Author Archive | David Holmgren

Introducing 470

Science fiction influenced my thinking as a youth, especially stories that featured ecological limits (eg Dune and The Dispossessed). In the early 1970s, the modelling of the Club of Rome “Limits to Growth” report provided a context for the conception of permaculture – an ecological, creative and humane response to the Limits to Growth facing the whole of humanity.

In turn, permaculture and “back-to-the-land” self-reliant simplicity of those years inspired new generations of writers including Jackie French in Australia and Starhawk in the USA to write stories about futures of ecological consequence. More recently, a proliferation of books focused on climate change has created a new genre “Cli-Fi” that use climate science as context for stories about the future.

Linda Woodrow’s 470 is certainly Cli-Fi: great storytelling in the context of the near-term consequences of climate change driven natural disasters. But it is much more. Beyond the meticulous background research that all good writers of fiction do to make their stories real, Linda Woodrow also draws on decades of living close to the land where her story is set. That life applying and writing about permaculture has provided a broad and deep reservoir of experience to draw on in crafting this gripping story of persistence, empowerment and joy in the face of fear, loss and despair.

From the portrayal of geography transformed by natural forces to heroic and dogged persistence of volunteer natural disaster workers, the drama of personal relationships, fleeting and long enduring, and the details of providing the essentials of food, shelter and health care constrained by non-negotiable realities, Woodrow both entertains and informs the reader. Far from didactic, let alone judgemental, the portrayal of characters connected by blood and circumstance in 470 is sensitive to human frailties, contradictions and vulnerabilities. She gives hope that adversity can nurture profound and enduring personal growth and the slow emergence of self-governing communities at the household, neighbourhood and bioregional scale. While permaculture is barely mentioned in the book, its influence is everywhere in the story from homestead-scale organic food production, to ecological building, appropriate technology, botanical medicine, tree crops for a changing climate, design against natural disaster and intentional community decision making.

Beyond these recognisable permaculture related themes, 470 provides a glimpse of how environmental and countercultural thinking over the last 50 years has found expression, suppression, migration and re-emergence in Australian society by showing the flowering of those influences over three generations of a family lineage.

These were reasons enough for me, and our team at Melliodora Publishing, to jump at the opportunity to publish 470 as contributing to our mission to publish books “that fill a gap in the permaculture-related literature and support individuals in their personal permaculture journey”.

My own dabbling in fiction began more than a decade ago with my “Aussie Street” presentations portraying the transformation of suburbia from the “Golden Age of Growth” to retrosuburbia in the Second Great Depression of the 2020s. This became written word for the first time as a chapter in our bestselling RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future, and the basis for our next publication, Our Street, a picture book by Beck Lowe and permaculture illustrator Brenna Quinlan.

Consequently, this jump into publishing a novel is more evolutionary than revolutionary but also involves new challenges in the very competitive market for fiction. The work by Richard Telford in conceiving and Maria Penna in crafting a beautiful and striking cover true to the author’s work is an important contribution to gaining wider attention in the crowded bookshelves, whether in store or online. We trust our regular readers from permaculture and kindred networks will grasp opportunities to gift and promote 470 to their families, friends and workmates as a way to start empowering discussions, instead of having ineffective and debilitating arguments about the minutiae of climate science or the motivations behind its detractors. While it is clearly too late to avoid “dangerous climate change” by progressive policies, it’s never too late for all of us to retrofit our behaviour to be more resilient in the face of the coming changes, and begin to build new household and community economies in the shadow of the old one that is doomed no matter how much money governments print.

For teenagers and young adults searching for meaningful and brave action in the face of societal dysfunction, 470 provides a broad pallet of possibilities. For families raising young children, 470 shows how raising the next generation requires us to be bold and brave in finding a pathway through the vortex of change we face. For older people with resources to reorganise for the non-negotiable changes of aging, 470 shows it is possible to do so in ways that help the next generations to face the future.

The COVID-19 global pandemic has shown everyone that our affluent technological society can be brought to a standstill by forces of nature so small they hardly qualify as living, while the bushfire summer showed us that despite our technology, humanity remains at the mercy of the weather that Mother Nature delivers each day and each season.

Imagination is essential to avoiding existential threats and creating the best of possible worlds. Linda Woodrow’s deep well of imagination helps us in this essential task.

 

David Holmgren, Melliodora Publishing
Hepburn, Victoria

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The Class Divide in a Time of Pandemic: a Permaculture Perspective

The divide between the haves and the have nots has been highlighted by the impacts of the pandemic.[1] For those able to work online with a spacious and secure home base, and some financial resources to ride out the pandemic, life has mostly been tolerable. Consumption has continued online with delivery to the door. For the better-off with both town and country residences, a seamless relocation to rural locales has provided breathing space and often a greater degree of self-reliance.

The frontline action of medical professionals has been lauded by the politicians and the community alike. This awareness and appreciation has extended from the relatively well remunerated doctors to the more numerous nurses and even the previously invisible cleaners and orderlies even more essential than ever in an economy where cleaning is a major activity.

This focus on medical workers has spilled over to some degree to the farm workers, truck drivers, supermarket workers, rubbish collectors, and the myriad of others who are keeping the more essential parts of the system working. The fact that these workers are paid the least, often need to work with exposure to the virus, and often have little union protection and advocacy has also been highlighted.

The experience of home schooling has also raised the status of teachers and childcare workers, both through what they have to put up with and the precious experience of being engaged with children’s growth and learning.

For those isolated at home in apartments without outside space, let alone those with insecure tenure or crowded in shared accommodation with others similarly exposed through their work, the pressures and risks are much greater. Anger from people in this latter situation towards those better off is likely to fuel increasing class tensions as the fear of the virus declines but the lived experience of the Second Great Depression drags on for years. Satire remains one of the creative outlets for this anger.[2]

Many can see that we are long overdue for a major reallocation of risk and reward from the bloated financial services sector, and the top echelons of most sectors, to the folks most of us really depend on. In Australia, we have seen neoliberal governments implement something not too distant from a Universal Basic Income and heap so much praise on our medical and care professionals that it may be politically impossible to return to the past pattern of attempting to squeeze ever more efficiency out of the workers in an overstretched health system. The pandemic has highlighted how different Australia is from the USA where dysfunctional health systems, massive disparity of wealth, terrible underlying disease and morbidity burdens, welfare for the rich, bloated military budgets to maintain the global empire, and political elites at war with each other have failed the people worse than most third world nations.

So can a permaculture perspective add insight and a model of adaptive change in the context of the current crisis? I believe applying permaculture ethics and design principles to how we live can reduce our vulnerabilities to shocks from whatever quarter, without doing so by hoarding society’s wealth and privilege to the disadvantage of others and while simultaneously radically reducing our ecological impact. In the process we can model a “fair share” society that can operate within ecological limits.

Firstly, an anecdote from my youth. At the age of 16 in 1971 I remember discussing with a very close friend how our relationship that seemed so deep in shared understandings and lived experience was not buttressed by interdependence and exchange around material needs. I contrasted this situation with people who ran the power stations and collected the garbage and other essential service workers who we didn’t know or care about in any meaningful way, other than our parents paying the power bills and council rates. I attribute this social justice insight to my family upbringing, which I later combined with my own exploration of an ecological understanding of society to inform a life lived according to permaculture ethics and design principles.

Early on in that journey of exploration I came to realise that our closest intellectual, emotional and sexual relationships needed to be supported by an intimate reciprocity of exchange that cannot be found in monetary economy. In rebuilding the household and community non-monetary economies of barter, reciprocity, gift and love, we generate the interpersonal glue that can guide us through the roller coaster of ideas, emotions and infatuations that constantly disrupt and destroy our most precious relationships.

In this postmodern rediscovery of the ecological, economic and political utility of traditional values and wisdom, some might think I am a born-again conservative abandoning the ecological anarchism of my youth. I see it as part of a deep evolution of my radical roots to build a new (perma)culture in the shadow of an obsolete one. One of the ethical conundrums of this multigenerational task is how to parasitise that obsolete system to support growth of the new system, while not being a parasite on ordinary folk who still have faith in, and are largely depend on, that system. I use the term “parasite” without the usual connotation, because I understand that parasites are essential lifeforms that help regulate ecological communities and redistribute resources. In the 1980s, I knew and respected some who accepted the dole as society’s (unacknowledged) subsidy of their frugal experiments in rural homesteading and permaculture, even though my preference for autonomy prevented me from accepting that subsidy.

I have lived a good and fortunate life while reducing ecological impact, including demand for services funded by the taxpayer or provided by globalised capitalism. I have done this by investing in personal, household and community resilience to shocks from whatever quarter. My partnership with Su Dennett over nearly four decades has been the most important reinforcement in this shared journey.

I remain intensely aware of the nation state, ethnic and cultural privileges that underpin this personal achievement. Ongoing contradictions and ethical dilemmas raise questions about being part of a barely recognised privileged elite, that I believe has a responsibility to give back and pay forward in novel ways and provide leadership to chart new paths to ecological and social harmony.

Over most of my life, I felt a disconnect between being privileged in having options and agency in the world and yet living below the official poverty line without the backup of family wealth. I understood that most people living at or below the poverty line have few choices and limited personal resources. Most even lacked the skills of poverty to “make do”, which was characteristic of previous generations of working poor. Two generations later, addictive behaviours and dysfunction have magnified the problems.

I retain respect for people who are somehow coping with kids home from school in apartments, queuing at Moles or Bullies for their food, jumping through endless bureaucratic hoops to meet their needs, dealing with debt, or a range of health dependencies and disabilities and, most significantly, a huge confusing range of emotions as the certainties in their world shrink.

I also cannot avoid a distaste for those who have done so well through timely investments creaming the best from globalised capitalism with no sense of obligation to society, other than creating jobs for others through their consumption and investment. That distaste intensifies for those who have simultaneously hedged with bets against the system, including rural properties for negative gearing – and as a self-reliance bolthole in case the system really goes pear shaped.

