You can fix all the worlds problems in a garden – Geoff Lawton

To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail – Emerson


You can fix all the worlds problems in a garden, you can solve ’em all in a garden. You can solve all your pollution problems and all your supply line needs in a garden… and most people actually today actually don’t know that and that makes most people very insecure

Permaculture designer Geoff Lawton from Greening the Desert

Lawton’s statement was made while narrating a video showing how permaculture design and implementation was rehabilitating a patch of desert and growing fruit – an amazing achievement. For millions of people – more so in the western consumer countries – permaculture design and ethics are a revelation and Lawton’s statement rings true. Where we are masters of our own destiny much of what is stopping us from living personally sustainable lives is down to our own poor choices.

Bill Mollison – co-originator of the permaculture concept – describes this phenomenon thus: “It’s curious that we never apply what we know to how we actually live”.

If every ones environmental, social and economic problems were just down to poor or absent design, then the opening quote would be perfectly accurate. But for the majority of the world’s population  it will sound short-sighted and seems like it could only come from a background of privilege, freedom and access to resources.


The belief that permaculture is a cure-all doesn’t consider oppression and deprivation. Suppose you have your garden and have completed a top-class permaculture design.

Now imagine a big farm buys out your neighbours, and later, genetically modified pollen blows into your garden, contaminates your crops and Monsanto sue you for patent infringements. What if an oil company gets a Compulsory Acquisition Order over your garden to lay a pipeline through it? What if you’re invaded and settlers kick you out of your home (and garden) and you must become a refugee? These are not imaginary events and they happen regularly all over the world. They are political in nature, and function outside of and above permaculture or any other resource management technique.

I’ll try to draw this in a flowchart:

A flowchart showing the precedence of politics and conflict to control of resources and therefore resource management including permaculture.
Figure 1: Permaculture without investing in politics

Following figure 1 above, even permaculturalists are dependent on the outcome of politics and conflict for the resources they manage. If we don’t invest in politics then we just get the crumbs of the spoils of conflict, if any. Of course we may also be unwitting benefactors of these conflicts depending on the country and situation you happen to be born into.

Land – the abiding asset

All land discovered was at least once subject to a political claim, and the vast majority of land, if not all of it, has been the subject of political conflict. However periods of peace can obscure the precedence of conflict and politics to the ownership and management of abiding assets such as land. Land will be bought and sold and passed down through post-conflict generations to the point where it was “always in my family” or “bought fair and square” in the post-conflict trading system.

The fate of newly discovered resources

However, situations that involve the ownership and management of newly discovered concentrated resources such as fossil fuels and precious mineral deposits reveal the true nature of the precedence of conflict and politics to any resource management. As such they help us understand that any ownership and control we currently enjoy over resources, such as land for example, is the result of earlier political events such as invasions, war, land agitation and redistribution, property taxes, government concessions and compulsory purchase orders.

To understand or not to understand – that is the choice

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

Mark Twain

The concept of the universal precedence of politics and conflict to asset management – including permaculture – can be difficult to accept for peacetime generations and especially the current asset – owners. We like to think we got what we have purely through hard work and fair play, while wartime generations and the victors and losers of political campaigns live the uncomfortable reality.

The concept succinctly put by Twain in the opening quote can be modified for our situation thus:

It’s difficult for us to understand oppression when our lifestyles and cozy world outlook depend on us not understanding it.

This unwillingness to understand applies even more so to ongoing conflicts and systems of oppression. There is little we can do to right the wrongs of past generations and so the facts of history, although often uncomfortable, are somewhat more easily digested than the facts of our contemporary world.

Valid responses to political problems

We avoid informing ourselves because the truth is dangerous – subconsciously we know that once we’re informed of an injustice, our only honest choices are:

  1. Engage in struggle or;
  2. Admit that we can’t do anything about the issue or;
  3. Refuse to do anything about it.

None of these are very attractive as our subconscious can smell danger, impotence and selfishness respectively.

Option 1: Acknowledge problem & engage in struggle

There goes the care-free lifestyle and the security being on-side with or irrelevant to those in power.

In the film “The Matrix” people can opt out of the virtual-reality world they inhabit by taking a reality pill to get into (the more dangerous) reality of which they are dimly aware. For me – and many more of my generation in Ireland – making a first visit to the Shell to Sea[1] protest against the notorious Shell Corrib Gas Project in the isolated north-west of Ireland was that proverbial pill. For years the Corrib Gas Conflict[2] was like a rip in the fabric of the facade portrayed in our daily media diet. Here a multinational company could be seen destroying protected habitats for private profit, placing communities in the “kill zone” of a new high-pressure raw-gas pipeline and Gardaí (the Irish police) could be seen openly assaulting those who disagreed.[3]


Before such taking such a step into reality, people are too well aware – albeit partly subconsciously – of what they can lose: time, money, life and limb, unwanted attention from the police, real and imagined negative consequences of a criminal conviction and a blissful ignorance of how the world really works.

