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