It is this lack of faith that so many of the current elite have in the system that tells us it is rotten at its core. Of course, lack of faith in the system is fundamental to the world view of the new unrecognised leaders. The difference is that we have attempted to live and communicate “open source” solutions to any and all who are interested, while the old elites continue preaching undying faith in “economic growth” to save the masses from chaos. This corruption is already unleashing reaction and rage as populations realise they have been sold defective goods while the spruikers have hoarded cash to fund plans to jump off the sinking ship.

Obviously these are not black and white values or groups of people. There is an overlap between those with capacity to choose one’s own path, and those who responded to society’s carrots and sticks and were amply rewarded. Growing recognition for ideas whose time has come, and sometimes greater financial security, shifts our experience from alienation to feeling the warm glow from respect and reward that in turn generates contradictions and ethical dilemmas.[3] Over the decades, I have observed how creative entrepreneurs and activists are lured back into decadent institutions that have lost the capacity to generate leadership from within. And national/ethnic privilege and fortunate personal circumstances do continue to generate creative and ethical leadership from some of those born into established elites.

Similarly, those following a path of voluntary frugality and dissident leadership are vulnerable to some risks as great as those faced by the true battlers at bottom of the social ladder. For example, being targeted by the old elites as a threat to the system can manifest in ways ranging from subtle exclusion and prejudice to legal sanctions and, in more extreme situations, incarceration and torture. The case of Julian Assange is a clear warning not only to journalists but to any dissident that might be an existential threat to elite power. It always seems that the articulators and leaders of the emerging culture walk on a knife edge between the corrupting rewards of the system and being tipped into the abyss of failure, ridicule and even martyrdom.

In creating our own economy through household provision and self-employment funded by clients and students making similar choices, Su Dennett and I have simultaneously reduced our contribution to this system through tax (tax minimisation by minimising monetary income) and dependence on systems of infrastructure, education, health, law and other services that are available to citizens generally. We are intensely aware of how being citizens of one of the richest countries in the world provides myriad forms of insurance and backups to our experiments in autonomy. However over the decades, I can honestly say that our demand from those systems has been some tiny fraction of Australian middleclass norms. I am also sure that our dependencies are fewer than those at the bottom of the system who, for better (or worse), are dependent on education, health, welfare, work and access to cheap energy and what passes as food delivered by our market economy backed by the welfare state.

By not needing fulltime work in the monetary economy and creating our own employment, we believe we leave opportunities for others who need work. By not commuting, we leave the roads and public transport clearer for others. By birthing at home, healthy living and a dose of scepticism about mainstream medicine, we leave system resources available to those in need. By attempting to resolve conflicts directly, we reduce the load on council officers, the legal system and police to deal with more substantial issues. By having a tested stay and defend bushfire plan, we free up the resources available to help those not able to do so. By living and doing business from savings rather than debt, we reduce our own, as well as systemic, vulnerabilities to financial contagions. By printing our books in Australia rather than China and denying Amazon access to, let alone control of, our book marketing, we do our bit to stop feeding the monster of corporate globalisation. By sharing our property, we extend household economies and capacities to help others make similar transitions.[4]

Brenna Quinlan’s encapsulation of the downshifting path to a resilient future from RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future.

I have articulated this life as a quiet boycott of an unsustainable system that beguiles the population with its seductions and addictions while increasingly exploiting those at the bottom as it trashes our precious earth and hands a cargo of adverse consequences to future generations.

In contrast to some other forms of revolutionary activism, this modest strike of our labour, consumption and investment is designed to allow us to live a better life now, and provide a model for others able and interested in doing the same, while freeing resources for those most dependent on current centralised systems.

Like all research and development, some of our designs and investments have given no financial reward. For example growing our own food year after year, minimising our rubbish and building a passive solar house have not reaped the financial rewards from being hedged against expensive food, waste disposal and energy that I expected to hit “the lucky country” as early as the 1990s. Being an early adopter of grid feedback rooftop power was not as profitable for us as those who waited for the prices to drop. When Victoria temporarily lost it gas supply in 1998, I experienced a moment of schadenfreude in response to the crisis of lack of hot showers. Back when gas was still being touted by environmentalists as a clean alternative to coal fired electricity, I would gently tell people on tours of Melliodora that our wood fired cooking and hot water produced less than 1/10th greenhouse gas emissions of cheap, but depleting, Bass Strait gas and that using gas to heat water and air was stealing our grandchildren’s high quality transport fuels for the frugal futures they would face. Despite the spruiking of the green technology optimists, those frugal futures are surely unfolding in some form or another.

So it is no surprise that the pandemic, which required us to cancel our property tours and courses, has been a relatively minor hiccup for our business. And for us, household isolation has not been that much of a change to our three decades of home-based lifestyle at Melliodora, with as many extra upsides as downsides. In contrast, even folks with incomes several-fold of ours, find themselves dependent on social welfare directly or indirectly as they struggle to implement imposed home schooling, and go cold turkey from their multiple habits of commuting, consumption and social interactions in the market place. After decades of acting steadfastly against this system of addictive consumption, exploitation and destruction that I articulated in “The Apology: from the baby boomers to the handicapped generations”, it’s hard not to gloat at the “Second Great Depression of the 2020s”, “predicted” in the most charming and empowering way through my story “Aussie St: a permaculture soap opera in 4 acts, 1955 to 2025” (also told in Chapter 2 of RetroSuburbia).

Despite the worldwide impact of the pandemic, it is hard to imagine a more benign interruption to the planet-killing Ponzi scheme called the global economy. Almost all other scenarios we have considered and hedged against over the decades, from localised bushfire disaster to global financial collapse let alone nuclear war, involve far more “collateral” damage and less learning for change than this pandemic and the consequent necessary shutdown of the non-essential economy.[5]

The global nature of the pandemic that has most dramatically impacted the hyperconnected cities of the rich countries, especially the Anglo-American centres of empire, has ensured that those normally insulated from natural and man-made disasters (mostly happening in poor countries) are impacted and consequently engaged. The fact that many poor countries have responded better than many rich ones, has eroded the hubris of the so-called developed world about our assumed superiority. Household isolation has highlighted the poverty of individual and minimalist household living arrangements, promoted through the global economy, compared with extended family and shared households that were the norm of our forebears. That same isolation has triggered large numbers of people to kick start the retrofitting of their own household economies. Many took the opportunity to rapidly consolidate their households with family, friends and visitors to at least get a taste of the real power and resilience of larger shared household non-monetary economies.[6]

Most dramatically, the zombie-like commitment to maintaining a system of underused homes and unnecessary work spaces, despite the current communications technology, has been broken. It hasn’t all been roses, but it has provided an alternative vision for our human habitats that doesn’t require the mad cargo cult of infrastructure and building construction that has dominated the public discourse about urban development for half a century.

While we and other colleagues in the permaculture and kindred movements have been doing some combination of modelling and teaching about the many ways to live better with less, it has remained an option that, until the pandemic, most people had little inkling of or interest in. The current explosion of interest in home-based self-reliance, like previous waves of interest over the decades, is countercyclical to the faith and fortune in mainstream economic values and options. But the intensity of this downturn has acted as a slap in the face for many people dozing in the comfortable cocoon of consumer capitalism.

Over the decades, the elites in the current system (whether by Machiavellian conspiracy or self-organising complexity) ensured that these solutions were perceived by the majority as hard work and hair shirt puritanism – if not hippy nonsense sending us all back to the caves. The systemic intelligence built into the current economy recognises these non-monetary household and community economies as an existential threat to corporate and central government power.

The desperate attempts to reboot the centralised monetary economies controlled by corporations and feeding government coffers, are likely to be accompanied by calls for people to renew discretionary consumption as a social obligation to provide for the wellbeing of their fellow Australians.

However this time around, I think the propaganda will be less effective at suppressing the good news of people kick starting their household and community non-monetary economies. The more of us who stay at home, get the garden cranking, take in a boarder and make connections in the neighbourhood, the more chance we have of using the pandemic-induced Depression to build the new economy in the shadow of the old.[7] We can do this while taking full advantage of our historically unique capacity to be inspired by, learn from and trade with those further afield in local and global networks. The internet could be the pinnacle project of global industrial civilisation that may, or may not, survive the long energy descent transition to re-localised and re-ruralised economies and cultures, but for however long it lasts, we can use it to build the new. Doing so may be the finest example of parasitising the global system without parasitising the people.

Of course, the internet and communications technologies are a digital vortex that constantly threatens to suck us into the matrix of a virtual existence, on cloud servers, dependent on passwords and flooding us with electromagnetic pollution. How to use the power of technology to support what we do in unmediated connection with people and nature is perhaps the greatest challenge for those of us on this side of the digital divide. Those on the other side are still subject to the strictures of virtual existence but without the sense of agency that so many of us feel connecting to our network communities.

One of our tasks in building stronger households and communities is to recognise that some of us have heads in the clouds with large antennae harvesting the virtual world, while others have feet on the ground and are content with fewer but more real relationships with others. The hyperconnected can inform those on the ground, while our grounded household members are our anchors stopping us floating or being blasted away by the fickle and foul winds of the online world. Like other relationships in any robust and resilient household and community ecosystem, this ambiguous complementarity between the connected and the grounded may provide a resolution to the digital divide by internalising it in our households and communities. In an extended retrosuburban household, this design pattern might be expressed by one adult out working in the monetary economy and available online, another working part time from home at the desk, balanced by work in the garden and kitchen, while another might have a craft home business with limited online engagement, and another might be focused on children and animals with little or no online identity. The household children might be shielded from the online reality until they have a fully formed identity (around age 10 or thereabouts). In this way, information technology could be our servant rather than our master as we navigate the post-pandemic world.