Conversely, what is rarely imagined are all the good things that can be gained through that step: new skills, fulfilling a greater purpose, real community, friendships forged in the heat of conflict, overcoming the fear of the unknown, development of character. You might even win your campaign.

Option 2: Acknowledge problem & admit your powerlessness

Coming to terms with our limitations is part of growing up. Just as there are many times where we rise to a challenge and succeed there are also instances where we overestimate our power to change a situation and fail. The successful events are often easier to admit to than the failures. This choice is difficult but rewarding in that we begin to develop a realistic picture of ourselves, which is vital for personal development. For a permaculture analogy to this think about how crucial an accurate site survey is at the beginning of the design process.

Option 3: Acknowledge problem but decline to engage

Most of us feel that there is more we could do to right the world’s wrongs but at what cost? Engaging meaningfully in a campaign takes time, time that you were hitherto using or wasting on other things. It may take money and it may impact your health. It’s another difficult choice to make for the righteous, but much better than pretending that there isn’t a problem, or misdiagnosing the nature problem and applying the wrong tools to try to fix it.

I believe these three responses are valid, and even the most committed political activist will regularly have to choose options 2 and 3 as there is only so much time in the day and so much a person can do.

Privileged responses to political problems

1. Hostility to campaign messages or to the messenger

Campaigners rely on getting the information out there to get people on-side and involved in their campaign, and its assumed that if only people had the facts then the campaign would grow. But many people actively don’t want to know – they don’t want their world-view messed with. It explains some of the hither-to inexplicable hostility towards campaigners from seemingly would-be natural allies. The hostility is just retaliation – the campaign message was the first stone cast against a fragile world-view.

The hostility to campaign messages and messengers from the actual beneficiaries of “business as usual” is stronger again as seen from the decade-long smear campaign by the Irish state and corporate media against the Shell to Sea campaign in Ireland[4] or more recently Donald Trump’s comments directed at climate activist Greta Thunberg[5] and the media backlash against her.

2. Addressing political problems with management tools

To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail


Seemingly well meaning people can waste alot of resources and cause significant damage by using the wrong tools for the job.

When working with disadvantaged people, permaculturalists and permaculture teachers with a poorly developed sense of political reality risk treating the situation as primarily a management problem that can be effectively treated with permaculture rather than seeing the larger political struggles that are causing the disadvantage in the first place.

In this way permaculture teachers in refugee camps risk repeating the mistakes of Western “development work” in Africa.[6]

Permaculture for Refugees

Proviso: I have never taught on a course specifically for refugees and I have never taught anything in a refugee camp.

However I think the following points should be self-evident:

Teaching permaculture to refugees in refugee camps can’t solve their root problems because:

  • It is very unlikely that their problems are of their own making. They may be fleeing war and the effects of global warming, both caused largely by insatiable western (and now global) consumption.
  • They may have come from more sustainable cultures than the permaculture teachers themselves and have more to teach than to learn.
  • Permaculture is primarily a resource management tool and so is less and less useful the less control you have over resources and your life
  • Permaculture teaching intrinsically transmits ethics. Do the refugees of legacy wars from European colonialism, current global capitalism and global warming really need a lesson in ethics from us?!

Teaching permaculture to middle-class and rich westerners can solve their problems because:

  • The wealthier they are the more likely it is that their sustainability problems are of their own making
  • They currently cause the most damage to the environment per capita
  • The dominant western goal of ever increasing GDP is furthest from the sustainability ethics of permaculture
  • Western societies are among the most disconnected from nature and so have a greater need to learn the nature-based principles of permaculture
  • These people have the means and freedom to actualise permaculture in their lives and projects immediately.

How do we adhere to the fair-share ethic of permaculture when running courses?

Permaculture courses often have a sliding-scale fee or some free places depending on the participants means. I think this as a good idea. If the reduced rate or free places are well advertised to would-be participants and are not filled, the course organisers won’t necessarily be looking for people to take them.

Problems could arise from a course seeking to fill a free place tokenistically or when the course is externally funded and the organisers and teachers depend on participation from disadvantaged people in order to get paid. A step further is where participants are paid to attend as is often the case in permaculture courses held in refugee camps (I am told). If there isn’t a genuine demand for a permaculture course then we could be sliding into the territory of the Protestant missionary workers in Ireland during the 19th century famine – the soup was available to the starving Catholics only if they repented and sat through mass.

