Author Archive | David Holmgren

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

24

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)
10

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.

7

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.

1

David reviews Heartwood by Rowan Reid

Heartwood: the art and science of growing trees for conservation and profit

by Rowan Reid

Heartwood by Rowan Reid is a heartfelt story by one of the pioneers of blending forestry and farming in this country over the last 30 years. His story is told through chapters focused on tree species planted on his farm at Bambra in the Otway Ranges of Victoria. While this is a personal story focused at Bambra, Reid draws on his decades of experience teaching forestry at Melbourne University, facilitating farmer initiated tree growing through the Master Tree Growers courses and his local Otway Agroforestry Network. In Call of the Reed Warbler Charles Massy says that “Rowan Reid has dedicated much of his life to addressing the key area of increasing the knowledge, resources and confidence for farmers engaging in agroforestry. Along the way he has helped redefine the very concept of farm forestry”.
This beautifully produced book records the trees and the learnings that mark that life.

Each story is complemented by brief but informative science and practice pieces that provide the reader with knowledge to help shape their own tree growing journey. For those applying permaculture ethics and principles to growing trees for timber, Heartwood is one of the most inspiring and informative books about the subject, even if the only reference to permaculture is a passing one.

Reid’s journey as a forester amongst farmers, from youthful vision, applying science and trial and error, to teaching and collaborating across communities and landscapes is a remarkable one of achievement and lessons learnt. His major theme is that conservation and production are compatible and complementary rather than contradictory.

Like my own early co-authorship of Permaculture One (1978), Reid’s co-authorship of Agroforestry in Australia (1985) saw him driven to put into practice ideas outlined in that book. Even though integration of conservation and production values was taken for granted by the permaculture, agroforestry and landcare pioneers, this vision was corrupted by a number factors. Reid’s stories illustrated how the war over native forests as well as government sponsored Landcare programmes both contributed to the segregation of trees for nature from those for profit. Reid’s stalwart stand against this dysfunction and lost potential for transformation of our broadscale farm landscapes by more widespread tree planting for multiple values is clear through the book, but this is not the primary message of all his stories. They all show that the rewards to those with the passion and persistence in tree growing have been economic, environmental and emotional, despite the continuing dysfunction in this country’s relationship to forests and forestry.

My own passion for sustainable forestry over the decades since Permaculture One has been diluted by my jack-of-all-trades spread across the vast territory that is permaculture. Apart from his focus as more of a master-of-one, Rowan Reid has also used the resources and opportunities of his position as a teacher in one of the few Australian university forestry schools to leverage his vision and trials with scientific evidence that has been mostly lacking for those of us who have worked outside of the system. Although we have known of each other’s work from early days, our paths have rarely crossed. I found myself in heartfelt and at time furious agreement with most of Rowan’s stories and lessons, especially his examples of sustainable management of regrowth native forest by innovative land holders. His learnings in choosing native and exotic species at Bambra reinforced my own experience and observations, especially with Coast Redwood. I also had many a-ha moments as Rowan explains how trees grow and the effects of different management, much of it based on recent science by his colleagues and students.

Some permaculture folk might begrudge Reid’s failure to acknowledge permaculture as a broader conceptual framework for what he has demonstrated, but I know that Reid’s innovative work may have had less influence by being associated with permaculture through the dark decades of the 80s, 90s and 2000s. Hopefully those days are passing with both Reid and myself being included in Massy’s influential book about ecological land use in this country.

The only point of strong difference for me was his reinforcing of the nativist orthodoxy that naturalising willows are bad for the environment. Sometime I imaging having a long discussion with Rowan, and our mutual friend and long time closet permie Jason Alexandra about willows. The science about naturalising species is certainly open to on-going debate and many of Rowan’s stories illustrate how scientific evidence has been a constant factor in refining and redirecting his practice and teaching. But Heartwood is also a beautiful illustration of how passion, intuition, happenstance and art have been important factors in Rowan Reid’s life’s work with trees.

David Holmgren
permaculture co-originator

* * *

You can buy Heartwood from our online store.

