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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

12

RetroSuburbia Bushfire Resilience Extract

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr David Holmgren
Co-originator of Permaculture
January 2020

2

Bushfire Resilient Land and Climate Care

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

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

Here is the Executive Summary to give you a taster:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the rest of the piece here.

* * *

RetroSuburbia Bushfire Resilience Extract

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr David Holmgren
Co-originator of Permaculture
January 2020

2

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

5

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:

0

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.

0

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.

8

Is David Holmgren on Facebook?

Is David Holmgren on Facebook?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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You can buy Heartwood from our online store.

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The Melbourne Model

The Age recently published an article entitled, Melbourne’s liveability choice: soar like Manhattan or sprawl like LA

The article quoted Infrastructure Australia’s three scenarios for Melbourne in 2046.

The LA model:

More than one million extra people – or 40 per cent of projected population growth to 2046 – will live on the city’s edge in 2046, under a planning scenario that sees unfettered low-density development.

Melburnians will rely more heavily on cars to get to work, with only 3 per cent of jobs accessible within 30 minutes by trains, trams or buses.

The New York City model:

A compact, higher-density vision for Melbourne will concentrate jobs and housing within 15 kilometres of the city centre, and will drive up public transport use.

The London model:

A medium-density model that spreads the population growth more evenly and puts jobs closer to where people live.

Here is David Holmgren’s public response to Infrastructure Australia’s chief executive Philip Davies:

The Melbourne Model

For the last 50 years, the debate about suburban sprawl vs high rise has been repeated ad infinitum with very little questioning of the assumptions behind the debate. Adam Carey & Timna Jack’s article in The Age 22 Feb, 2018 is a current example of the restatement of these outdated options in the context of the supercharged apartment construction frenzy that is taking over inner Melbourne.

The article references Infrastructure Australia’s latest report including a third model for Melbourne’s future; medium density London instead of high density New York or sprawling traffic bound Los Angeles. This deft pitch assumes that we must put up more buildings to accommodate the projected 2.8 million extra people who will make Melbourne home by 2046.

The entrenched interests of Australia’s largest industry, property development and construction, myopia and lack of rigor in the academia and politics and a mostly disempowered public have combined to see the debate intensify but never consider any real alternatives, including my RetroSuburbia strategy which aims to create the Melbourne Model of urban renewal.

RetroSuburbia involves making full use and creatively repurposing what we have already built over the last 40 years, the longest running property bubble in human history, before we build and develop over more water and carbon absorbing land that we need to feed ourselves into the future. In this maddening frenzied rush, we condemn our children to live disconnected from nature that we depend on for our daily life and well being.

RetroSuburbia is based on the lived reality of a growing number of ordinary Australians who have been influenced by the permaculture concept, a vital emerging global movement, first taken root in the suburbs of Melbourne 40 years ago. The impact of permaculture, and UK spin off, The Transition Towns movement is at the progressive edge of communities building resilience in a climate changed world. Locally, Permablitz activism that continues to empower young people to hack their habitats for the better, has also spread around the world from Melbourne.

Those questioning the policies favouring population growth with alternative ideas continue to be ignored, or at best, overlooked. But even if we accept the projected population growth as inevitable, the current options to accommodate these numbers all involve constantly putting up more buildings without redressing the results of doing so for the last 50 years. Over that time the orthodoxy accepted by the majority of planners, academics and even environmentalists is that higher population density is the key to improved urban amenity, viable public transport, infrastructure efficiency (read water based sewerage), lower environmental impact and even resilience to climate change and other future stresses.

This orthodoxy is built on many flawed assumptions including;

  • Economic growth is an unquestioned good that will, in any case, continue into the future more or less perpetually.
  • The elimination of soil, plant and animal life in favour of more building is collateral damage that can be compensated for by token symbols of our ongoing metabolic and psycho-social dependence on nature.
  • The daily movement of the majority of residents beyond walking or even cycling distances is an essential element of urban life.
  • The just-in-time movement and on-demand availability of food and all the other essentials of life to this constantly moving population is necessary and sustainable into the future.
  • The provision of our needs within the household and community non-monetary economies is an unnecessary remnant of the past that can replaced by new forms of consumerism in the monetary economy.
  • That more residential construction ranging from high rise redevelopment to infilling the backyards of suburbia is an efficient and effective to achieve the higher population density in existing urban areas.

The Melbourne Model avoids these flawed assumptions, instead focusing on how we can turn the problem of suburbia in the solution of RetroSuburbia.

Apparently 30% of new apartments are speculation chips kept in mint condition rather than homes for anyone. There are roughly 8 million vacant beds in Australian homes. There are endless rooms, garages, sheds and other space full of stuff no one has time to use. The storage industry holding the stuff we can’t fit in our houses continues to grow.

Even the more widely accepted assumption that we need a major increase in public transport infrastructure echoed by the Infrastructure Australia report never considers the way information technology already allows RetroSuburban home based livelihoods and lifestyles to bypass the need to commute. The potential of garden and urban farming to more efficiently displace so much of the resource burning centralised food supply system is beginning to be articulated by advocates and activists but the 20th century land use planning paradigm that hold sway over our public policies assumes it is sustainable to feed mega cities with just-in-time logistics controlled by corporate monopolies.

In my essay Retrofitting the Suburbs published by the Simplicity Institute, I show how policies, affluence and other factors driving more construction in our residential streets lead to a decrease rather than an increase in population density. When we multiply the declining residents by the declining hours of occupancy, as all activity is sucked out of the home and community and into the monetary economy, we find that our cities are mostly crowded by cars carrying one person constantly rushing between buildings that are poorly used.

For the sake of corporate profits and government tax take, we are continually blindsided to commute each day to work, school, childcare, gym, cafe and mall while our homes lie vacant and unused.

So why should we even consider the creaking cities at the heart of empire as models for Melbourne when our own lineage of Permaculture, Transition Towns, Permablitz and RetroSuburbia are already influencing the progressive edge of urban and community renewal around the world, including New York, Los Angeles and London.

The Melbourne model would give us the potential to survive and thrive challenging futures without submitting to the sterile alternatives of the current urban development debate.

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