Class divide

If permaculture teachers or the permaculture movement wants to heal the class divide and get more disadvantaged people learning and practicing permaculture, then making permaculture teaching accessible is useful but is only the first step. The deeper work is making society fairer, so that everyone has control of some resources (especially land) to manage through permaculture principles or otherwise. Then permaculture will become more relevant and attractive.

Useful responses to the refugee crisis

Let’s look at this as a permaculture design exercise using a familiar design framework:  SADIMET

Survey: Objectively look at and describe the problem you are trying to address

Analyse: How and why has this occurred? Honestly understand the problem – is it political in nature or is it a design and management issue that permaculture can solve? What have you in your power to do anything addressing the root cause of the problem?

Design and Implementation: If the problem is political in nature, as is primarily the case with the refugee crisis, the following actions may make sense:

  • Work and campaign to end the continued exploitation of producer countries – this can include the proactive measures we are used to such as improving your sustainability at home in your, community and country
  • Campaign against the arms industry and the export of arms to conflicts (which is what they are made for, ultimately)
  • Campaign for easier migration for people seeking refuge.
  • Undertake refugee solidarity work, find out what help, if any, they actually need and want rather than assuming that they need a permaculture lesson.
  • Campaign against new fossil fuel and other unsustainable developments driving global warming in your own country. It’s still a tough undertaking in Ireland but relatively we have huge freedoms and rights to protest that most countries don’t have.
  • Seek political power in your own country via elections/revolution
  • Join political/revolutionary groups in other countries with social and environmental justice aims

On a personal level it would also be worthwhile working out your own carbon footprint, realistically. This isn’t for a guilt trip. It’s to objectively measure your reality – we must be open to feedback. If you fly to teach permaculture, measure the impact, possibly acknowledge the irony and ask is it really worth it?

Maintenance, Evaluation and Tweaking would come later on and instead of a sometimes external design site that may or may not be neglected after implementation, the options on offer for political action involve sacrifice and will seriously affect your life!

I’ll try to portray this attitude in an updated diagram below:

A coherent relationship between permaculture and politics
Investing in conflict

In figure 2 above we use the surplus from permaculture systems to invest in political issues. This way we have some chance of gaining control of more resources/freedom.

Permaculture as an integration tool in the host country

If refugees make it from a refugee camp where they live in an indeterminate state with almost no resources, to a host country where they have more stability and freedom, then permaculture has more uses.

Any fun activity mixing locals with often segregated newcomers can be a huge benefit to integration and a barrier to the rise of racism. Better again if it is a sustainable activity that benefits everyone involved and nearby.

In my home town of Macroom in the south of Ireland I observed this happening via proactive local sports clubs and the annual food festival. A local permaculture group could do likewise. As an integration tool, opportunities for engaging in permaculture activities or events make more sense than teaching permaculture ethics and design theory.

The more freedom and resources available, the more useful design theory will be. If refugees are allowed to work in the host country it could be very useful. If they are not, as is generally the case in Ireland, then it could still be useful knowledge and at a minimum a great relief from boredom.

Permaculture is anti-political…

If you are still not with me on this I’m going to bring out the big guns:

So it’s a revolution. But permaculture is anti-political. There is no room for politicians or administrators or priests. And there are no laws either. The only ethics we obey are: care of the earth, care of people, and reinvestment in those ends.

Bill Mollison

The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them.

Bill Mollison

These two statements sum up the limitations of permaculture.

The first statement tells us that permaculture is anti-political or apolitical so it’s not involved or interested in conflict or the politics of power.

The second statement acknowledges that those who do hold power decide in general how our resources are managed.

…but permaculturalists can be political.

The environmental movement doesn’t neatly divide into permaculture and protest. In The Earthcare Manual – the text book for many Permaculture Design Courses – Patrick Whitfield is open to options when dealing with genetically modified crops:

Solutions to the problem of genetic engineering must be more political in nature. Since profit is the motive we can completely undermine it by refusing to buy genetically engineered products. Consumer boycotts have already had a significant effect on slowing down the development of genetically engineered crops. Direct action, including destroying the crops in the field, can also be effective.

Patrick Whitfield, The Earthcare Manual

Right on Patrick! Permaculture isn’t a religion that bans political activism, protest or direct action. All it is is an holistic planning and design methodology with the ethics of sustainability at its core. But it needs access to some resources in order to be put into practice, especially land. In the same way that science doesn’t cover higher philosophical questions, permaculture books and courses don’t concern themselves too much with politics, not because politics isn’t important but because it exists higher up the hierarchy on a pre-permacultural plane. It is primarily politics that decides whether or not you’ll ever have the resources to put permaculture into practice.








