaculture’s principles come from nature itself. So the principles of natural systems and ecosystems are the teachers of the principles of permaculture and in nature. There’s a continuous sort of balance in life, and all our traditional and symbols of heritage, symbolise balance.

So, we can be very certain that as presently damaging as we are, we can be equally beneficial. So the damaging part is that we are in the consequence of trying to create a civilised world, which we appear to be actually destroying. In other words, civilisation appears to be the most damaging thing, the most resource depleting and the most pollutant, consequential activity. True civilisation would be something that created abundance and a fair, equal, safe and positive future. So permaculture is very much based in positivism and oriented around solutions. It deals very much with the connectivity between all the disciplines that we require to understand so that we can create that potentially very important world that we know is possible.

Permaculture creates positive economies, positive social systems and very well designed human habitats of not just architecture but villages and towns and human settlements. As well as the way we provide our food and our clean water and endlessly diversifying and enriching environment.

Disciplines of Permaculture

Permaculture is a system that is co-operative — the co-operation of elements. We harmonise with natural systems, and we use those as our guide to actually laying down the framework for how we should assemble the relevant knowledge of humanity in a useful, useable form. It’s like creating a wardrobe where all the knowledge that’s required for a sustainable world can be assembled in a very easily used way. And that deals with very much with co-operative principles and beneficial connections. So permaculture is very much about connecting disciplines together, it’s a system that is based in connectivity really. It’s more about the connections, than it is the disciplines themselves of knowledge.

I’m very interested in how meaningful action changes your sense of time. Time quality is something that is of immeasurable value and most of us today have a lack of available time, our time is poor in quality and it lacks density. Our time is diluted and very low in quality, whereas I’d rather experience a life of very high-density time and very high quality. And I think most people would, they just need to come to terms with that and take a bit of a brave action to make a commitment. And I think that most people would rather have a positive future to look forward to and for the children of future generations.

If people are creating more co-operative and tolerant communities, they are probably doing the right thing. If resources keep gathering around you, you’re probably doing the right thing. If a lot of those resources are people who are also involved in a good intention of creating a sustainable world, you’re probably doing the right thing. If people are more content with less in the form of conventional financial systems and are more interested in clean air, clean water, clean food, sensible houses, warmth and friendship and community, they’re probably doing the right thing.

Most of these communities are themed around sustainability and therefore, they have to have that as their intention. Some communities glue together with other systems like beliefs, belief systems, or religions of particular practises but really, I think all the good ones are coming together around the intention for a sustainable future. Permaculture can do that for you in the form of a local community group.

We haven’t really gotten the beautiful tapestry of community that we once had. In fact, we don’t even have the fabric that the tapestry was once woven onto. You can’t weave a tapestry until you have the fabric and you need to have a reweaving of the fabric of community and that means co-operation, tolerance and a shared intention that you would like to see some sort of sustainable future.

Local Poly-cultural Action

Local poly-cultural action is an identification of the resources of your bio-region and the needs to create the livings of primary production, the processing of primary production, services and the arts. Those are the four main livings that we engage in.

How and what we produce from the land identifies our bio-region; and that’s never been more potentially diverse than it is now. Our gardens and our landscapes are potentially eight hundred times more diverse than they were in the Middle Ages.

Those primary productive produced elements are processed and evaluated many times over. With one product alone, it can be processed more than once and then how people service each other’s needs in the local community and then of course we always need the arts because the arts are a great way of transferring the sciences. Science and art is really one thing. Art is the science of survival and science is the art of survival and before we got sort of confused with the present academic system that was how we transferred knowledge in a very anchoring way.

Ancient tribal cultures express themselves in all the arts through storytelling, song, poetry, paintings, artwork, dance, or theatre. It’s the transfer of knowledge through anchoring information with enjoyable emotions. It really is a link of knowledge and we’ve all experienced it. For example, most of our nursery rhymes have hidden messages.

A lot of it is really just the methodology, not the actual messages. Permaculture has changed and enriched the lives of those around the world because people have been incredibly stimulated and excited by permaculture. People say it’s infectious, and the most exciting thing they have ever engaged in. You take a good permaculture design certificate course and you end up with a heavily infected dose of permaculture and you leave so infected that you infect other people, and so it ripples out.

Through permaculture, people recognise that life has a meaning and they can see the rational; they can legitimise and rationalise why it makes absolute common sense. Then, fear starts to dissipate and drop away and as you make more and more commitments you have less and less fear of all the things you should be doing and what you could be doing because you realise what it is that you can do.

