Archive | Ideas

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

5

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

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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

Agriculture and Architecture: Taking the Country’s Side

In November 2019, David gave a video keynote address at Talk, Talk, Talk, which was part of the Lisbon Architecture Triennale in Portugal. The theme for the event was Agriculture and Architecture: Taking the Country’s Side. 

The other invited presenters were Carolyn Steel, Colin Moorcraft and Joëlle Zask and the event moderator was Sébastien Marot.

Are metropolises really the “manifest destiny” of humankind? Is the environmental predicament calling for more concentration and incorporation? Or is it conducive to some kind of urban exodus?
The environmental predicament the world is now facing (climate change, peak oil, mineral and metal depletion, soil erosion, fresh water scarcity, biodiversity collapse, etc.) seriously challenges the ways in which human societies have developed since at least the industrial revolution. Our ways of procuring and managing basic resources (particularly food) but also of inhabiting and organizing territories (architecture and urbanism) will necessarily be deeply affected, and are key issues if human societies are to prepare themselves for the highly problematic decades ahead.

Part one of the event is below. David appears at 13 minutes. You can also watch part two and three.

Exhibition website:
2019.trienaldelisboa.com/en/exposicoes/agriculture-and-architecture-taking-the-countrys-side/

And more here:
https://agriculture-architecture.net/Untitled-Page

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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

David presents ‘Aussie St’ in Morwell

On June 1 2019, David gave his much loved ‘Aussie St’ presentation to a crowd of over 200 people at Kernot Hall in Morwell, in the Latrobe Valley.

You can watch the full presentation here:

After ‘Aussie St’ there was an hour-long Q&A session, which you can watch here:

The event was presented by the West Gippsland Catchment Management and the Latrobe Catchment Landcare Network, and was filmed by Darryl Whitaker.

From May 2019 – September 2019, David and his partner Su travelled around Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia on a RetroSuburbia Roadshow. The Morwell gig was one of 22 roadshow events. David documented his and Su’s four months away on a blog, which you can read here.

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RetroSuburbia Rollout

Retrosuburbia is more than just a book – it is a wholehearted celebration of empowered do-it-yourself and do-it-ourselves culture. With the book now into its second print run, the retrosuburbia team is focusing on complementary ways of getting the ideas out there: we are calling this the ‘Retrosuburbia Rollout’.

Many aspects of the Rollout are already happening spontaneously and organically, such as the book clubs popping up around the country, and the enthusiastic sharing and discussion flowing on the Retrosuburbia Community Facebook page. We also know there is plenty happening under the radar with people quietly sharing ideas with neighbours, friends and family, and leading by example in their own lives.

The retrosuburbia team aims to support and enhance these personal, neighbourhood and community sharing opportunities.

As part of the Retrosuburbia Rollout, David will continue concentrating his efforts on public talks. These talks have mostly been in partnership with local governments, and include the entertaining ‘Aussie Street’, a permaculture soap opera in four acts from 1955 to 2025. As well as spreading retrosuburban ideas, these events inform the general public of council supported programs, and promote local permaculture, transition and other groups as well as book clubs, workshops and courses relevant to the audience. The audiences at these events have so far ranged from 40 to 400, with MCs from local activists and sustainability facilitators to Mayors and media celebrities.

David has also been active in building partnerships with NGO’s, academics, researchers and policymakers to provide the evidence base to substantiate and support retrosuburban strategies and actions, based on their environmental, economic and social benefits. For example, he has recently become an associate of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute and has written the foreword to a new academic book Degrowth in the Suburbs by Samuel Alexander and Brendan Gleeson.

While permaculture educators will naturally adopt much of the retrosuburban agenda and promote solutions relevant to their participants, we believe there are ways in which we can strengthen these synergies, as well as other educational frameworks for rolling out retrosuburban solutions. There are also many community and household level change programmes already running or in the planning stages, mostly focused on climate mitigation and/or adaption and run by local government, transition and other community groups. Further, there are always people just doing stuff at the household and community level without funding or a formal structure, and those that are keen to see uptake in their neighbourhood but don’t necessarily see themselves as educators or activists.

Photo: Phil Hines Photography and Transition South Barwon

To contribute to these types of Rollout pathways, we are running two day Retrosuburbia Trainers and Facilitators Workshops that draw on and expand the material in the book. Rather than creating a set formula, we are using a more open source approach where we share educational tools and resources we are developing and encourage participants to combine this material in ways that make sense for their communities, households and participants. In particular, we want to see established trainers bring along material and resources they have been using or developing to avoid reinventing the wheel. Workshop participants will be free to use our resources in their own courses and to apply to have their own workshops and courses listed on retrosuburbia.com.

Beck Lowe, experienced permaculture educator, editor of RetroSuburbia and manager of the ongoing Retrosuburbia Rollout, will lead these workshops.

