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Book Review: How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for Our Times

When I was sent a review copy of this book in February 2020, I was very busy with our residential Permaculture Design Course (which includes subjects aligned with the broad subject matter of this book). At the same time, we were making plans, just in case the new epidemic in China did prove to be the big one (a severe global pandemic that ecologists and epidemiologists had been predicting for decades). As our preparations to restructure our business to operate during the pandemic (without government support) and consolidate our three semi-autonomous households at Melliodora, lots of stuff fell by the wayside, including reading this book. I did pass it to Brenna Quinlan, our resident permaculture illustrator and educator, but she thought it sounded too depressing a read for current conditions.

After the French edition became a bestseller back in 2015, I heard about it in the context of accelerating interest in permaculture in France. Its translation into English early this year was a sign of its importance. Nevertheless, the title bugged me, not because of the gloomy connotation but because of my trouble with the word ‘collapse’. More than 20 years ago, I specifically chose to avoid collapse as the default term for discussing futures for humanity involving less energy and material wealth. In choosing the word ‘descent’ as equally honest but less catastrophic, I knew I was swimming against the tide of both serious historical research and populist perspectives of the future.

Most discussion of the future tends to divide between naïve techno-utopianism on the one hand and apocalyptic millennialism on the other. 

In How Everything Can Collapse, Servigne and Stevens strongly articulate the inevitability of some type of near-term collapse of what they call thermo-industrial civilization, while avoiding the hazards of apocalyptic millennialism. The balance between conveying critically important information and sunny exploration of the universal human instincts, behaviours and beliefs is one of the strengths and joys of this book.

In Part 1, the authors use vehicular analogies to brilliantly summarise the diverse range and depth of evidence from many fields. Being more familiar than most with much of that evidence (which has been accumulating over the last half century), I think their necessarily brief summary of some of the highlights is sufficient but not excessive for the average reader. Explanation of EROI (energy return on investment), their distinction between hard ‘limits’ (to growth) and crossable (eco)system ‘boundaries’, and their explorations of positive feedback, complexity and lock in are important in providing the reader with a systemic overview rather than a disconnected series of facts and indicators. 

In Part 2, the authors address the inevitable questions about when and how collapse will happen. They explore the paradox of how understanding collapse acts as a hedge against collapse or at least its worst forms, systemic characteristics that lead to more severe collapse vs slower descent pathways, and the role of mathematical models in understanding collapse including the most famous ‘World3’ model behind the seminal The Limits To Growth report (1972).

In Part 3, the authors explore the diversity of scenarios, perspectives and responses. C S Holling’s four phase model of ecological change, Dmitry Orlov’s ‘Five Stages of Collapse’, David Korowicz’s linear decline, oscillating decline and systemic collapse variants, or John Michael Greer’s catabolic collapse might all sound like dry theory, but Servigne and Stevens explain the relevance of these and other concepts for those grappling with the ethical, strategic and practical issues for humanity as a whole, for the individual and at every level in between. Most importantly, they identify the strong evidence for, and importance of, mutual aid in time of crisis and postulate how this could be a saving grace for humanity in more global and irreversible challenges and changes. 

Perhaps the most endearing aspect of this exploration is the authors’ overview of the spectrum of psychological and practical responses they observed in people who have understood, and in some way, come to terms with collapse. 

While permaculture is only mentioned in passing, along with other hedges and adaptive responses to collapse, I found the review of the role and impact of the Transition and Degrowth movements insightful, especially for English readers wanting a somewhat more internationalist perspective.

I was surprised and pleased to see discussion of the implications of my essay ‘Crash On Demand: welcome to the Brown Tech future\ (2013), even if their reading of the essay bypassed the main point which was not about our agency in stopping descent/collapse but instead to better understand the ways in which my ‘Brown Tech’ scenario was emerging nearly a decade after its outline (along with three other descent/collapse scenarios in Future Scenarios, published online in 2007). 