Then, people start to function more efficiently because they realise what it is they can do.

The big difference between permaculture and a lot of the other systems that elaborate principles continuously is that permaculture specialises in directives to act. So it converts principles into directives to act.

Permaculture actually examines the ecology and the environment, emulates those principles and then says this is the way you interact with it and you improve the environment and nature. It is active and interactive; it’s an evolution in human thinking.

People all over the world have emulated and interacted with each other through permaculture. At the moment, we’re having, a big fundraiser for Chile because we have a Permaculture Research Institute in Chile where they have just had the earthquake. In fact, just a few days before the earthquake I was teaching with Skype, and just a few days later the earthquake hit them. They went into action to help the government and the people of Chile to recover and develop and rebuild in a more sustainable way. There’s also big action coming in from Turkey, where our PRI Turkey is really taking off. I’m getting more and more Turkish students coming over and then going back to train their own people. We’re also working in Haiti and Canada. So they’re using permaculture in a sustainable action.

Permaculture is very much an endemic Australian system and it’s probably our most beneficial export because it’s potentially going to cushion the industrial juggernaut that seems as if it’s almost impossible to actually stop, but at least we can cushion the impact of an eminent crash.

The Eminent Crash

You may be wondering what the eminent crash is. Well it’s quite obvious that we are actually running out of resources en masse, but we are particularly running out of the liquid fuels and the fossil fuels. There’s also an obvious food shortage because the world’s not produced any more food since 2000. The amount of food produced globally, increased yearly up until the year 2000 and then it hit a peak. Population didn’t slow down, so there’s less food all the time for more people and that’s why you are getting more and more interest everywhere in the world for community gardens and local food security. That’s happening everywhere in Australia and around the first and third world.

People are realising they are going to have to bring food production back into population, and into urban and perimeter urban situations. We have a serious water crisis because there is very little pure water left and most water is polluted. We’ve also got a climate that’s going into crisis not just warming, but it’s actually spiking in all directions. It’s losing its moderating elements because there’s more and more of the environment being taken down. More and more forests are coming down, which affects our ecosystem, and ecosystems are full of life and life is full of energy. This is the stored energy of the sun. Forests are the most efficient absorbers of the sun’s energy. If you don’t have the absorbing mechanism it goes into the climate and we get an incredibly erratic climate. All of this is affecting our soil erosion that in turn affects our food supply.

There is also a fossil fuel crisis, which is creating a financial crisis. We know that if the price of oil spikes to a certain level, the global economy collapses. These are all huge clusters of crisis. So, sooner or later an accumulation of crises like these has to cause a dramatic effect. It would be better if we could design our way out of this rather than try and struggle out of some kind of horrible collapse of civilisation.

Permaculture and Farmers

Farmers are in absolute strife at the moment and it’s getting worse. There are less and less people on the land all the time and there are more and more people in factories. The average young person sits in front of a screen for forty to sixty hours a week. Farmers also do this and they don’t look at the soil anymore or the sky so much and gauge the life in their systems. Rather, they read weather systems on a computer; they read the instructions on a machine and the instructions on the packets of chemicals and genetically engineered seed.

Most of their knowledge is coming from outside rather than from inside, so that their farms become eco-systemic systems, rather than monocultural, factory, industrial systems. As Rudolph Steiner said in the nineteen twenties in the famous lectures, “The farm needs to be an eco-system to itself.” Until your farm is actually creating soil, as well as surplus produce, it will never be sustainable. It’s a very simple gauge. You cannot be destroying the soil and producing surplus produce for the economy for very long. Farmers need to keep a keen eye on their quality and quantity of soil, and to do that you have to have an eco-systemic system.

Some of the modern systems of soil biology stimulus are a good silver bullet to get you back on track. We use those a lot. They’ve been very popular. And then there are things like the oxygenated compost tea systems, where we’re breeding soil organisms en masse and with very rapid, highly oxygenated liquids so that we can bring the soil life back in a very short amount of time. But they are not designed by themselves; you have to then have a good design to follow it up. So, we can give you a fast recovery system and then you need to be able to design an ecology-supported farm.

Some farmers are choosing to change and some are just simply leaving the farm. The last Landcare Conference I spoke for was attended by only five percent of farmers. This was after seventy four percent of farmers said they would like to know more on how to sustainably manage land.

The Landcare conference organizers are outside contractors, and not connected directly to land. However, I am connected to the land and I do live streaming where you can see me. This is how my students talk to me around the world now. They actually take the laptop out into the garden and say, “Is this cover crop thick enough? What do you think of the design of this solar system? What do you think this? Do you think this compost toilet system is going to work? They actually show it to me live stream or they put it up on YouTube.

