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David Holmgren on permaculture and the modern environmentalism movement

This article was published in the fourth issue of Tribe, our digital magazine. It’s a better reading experience in the app. You can read Tribe now on Android or iPhone. Become a Tribe subscriber here.

Permaculture is one of those words many of us have heard but aren’t exactly sure about what it means.

The best person to ask is one of the folks who first developed the idea: permaculture pioneer and leading Australian environmentalist David Holmgren.

Speaking to Tribe from his Melliodora permaculture farm in Victoria, Australia, Holmgren explained that permaculture is really about learning from nature and living in harmony with its growing cycles.

What is permaculture?

“At a big level, permaculture started from that core of ‘why isn’t our agriculture designed to function like a natural ecosystem?” Holmgren explained in an interview with Tribe.

“If most places on the planet are terrestrial ecosystems dominated by perennial plants, why is our agriculture dominated by annual plants?”

‘What are our needs and how can those be met in simpler ways with simple technologies?’

Holmgren has focused a lot on how we can overcome our addiction to fossil fuels and growth-based economic models.

“At the moment everything is dependent on fossil fuel. So how do we go back to doing things that don’t depend on that but do use innovative design and opportunities that come from our natural world?” Holmgren poses.

“So for example, a classic Australian rain water tank made of galvanized metal, allows you to collect water off the metal roof …

There are examples where this hybridization of innovation design and technology combined with traditional, simple things provides alternatives to large, centralized systems. It can be as simple as a water tank collecting water off a roof.”

While permaculture is all about living in the perennial cycles of nature rather than an annual boom-bust cycle designed for the growth economy, Holmgren emphasizes that the specifics will inevitably differ depending on geography and climate.

“In different places and contexts, permaculture will be associated with particular strategies and techniques, but those are not universally relevant. Even promoted things like swales in permaculture or certain things like ‘that’s what permaculture is about, putting swales cross-contour to get water to soak into the ground rather than flowing off.’

Yes, in a lot of places that’s a really appropriate technique. But in other places it might be irrelevant. If you’re talking to someone in an apartment, it’s not very relevant.

Or, in certain climates the plants are already absorbing all the water they can and having those earthworks isn’t that useful. But in the semi-arid zones it’s a transformative technology.”

Holmgren also emphasizes how permaculture can build communities and systems from the ground up and meet our needs locally, where possible.

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“Permaculture is about asking ‘what are our needs and how can those be met in simpler ways with simple technologies that can be manufactured at a local scale?’ Rather than things that are black box technologies that can only be made by corporations.

For example, preference for something like a rocket stove technology as a way to heat water, rather than saying ‘we can get some cheap solar panels from China.’”

‘This was really the crucible of where a lot of modern environmentalism was birthed’

For his part, Holmgren came across the ideas of permaculture by following his feet. After hitchhiking around Australia in the 1970s, he found a community of kindred spirits in Tasmania.

Like Holmgren, these folks wanted to build a more sustainable future and learn how to be self-reliant and live in greater harmony with our ecosystem.

In Tasmania, Holmgren met fellow ecological thinker Bill Mollison who was teaching at the local university. Holmgren began taking a course called Environmental Design and found himself fascinated academically and by those he met in the wider community.

Although he had grown up in a community of far-left political activists, Holmgren had never experienced the level of self-sufficiency and ingenuity as he found among the permaculture crowd.

“I became a student there and was involved in all sorts of different diverse aspects including backyard self-sufficiency and organics and environmental thinking, at a time when there was a huge upwelling in interest in what we could do with environmental thinking and sustainability.”

As Holmgren explains, Hobart in 1970s Tasmania was a relatively small city in a state of only half a million people. But it was absolutely crucial for the future formation of the global environmental movement.

“This was really the crucible of where a lot of modern environmentalism was birthed. Permaculture was part of that whole world. Just as a marker of that, Bill Mollison was a founding member of the Organic Gardening and Farming Society of Tasmania founded in 1972.

So there was an organization with a magazine in a population of 500,000, whereas none of the mainland states of Australia had that level of organization.”