I began this essay ten years ago while volunteering at the Rossport Solidarity Camp in County Mayo, Ireland. It was part the Shell to Sea campaign which was a large, long-lived social, environmental and economic protest against the development of the Corrib Gas Project and the wider giveaway of Irish hydrocarbon resources to multinational oil companies.

It was there that I first really experienced and understood what oppression was, and realised my hitherto privileges. Oppression by the developer, Shell and its private security firm, the State and corporate media, the courts and judges, but primarily through our own police force and the Irish government.

It was also the first time I experienced real community power. It was unusual for an environmental campaign in its longevity and success in stopping and delaying development. Through a combination of protest, direct-action, and painstaking participation in a loaded planning process, the campaign put the project back 13 years, forced many design and pipeline route changes, outlived successive governments and served as an open university for community and environmental activism with thousands of volunteers passing through over the years.

Although our main focus was on the campaign, the solidarity camp also explicitly aimed to become a model of practical sustainability. The summer camp – which we set up year after year in near various pinch points along the project  to help physically oppose development – had compost toilets, grey-water systems and off-grid power from solar and wind. In later years we even began making the wind turbines ourselves and hosted DIY wind-turbine building workshops. At the first such workshop in 2010 we built a 700W wind turbine for the camp-house which was also off-grid. This allowed us to permanently move our campaign office there. The house had been kindly donated to our group by Pat Menaghan, one of the many local farmers opposed to the project. There were other offers but strategically this one was deemed best. It had suffered damage however during a catastrophic landslide in 2003 (yes they built the gas pipeline in a known landslide zone) and needed some attention, especially with heating and drainage.

In April 2010 I attended my first Permaculture Design Course and when I returned I tried to apply what I had learned by doing a permaculture design for the house and garden. Between the many existing sustainability features of the site, and a couple of other ones implemented after the design we had: Reliable off-grid wind and solar power, wood and turf stoves and hot water heating, a storage lean-to with Rainwater harvesting overflowing to a curtain drain and pond,  passive air heating via a Trombe wall (there will be some debate as to how effective this was in our damp house 🙂 a vegetable garden,  greenhouse and compost toilet.

Though it was far from plain sailing, for periods it felt like we were living a precious model of collective radical political environmentalism combined with practical sustainability.

I haven’t experienced anything like it since. When it became clear to me that the end had come, besides the obvious pain of losing the campaign that so many had put so much into, and grief for the direction of the country as a whole,  there was also a personal and collective pain at losing the friends and community we had grown, the collective power, and the model of radical collective environmentalism combined with practical sustainability that we had developed.  As the years go by however the abiding feeling is of gratitude that I experienced it and now know what is possible.

Since the campaign ended I have focused on permaculture, developing my own permaculture testing site, design business and lately teaching practice. The electricity I am using to write this is from a small off-grid solar system that, despite having an engineering background, I may not have had the confidence to build had I not volunteered and experienced it at the camp.

In November 2019 I attended a permaculture teacher-training course in Bulgaria, primarily oriented towards teaching refugees. The teacher-training aspect of the course was the best formal learning experience I have ever had. It opened my eyes to the art of teaching, whereas I had hitherto focused on content. Insofar as it was oriented mainly at teaching refugees, however, it brought up some of the same problems and misunderstandings I had encountered before regarding the nature, as I believe it to be, of the relationship between permaculture and politics.

These experiences, along with the many discussions that will have been more widely experienced both inside and outside of permaculture design courses about permaculture’s hitherto uncomfortable association with privilege and unclear relationship to politics, is what has prompted me to write and at last finish this essay. I hope provides a some framework  of understanding for the relationship between permaculture and politics… or at least what I think it is : )

Paul Lynch


County Cork


Easter Sunday 12/4/2020

3 thoughts on “The Limits of Permaculture”

  1. I enjoyed the paradoxical (to me) conclusion that teaching permaculture design to the priveleged , who have more control over resources, is a logical and useful use of this knowledge. Putting politics firmly in the picture gives direction to the landless who have permaculture skills and ambitions. As we face the effects of covid 19 on our personal economics , the emphasis on land as the primary resource can be a source of security and an indicator of where our society needs to go.
    I found the article very useful, Go Raibh Mile Maith Agat, GRMMA

    1. Go raibh míle Pádraig – I’m glad you enjoyed the article and found it useful, but I would say that conclusion you draw is your own and not mine however! The main conclusion I hope most people draw is that action on the political level is mainly what affects control of resources (such as land) and always has done and that permculature design is a great tool for managing them after that control is decided.

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