I continue to believe that the form of global collapse is likely to be a stepwise energy descent pathway: initially limited in depth and scope, leading to restructure and stabilisation before new crises, leading to further limited collapse. That pattern could continue for centuries into the future. However with each passing year, the failure of the accelerating crises to prevent the bounce back in growth of energy and resource extraction, increases the likelihood of deeper systemic collapse. The evidence for my claim in ‘Crash On Demand’, that current events showed the characteristics of my Brown Tech scenario, have grown stronger in the years since. In any case, my own focus remains fixed on the adaptive responses that permaculture thinking and action provide.

Reading this book did more than just mollify my adverse reaction to whether the term ‘collapse’ might be the best word to encompass the diversity of likely future scenarios. It generated a personal acceptance that I am, along a diversity of thinkers and writers acknowledged in this extensively referenced work, a collapsologist. In articulating collapsology as perhaps the most important emerging field of intellectual endeavour, and their somewhat light-hearted admission of personal obsession with the subject, Servigne and Stevens have provided a great introduction to a field of study that cannot be investigated without that investigation dispelling the illusion of separation of subject and observer. 

However, in such an important book, the lack of an index is disappointing for those committed to paper rather than digital formats. (Even the apparently disconnected subject of publishing media formats is of course a subject on which collapsologists have thought and written.) 

In the 1980s Mollison used to start two-week residential Permaculture Design Courses with a day focused on what he called ‘Evidence’. While many permaculture teachers feel that session is no longer necessary, more nuanced ways of understanding the future remain critical to effective permaculture teaching, design and action. In the 1990s as I began to grapple with these issues, I often got the response, ‘Oh you mean Mad Max’. The idea of an implausible 1970s road movie being an intellectual reference point for considering futures of less rather than more, highlighted for me the mental wasteland around the subject of the future. Nevertheless as the authors point out, films, stories and other art forms are great ways to stimulate our thinking about future scenarios. My own explorations in storytelling (Aussie St) and our more recent publication of Linda Woodrow’s 470 reflect our belief that imagination is a key to both grappling with the challenges and creating adaptive, graceful and empowering responses.

But to put all stories about the future in context, a system thinking overview is really useful. Whether you are just grappling with the need to think about the future for yourself and your family or are personally obsessed by dark scenarios for humanity and the earth, I highly recommend How Everything Can Collapse, even if the title (in English at least) might deter those who continue to relax in the soothing water of techno-optimism. 

As the favourite aphorism of collapsology goes, ‘Collapse now and avoid the rush.’

 

David Holmgren
Co-originator of permaculture
Summer, Hepburn, 2021

5

When does a book become news?

When does a book become news?

When it becomes a bestseller? 

When its author is famous or influential?

When it develops a cult following of readers? 

When it addresses the circumstances of a large segment of the population? 

When social media algorithms reinforce awareness of the book?

When it addresses critical issues to the future of society and nature, be that through fiction or nonfiction?

So why would a book that meets all of these criteria fail to be news?

What makes a book newsworthy is still largely determined by the intellectual gatekeepers of serious journalism, based on numbers of reviews in mainstream print and broadcast media. But for books to be reviewed, they almost always need to come from established publishers  – the most important gatekeepers in determining what gets published. 

This is largely determined by financially rational formulae developed by the publishing industry predicting likely numbers of bestsellers, break-evens and lemons. Beyond these ruthless metrics, a significant number of books are published because mostly smaller publishers decide the book is important, and they chose to take the financial risk, or even loss, to see it published.

The power of established publishers to be the gatekeepers has of course been declining for decades. First in the 1980s, when the almost occult art of typesetting was replaced by software, then in the 1990s when the rise of the internet stimulated network communities of authors and readers, through to today’s digital publishing, social media and crowdfunding that allow a multiplicity of voices to be “published” in different ways. While these changes have levelled the playing field for writers and other creators, allowing a greater diversity of voices, it has led to what some may see as a “Balkanisation” of our cultural commons or even a “Tower of Babel” when different subcultures do not understand, let alone value, anything from outside their own tightly reinforcing sources of information and influence. This could be a contribution to, or perhaps just a symptom of, the decline in globalised industrial civilisation, or at least the western world dominated version that is fracturing under the weight of its internal contradictions. 