Permaculture hits it big, then fades

This environmental crucible really paid off, and the work Holmgren was doing with Mollison and others in the movement led to a book.

With the 1978 publication of Permaculture One, at only 23-years-old, Holmgren was rocketed into the national limelight. Permaculture became a well-known idea, gaining traction worldwide in the 1970s and 80s.

As Holmgren observes this momentum all crashed down under US President Ronald Reagan and UK PM Margaret Thatcher “at all sorts of different levels,” leading to temporary waning of interest in the ideas he, Mollison and others had honed over the past decade.

“You had everything from Reagan throwing the solar panels off the White House in 1981 when he came in replacing Jimmy Carter, through to the demonizing of the hippie back-to-the-land counterculture as stupid, naive, silly ideas.

And all the young environmentalists of my generation putting on their suit and ties, getting serious,’” Holmgren recalled, adding that:

“A lot of those changes were really part of a larger geopolitical shift of also pushing back against resource nationalism that was coming through OPEC and other countries – all of those things are connected.

So if Permaculture One had been published in 1983 or 84, it probably would’ve sunk like a lead balloon. In 1978 was perfect timing, between the oil crisis of 1973 and the oil crisis of 1979. There was a huge interest.”

‘It’s the complete opposite of globalization’

With the advent of the pandemic and interruptions to the global supply chain and economic system, Holmgren sees a future scenario of greater self-sufficiency where communities stop relying as much on outside goods to meet their needs.

“Permaculture has always been based on our belief that things should be produced at the most local scale that’s practical to do. So if that’s the household level it should be done at that level where possible, and then at the community level and with small business.

You just trade for special things. You don’t trade long-distance for critical essentials if you can avoid it. It’s the complete opposite of globalization.”

Activists and bumper sticker environmentalists are now being called on their bluff. They can no longer just talk loudly about their convictions, they may have to start backing them up with more action – especially if they’re unvaxxed.

“Necessity is a very powerful driver when people see ‘that’s getting expensive,’ or ‘that’s no longer available…’ This also forces people who’ve been playing in this space ideologically to get their act together.

They’re passionate, certainly, but they know they can always just go to the supermarket if things get tough. They want the best of both worlds.

The pandemic is bringing that to an end, not just in terms of reliability of supply, but also in terms of this division in society that’s happening in this incredibly rapid way between the vaxxed and the unvaxxed.

There’s the possibility that some outside subculture, instead of voluntarily removing themselves from society, is sort of being pushed out.”

Is positive, large-scale change truly possible?

As for tackling change in larger-scale systems, Holmgren believes it’s possible and desirable, although he notes that often comes with more pushback.

The impetus, however, is that those systems are crashing regardless, so solutions do need to be developed.

“For systems it often means the redesign is more fundamental. You have to go back to the drawing board, and obviously there are established interests and established ways of doing things that are harder to change.

And all those systems are actually failing.”

The problem, according to Holmgren, is that usually the large, poorly-designed systems need to crash and burn before real innovative solutions and alternatives are taken seriously.

“Then, generally, you’ll get some other alternative that springs up in the shadows or in the ruins of some established system.”

Talk is cheap, permaculture is deep

As Holmgren notes, the growing divisions in society could conceivably lead to a future of parallel societies of self-sufficient folks. Whether that be due to being unvaxxed or other markers that set them outside access to central systems, he sees it as a real possibility.

“That would be an incredible incentive to realize that no matter how loudly we shout for our rights, the reality might be the development of parallel societies and local systems brought together in this way,” Holmgren says.

“That’s a big tension and a future scenario like that could be one of the outcomes produced by the psycho-social and economic developments where a lot of the things in permaculture would move from almost hobby-level to more of a necessity.”

Permaculture has worked with disadvantaged people around the world such as refugees and marginalized populations including in war-torn countries like Afghanistan, something Holmgren praises. But he’s remained zeroed in on the issue of high-consuming middle class populations who pose the greatest statistical problem to our earth.