1

Vale Rod May

One of Australia’s ecological farming pioneers, and a close friend, passed away today. Rod May aged 63 died in intensive care after a road accident between Ballarat and his family farm at Blampied 5 days previously. Rod was a 4th generation farmer on 200 acres at the foot of Kangaroo Hills in the prime red cropping country of central Victoria. In the late 1970’s Rod returned to the farm motivated by interest in self reliance, organics and tree crops and “fell back into farming” as something to do in between starting the Central Victorian Tree Planting Co-op and getting elected to the very conservative Creswick Council.

Photo: Josie Alexandra

The Landcare movement emerged simultaneously in several regions across Australia in the late 70’s and early 80’s. One of those places was central Victoria and Rod May played a leading roll in it. In 1983 when Project Branchout received federal funding to employ people to plant trees on demonstration sites right across the Campaspe, Loddon and Avoca catchments in response to the threat of salinity, the committee fell on their feet in employing Rod and his crew from the CVTPC to manage the huge program. Rod had the same holistic vision of the committee, the ability to take risks, roll with the punches and engage with conservative farmers, and with some of the unemployed workers putting the trees in the ground. Most importantly he had dirt under his nails as both a farmer and tree planter.

Rod May, 1992. Photo: David Holmgren

Rod was not part of the first generation of organic farmers but he was one of the generation that integrated the new ecological thinking of the 1970’s including permaculture, and connected it to the emerging markets for organic produce that lead to organic certification in the late 80’s. As founding president of the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (in 1986) Rod May was at the forefront of driving the importance of links between ecological science, organics and the emerging sustainable development concept. At the same time he was converting his part of the family farm to organics, implementing large-scale plantings of shelter, fodder, timber, fruit and nut , still working for Project Branchout in their Bicentennial revegetation of the Captains Creek Catchment that included the family farm. As plantation designer I worked closely with Rod at that time and remember when he and I headed up the steep slopes of Kangaroo Hills overlooking the May family farm to get some of the shelterbelts in the ground. I had my two-year-old son Oliver to help us and that began a thirty-year bond between Oliver and Rod.

As organics grew in the 1990’s, Rod spent an increasing amount of time in meetings around the country and the world making the global linkages through the International Federation of Organic Farming Movements and doing some of the first organic certifications for farmers ranging from cranky older generation organic pioneers to coffee growers in East Timor and lake bed croppers in the semi arid zone. His keen observation skills, memory for facts, figures and protocols, his slow talking easy going manner and his enjoying a beer or, in the right circles, a joint allowed him to tackle novel situations and always learn something new.

Rod at home on the family farm, Blampied. Photo: David Holmgren

I remember when the diverse and disparate organic and biodynamic groups where having to work together with the Australian government to establish protocols for organic export trade. Alex Podolinsky, head of Demeter Biodynamics would not speak to any of the NASAA people except Rod “because he was the only real farmer”. I arrived early one day at the farm to have Rod introduce me to Alex Podolinsky, who immediately launched into an explanation of what was wrong with permaculture. After Alex left I asked what the visit was about. Rod said he thought it was an “informal biodynamic inspection.”

This understated diplomacy allowed Rod to work with the idealists and the pragmatists of the organic movement, even if his sometimes slap dash approach to getting things done in drafting a document or consigning pallets of veggies left his partners frustrated and sometimes having to pick up the pieces. Life at home with Viv and their daughters Stephanie and Carla, as well as his brothers Greg, Doug and their families on the family farm was not always smooth but as an outside observer, one of the ways in which Rod contributed to harmony was a tolerance of whatever others dished up for him. He and Viv lived fairly independent lives but their wide social circle and love of a party kept them going between their respective passions for organic farming and teaching.

I can remember Su phoning Rod’s father Maurice to find out where Rod was and the exasperated answer; somewhere in America and I don’t know when he’s back. But I also remember marvelling at Rod getting back from an trans pacific flight then the same afternoon jumping on the tractor to plough up the new veggie cropping paddock before the rains came. During those years of globe trotting Maurice provided a back stop for Rod and supported the organic methods which were adopted by brothers Greg and Doug. Like his father, Rod was a big bloke and worked like few of the baby boom generation could. Within the organic/green movement intellectuals he was as sharp as the best of us but in the spud paddock, no one I know could work day in day out like Rod. I remember when I had a chronicly bad back he told me in all seriousness that picking spuds was great for fixing a bad back. In his later years his knees began to give him trouble after all those years working across the furrows and mounds of several acres of irrigated vegetable he cranked out year after year.