In times of crises such as this, established elites have historically tried to maintain their power by more rigid, even fundamentalist, application of norms. Swirling chaotic social diversity threatens to engulf the ivory towers of not only academia and science, but the sacred heart of politics and its religious ideology of economics guided by the priests of finance. Open enquiry, which is part of the proud heritage of the enlightenment, is increasingly closed to ideas, art and the chaotic diversity that finds expression in the virtual market place, the street and, especially, at the interface between society and nature in the rural hinterlands. New networked and increasingly virtual communities form around their own self-reinforcing versions of reality, reinforced by algorithms that feed off confirmation biases.

Competing groups of elites battle each other for control of the algorithms to tame these expressions of wild creativity, resistance and downright dysfunction for their own Machiavellian ends. Ironically, professional journalism has itself become similarly dependent on its own self-reinforcing versions of reality about what is important and even what constitutes news. In many cases, all journalists do is recycle the same angles on the same stories, while different angles, let alone different stories, increasingly do not compute for those without the protection once offered to serious journalism by the broadsheet newspapers and public broadcasters. This is compounded by the shrinking attention span of audiences and the 24/7 news cycle. 

Meanwhile the most potent new actors using the power of the internet to speak truth to power find themselves increasingly under threat, with the greatest of them all, Julian Assange, being destroyed by a combination of character assassination, psychological torture and the most spectacular corruption of legal process (which makes authoritarian regimes elsewhere in the world scorn the hypocrisy of so-called western democracies). 

These and other forces are increasingly leading to journalism and media failing to fulfil one of its functions: providing early warnings to society at large, or even to the elites of forces from the periphery that represent new creative opportunities or existential threats.

This myopic focus in all matters on the centre rather than the periphery is a failure to understand or apply the permaculture design principle “Use edges and value the marginal”.

What is permaculture? A fashionable form of gardening or self-sufficient living? So what has that got to do with such weighty issues, or this rave about book publishing?

Maybe a little history is in order, especially for Australian journalists still caught in the cultural cringe that everything of importance, especially to the future of civilisation, must come from the centres of empire in the northern and western hemispheres.

Over time, historians may come to recognise Tasmania as the crucible of the global environment movement. This outpost of Anglo-American culture represents the interface between nature and civilisation. More than a decade before the sustainability discourse of the 1980s, it gave birth to both the first green political party in the world, and a world-changing movement for the redesign of humanity’s relationship to nature. 

In 1977, 15 mainstream publishers approached a cantankerous senior tutor (of psychology) and a graduate (of environmental design) wanting to publish their manuscript about “permaculture”, a term the authors had coined to describe their vision for redesigning agriculture, and culture, from first (ecological) principles. Permaculture One, published in 1978 by Corgi in Australia, was perfectly timed to catch the first great wave of modern environmentalism. The genius, charismatic personality, and tireless efforts of the older co-author Bill Mollison, especially through residential Permaculture Design Courses (PDCs) held around the world, seeded permaculture as a world-wide agent of positive influence in environmental thinking. Some regard this as Australia’s greatest intellectual export.

Despite the success of Permaculture One, that early experience with the publishing industry led both co-authors to separately pursue more DIY approaches to publishing. Bill Mollison took back the rights to Permaculture One from Corgi for later print runs under his Tagari Publishing imprint as well as translations in six languages, as well as his Permaculture Two in 1979, and his opus Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual in 1988. That 600-page book of unruly ideas, plus brilliant drawings by colleague Andrew Jeeves, was created on a Mac Classic (with a 9” screen) in the northern NSW hinterland. As with Permaculture One, The Designers’ Manual, was perfectly timed for the second wave of modern environmentalism from ‘87 to ‘92 and has sold thousands of copies around the world.