So as we build our retrosuburban resilience to face the successive unfolding crisis of the brown tech[8] future (defined by rapid on set of climate change and relatively slow decline of net energy supply), the strictures of life in the system will become ever more difficult, being maintained more by fear of the risks outside the system than its enticing benefits. Living outside of this corporate and government controlled system will be challenging but empowering, as we increasingly have to rely on our personal and collective resources while access to the benefits of the system is being reduced. For example, without making any judgement about the merits of the case, access to school education will be dependent on full compliance with vaccination recommendations while access to (rationed food) at Moles and Bullies might be dependent on personal ID and tracking apps installed on mobile phones. For those unwilling to comply, feeding ourselves in the fringe food economies of farmers markets, co-ops, grow your own and foraging will be the only options.

Over some decades, if not more quickly, being in the system will become intolerable to enough people that it will collapse due to lack of subscription and compliance. The greatest blessing of the ancient Mediterranean world was to be a free citizen of Rome, but over time the tax burden of sustaining the bloated empire made citizenry more of a curse. When the empire did fall, life for many ex-Roman citizens actually improved, even if many of the great cultural projects and achievements of the civilisation were progressively abandoned.

Maybe humanity can make a better job of it this time round with the progressive failure of global industrial civilisation. It is a great irony that the fate of our cultural legacy will lie more in the hands of households and communities than with grand institutions and nation states. It is time to roll up our sleeves and get on with job. And just maybe, social justice and ecological harmony are not too much of a dream to be part of the future.

 

David Holmgren
Hepburn, Central Victoria
12 May 2020

 

[1] Joseph Stiglitz “Pandemic Exposed Health Inequality and Flaws of Market Economy”

https://www.investopedia.com/nobel-winner-joseph-stiglitz-on-income-inequality-after-covid-19-4843052

[2] See for example this critique of comfortable celebrities giving moral support to those at the front line. https://twitter.com/hashtag/giveusyourmoney?src=hashtag_click

[3] Despite its limitations and inaccuracies, Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore’s film Planet of the Humans shows the tensions as environmentalism and corporate power attempt to align their causes in an act of mutual desperation as we confront the limits to growth.

[4] This short film by Happen Films about our property and lives gives a taste of how we have spent our time, passion and limited capital over the last 35 years: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ss1BjW2kSNs

[5] Recently, I’ve been feeling a bit annoyed with myself for not having included much about the risks and dynamics of pandemics in my future scenarios writing over the years, or even having done much research of the complexities, which might have allowed us to be even better positioned to take advantage of the crisis. But our high level “patterns to details” thinking, constrained by permaculture ethics, has given us plenty of advantage in this crisis anyway.

[6] A word has even been coined to describe this: “quaranteam”.

[7] “Flattening the curve (of growth economics)”, a slightly tongue-in-cheek presentation by Dr Patrick Jones brilliantly encapsulates how what we do at home is central to building the new economy in the shadow of the old: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=slD_FpSuRuM

[8] See futurescenarios.org

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RetroSuburbia Online: Innovation in Digital Publishing

RetroSuburbia Online
Permaculture: Innovation in Digital Publishing
The behind the scenes thinking

Our launch of RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future as a “pay what you feel” online flip-book in response to the COVID-19 health and economic crisis has galvanised enthusiasm in permaculture and kindred circles. However, it has also raised some questions, and even frustration, with our strategy.

We had always intended to release RetroSuburbia as a downloadable e-book, but we needed to do so in a way that didn’t destroy the market for the 592 page hardcopy, printed in Australia and retailing at $85. We were looking to price the digital version at $50, whilst allowing those who already own the content in the form of the hardcopy book to access it for around $10.

Kindle, ePub and other standard e-book formats allow text-only books to be converted and formatted at low cost, however for a long, graphics-rich book like RetroSuburbia, they become prohibitively complex and expensive to create.

So our default was to go back to a PDF format, a solid, universally readable format that has been around for decades. This was our choice in the early 2000s for our first effort at digital publishing: converting and updating our 1995 A3-landscape book Melliodora. This was a labour of love and innovation by permaculture graphic designer colleague Richard Telford. It came out on CD ROM in 2005, and included a then innovative HTML “virtual tour” of the property using early digital photos from 2003.

When e-books finally went mainstream, we were amazed that the formats used couldn’t take advantage of the graphics-rich, fine grained, full colour and multimedia potential of an interactive PDF. On the plus side, they were simple to use and had some of the qualities people were used to in reading a book.

In the lead up to the GFC, my colleague Adam Grubb offered to use his substantial web skills to put my Future Scenarios work online as a long-read website (futurescenarios.org). We both felt the urgent imperative to help inform social and environmental activists of the challenging future unfolding, driven by climate change and peak oil. This free access website launched my role as a “futurist” and led to an offer from our US book distributor to publish Future Scenarios as a book, which proved to be a modest success despite the contents being free online.

A decade later, printing our massive manual RetroSuburbia in Australia, costing $25,000 more than it would to print in China, felt like a case of ideological extremism but one that was well supported by crowdfunding. We have sold more than 10,000 copies, mostly in Australia, making it a bestseller by any standard, despite not receiving a single book review from any mainstream journalist. When the mainstream media eventually discover RetroSuburbia they will no doubt describe it as having a cult following. Of course, the “cult” in “permaculture” is a running joke and issue of serious discussion within the movement – but I digress!

With RetroSuburbia out there fermenting change across our residential heartlands and hinterlands, I felt content to wait for the storm which I thought would come through the bursting of the property bubble, in between intensifying climate change disasters. As it started to unfold with that other horseman of the apocalypse, Pestilence, we scrambled to launch RetroSuburbia for the mainstream stuck at home with digital access and time to read.

We decided that using a new online format that shows off the best of our beautiful book, and gives readers some of the qualities of book reading, would provide the best of both of our previous innovations in digital publishing. Being online would give us the option to modify and add links to the gathering trove of material at retrosuburbia.com and further afield. It would also allow us to understand how people were using the book. Further, it would reduce the chance of the PDF being just one more unopened attachment circulating the web and ending up a torrent download.

The speed with which made the digital book available created some premature and mixed message publicity giving the impression this would be a PDF download, whereas what we produced is an online book that can be read on a standard web browser with the look and feel of the original book (most suited to desktop computers).

The “pay what you feel” gateway invites everyone to consider, from the heart, the value and import of this material for them. This reflects the Permaculture Ethics – in particular the third one, “Fair Share”: people are asked to judge what they feel is a fair share is based on their own circumstances. We trust this faith in the sharing economy will allow us to survive and thrive. We are happy for those of very limited means to use the online book without paying fiat currency, but we don’t want to see it pointlessly passed around to those who would not value or digest its potentially life-changing words, photos and graphics. We also encourage other ways to contribute, especially for those who cannot afford to pay much: share retrosuburban ideas as widely as possible, join the online community to share your experiences, and perhaps submit a case study.

Not being available offline is a significant disadvantage for some, and a hazard in some future scenarios. Enduring online access depends on our ability to continue to pay the substantial costs of maintaining today’s complex websites (and for the world wide web to survive in usable form). However, any lasting digital form of the book, whether online or downloadable, relies on technology in a way that a printed copy of the book doesn’t. If you are worried about the future availability and reliability of technology, a paper copy of the book is a good investment.

The response to the launch party has been huge, maybe big enough on social media to see RetroSuburbia scale-up for the masses, and we are grateful and moved by this remarkable show of support. Our team is incredibly energised but the effort and complexity has been enormous with some fallout, including the struggle to service customer queries and problems. We trust our network community to give us useful and honest feedback so that our third innovation in online publishing can help change the world for the better.

We are all drawing breath and attempting to look after our health as we work to make the delivery of RetroSuburbia online smooth, robust and resilient in a fast-changing world. And if the proverbial shit really hits the fan, we might just dump a PDF of RetroSuburbia out there to circulate – if necessary on memory sticks attached to carrier pigeons. It makes you realise that despite the wonders of the digital world, there is nothing like a book in your hands, just like “a bird in the hand being worth more than two in the bush”.

1

The Problem is the Solution: how permaculture-designed household isolation can lead to RetroSuburbia

As the COVID-19 pandemic first exploded across our globalised world, I found myself unsure of priorities in this time of pivotal change, even though I had been tracking information about Wuhan since January. Not because I didn’t know that a global pandemic of this scale was on the cards, or that it could overwhelm the most technologically advanced and powerful nations on the planet. Not because it could be the acceleration of what I coined “the energy descent future” two decades ago (in Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability). And not because we are not well prepared compared with most to weather the storm.

It was more the realisation of this being a grand turning point that will test a lifetime’s work in articulating and demonstrating a way of living connected to place and the seasons with minimal ecological footprint, conserving precious non-renewable resources, and regenerating natural capital that can sustain future generations after the pulse of fossil fuelled civilisation has faded. 

Even more intensely, it was the understanding that such turning points are opportunities to leverage change in positive directions and avoid the worst consequences of delay and indecision. 

On the other hand, after running the last booked tour of Melliodora – tours that we have been doing since 1990 – part of me (at 65) wanted to “retire” and watch it all unfold, confident that we had passed our insights, skills and passion onto new generations of permaculture practitioners, designers, teachers and activists. Confident that this has empowered them to create a better world now with whatever we can salvage from the obsolete one, while cherishing nature’s gifts that are still at hand. 

Of course for most people attempting to grapple with the daily shift of news, advice and orders at the start of a command economy (where the government rather than the market runs the show), my perspective probably seems like apocalyptic nonsense. Pandemics have happened before and society has coped and recovered. Surely modern communications and medicine will mean the impacts will be less and the recovery swifter. It will be interesting to see if these advantages we have over our forebears can compensate for the litany of disabilities and vulnerabilities created by decades of debt-fuelled and globalised consumer capitalism. 

COVID-19, an invisible agent that barely qualifies as a lifeform, is bringing the most powerful civilisation the world has ever seen to a grinding halt. In three months it may have led to 10 to 20 times greater reduction in greenhouse gas emissions than all the science, talk and technology have done in more than three decades.

A home-based lifestyle of self-reliance, minimal and slow travel does not provide protection against getting a virus as infectious as COVID-19, but it provides a base for social distancing and isolation that is stimulating and healthy rather than a place of detention. This psychological health-giving factor may be more important in these times than the actual level of self-sufficiency achieved in the household economy. 