“I’ve always worked on how we convince the global middle class to change their behavior, because collectively they represent the destruction of the planet,” Holmgren explains.

“The super rich are too few in number. Even though they have the most power, their statistical impact is insignificant. It is actually the global middle class destroying the planet. How do you portray a way of life saying ‘come over here, we’re having more fun over here?’ It’s a difficult structural problem.”

Welcome to RetroSuburbia

In his new book RetroSuburbia Holmgren tackles a lot of these fundamental problems and looks at how our already-constructed, often-suburban and middle class lives can be brought more in alignment with permaculture ideals.

“There’s sort of two lineages in permaculture. The first one was the radical individualist often going out into a remote rural site maybe with a family in tow.

Then the second phase was really about how we need to do this at the community level with intentional community design and things like the Transition Towns Movement.

Finding the middle ground between individualism and collectivism

My RetroSuburbia work is really saying that between that rugged individualist and the community, there’s another level which is the essential building block of all societies, which is the household, whether it’s a family or whatever.

Everyone lives in a household. And getting that unit really cranking, and often with more people is the idea.”

Optimizing suburbs is something that Holmgren feels has enormous potential. He’s also been very focused on making homes bushfire-resistant, something that’s covered in depth in RetroSuburbia.

Holmgren himself has built three passive solar homes at Melliodora, which is located next to Hepburn Springs in Australia’s Victoria state. The 2 ¼-acre property hosts numerous mixed food gardens and fruit trees, and offers intensive courses in permaculture.

Nonetheless, connecting to the way so many people already live in suburbs is crucial, according to Holmgren.

“The reality is that in affluent countries like Australia we have enough buildings. Unfortunately they weren’t all built like this one.

But we will inherit those in very different futures. So we have to work out how to retrofit and adapt what we’ve already got,” he explained.

Although some countries are doing outstanding work with building using natural materials like bamboo and adobe and moving away from high-energy materials like concrete and steel, Holmgren believes that the best option for those in modern nations is to change how they live where they already live, especially due to burdensome regulations for new construction in many developed nations.

Adapting our behavior to build a brighter future

One of the best ways we can retrofit our behavior, according to Holmgren, is to be open to living with more people instead of alone or just with a spouse or one person.

“Because of how big houses are, so many people have an opportunity to have more people under one roof. One of the ways that owners can dip a toe in the water for that is things like volunteer programs where people come and stay for short periods.

You start to navigate the ambiguous complexities of sharing, of setting rules, of all those complex issues around behavior.”

Holmgren also points to the growth of remote work as a potential positive for the future.

The other, of course, is home-based livelihoods, which the pandemic has stimulated. A lot of people have realized they can work from home. The efficiencies of being able to multitask inside and out in the garden is great.

We can also make more efficient use of this asset we’ve paid for or borrowed from the bank, with things differing in climates.

Retrofits will vary enormously from double glazing and insulation to having some sort of backup with water even in reticulated areas of having a small rain water tank so there’s always at least drinking water if the water supply goes off.

This goes right through to sensible design to deal with worsening natural disasters.”

The biggest problem we face – and the solution

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg recently made headlines for mocking US President Joe Biden and neoliberal politicians. According to Thunberg, their approach is overly focused on “green jobs” creation and still buys into the same energy-intensive mindset.

Holmgren tends to see top-down solutions skeptically as well. Although he firmly supports renewable energy and moving away from fossil fuels, he sees government intervention in these regards as a track record of failure.

“What happens at a larger scale, is you get a version of what I wrote: instead of the permaculture aphorism of ‘the problem is the solution,’ the solutions keep getting turned back into the same old problems,” Holmgren says.

“The 100% renewable energy rollout, which is absolutely essential in the most fundamental way to shift off fossil fuels as rapidly as possible, turns out to be another way to pour resources into giant infrastructure projects, rather than saying ‘could we use less energy?’”

A good example comes from Australia, where Holmgren points to the booming solar panel industry. You can’t look anywhere without seeing a solar panel, but be careful before you call it a victory for environmentalism, Holmgren cautions.