A lot of our systems have been very successful where people are in great need, in aid areas but also in the first world. So, the Landcare conference organizers found us and said, “Well, you seem to be getting a result, would you be prepared to talk to the Landcare conference and explain how you’re coming up with successful systems?”

Many people should be asking the question: What area of land would we need to supply the world with the same nutrition that it presently requires, using permaculture principles?

Realise that I didn’t say food, instead I said nutrition. There is a big difference between food and nutrition because our present food lacks nutritional density. For example, our wheat is one- twelfth the nutrition of the original wheat but sixteen times more productive over the area. We eat enormous amounts of food for very small amounts of nutrition, which kind of wears our bodies out.

So, to answer that question … it’s about two to three percent of the present area that we use with industrial agriculture — two percent in equivalent area. So in other words, urban and perimeter urban agriculture with some rangeland and community forestry, would supply all of our needs. Most of the agricultural land could just go back to wilderness. Agriculture in its present form would probably be illegal — any land practice that degrades the environment and causes soil erosion would be illegal.

The only things that create soil en masse are eco-system processes. You can create a lot of soil in a concentrated area with lots of organic matter, mulches and compost — on the waste products of humanity — but you can’t do it over a large area. So all the large area farms that aren’t producing soil will have to become illegal. Most people wouldn’t have a clue about that. They wouldn’t even realize that’s the case. They’d probably find that a very contentious statement. But I am afraid it’s true.

What Can You Do Now?

The message of permaculture is also very important for children to hear. Children really look forward to a positive message. They get told too much bad news. Older people as well take on the message very easily because they look back over their life and they say, “We could have done this; this could have been worthwhile.” It’s the middle-aged people that are the really hard ones to get this message to because they just haven’t got time to listen.

So, since the children are the ones that we can work with the most readily and easily, we must work with the schools to get the message out through books. If you look on our website and the books for sale, one of the great books is called “Outdoor classrooms”. The author, Janet Millington, is one of my students and a permaculture teacher. Students of mine have become teachers who have created students, who’ve become teachers, who’ve created students, who’ve become teachers and so on. We’ve got a self-breeding system, where we breed our own teachers. On the Sunshine Coast, on one of the permaculture teacher’s one-day courses, they had over eighty teachers from eighty different schools turn up.

Teachers actually find that when you teach kids this and you get a bit of a system going outside, it can become a land-based system. You can find that the kids that are more connected to the soil, or the ones that you thought had Attention Deficiency Disorder actually didn’t have it. They just needed to be grounded with a few natural processes, and eat a bit of raw food that’s nice and healthy and enzyme rich. All of the lessons of the classroom are outside as well as inside and those kids’ behaviour moderates quite dramatically. Teachers rather like that; it makes their job easier.

There have been reports written into the education department about this and I can see a future where permaculture will be in all schools and almost in all lessons. There aren’t any lessons taught in schools that couldn’t include permaculture as part of the lesson, in every subject.

It would be useful for anybody to take an ‘Introduction to Permaculture’ course or if they are really serious, or take a permaculture design certificate course so they can just start looking at the basic ethics. All traditional cultures base themselves in ethics and permaculture is a movement that begins with an ethic. The ethics are quite simple and they are synthesized down to three but they come from about fourteen to eighteen traditional ethics that have been used around the world. They are: Care for the earth and all it’s living and non-living systems, care of people and supplying the needs of people in a sustainable way and a fair share and return of surplus to earth-care and people-care.

You can see that ethics govern the way we behave and the way we design systems. They give you a direction to act. So, get a bit of information, start to contact local groups and local people, share knowledge with them, and see what you can do to lessen your footprint.

Geoff Lawton

Geoff Lawton is a world renowned Permaculture consultant, designer and teacher. He first took his Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) Course in 1983 with Bill Mollison the founder of Permaculture. Geoff has undertaken thousands of jobs teaching, consulting, designing, administering and implementing, in 6 continents and close to 50 countries around the world. Clients have included private individuals, groups, communities, governments, aid organizations, non-government organisations and multinational companies under the not-for-profit organisation. In 1996 Geoff was accredited with the Permaculture Community Services Award by the Permaculture movement for services in Australia and around the world. Geoff's official website is Geoff's Facebook profile can be found here.