Nevertheless, a veggie garden, chooks and fruit trees supplying a larder of home preserves and bulk-purchased food gives a sense of security lacking for most people dependent on 24/7 supermarkets crowded with scared shoppers. A vibrant and busy household economy, where young and old contribute, provides focus and meaning rather than boredom and pent up frustrations. An ability to connect with nature and animals provides balance to the 24/7 news cycle and social media.

Furthermore, behaviours such as self-provisioning, buying in bulk and minimal travel not only reduce ecological footprint and stimulate household and community economies, they also “flatten the curve” of infection, thus giving the health system the best chance of responding to those in need and reducing the numbers of people desperately dependent on government aid and assistance.

Far from being a survivalist withdrawal from society, permaculture designed self- and collective-reliance at the household level is our best option for a bottom-up response to the multiple crises generated by globalised capitalism. Nearly two decades ago I began to shift my strategic focus to articulating opportunities for in-situ adaption and retrofitting of the built, biological and behavioural fields of the household economy. This culminated in the publication of our bestselling (11,000 copies sold) manual, RetroSuburbia, in February 2018. 

In the years before publication, I fretted that the wobbles in the financial system would lead to a crash before the ideas got out there to catalyse the diverse threads of action in permaculture and related networks. Although the mainstream media has largely ignored the quiet revolution spreading in our suburbs, regional towns and villages, local governments have been supportive of our message with events around the country in which my “Aussie St” permaculture soap opera shows how we survive and thrive in the “second great depression”. 

While this pandemic will pass, or just become a recurring part of the disease burden of humanity, the arcane magic of central banks to bail out the banks and corporations is unlikely to work as well as it did in the GFC. If there is a role for money printing, it should be to create a Universal Basic Income to allow everyone to survive the pandemic while flattening the curve of impact on the whole society. The Morrison government stimulus package might be an opportunity for people to restart the economy by choosing what they want, rather than the government assuming that a consumer economy dominated by Moles, Bullies and Cunnings is what Australians need. 

While public policies might help or hinder the bottom-up rebuild of household and community self- and collective-reliance, the speed of the global pandemic’s impact is jolting people into action faster than the collapse of faith in endlessly rising house and share prices, superannuation payments and “fiat” currencies based on money printing.

Being home, off work and school, brings people face to face with opportunities to kickstart or revive their household economy. Even the toilet paper shortage created by panic buying will make lots of people realise the alternatives ranging from plant leaves to telephone books or, if people so choose, the soft touch of “family cloth.” 

So what am I doing about it apart from being what my parents called “an armchair academic”? Having prepared our three semi-autonomous households at Melliodora for isolation to do our bit to “flatten the curve” and powering up our online work with colleagues, writing this piece has helped work out what I can and should do. 

We are about to spend most of our savings on printing another 6000 copies of RetroSuburbia with Focus Print in Melbourne, in an act of faith that this book is the best resource we have to offer people cooped up at home wondering how to avoid going crazy, become productive and kickstart their household economy.

Oh yeah, how many people are going to buy an $85 book in Australia where all the compost turning, cider brewing, chook wrangling permies already have a copy? Well maybe the time is right for RetroSuburbia to “immunise” the whole country… 

Consequently we are taking a leap and releasing a digital version of RetroSuburbia available for whatever people can afford. Hopefully, most will pay something reasonable in return for the 592 page fully illustrated information-dense text, to compensate for the loss of sales of the real book and keep supporting our RetroSuburbia Rollout.

This is a risky move for us, and our business partners who are dependent on physical sales of the book. So what if a digital version of RetroSuburbia goes viral, transforms Australia for the better, and we are left with a few tonnes of retro toilet paper? It will be worth it – and maybe enough people will appreciate the content to want the real thing in their hands and some might choose to gift multiple copies to those they love and care for and others whom they know will benefit. We are even hoping that some benefactors might sponsor people from permaculture and kindred networks idle from their reluctant work in the so-called ‘real economy’ to follow their passion to catalyse vibrant local communities after we pass through the eye of the storm. 

I know many of you already living permaculture and retrosuburban lives are now busy helping others by sharing (at a distance) your skills, knowledge and perspectives on life. The pandemic provides a unique opportunity to leverage positive changes that decades of sustainability discourse have failed to achieve. While changes at the public policy level may have to wait until the current crisis subsides, the bottom-up household and community level changes need to be enacted now, leading to resilient and capable households that are the essential foundation for stronger neighbourhood connections and re-localised economies. 

Within the next week we will have the digital RetroSuburbia available on a “pay what you feel” basis.

We hope the early adopters already on this path will become ambassadors to share these creative adaptions to our new world by:

  • Letting those you help know that your help is all part of living a better life now within the RetroSuburbia bigger picture. 
  • Sending people the link to my Aussie St presentation for a light-hearted narrative introduction to RetroSuburbia.
  • Using social media, talk-back radio or other means to tell people the good news.
  • Telling us about practical guides and other resources that you have found helpful on your journey that we can add to the chapter resources pages on retrosuburbia.com.
  • Checking out the case studies on retrosuburbia.com and considering if your place could add to the diversity we want to highlight – remember, we are all learning from each other.
  • Buying the book, ebooks or other great publications from our online stores as gifts.
  • Financially contributing so we can support permaculture activists to power up their existing work.

To everyone in the retrosuburbia community, thank you for your support, stay strong, stay safe, and let’s use this time to do great things as we collectively help to build the new world in the shadow of the old.

 

David Holmgren, Melliodora, March 31 2020

26

RetroSuburbia Bushfire Resilience Extract

This is an extract from my book RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future, a 550 page richly illustrated manual that has become a best seller since its publication in February 2018. The production and availability of this extract as a free and sharable download is part of our response the Australian bushfire crisis of summer 2019/20.

RetroSuburbia includes 34 chapters across three fields of retrofitting action: the built, biological and behavioural. ‘Bushfire resilient design’ and ‘Household disaster planning’ are two distinct chapters in RetroSuburbia which exemplify strategies of permaculture-inspired adaption to challenging futures that simultaneously address climate change by reducing carbon emissions.

Those who are considering relocation in the light of this bushfire season will find the RetroSuburbian Real Estate Checklist a useful tool to help balance current concerns about bushfire with the myriad other factors to consider in those difficult decisions.

Bushfire resilient home, landscape and community design has been a part of permaculture from its origins in the 1970s on the urban fringe property that Bill Mollison saved from the great Hobart fires of 1967. My own focus on bushfire intensified following the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983 including the documentation of a bushfire resistant building in The Flywire House (1991/2009) and design and development of Melliodora, our 1 hectare property on the edge of Hepburn Springs where we have had a ‘stay and actively defend’ bushfire plan since 1988. Following Black Saturday (2009), my teaching and advocacy lead to writing Bushfire resilient landscapes and communities, a 52-page report to our own bushfire vulnerable community and Hepburn Shire council.

In February 2019 we had the first direct bushfire threat to Melliodora in thirty years leading to Reflections on fire. That experience had us tweaking our plans for this summer, which has been so devastating in other fire-vulnerable regions where climate change drought has been more intense.

A new essay Bushfire Resilient Land and Climate Care draws on the truths of the polarised debate between those identifying climate change as the root cause and those recognising weak or absent land management as the direct cause. It paints a vision of a resilient and re-energised Australia that could grow from small beginnings in fire-impacted and vulnerable communities at the urban/bushland interface.

As always, crisis is an opportunity for personal, household, community and national reflection to Creatively use and respond to change

Dr David Holmgren
Co-originator of Permaculture
January 2020

2

Bushfire Resilient Land and Climate Care

Anglehook State Forest Victoria  Winter 1983 in the aftermath of the Ash Wednesday bushfires. Photo: David Holmgren

In this thoughtfully written document, David Holmgren, co-originator of the permaculture concept outlines that while devastating, the recent Australian bushfires provide an opportunity to come to terms with both the legacies of colonisation and the unfolding climate emergency in ways that empower bottom up householder and community level resilience.

Here is the Executive Summary to give you a taster:

Fire is an intrinsic part of the Australian landscape. It has become more destructive since European colonisation, and over recent decades, we have experienced even greater destruction due to accelerating climate change and changes in land use. Australia could, and should, be leading the world in transitioning to a renewable energy base to reduce the root cause of the crisis.

Australian landscapes were once subject to the oldest continual land management practices through indigenous cultural burning practices; stopping these practices has left us with denser, fire-vulnerable forests. Traditional landuses of grazing and forestry that contributed to prevention and control of bushfires have declined across large areas of the country and been replaced by residential, recreational and conservation uses in recent decades that increase our vulnerability to bushfire.

Australia arguably has the best fire-fighting capacity in the world. However fuel reduction burning is currently the default land management tool in reducing fire danger. This is effective in some cases, but not in catastrophic bushfires. The season for safe fuel reduction burning is contracting. Further, burning can lead to lower-nutrient, drier soils with more fire-prone vegetation.

A strategic focus on the urban/bushland interface and rural residential areas where bushfires create the greatest economic and social havoc demands a much broader suit of land management practices than increasing already problematic fuel reduction burning:

  • A return to indigenous cultural burning practices where canopy and soil organic matter are left intact
  • Greater use of grazing animals combined with farming systems that use native pasture species, fire-retardant shelterbelts and silvopasture systems to build soil water- and nutrient-holding capacity
  • Managing fuels with chippers, slashers and groomers as well as livestock trampling.
  • A greater focus on fuel reduction through decomposition; research is needed on the role of microbes in speeding decomposition, and the effects of lost soil calcium.
  • Rehydration of landscapes, using Natural Sequence Farming and Keyline techniques, especially along water courses receiving urban storm water.
  • Protecting and managing dense areas of fire-retardant ‘novel ecosystems’ near towns and urban fringes, including non-native species such as willow.
  • The ecologically sensitive thinning of forests utilising the resultant biomass can also reduce our fossil fuel dependence through:
    – Carbon neutral Combined Heat and Power systems to generate dispatchable power at multiple scales, especially local scale.
    – As biochar – a soil amendment providing longterm carbon sequestration and improving soil water- and nutrient-holding capacity and microbial activity.