In the lineage of self-regulation that has generally worked over four decades of permaculture education, we think that these workshops will:

• enable established educators to connect to colleagues and add to their credentials and curricula to keep them ahead in this rapidly developing field
• help enthusiastic young activists find their feet spreading retrosuburban behaviours and designs through their neighbourhood and networks
• encourage and support householders leading kitchen table and backyard centred activities, including skill sharing, RetroSuburbia book clubs and other small-scale sharings in their neighbourhood.

The RetroSuburbia book, already a best seller without mainstream media reviews, remains the primary vehicle and driver of the Retrosuburbia Rollout. The numerical and financial success of this innovative marketing strategy that bypasses the retail monopolies such as Amazon is critical in showing that we can create livelihoods changing the world for the better while boycotting systems that damage nature and community (see RetroSuburbia: network and community marketing).

The retrosuburbia.com website will continue to expand as a portal of case studies, resources and reviews that amplify the value of the book for householders, trainers, academics and activists. The Retrosuburbia Community Facebook group will continue as the noticeboard and discussion space for all things retrosuburban.

We won’t restrict the free flowing adoption of retrosuburban ideas and have consciously decided not to trademark the term ‘retrosuburbia’, however any attempts by others to capture the branding of the term will be precluded through maintaining our prior and ongoing use. In this way, we aim to combine the value in branding that is available to those associated with the source of retrosuburbia and its deep foundation in permaculture, while at the same time encourage a thousand flowering expressions of these ideas using whatever label, framework or sources of support that others choose to work with.

David Holmgren & the retrosuburbia team, November 2018

7

Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary

Samuel Alexander, from the Simplicity Collective has just published a new book, Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary, co-authored with Professor Brendan Gleeson, with a foreword by David Holmgren.

The book addresses a central dilemma of the urban age: how do we make suburban landscapes sustainable in the face of planetary ecological crises? The authors argue that degrowth, a planned contraction of overgrown economies, is the most coherent paradigm for suburban renewal. They depart from the anti-suburban sentiment of much environmentalism to show that existing suburbia can be the centre-ground of transition to a new social dispensation based on the principle of enlightened material and energy restraint.

David’s foreword to the book begins thus:

Historians charting the trajectory of industrial civilisation will note the remarkable disconnect between the status accorded to “evidence based decision making” in our culture and the relentless pursuit of perpetual growth on a finite planet. While the contradiction has always been clear to the simplest of folks, the publication of the Limits to Growth report nearly half a century ago gave us the means to better understand the complex system dynamics that would characterise humanity’s overshoot of global limits.

Because these understandings coincided with the oil crises and resultant recessions, in affluent western countries there was some public discourse, and even early action, to consider the possibility of futures other than ones of continuous growth. On the fringes of society a flourishing counterculture gave birth to lifestyles and concepts (including permaculture) that have been the source of a continuous lineage of creative change. Some of these fringe ideas – such as the internet – have contributed to powerful creative action that has transformed society, whilst others – such as renewable energy and regenerative agriculture – provide pathways promising to manifest transformation now.

You can read the rest of the foreword here.

You can read a review of the book on Make Wealth History.

You can purchase the book here.

As a companion film, here is the latest offering from the talented folk at Happen Films:

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Reclaiming the Urban Commons

We are in the midst of a great shift, a fundamental transformation in our relations with the earth and with each other. This shift poses humanity with a challenge: how to transition from a period of environmental devastation of the planet by humans to one of mutual benefit? How do we transform our relationship to the land, nonhuman lifeforms, and each other? Reclaiming the Urban Commons argues this change begins with a deeper understanding of and connection with the food we produce and consume.

This book is a critical reflection on the past and the present of urban food growing in Australia, as well as a map and a passionate rallying call to a better future as an urbanised species. It addresses the critical question of how to design, share, and live well in our cities and towns. It describes how to translate concepts of sustainable production into daily practices and ways of sharing spaces and working together for mutual benefit, and also reflects on how we can learn from our productive urban past.

                    Reclaiming the Urban Commons:
                    The Past, Present and Future of Food Growing in Australian Cities and Towns
                    Edited by Nick Rose and Andrea Gaynor
                    UWA Publishing, RRP $29.99

David Holmgren’s chapter is Garden Farming: The Foundation for Agriculturally Productive Cities and Towns.
Here’s the opening paragraph:

Australian suburbs can be transformed into productive, resilient and sustainable places to live through garden farming. Growing food right where people live, in back and front yards, has environmental, social and psychological benefits. Garden farming in the household, non-monetary economy is complementary to commercial urban and peri-urban agriculture that, collectively, can be the heart of a resilient bio-regional food system.

You can buy the book here.

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