“We’re getting so many solar systems pulled off roofs and thrown in the trash for solar panels that have only been used for one-third of their life. Wait a minute, isn’t this an environmental industry?

Shouldn’t we have worked out, not just how we recycle these things when you smash them down, but what about reusing them?

It should be a skill-based thing where we know what can be matched up with what, rather than just lego assembly. Whereas we’ve added another industry in Australia just like all the other industries.”

We need to change how we live and how we measure economic health

Instead of just doing what we think is good, Holmgren says we should be changing the way we live. This includes trying to stop living quite as independently and embracing community living that uses permaculture principles. Holmgren walks the walk on this as well.

“At Melliodora farm, we operate at about 1/5th the Australian average energy consumption and operate as part of the modern world. To some degree I’m a public intellectual in Australian society, but we’re living at a level closer to many Third World countries in terms of energy and resources.”

As Holmgren says, the real problem isn’t just constantly upgrading and shifting how we create energy, it’s changing how we use energy and why.

The key problem is the persistent ideological commitment to growth economics measured by GDP. That conundrum really undermines a lot of what potentially could be good aspects of some of these great plans like the Green New Deal,” Holmgren observes.

“There’s no doubt in permaculture and especially from my point of view, there’s also a political view, that it’s better to do those things at a small scale. Because you have more local control rather than this idea we’re going to be saved by the corporations who will deliver the Green New Deal to us and we’ll all be grateful…and 100% dependent on whatever it is they create.”

Although permaculture has no problem with using technology that already exists, the key is trying not to become dependent on it.

“If solar panels are already manufactured in China and they’re available we’d use them. It’s the same as using bulldozers for building dams and earthworks in rural permaculture design.

This technology exists and it’s a really good use of fossil fuel to move soil with a bulldozer as long as you do something positive with it instead of destructive. It’s a way better use than getting in your car to go down to the shop to buy your weekly groceries.

Permaculture has always made use of technology but tried not to build that into a perpetual dependence. So, for example, the earthworks created with a bulldozer would then be maintained for generations just by hand. Similarly, we can see how the use of renewable technologies can enable us to have some stepping stones to further adaptation down the line.

Rather than being fundamentalist about the need for radically simplifying. But permaculture and certainly I’m definitely, more towards the end of being skeptical about a lot of these grand plans for rapid, 100% renewable transition.”

A better future is possible

Instead, Holmgren advocates a return to small-scale farming with permaculture ideals and a rehabilitation of the common. This includes a “deep commitment to planting trees for future generations” and “regaining that local use of land and informal decision-making that occurs between neighbors and communities rather than it being ‘oh, that’s what the government says.’”

Holmgren describes how Melliodora has made use of its common in the surrounding areas and keeps planting trees and bettering the land while respecting other people’s use of the land as well.

“Around here we can’t keep planting trees at Melliodora because it’s only two-and-a-quarter acres, but we do a lot of that on the public land, the common. The idea of reinhabiting the common is really key.

Wherever we are we have to navigate that complexity of who else is using the common land and what is the informal governance by which we do that. This is one of the really universal things.

How do we respect various uses and functions? So we run our goats on the public land, which reduces the fire hazard and is obviously beneficial for the goats and we keep the environment open for people to walk. And we plant trees,” he explains.

This is, in many ways, a back to basics approach. As Holmgren explains:

“That’s how all of our ancestors lived. Even if they had some private domain, there was always the common collective. Reestablishing that both in a physical sense and in an occupy sense to use it and look after it.”

“Towards the end of my life I’ve sort of definitely come back to the idea of planting trees for the future,” Holmgren says.

“It’s an irony maybe, but it’s something that’s become really clear to me. In later age, I can say that I’ve always been a tree planter and I’ll keep doing it.”

What do you think?

Written by Paul Brian

Paul R. Brian is a freelance journalist and writer. His upcoming book Cultworld will be out later this year. Follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian and visit his website at www.paulrbrian.com

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