Rod with PDC students. Photo: Ian Lillington

In the early 1990s we began taking our residential Permaculture Design Course participants to his farm to get a taste, literally, of a real organic farm that best illustrated permaculture principles supplying local and central markets with basic food. Rod’s seamless grasp of everything from soil ecology, tree crop potentials, organic marketing and mechanics and gadgets involved in farming, was immense. We would go out and harvest the veg that didn’t meet commercial standards and take it back to the farmhouse where Su would organise the roast lunch with Maurice helping cook the farm killed mutton.

While we promoted Captains Creek as a good example of permaculture, Rod never did. In a piece I wrote in the early 1990’s I said many ecological pioneers who chose not to describe their work as permaculture did so for one of three reasons; because of the bad examples they had seen called permaculture, because they didn’t want to alienate more conservative audiences or because they didn’t think what they were doing met the high ecological standards they associated with the permaculture concept. In Rod’s case I believe it was a mix of the three with the last being the most important.

Food Relocalisation in action. Rod delivering CSA veggie boxes to Su at the Hepburn Relocalisation Network food co-op. Photo: David Holmgren

During the 1990’s I watched the rewards and strictures of supplying central markets pushing Rod towards being a specialist broccoli producer supplying Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and even Brisbane markets in mid to late summer when it was difficult for producers in warmer districts to do so. Rod was surprised at his own success. He thought that once the market for organics became established, the big specialist vegetable growers would take over and that he would head the other way diversifying to supply local markets using methods he had seen working in Europe, Japan and the US including farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture.

Rod’s involvement in the international organic scene continued with his membership of the scientific advisory board, IFOAM and in 2005 in bringing the IFOAM international conference to Adelaide. But over time he started to organise his exit from organics politics and to encourage the next generation onto the board of NASAA including our son Oliver. Rod’s political focus shifted back to local government and in 2006 he was elected to the Hepburn Shire. Su recalls that Rod was rather slack about campaigning, but his charm, laid back style and ability to connect to the average person got him over the line.

Around the same time after some pestering by Su to produce boxes for local customers instead of all being shipped off to central markets, Rod asked her when she wanted to start. The next week Rod delivered 6 cardboard boxes full of mixed unwashed veggies to our place for pick up by the customers that Su had organised.

Over the following couple of seasons Rod turned his whole farming operation around to focus on boxes delivered to Hepburn, Castlemaine, Ballarat and Melbourne. In the same way that centralised markets reward monocultural specialisation, box schemes demand diversity from the farmer. The fact that Rod turned his relatively large production scale around to supply that diversity was testament to his skills as a farmer. Rod’s fields were rough and ready even by organic standards, full of weeds and some produce not making the grade but the productivity from limited and often erratic input of skilled labour was truly amazing.

Rod in 2005 at the IFOAM conference doing an Aussie farmer skit. Photo: David Holmgren

Apart from extra needs for catering for events and courses, we have always grown our own produce without the fuel and gadgets (Rod’s term for farm equipment) that sustained Rod’s farming operation but there were years where in disgust I thought I should give up and just buy from Rod. Whatever the season and the weather Rod just kept on delivering and at the end of the season the weedy fields full of left over veg was good to fatten the sheep after the gleaners had their share. My personal comparison with Rod led me to assert that I am probably a better ecological builder than ecological farmer but I know what the world needs more. We have enough buildings already but we need to eat each day.

On council Rod was a mover and a shaker, using his deep experience with negotiation and decision making, process and protocol to good effect but in a context very different from the parochial years on Creswick council in his youth. He championed a Climate Change and Peak Oil policy for Hepburn Shire, the second in the state and a number of other pioneering initiatives at a time when Hepburn was becoming famous for the first community owned wind farm in Australia.

After Viv died tragically in the Samoan tsunami in 2009 Rod poured himself into local council, and as mayor contributed to the growth of the local food culture as central to the tourist economy of the region. In 2011 he managed to get funding for an Energy Descent Action Plan for Hepburn shire but Rod’s vision and the consultancy that I delivered in response were too radical even for our progressive environmentally aware community.

On the home front Rod began to focus on the future with development of Viv’s Lang Road property and a vision for the farm into the future. After leaving council Rod threw himself into a farm redevelopment plan at the same time as he was active in the Greens, supporting his daughter Steph’s candidacy, and even stood for the Greens in the seat of Ripon.