Most of these strategies are more labour-intensive than industrial-scale clearing or fuel-reduction burning so are less appealing to government decision makers but have potential to reform and reenergise community-based activity with government support.

While all these strategies have their proponents and opponents, thinning our forests to reduce fire risk and provide carbon neutral, dispatchable, renewable energy to accelerate the shift to a 100% renewable power grid is by far the most controversial. This idea is seen by most conservationists as inviting another massive degradation of our forests in the pursuit of business as usual. Building confidence that we can manage forests for our own safety and immediate needs while we protect our biodiversity drawdown carbon and kick the fossil fuel habit is a cultural challenge that requires leadership by environmentalists who understand how the legal fiction of “terra nullius” has distorted the conservation paradigm.

Whatever the hope for adaptive top down responses, households and communities need to become more self- and collectively-reliant as the capacity of centralised systems to manage escalating crises through command and control strategies declines. Community involvement is critical in managing local landscapes for reduced fire threat, especially in the urban/bushland interface. Flow-on benefits include community engagement, empowerment and resilience, and reduced costs to taxpayers. We need a reform of local laws to allow for small-scale community actions to be undertaken with minimal red tape.

At a household level, a well thought-out and practiced fire plan, and retrofits to buildings and outdoor spaces, allows for staying and defending a property as part of a resilient lifestyle that reduces the load on authorities managing mass evacuations.

This vision could bridge an increasingly polarised debate: empowering those on the libertarian right to manage land for the better; offering the green left a viable alternative for local power generation, bypassing international corporations and providing the ‘sensible centre’ a common sense way forwardto allow us to finally be at home in this land.

You can read the rest of the piece here.

* * *

RetroSuburbia Bushfire Resilience Extract

This is an extract from my book RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future, a 550 page richly illustrated manual that has become a best seller since its publication in February 2018. The production and availability of this extract as a free and sharable download is part of our response the Australian bushfire crisis of summer 2019/20.

RetroSuburbia includes 34 chapters across three fields of retrofitting action: the built, biological and behavioural. ‘Bushfire resilient design’ and ‘Household disaster planning’ are two distinct chapters in RetroSuburbia which exemplify strategies of permaculture-inspired adaption to challenging futures that simultaneously address climate change by reducing carbon emissions.

Those who are considering relocation in the light of this bushfire season will find the RetroSuburbian Real Estate Checklist a useful tool to help balance current concerns about bushfire with the myriad other factors to consider in those difficult decisions.

Bushfire resilient home, landscape and community design has been a part of permaculture from its origins in the 1970s on the urban fringe property that Bill Mollison saved from the great Hobart fires of 1967. My own focus on bushfire intensified following the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983 including the documentation of a bushfire resistant building in The Flywire House (1991/2009) and design and development of Melliodora, our 1 hectare property on the edge of Hepburn Springs where we have had a ‘stay and actively defend’ bushfire plan since 1988. Following Black Saturday (2009), my teaching and advocacy lead to writing Bushfire resilient landscapes and communities, a 52-page report to our own bushfire vulnerable community and Hepburn Shire council.

In February 2019 we had the first direct bushfire threat to Melliodora in thirty years leading to Reflections on fire. That experience had us tweaking our plans for this summer, which has been so devastating in other fire-vulnerable regions where climate change drought has been more intense.

A new essay Bushfire Resilient Land and Climate Care draws on the truths of the polarised debate between those identifying climate change as the root cause and those recognising weak or absent land management as the direct cause. It paints a vision of a resilient and re-energised Australia that could grow from small beginnings in fire-impacted and vulnerable communities at the urban/bushland interface.

As always, crisis is an opportunity for personal, household, community and national reflection to Creatively use and respond to change

Dr David Holmgren
Co-originator of Permaculture
January 2020

2

The Apology: from baby boomers to the handicapped generations

Climate activism by children is a sign of hope that young people might be ready for the radical alternatives that permaculture and kindred movements have been building in the darkening shadows of the destructive economy.

The Apology: from the baby boomers to the handicapped generations was penned by David Holmgren over the summer solstice of 2018 but it is a theme he has been mulling over for many years. Modelled on the Rudd Apology to the stolen generations, the following apology is a clear sighted admission of his generation’s failures from one of the pioneers of modern ecological thinking. It speaks directly to the generations inheriting a troubled legacy on multiple fronts. If this awakens recognition in baby boomers this apology will have been of value. If it galvanises a sense of urgency and positive personal and collective action by younger people then David still sees hope for a prosperous and equitable way down.

The Apology: from baby boomers to the handicapped generations

It is time for us baby boomers to honestly acknowledge what we did and didnt do with the gifts given to us by our forebears and be clear about our legacy with which we have saddled the next and succeeding generations.

By ‘baby boomers’ I mean those of us born in the affluent nations of the western world between 1945 and 1965. In these countries, the majority of the population became middle class beneficiaries of mass affluence. I think of the high birth rate of those times as a product of collective optimism about the future, and the abundant and cheap resources to support growing families.

By many measures, the benefits of global industrial civilisation peaked in our youth, but for most middle class baby boomers of the affluent countries, the continuing experience of those benefits has tended to blind us to the constriction of opportunities faced by the next generations: unaffordable housing and land access, ecological overshoot and climate chaos amongst a host of other challenges.

I am a white middle class man born in 1955 in Australia, one of the richest nations of the ‘western world’ in the middle of the baby boom, so I consider myself well placed to articulate an apology on behalf of my generation.

In the life of a baby boomer born in 1950 and dying in 2025 (a premature death according to the expectations of our generation), the best half the worlds endowment of oil – the potent resource that made industrial civilisation possible – will have been burnt. This is tens of millions of years of stored sunlight from a special geological epoch of extraordinary biological productivity. Beyond our basic needs, we have been the recipients of manufactured wants and desires. To varying degrees, we have also suffered the innumerable downsides, addictions and alienations that have come with fossil-fuelled consumer capitalism.

It is also true that our generation has used the genie of fossil fuels to create wonders of technology, organisation and art, and a diversity of lifestyles and ideas. Some of the unintended consequences of our way of life, ranging from antibiotic resistance to bubble economics, should have been obvious, while others, such as the depression epidemic in rich countries, were harder to foresee. Our travel around the world has broadened our minds, but global tourism has contaminated the amazing diversity of nature and traditional cultures at an accelerating pace. We have the excuse that innovations always have pluses and minuses, but it seems we have got a larger share of the pluses and handballed more of the minuses to the world’s poorest countries and to our children and grandchildren.

We were the first generation to have the clear scientific evidence that emergent global civilisation was on an unsustainable path that would precipitate an unravelling of both nature and society through the 21st century. Although climate chaos was a less obvious outcome than the no-brainer of resource depletion, international recognition of the reality of climate change came way back in 1988, just as we were beginning to get our hands on the levers of power, and we have presided over decades of policies that have accelerated the problem. Over the years since, the adverse outcomes have shifted from distant risks to lived realities. These impact hardest on the most vulnerable peoples of the world who have yet to taste the benefits of the carbon bonanza that has driven the accelerating climate catastrophe. For the failure to share those benefits globally and curb our own consumption we must be truly sorry

 Photo: woodleywonderworks

In the 1960s and 70s, during our coming of age, a significant proportion of us were critical of what was being passed down to us by our parent’s generation who were also the beneficiaries of the western world system, which some of us baby boomers recognised as a global empire. But our grandparents and parents had been shaped by the rigours and grief of the first global depression of the 1890s, the First World War, The Great Depression of the 1930s and, of course, the Second World War. Aside from those who served in Vietnam, we have cruised through life avoiding the worst threats of nuclear annihilation and economic depression, even as people in other countries suffered the consequences of superpower proxy wars, coups, and economic and environmental catastrophes.

While some of us were burnt by personal and global events, we have mostly led a charmed existence and had the privilege to question our upbringing and culture. We were the first generation in history to experience an extended adolescence of experimentation and privilege with little concern or responsibility for our future, our kin or our country.

Most baby boomers were raised in families where commuting was the norm for our fathers but a home-based lifestyle was still a role model we got from our mothers. In our enthusiasm for women to have equal access to productive work in the monetary economy, few of us noticed that without work to keep the household economy humming we lost much of our household autonomy to market forces. By our daily commutes, mostly alone in our cars, we entrenched this massively wasteful and destructive action as normal and inevitable.

As we came into our power in middle age, the new technology of the internet, workshop tool miniaturisation and other innovations provided more options to participate in the monetary economy without the need to commute, but our generation continued with this insane collective addiction. In Australia, we faithfully followed the American model of not investing in public transport, which moderated the adverse impacts of commuting in European and other countries not so structurally addicted to road transport. By failing to build decent public transport and the opportunities for home-based work, and wasting wealth in a frenzy of freeway building that has choked our cities, our generation has consumed our grandchildren’s inheritance of high quality transport fuels and accelerated the onset of climate chaos. For this we are truly sorry.

In pioneering the double income family, some of us set the pattern for the next generation’s habit of outsourcing the care of children at a young age, making commuting five days a week an early childhood experience. This has left the next generation unable to imagine a life that doesn’t involve leaving home each day.

These patterns are part of a larger crisis created by the double income, debt-laden households with close to 100% dependence on the monetary economy. Without robust and productive household economies, our children and grandchildren’s generations will become the victims of savage disruptions and downturns in the monetary economy. For failing to maintain and strengthen the threads of self-provision, frugality and self-reliance most of us inherited from our parents, we should be truly sorry.

Photo from here.

Some of us felt in our hearts that we needed to create a different and better world. Some of us saw the writing on the walls of the world calling for global justice. Some of us read the evidence (mostly clearly in the 1972 Limits To Growth) that attempting to run continuous material growth on finite planet would end in more than tears.