  1. Wow! Thanks Geoff! I thought I was already well excited about the PDC in Jordan in a couple of months but now…well…let’s just say I have to stand up. You just can’t experience this kind of excited motivation properly sitting down…

  2. Thanks for this wonderful article! It made me optimistic for change in the world, until I read the news that a new law in Brasil give right for increased deforestation:

    The deforestation in the Amazones decreased with 49 % in June compared with last year, but with this proposed new law reform this will end, and the pretected status for enormous forest areas will be abandoned. Here is the new law reform in Portugeese:

    If this reform get trough it will be a serious back slash for our planet, as if it was not bad enough with all the forest fires in Russia, we shall now again increase the deforestation in the Amazones.

    I hope permaculture can use their recourses in South Amerika to enlighten people about this new law making deforestation legal in protected forests.

  3. Hello Geoff,
    thank you for the great article! Very inspiring, it made me start thinking of ways how to raise awareness about permaculture in our schools (in Finland).

    I would very much appreciate if you could elaborate one thing, namely, what kind of nutritional assumptions is your 2-3% land use estimate based on?

    By “nutritional assumptions” I mean – what kind of food, and how much, we actually need to produce if we are to stay healthy. Determining this is way more tricky than it might seem:

    * Firstly, if we focus primarily on basic (physiological) nutritional needs, we ultimately need to consider about sixty or so micro- and macronutrients (actually there are more if we consider e.g. certain short chain saturated fatty acids as separate nutrients that should be obtained from food for optimum health) and tens of antinutrients, pollutants and contaminants present even in organic food.

    * Secondly, all the nutrients need to be obtained in appropriate amounts and ratios – and often the problem is actually getting too much of a certain thing, which then creates a havoc in the body by e.g. messing up the endocrine system (e.g. too much or too little carbohydrates, or goitrogenic foods), or causing inflammation (e.g. fructose), or causing vitamin/mineral deficiency by increased consumption (e.g. foods containing too much fiber or lectins), or overburdening certain internal organs (e.g. too much sugars, or alcohol). And often it is not at all trivial to avoid because of low nutritional density of food..

    * Thirdly, each of us has unique metabolism and unique needs. To give just a couple of examples; some people do fine with >300 grams of starch each day, others would get eventually sick from that amount and would therefore benefit from a more fat based diet. Most people – at least in western countries – would do well to reduce the ingestion of omega-6 fatty acids, which can have adverse effects on health if consumed in disproportionate amounts (easy to do), this also serves as an example of the second point above.

    * Fourthly, most (if not all) healthy traditional populations have their food culture based on either starch or (mostly saturated) natural fats as the primary energy source. There are no healthy cultures (that I’m aware of) that are basing their diet primarily on sugars or polyunsaturated fats – this is why the farther from the equator one gets, the more animal-based diets tend to be – as the fatty acid profile of plants tends to shift from saturated to (poly)unsaturated.

    So there is a lot of “nutritional diversity” to be taken into account – various physiological, cultural, genetic, ecological and geographical aspects – and so any attempt to create an unified nutritional model will likely result either in a mess, or a dysfunctional one-size-fits-all approach.

    Nevertheless I feel strongly that it would be enormously important and useful – even for permaculture movement in general – to put a lot of thought into this very aspect – what we actually need to produce and how to do it in a way that is healthy both to the soil and to the people (keeping also in mind that a lot of scientific research – and also “official” recommendations – concerning “healthy” nutrition done during the past 50 years are at least somewhat influenced by the needs of the big agribusinesses, so it is not at all trivial to discern the “real truth” about the matter).

    In a nutshell, I feel that the permacultural food production “model”, in order to be taken really seriously, would really benefit from sound nutritional assessments – taking into account diversity of opinions and needs, presenting the underlying assumptions transparently and openly, also acknowledging that those assumptions might be wrong.

    So to get back to my original question, it would be really great if you could elaborate a bit the nutritional assumptions behind the 2-3% land use estimate that you mentioned in the article?

    All the best,

  4. Thanks for your incredible contribution. You are one of my greatest heroes, along with Roger Payne and Jane Goodall. However; I am also curious where you got the information regarding the nutrition of our current food. thanks

  5. Hello, I work with an organization who has 82 acres in Ohio USA who are purposing the facility towards a Sustainable Living and Permaculture Community and teaching facility. We are looking for people who would like to use the land for such a purpose. If you know anyone who would be interested in being leadership and or assisting in this endeavor please let me know. Looking for people who have such a dream but are lacking the land to make it a reality. On the land already is a Retreat Center and Facilities.

    Steve Jones
    [email protected]

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