He did try to engage me in a farm planning process but with my focus on teaching and writing, Rod couldn’t wait and in typical style he whipped up cabins, an autonomous power system, new fencing, a farm processing shed and other infrastructure necessary following the formal division of the farm between the three brothers following Maurice’s death. It was only around this time that I discovered my good mate had originally trained as a diesel mechanic and that his ability with machines was more than rudimentary but like everything else if a vehicle or machine was working, Rod’s energy was focused elsewhere. If machinery failed, like sheep getting into the crops, Rod could just cut his loses and move on.

Rod was also a motorbike rider, what a friend and local doctor called “a temporary citizen”. Just another one of the risks he took along with the weather, the crops, the politics and at times the law. But I know that while Rod had incredible energy he was not manic and not ever what I would call reckless.

When his luck ran out on the way home from Ballarat after getting a tool for current building projects, the wonders of modern intensive care gave the hope of a rebuild and another chance for my old mate Rod to at least pass on his incredible knowledge of the farm and life to the next generation. But that process was already well underway. After decades of working with and teaching volunteers, interns and community members the in and outs of farming, Rod had been working with his daughters on the farm future. Stephanie and her partner Oggy along with his bother Serge have been working to keep Captains Creek organics humming.

Hopefully the farm customers and especially all of us who knew Rod can support the May family to build on the vision and the legacy after the great man had to cut his loses and move on

To Rod’s family, daughters, Steph + Carla, and his brothers, Greg and Doug, we send our love and deepest condolence.

– David Holmgren, Hepburn, 30 May 2017

You can read the obituary Jason Alexandra and I wrote for Rod in The Age here.

19

One of the best permaculture docos

The explosion of docos about sustainability in recent years includes a fair number that focus on permaculture and I have been interviewed in quite a few. The request to preview Inhabit and offer comment was just one of my “responsibilities” as co-originator of the permaculture concept. In the end I got to view Inhabit with 200 other permaculture activists at the 12th Australasian permaculture convergence in Penguin, Tasmania in March 2015. There was a standing ovation after the viewing.

INHABIT - Collage

I was impressed by the articulate explanations of permaculture by a few people I knew, many I had never met and some I had never heard of. The scope and balance of the examples chosen to illustrate the diversity of permaculture is excellent. The film gives me a great sense of the evolution of permaculture in the USA over recent decades.

Of course the art and beauty of this film will make it attractive to audiences used to polished media productions, but it is the substance underlying the beauty and passion that attracts me. The film can’t convey enough about the ideas and projects presented, for me to personally endorse every element in it as representing the best of permaculture, but I can endorse Inhabit as one of the best permaculture docos of the last thirty years.

Here’s the official blurb for the film.

Humanity is more than ever threatened by its own actions; we hear a lot about the need to minimize footprints and to reduce our impact. But what if our footprints were beneficial? What if we could meet human needs while increasing the health and well-being of our planet? This is the premise behind permaculture: a design process based on the replication of patterns found in nature. Inhabit explores the many environmental issues facing us today and examines solutions that are being applied using the ecological design lens of permaculture. Focused mostly on the Northeastern and Midwestern regions of the United States, Inhabit provides an intimate look at permaculture peoples and practices ranging from rural, suburban, and urban landscapes.

INHABIT: A Permaculture Perspective made by Costa Boutsikaris and Emmett Brenna is now available.

INHABIT Banner Thin

0

Shades of Green(Lifestyle) Awards Reflection

logo-bigWhile gardening alone in the Spring busy period without the need to plan and direct volunteers, I have had more time for reflection. One of the subjects for reflection was my elevation to the Green Lifestyle Hall of Fame.

By chance I had just read a series of articles by Kari McGregor (part 1, part 2 and part 3) using a framework for thinking about green activism that seemed relevant to this award.

Kari McGregor’s categories of environmentalism Light Green, Bright Green, Deep Green and Dark Green made sense of my musings.

Light Green, is about relatively modest changes in our personal lifestyles that will collectively lead to a more environmentally sane and sustainable society.

Bright Green, is based on a belief that renewable and smart technology will create the next industrial revolution that will allow society to continue the path of progress that is so fundamental to our collective culture. Both these strains of environmentalism remain anthropocentric while Deep and Dark Green environmentalism assert humanity must develop an eco-centric culture to survive.