Some of us even rejected the legacy of previous generations of radicals’ direct action against the problems of the world, and instead decided we would boldly create the world we wanted by living it each day. In doing so, we experienced hard-won lessons and even created some hopeful models for succeeding generations to improve on in more difficult conditions. That our efforts at novel solutions often created more sound than substance, or that we flitted from one issue to another rather than doing the hard yards necessary to pass on truly robust design solutions for a world of less, leaves some of us with regrets for which we might also feel the need to apologise.

These experiences are shared to some degree by a minority in all generations but there is significant evidence that the 1960s and 70s was a time when awareness of the need for change was stronger. Unfortunately, a sequence of titanic geopolitical struggles that few of us understand even today, a debt-fuelled version of consumer capitalism, and propaganda against both the Limits to Growth and the values of the counterculture, saw most of us following the neoliberal agenda like sheep into the 1980s and beyond.

After having played with the privilege of free tertiary education, most of us fell for the propaganda and sent our children off to accumulate debts and doubtful benefits in the corporatised businesses that universities became. We convinced our children they needed more specialised knowledge poured down their throats rather than using their best years to build the skills and resilience for the challenges our generation was bequeathing to them. For this we must be truly sorry.

Many of us have been the beneficiaries of buying real estate before the credit-fuelled final stages of casino capitalism made that option a recipe for debt slavery for our children. Without understanding its mechanics we have contributed to – and fuelled with our faith – a bubble economy on a vast scale that can only end in pain and suffering for the majority. While some of us are members of the bank of Mum and Dad, when the property bubble bursts we could find ourselves following the bank chiefs apologising for the debt burden we encouraged our children to take on. Some of us will also have to apologise for losing the family home when we went guarantor on their mortgages. For not heeding the warnings we got with the GFC, we will be truly sorry.

Some of us have used our windfall wealth from real estate and the stock market to do good works, including creating small models of more creative and lower footprint futures that have inspired the minority of the next generations who can also see the writing on the wall. But most of us used our houses as ATMs for new forms of consumption that were unimaginable to our parents, from holidays around the world to endless renovations and a constant flow of updated digital gadgets and virtual diversions. For this frivolous squandering of our windfall wealth we must be truly sorry.

While our parents generation experienced the risks of youth through adversity and war we used our privilege to tackle challenges of our own choosing. Although some of us had to struggle to free ourselves from the cloying cocoon of middle class upbringing, we were the generation that flew like the birds and hitchhiked around the country and the world. How strange that on becoming parents (many of us in middle age) we believed the propaganda that the world was too dangerous for our children to do the same around the local neighbourhood. Instead we coddled them, got into the chauffeuring business, and in doing so encouraged their disconnection from both nature and community. As we see our grandchildren’s generation raised in a way that makes them an even more handicapped generation, we must be truly sorry for the path we took and the dis-ease we created.

After so many of us experimented with mind-expanding plants and chemicals, some of us were taken down in chemical addictions, but it was dysfunctional and corrupt legal prohibitions more than the substances themselves that were to blame for the worst of the damage. So how strange that when in middle age we got our hands on the levers of power, most of our generation decided to continue to support the madness of prohibition. For this we must be truly sorry: to have seen the light but then continued to inflict this burden on our children and grandchildren. For having acquiesced in the global ‘war on drugs’ that spread pain and suffering to some of the poorest peoples of the world we should be ashamed.

When the ‘war on drugs’ (a war against substances!) became the model for the ‘war on terror’ (war against a concept!) some of us reawakened the anti-war activism of the Vietnam years but in the end we mostly acquiesced to an agenda of trashing international law, regime change, shock and awe, chaos, and the death of millions; all justified by the 9/11 demolition fireworks that killed a small fraction of the number of citizens that die each year as a result of our ongoing addiction to personal motorised mobility.

While the shadow cast by climate change darkens our grandchilden’s future, the shadow of potential nuclear winter that hung over our childhood as not gone away. Many of us were at the forefront of the international movement to rid the world of nuclear weapons and thought the collapse of the Soviet Union had saved us from that threat. Coming into our power after the end of the cold war, our greatest crime on this geopolitical front has perhaps been the tacit support of our generation for first, the economic rape of Russia in the 1990s, and then its progressive encirclement by the relentless expansion of NATO. In Australia we have meekly added our resources and youth to more or less endless wars in the Middle East and central Asia justified by the fake ‘war on terror’. For this weakness as accessories to global crimes wasting wealth and lives to consolidate the western powers’ control of the first truly global empire, we should hang our collective heads in shame.

While some of our generation’s intellectuals continued to critique the ‘war on terror’ as fake, the vast majority of the public intellectuals of our generation, including those on the left, have supported the rapid rise of Cold War 2.0 to contain Russia, China and any other country that doesn’t accept what we now call ‘the rules based international order’ (code for ‘our empire’). This is truly astonishing when looked at in the context of our lived history. Let us hope that sanity can prevail as our empire fades and future generations don’t brand us as the most insane, war-mongering generation of all time. For our complicity in this grand failure of resistance we should be truly sorry.

Photo of the author by Jesse Graham

 
On another equally titanic front, the mistake of giving legal personhood to corporations was not one that our generation made. However most of us have contributed our work, consumption and capital to assist these self-organising, profit-maximising, cost-minimising machines of capitalism morphing into emergent new life forms that threaten to consume both nature and humanity in an algorithmic drive for growth. At a time of our seniority and numbers, we failed to use the Global Financial Crisis as an opportunity to bring these emergent monsters to heal. Do our children have the capacity to tame the monsters that we nurtured from fragile infants to commanding masters? And if they do find the will to withdraw their work, consumption and capital enough to contain the corporations, will the economy that currently provides for both needs and wants unravel completely? This is a burden so great most of us continue to believe we have no responsibility or agency in such a dark reality. We trust that history will not place the burden of responsibility on our generation alone. But for our part in this failure of agency over human affairs we apologise. Further, we should accept with grace the consequences for our own wellbeing.

Most of us feel impotent when thinking of these failures to control the excesses of our era, but on a more modest scale we have mindlessly participated in taking the goods and passing on the debt to future generations. No more so than in our habitual acceptance of antibiotics from doctors to fix the most mundane of illnesses. For our parents’ generation, antibiotics represented the peak of medical science’s ability to control what killed so many of their parents and earlier generations. For us, they became routine tools to keep us on the job and our children not missing precious days at school. Through this banal practice we have unwittingly conspired with our doctors to rapidly breed resistance to the most effective and low-cost antibiotics. We took for granted that future generations would always be able to work out ways to keep ahead of diseases with an endless string of new antibiotics. For having squandered this gift we are truly sorry.

Further, despite the fact that some of us have became vegetarian or even vegan, our generation’s demand for cheap chicken and bacon has driven the industrial dosing of animals with antibiotics on a scale that has accelerated the development of antibiotic resistance far faster than would have been the case from us dosing ourselves and our children. For supporting this and other such obscene systems of animal husbandry we apologise to our grandchildren and succeeding generations and hope that somehow an accommodation between humanity, animals and microbes is still possible.

We experienced and benefited from the emergent culture of rights and recognition for women, minorities and the people of varied abilities, and many of us who fought to extend and deepen those rights have pride in what we did. However some of us are beginning to fear that in doing so we contributed to creating new demands, disabilities, and fractious subcultures of fear and angst unimagined in previous generations. While we might not be in the driving seat of identity politics and culture wars, we raised our children to demand their rights in a world that is unravelling due to its multiple contradictions. In this emerging context, strident demands for rights are likely to be a waste of valuable energy that younger people might better focus on becoming useful to themselves and others. For overemphasising the demand for rights and underplaying the need for responsible self- and collective-reliance, perhaps we should also be sorry.

And is this escalating demand for rights by younger people itself connected, even peripherally, to the increasing callus disregard for the rights of others? Especially in the case of refugees, this careless disregard has allowed political elites to use tough treatment of the less fortunate to distract from the gradual loss of shared privilege that once characterised the ‘lucky country’. To the shame of those in power over the last two decades (mostly baby boomers) those policies are now being adopted on a larger scale in Europe and the US.

In our lifetimes religious faith has declined. For many of our generation, this change represents a measure of humanity’s progress from a benighted past to a promising future. But the collective belief in science and evidence-based decision making has now become a new faith, “Scientism”, which seeks to drive out all other ways of thinking and being from the public space. At the same time, religious fundamentalism is now resurgent. Is this too something that our generation unleashed by preaching tolerance while enforcing an ideology we didn’t even recognise as such?

A significant sign of the good intentions of our generation has been our recognition that the ancient war against nature, which has plagued human life since the beginnings of agriculture, and indeed civilisation, must end. One powerful expression of our efforts has been the valuing of the biodiversity of life, especially local indigenous biodiversity. In the ‘New Europes’ of North America and the Antipodes, seeking to save indigenous biodiversity has grown into an institutionalised form of atonement for the sins of the forefathers. While this seems like one of our achievements, even this we have bastardised with a new war against naturalised biodiversity. Perhaps the worst aspect of this renewed war against novel ecologies is that we have accepted the helping hand of Monsanto in using Roundup as the main weapon in our urban and rural habitats. The mounting evidence that Roundup may be worse than DDT will be part of our legacy. While history may excuse our parent’s generation for naïve optimism in relation to DDT, our generation’s version of the war on nature will not save us from harsh judgement. For this we should be truly sorry.

Of course any public apology in this country invites comparisons to the apology by governments to the stolen generation of Australian indigenous peoples for the wrongs of the past. This unfinished sorry business is beyond the scope of this apology, but it is an opportunity to reflect critically on our common self-perception of supporting indigenous peoples’ rights in contrast to the normalised racism of previous generations. Our generation’s invitation to, and enabling of, Australians of indigenous decent to more fully participate in mainstream Australian society may have been a necessary step towards reconciliation; or could it have been a poison challis drawing them even deeper into the dysfunctions of industrial modernity that I have already outlined. We can only hope that people with such a history of resilience and understanding in the face dispossession will take these additional burdens in their stride.