Deep Green environmentalists focus on protecting nature by direct action and radical political activism while Dark Greens focus on building the ecological successor culture now in the belief that industrial civilization is doomed to run its course and collapse either dramatically or slowly.

In this framework Green Lifestyle Magazine is primarily Light Green with a fair dose of Bright Green. I wondered where to position the previous recipients of the Hall of Fame award. Bob Brown might be more Deep Green while Olivia Newton John’s stellar celebrity and financial success might suggest a blend of Light and Bright Green (even though I know very little of her environmental activism). I fit more squarely in with the Dark Greens. While my Dark Green perspective may seem most removed from Green Lifestyle’s Light Green environmentalism, we share the focus on change the world by changing ourselves while the Bright Green renewable energy and climate policy activists such as Mark Descendorf, and Philip Sutton share the belief in changing the nature of the system with the more radical direct action activists such as Paul Watson (founder of Sea Shepherd) even if the methods used to bring about structural change are very different and that these activists can be placed on either side of the anthropocentric and eco-centric divide.

pip3The point of Kari’s essay was that all four perspectives have their strengths and weaknesses and that we should all do more to acknowledge the value of the perspectives. She suggests that commitment to social justice is a shared if not strongly articulated value behind all four shades of green that could be more strongly recognized and articulated. In this context I thought about how new PIP magazine which I have strongly supported is just a slightly more radical version of the Light Green environmentalism on show in Green Lifestyle mag.

 

Permaculture as a brand of Australian environmentalism does focus on what we can do to look after the environment and future generations as we become more self reliant, productive and resilient individually, in our households and communities. Maybe permaculture can be viewed as a low eco-tech version of Bright Green that will allow us to live fulfilled lives without today’s systems or consumption of resources. But my Future Scenarios work let alone my more recent controversial essay Crash on Demand; Welcome to the Brown Tech World have suggested to some that I have shifted from optimist to pessimist about the future of humanity. I don’t think my perspective has shifted that much other than a response to what I see as the declining options available to future generations as industrial civilization accelerates toward a collision with nature and its internal contradictions. In many ways Crash on Demand is a strong Dark Green critique of the Bright Green and Deep Green perspectives while I largely ignore the Light Green perspective as being far to weak a response to the ecological crisis.

Kari’s framework certainly helped me make sense of Green Lifestyle magazine’s award to me. As co-originator of the permaculture concept I was partly responsible for the positive can-do attitude to improving the environment, that is permaculture. My lifestyle of radical simplicity combined with household and communitarian sufficiency, is an uncomfortable one for most trying to do their bit to live a greener lifestyle. Compared to the two previous recipients of this award, Bob Brown and Olivia Newton John, I am definitely more of an extremist.   Still, I thought, it is normal in any network or subculture to look to radicals rather than moderates for inspiration. We acknowledge and respect those who go the extra mile to “walk the talk” even if that means a stronger ideological commitment or pig headed personality than most in the same subculture would believe reasonable.

Beyond this recognition of pioneering radicals, I thought my permaculture lifestyle of radical simplicity and sufficiency is more in line with mainstream consumer environmentalism than it is with mainstream political environmentalism. In the debate about the personal being political vs structural change to the “system” I obviously more associate with the first view while Bob Brown has devoted his life more to the second perspective which is characteristic of Kari’s Bright and Deep Green environmentalisms. Viewed through this lens my Crash On Demand essay is actually an appeal to all environmentalists to take seriously the idea that what we do in our own lives is potent but only if what we do is radical in its simplicity and abundant in its real biological and communitarian productivity. Thus there is a direct line of evolution of action from Light Green to Dark Green. I doubt whether Kari’s framework let alone my musings reflect the decisions of the judges at Green Lifestyle Mag but this award and Kari’s framework has certainly reminded me that all responses to the ecological crisis have value in ways that are not necessarily obvious.

2

Great debate, the video

My essay “Crash On Demand” was the primary influence in framing this year’s Great debate at the Sustainable Living Festival in Melbourne,  so we felt that I had to make time to be there (in the middle of our Rocklyn Ashram residential PDC  plus peak fruit and honey harvest).