In any case, this apology is not one that comes from a position of invulnerable privilege, giving succour to those who are no threat to that privilege. For many baby boomers, now caring for parents and dealing with their deaths, we are more inwardly focused. For some of us, especially those estranged from parents, through this both painful and tender processes we are finally growing up. But a comic tragedy could play out in our declining years if a combination of novel disabilities, the culture of rights and amplified fears lead to our children and grandchildren’s generations to mostly experiencing harder times as far worse than they might really be, and deciding we are the cause of their troubles.

We baby boomers will increasingly find that in our growing dependence on young people we will be subject to their perspectives, whims and prejudices. Hopefully we can take what we are given on the chin and along with our children and our grandchildren’s generations we can all grow up and work together to face the future with whatever capacities we have.

We might hope this apology is itself a wake-up call to the younger generations that are still mostly sleepwalking into the oncoming maelstroms. In raising the alarm we might hope our humble apology will galvanise the potential in young people who are grasping the nettle of opportunities to turn problems into solutions.

We hope that this apology might lead to understanding rather than resentment of our frailty in the face of the self-organising forces of powerful change that have driven the climaxing of global industrial civilisation. Finally, the task ahead for our generation is to learn how to downsize and disown before we prepare to die, with grace, at a time of our choosing, and in a way that inspires and frees the next generations to chart a prosperous way down.

 

David Holmgren

Permaculture co-originator
Summer solstice 2018

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Reflections on fire – February 2019

From the research for Permaculture One in the 1970s in the house Bill Mollison saved from the great 1967 fires, to the research for the Flywire House project in the aftermath of Ash Wednesday fires of 1983 to the publication of Bushfire Resilient Landscapes and Communities in the aftermath of Black Saturday (2009), permaculture responses to the risks of bushfire have been a central theme of my life’s work. Although I have many friends who have faced and fought these and other great fires of the last 60 years, my direct fire fighting experience has been limited to 5 fires of more modest proportions.  

Before moving to Hepburn in 1985 I had assessed the town as the most fire vulnerable I had seen in Victoria but I was confident we could build a bushfire resistant house, and fire retardant permaculture landscape on our property, where we could stay and defend through the worst case scenarios. The case study book about Melliodora we published in 1995 included a theme page on bushfire resistant design and our household bushfire plan.

The Mannings Rd Hepburn Fire (2 & 3rd Feb 2019) was the first direct bushfire threat to Melliodora.

Over the years we have updated our bushfire plan but on Black Saturday 2009 I began implementing aspects of our plan never before tested, even though there were no fires in our region. Two weeks later a 7,000 hectare fire on the south side of Daylesford, that created a panic in our community, provided another psychological boost to testing our fire plan. Black Saturday also triggered a significant upgrade of our fire fighting equipment, retrofits to some buildings, tweaks to our fire plan and a renewed focus on work on the public land to our north.

From the beginning we had been informally managing the public road reserves surrounding our property and in the late 1980’s teamed up with fourth generation local Vern Howell in making tracks and planting fire retardant trees that could shade out the blackberries in the gully that ran down to Spring Ck 300m to the north of Melliodora. By the mid 1990s a bunch of locals doing work in our gully and along Spring Ck had built tracks and planted trees as far afield as the edge of the Mineral Spring Reserve upstream and downstream to the Newstead Rd over Breakneck Gorge as well as in Doctors gully. We called our patch The Spring Creek Community Forest, ran tours and advertised working bees and engaged with people in the parks authorities that we called “the department of many name changes”.

This informal, unfunded, unapproved permaculture inspired version of landcare (without the paperwork or poisons) represents a reinhabitation of community commons that prior to the 1960’s had been managed by house cows, rabbit trapping, blackberry harvesting and other active uses of the crown land that was denuded of vegetation and soil (to the bedrock in the creek) by gold mining in the 19th century.

Dr Michael Wilson, a leading expert on willow ecology was part of our crew when he did his PhD on willows in Spring Ck. Over the years since he as supervised another half dozen PhDs on willows in central Victoria providing the scientific evidence that willows were rebuilding a water and nutrient holding corridor along creeks among other ecological benefits. For us this rehydration of the landscape was closely linked to our aim to accelerate ecological succession from the broom, blackberry and gorse thickets to a shady canopy of fire retardant (predominantly deciduous) trees. We knew the woody weeds were rapidly building soil but they were socially unsustainable and in the event of a severe bushfire would lead to calls to blitz the gullies with herbicide and fire to recreate the moonscapes of the gold mining era. We knew grazing animals, especially goats had a role in managing vegetation and were not opposed to some careful use of fire on the dry rocky slopes, but were concerned that burning the moist gully and creek floors would be a huge setback.

After the turn of the millennium the greatest threat to the maturing 2km corridor of mostly deciduous trees (predominantly willow, poplar, sycamore and European ash) in Spring Creek was the willow removal programs being implemented around the catchment by North Central Catchment Management Authority (NCCMA). Following the publicity for Peter Andrews’s Natural Sequence Farming (that included using willows to rehydrate eroded creek courses in NSW) we pushed back as NCCMA destroyed the willow corridor downstream of Breakneck Gorge.

We added a page to this website on Spring Ck Community Forest, engaged with the authorities in efforts to constrain if not stop what I regard as the greatest misuse of public money damaging the environment all in the name of Landcare which we called Land Abuse.

As the millennial drought dragged on we increased our use of goats in our gully in recognition that a slow succession to more a fire retardant landscape dominated by deciduous trees was not happening fast enough.

Goats in Spring Creek Community Forest

When we saw the smoke column on Saturday 2nd Feb we were empowered to act. With unprecedented water demand in our gardens and orchard and the creek dry earlier in the season than ever before (for only the 5th time in 35 years), we knew our work in the gully and creek could be set back by a hot fire. We were less concerned with the chances of a catastrophic fire that would challenge our ability to defend our property and certainly were very confident and empowered to do so. As the fire burnt slowly down the escarpment on the Saturday evening the three households that currently share Melliodora began implementing our bushfire plan. Confident that the home patch was in good hands, I decided to check out the fire (with a competent off sider). We were dressed for fire fighting, had a knapsack sprayer, two fire rakes and a two-way radio.

Photo: Brenna Quinlan, property adjacent to Melliodora.
Photo shows fire at its most active state.

As CFA brigades attacked the fire on Elevated Plain, water bombing helicopters hit hotspots on the steep escarpment and Brigades were marshalled to protect the town, we cleared 150 metres of break along the main walking track below the fire in the hope of protecting the creek corridor, which we knew was dry enough to burn.

As dusk fell we pulled out and connected with CFA brigades watching the fire at the end of our street. From them we learnt that the local group of CFA brigades had scenario planned this exact fire in recent months using the bushfire modelling software developed by Kevin Tolhurst and colleagues. With few other fires burning and reasonable conditions it was clear that the following day would see a major effort to contain and extinguish the fire.

We hit the sack (in our summer tent) with rotational watches. Unable to sleep with the crash of burning trees on the escarpment and bulldozers putting in fire breaks in territory we regarded as our backyard, Su and I headed out for a 4am reconnaissance, which confirmed the fire had stopped at the creek corridor.

The following day with a maximum Forest Fire Danger Index forecast of 55 (just in “Severe” territory) we were well prepared to defend the upper sections of our gully, in addition to the property and politely declined the police invitation to evacuate. Our son Oliver who had been on the Fryerstown CFA truck fighting the fire on the escarpment the previous day joined us before the roads in and out of Hepburn were closed by the authorities.

While coordination and communication between the 8 able bodied adults at Melliodora involved some challenges for which I as “Melliodora fire captain” take full responsibility, Su and I were both very energised by and confident about our situation. What I was less prepared for was the full force of the state funded bushfire response. Having experience in supervising bulldozers and other earthmoving machinery on large projects such as Fryers Forest Ecovillage in the 1990’s had not prepared me for the psychological impact of bulldozers in our gully, Elvis and other massive helicopters, fire retardant bombers and spotter planes weaving across the sky and strafing our creek all day. While CFA volunteers in the town mostly sat around on standby ready to defend houses in our street, all the direct fire fighting was done from the air (apart from ongoing action on Elevated Plain.

Later analysis on the ground and using the CFA software that tracks each water release showed that, as the breeze picked up and the humidity dropped on Sunday the fire was moving into the creek corridor at two places and had already crossed Woman’s Gully at a point directly threatening houses in Golden Springs Ave. Concentrated water bombing contained these leading edges while the very well placed dozer break backed by fire retardant laid across the flammable blackberry, gorse and eucalypts of the dry north facing edge of the creek valley provided a fair chance of containing the fire had the predicted wind eventuated.

View from under the unburnt willow canopy of Spring Creek
looking up the Elevated Plain escarpment.

Lower than expected wind speed and precision water bombing meant we did not face spot fires in our gully and there were no properties directly impacted by fire in the township. The placement of the breaks and the location of fire retardant drops were done in ways that treated the creek corridor as an asset rather than a liability and subsequent tours of the firegrounds with CFA professionals, including fire behaviour experts confirmed that there is a lot to learn in studying the contribution of the willow corridor to ameliorating the potential impact of the fire.

While spectacular, the burn on the Elevated Plain escarpment was no hotter than many fuel reduction burns with most of the large wide spaced mature manna gums showing no canopy scorch. While we were very lucky with the weather and think the expenditure of around 5 million dollars (guesstimate) in state funded airpower was critical in protecting Hepburn, the experience has strengthened our resolve to keep working to enhance and protect the Spring Creek Community Forest from fire and any other threats. We know that the willows will catch the sediment from the bulldozed breaks, the fire retardant (fertiliser) dropped from the air and the ash from the escarpment, to grow even stronger while protecting the Jim Crow Creek, Loddon River and Cairn Curren Reservoir from blue green algae blooms.

Fire-felled mature manna gum into the Spring Creek flood plain

On the community front we are encouraged by the progress of the CFA initiated group that is forging common understandings and actions supported by the diverse views in our local community. Council support for a goat grazing and hand tool management proposal on 180 acres of trial sites around the town is a sign of progress. Closer to home, as I showed CFA professionals around following the fires, I was chuffed to see a long time local out in the blackberries with his sheep. The following week I met his son and a mate using chain saws and brushcutters clearing up what we call the “Vern Howell arboretum” in the heart of Spring Creek. To see the next generation of locals taking ownership over their backyard made my day.

In the end the Hepburn fire was small (28 hectares), and the response from the authorities was a textbook example but we still assume that in the Black Saturday scenario where catastrophic fires are burning everywhere in the state, we will not have such help, even if the Kinglake scenario of no warning and zero fire defence, (other than residents) is avoided. Such a large deployment for a small fire runs the risk of creating complacency in our community.

Hopefully the positive outcomes from the fire will continue and our landscape and community resilience to face fire in the future will be enhanced.

Copy of CFA map recording fire area, breaks and features
in relation to Melliodora (bottom left)
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Permaculture, Collected Writings and Julian Assange

This website and all its posts are devoted to my permaculture life and work committed to creating the world we want. It is solution- and good news-focused. But my life’s work has always been informed by a rational understanding of the intensely political world we live in. Longer-term readers may have noticed that in recent years some of my writing has focused more explicitly on exploring the underlying nature of the problems we face to show why permaculture is a real strategy for addressing more than just personal well-being with a low ecological footprint.

For instance in ‘Money vs Fossil Energy: The battle for control of the world’ (2010, dedicated to the memory of my brother Gerard Holmgren) I used the ecological systems thinking that underpins permaculture to provide new insights and understandings of the titanic changes occurring as industrial civilisation collides with the limits to growth. ‘The Household Level Counts’ (2013) was a brief and early articulation of why permaculture design, activism and living should be taken seriously as a social and political change strategy. This underpins my focus on the household level in RetroSuburbia. ‘Crash on Demand: welcome to the Brown Tech future’ (2013) built on my Future Scenarios work (futurescenarios.org) and represented a further step into the role of positive provocateur in the debate about what constitutes effective environmental activism in a world of climate chaos and repressive governance.

These and other writings are currently being reviewed in preparation for the digital publication of the third volume of my Collected Writings that will include essays, reviews, obituaries and presentations from 2007 to 2018. As a package with the previous editions, it will mark 40 years of writings since 1978, the year Permaculture One was published. Inevitably, this retrospective consideration brings up the claim that permaculture may well be Australia’s greatest intellectual export – driven by the warrior energy of Bill Mollison. People who know me, or my writing, will know my scepticism of the warrior energy and its limitations in creating the world we want. However that scepticism does not take away from my appreciation and respect for what has been achieved by warriors devoted to true and noble “causes” (as my political activist mother called movements for social justice and ecological sustainability).

Reuters File Photo

Which brings me to Julian Assange, languishing in a unique form of detention in London and now under imminent threat of ejection into the fire of US imprisonment or worse. His treatment by national governments has been appalling, especially the US and the UK, but also Sweden (previously a symbol of fairness and good governance), Ecuador (plucky protector now succumbing to pressure), and Australia (meekly standing by while our fellow Australian is tried and found guilty by politicians and the pack of media hacks who resent Assange for showing up their own failures to shine a light into the backrooms of power). Assange, the technical brains, publicist and warrior behind Wikileaks could, for all I know, share some of Mollison’s personality flaws, but even if the worst of the claims about his personality are true, none of them take away from Assange being the most globally important independent journalist and publisher using the power of the internet to challenge the rapid rise in authoritarian power and propagandised media. That Assange is being treated as the sacrificial pawn in the chess game being played out in Washington around the fabricated Russia hysteria highlights the power of people creatively working outside of centralised systems.

By promoting Mollison and Assange as equally great Australians who have contributed to a better world, I may alienate some people for whom Mollison is a hero but regard Assange with suspicion or even as a “traitor” deserving whatever happens to him. This is a risk I am willing to take, especially as Mollison’s contribution is now a secure legacy whereas Assange’s is still unfolding but under mortal threat.

We should do all in our power to bring Julian Assange home to recover from his ordeal of these years – with no expectations about what he might contribute in the future. His sacrifice for shining the spotlight on the power behind the mask of representative democracy, and providing the inspiration for younger people to use the tools and capacities they have at hand to create the world they want now, has already been too great.

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Is David Holmgren on Facebook?

Is David Holmgren on Facebook?

The simple answer to this question is no. The reasons are complex and relate to his ambiguous relationship to new technologies through the decades. David has been inspired hearing about the thriving RetroSuburbia Community Facebook group and is very pleased that it is enabling people to share their stories, make connections and support each other in their retrosuburban journeys. However, he has decided that he will not be participating directly. He explains his position here.

 

Since my teenage years I have been skeptical of the faith that new technologies are always an improvement on the past. Further, my view of the future suggests that recently evolved technologies may be the first to fail as society is impacted by multiple crises from climate change and resource depletion to financial and geo-political instability.

But I have also long recognised that the spread of permaculture has been global and networked, rather than local and parochial, and that information technologies have greatly assisted in that process.

I have thus woven a path between skeptical disconnection from information technology and early adoption for strategic use in spreading permaculture thinking and solutions.

I grew up without television and my partner Su Dennett and I have maintained a television free household ever since. On the other hand, I adopted my father’s habitual listening to Radio National to stay connected to world news.

Su and I moved from Melbourne to country Victoria in the 1980s, long before the internet overcame the tyranny of distance. At the same time I became an early computer user and self-publisher using desktop publishing techniques.

In the nineties, my consultancy business, Holmgren Design, and the company that created the Fryers Forest eco-village, Fryers Forest Research and Development, operated without a fax machine, but in the late nineties I was an early adopter of email for business communications and created the first Holmgren Design website in 2000. With the publication of my Permaculture: principles and pathways beyond sustainability in 2002, our book launch tour of the east coast of Australia saw Su (temporarily) adopt a mobile phone even though she had always maintained a much stronger scepticism of technology than I. Around the same time, after more than a decade of innovative use of information technology on a shoestring budget, I handed the reins of IT admin to our self-taught teenage son Oliver.

Over those years we very deliberately minimised Oliver’s childhood exposure to computers, which may have accelerated his adolescent interest and expertise but led to self-regulation. In RetroSuburbia, I give the following strategic response sequence for dealing with children and adolescent exposure to media technologies and social media: ‘Prohibit’; ‘Limit’; ‘Negotiate’ and ‘Accept, but provide no support’. In Oliver’s case, this sequence was followed by a ‘Reward and collaborate’ stage, illustrating the oscillation between selective disconnection and wholehearted adoption that has characterised my relationship to information technology.

Oliver, Su and David at Melliodora November 2002. Photo: Christian Wild

These days Su uses her mobile phone to stay in contact with far-flung family, organise her food share, and take card transactions at RetroSuburbia book events, while I remain phone-phobic but am reluctantly considering the possibility of getting one rather than depending on Su.

Meanwhile my internet presence has grown and is now supported by colleagues with a far greater depth of experience. The complexity of the web design, maintenance and security for the book publishing and distribution systems is well beyond my comprehension and management.

As always, I have watched the rise of social media from my skeptical permaculture perspective.

Balancing time at the desk with time in the garden, farm, workshop and forest is always important to me. There are limits to how much time I’m prepared to be mediated through technology.

Even more important is balancing the power of social media to create and accelerate network community with its potential to inhibit the redevelopment of local geographic community. Long before social media in the early nineties, I would get the occasional casual contacts comment on my fame when recognising my name and connection to permaculture. To this I would reply:

Well, sort of. You know how back in the 60s Andy Warhol famously said that “in the future”, as in now [90s], “everyone will be famous for 15 minutes” – a great insight into the rapidity of cultural change. Well my version of that is: in the future everyone will be famous to 15 other people. So yes, I am famous within a global permaculture network of perhaps many thousands of people at the same time that I am not, to more than a handful of people in our local community. That’s the world we are heading into – networks of interest groups that function like parochial residents of isolated mountain villages responding to each other’s social signals but ignorant of the rest of the world.

I feel this was prescient of first social media, and now, the breakdown of mainstream media into giant echo-chambers repeating competing and antagonistic views of reality.

From its beginnings more than a decade ago, I was aware of the potential of social media to empower a surveillance state. I have never been obsessed with personal privacy and I’ve always been upfront and public about my permaculture lifestyle.

Just as RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future is written for an Australian, even local, audience, I am always trying to use the power of global networks to stimulate their relocalisation in real geographic neighbourhood communities. Such neighbourhoods are essential if humanity is to have a chance of ameliorating climate change impacts, let alone adapt to an energy descent future where local will again be the norm rather than the exception.

Which brings us to the RetroSuburbia Community Facebook group set up and moderated by Meg Ulman, who manages the web and social media presence for Holmgren Design and Melliodora Publishing.

While I don’t contribute directly to the group, Meg keeps me updated and consults me on curly questions and issues as they arise. It is great to have such a social media savvy operator moderating the rapid growth of retrosuburban action and exchange happening on Facebook.

Meg and her partner Patrick Jones have themselves empowered and aided many people to live better lives by their radical home-based life (documented at Artist As Family), which has for a decade been a powerhouse of positivity through social media. Meg Ulman’s capacity to communicate practical permaculture at the household and community scale means I have great confidence in her ability to contribute, answer questions and effectively moderate in ways that reflect what I am on about.

On the technical side, supporting Meg and the rest of the team are Holmgren Design’s IT and website support Ostii Ananda from Flowji, and partners Richard Telford and Oliver Holmgren at Permaculture Principles who manage book distribution. With this depth of web and social media savvy business and activism all powered by permaculture ethics and principles, I’m confident that the social media side of my role as a public intellectual is in good hands without resorting to a fake presence as so many prominent people do by getting staff to ghost write on their behalf.

After a lifetime of applying DIY to everything in life and business, I’m learning that I don’t have to do everything and in any case, like the fax machine, if I hold out for long enough Facebook could be in the rear view mirror of history.

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