With an audience of over 250 it was an opportunity to explain the logic of bottom up permaculture activism in response to the energy descent future and hear some of the other perspectives presented. The dichotomy of the unwieldy title, the dreaded C word and the “vote” gave me the gripes, but it was good fun and an opportunity to catch up with Nicole Foss after our joint public speaking tour last winter.

Here’s yours truly kicking off the debate.

 youtube.com/watch?v=roO5FJZNmBM&w=560&h=315

For those people who want to see the whole debate (nearly 2hr long, but you should), here is the entire Great Debate (Nicole Foss, about 35 min mark. About 1.20 min mark begins the summing up, voting and Q and A).

[vimeo 119722889 w=500 h=281]

3

Permaculture Activism and the Future

I was recently asked by “permaculture actionary” Delvin Solkinson to provide some words for a newsletter promoting the next Rainbow Serpent Festival at which I’ll be speaking (several times). Very normal that a previous participant at one of our Advanced Permaculture Principles Courses should be asking me for a piece for an event he has the job to promote. Except for the fact that Delvin is based in the rainforests of British Columbia, Canada and the event is Rainbow Serpent Festival, that is held each dry dusty January  in our bioregional backyard.elvishBYdesign

My reply was

“Delvin, You ask difficult questions. Attached are a few words for your “Trans Pacific Partnership” project producing a local festival mag from the west coast of Canada.”

Inevitably I said too much for Delvin to use in full, but he thought it should be available somewhere, so here it is.

 

 

What are the roots or foundations of Permaculture?
Permaculture emerged from the fusion and ferment of environmental thinking of the 1970’s. It can be thought of as applied systems ecology with a strong debt to the work of Howard Odum. In another sense it was a branch of the tree of organic agriculture, with roots in many industrialised countries, in the early 20th century informed by pioneering work on sustainable agriculture by F.H. King who wrote Farmers of  Forty Centuries; Permanent Agriculture in China, Japan and Korea.   The emphasis on perennial plants, especially trees, was strongly informed by Russell Smiths Tree Crops; A Permanent Agriculture and the resurgence in interest in Economic Botany (useful plants), and indigenous use of plants and land management.  As a social movement permaculture originated in the Counterculture  applying an activist strategy to create the world we wanted rather than fighting to stop the world we didn’t want.  Early “back to the land” self sufficiency efforts outside the mainstream economy provided a context for early application of permaculture concepts. Although not overtly political, permaculture was  influenced by  both Anarchist and Libertarian philosophies.

What is the best way to become a permaculture actionary or ‘get on the ground’ ?
There are many different entry points to becoming a “permaculture actionary”. For some it starts with books, for others it is social and practical immersion without over intellectualizing, for many it is a Permaculture Design Course. Whatever the starting point, it should become clear that the most important application of permaculture ethics and principles is to the self, through a process of self audit of our needs, wants, dependencies, creative and productive outputs and byproducts of our very existence. Getting grounded in this way is the start of a personal retro-fit or redesign process which does not require that we wait until we own land or are with the right crowd. We can be our own guinea pigs in creating a better world. It is not necessary to tell the whole world first up but it certainly helps to connect with like-minded people for ideas and inspiration in building skills and capacities to help ourselves and others adapt to a rapidly changing world.

What is the future of permaculture that you would most like to see?
My hopes for permaculture range from the most general to the most specific. As a concept I hope it continues to be informed and infused with creative thinking and activism that arises from outside its own self-referenced world . In this way it will avoid stagnation in thinking and action and continue to exhibit hybrid vigour that can respond to a rapidly changing world. This inclusive mentality that acknowledges like minded concepts and networks reduces the problems of “turf warfare” between pioneering concepts that colonise the psycho social margins of mainstream society.

This holistic “jack of all trades” scope of permaculture needs to be balanced by a “mastery of one”. For each of us the calling and contribution to a better world will be many and varied. My hope is that enough permaculture practitioners dedicate their lives to making the founding permaculture vision of truly productive bioregional tree crop agricultures a reality able to survive the rigours of climate change and energy descent. Can we do the hard yards such that reality can match the rhetoric?

These ideas are further explored in

About Permaculture

Reverence for the Bunya Bunya

Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability

Future Scenarios

Collected Writings

Essence of Permaculture

Or take part and learn in the Permaculture Design Certificate course.

 

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