After the experience of being a successful author at the age of 23, the other co-originator of permaculture applied another permaculture design principle, “Use Small and Slow Solutions”, to his journey in book publishing. A series of case studies of his design and implementation work that no publisher would have considered (had they been asked), more than covered costs with no funding from benefactors. These helped influence many within permaculture networks who were hungry for documentation of the application of permaculture design (see Permaculture in the Bush, 1992; The Flywire House, 1993; Trees on the Treeless Plains, 1994; Melliodora, 1996). 

Regarded as a quiet practitioner within the movement, David Holmgren surprised many with Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, a deep conceptual dive into the ethical and design foundations of the concept, self-published through Holmgren Design Services in 2002. Despite its abstract, and at times difficult, text, this was the first publication for which the author actively sought mainstream media reviews. Even with launches by well-known Melbourne comedian and environmental activist Rod Quantock, charismatic leader of The Greens in federal parliament, Bob Brown, and the ABC’s Robin Williams, an East coast book launch tour, and selling out of the first print run of 5000 in less than two years, there were no book reviews in any mainstream Australian newspaper or broadcast.

The author’s impression that the power of the internet had broken that of the gatekeepers in mainstream media was wrong, with reviewers automatically discarding any self-published book.

Another thing “wrong” with the book was its combination of abstract and difficult to grasp ecological systems theory, social comment, down to earth examples and personal anecdotes that no professional editor or publisher would typically accept within the same book.

After selling 10,000 copies, Holmgren Design unsuccessfully pitched a story to the producers of “Books and Writing” on ABC Radio National, about this self-published book of complex ideas selling that many copies here and overseas, with translations pending and no mainstream media reviews. The success of permaculture in the popular imagination as a cool form of organic gardening or self-reliant rural living acted as an inhibitor to it being considered as contributing to the sustainability debate, let alone other serious issues affecting society. 

For those involved in the already diverse international permaculture movement, the framework of design principles in Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability clarified the universal application of permaculture ethics and design principles beyond the garden and the farm, and spread awareness of the concepts outside of what some criticised as the “cult” confines of permaculture. Despite its abstraction, carefully crafted icons, a website devoted to the ethics and principles of permaculture, a teaching kit, incredibly popular electro-swing music and myriad other expressions of this work have seen these powerful thinking tools used by practitioners, teachers and activists in active positive responses to the environmental crisis, from cities to remote hinterlands of the richest and poorest countries.

Successive waves of growth in the interest in, and influence of, permaculture have increased the profile of permaculture’s younger co-originator, especially after Bill Mollison’s death in 2016. Publishing (under the imprint Melliodora Publishing) now includes other permaculture authors, editors and illustrators, and distribution by Permaculture Principles bypasses the online distribution monopolies to provide fair return to creators and publishers.

Image from here

So when Holmgren’s decades-long research, teaching and writing about the capacity to retrofit the built, biological and behavioural fields of suburbia culminated in a 600-page, full colour, richly illustrated, printed in Australia book, RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future (2018), one might assume that what is left of the mainstream media might take note. Despite the book and the marketing strategy being unashamedly targeted to the SE Australian market where the majority of Australians live, with events supported by local government drawing crowds from 30 to 300, a foreword by Gardening Australia’s Costa Georgiadis, a website of case studies and supporting information, a growing Facebook community page, an article in the New York Times (amongst other global interest) and the first print run of 5000 selling out in 8 months, there were no reviews of RetroSuburbia in Australian capital city newspapers or broadcast media (other than an interview by Jon Faine on ABC Melbourne radio). 

Unlike the dense heavy text of Principles and Pathways, the language of RetroSuburbia is accessible and engaging. A book weighing 1.8kg, retailing at $85, and without mainstream distribution selling out that quickly must represent some sort of publishing record in Australia. Far from being a one-day wonder, the second print run sold out with the rush of interest as the pandemic storm clouds gathered. An online edition of the whole book on a “Pay What You Feel” basis has so far reached over 6500 readers while sales of the physical book increased. Interest in home-based living has exploded during the pandemic and there are lots of signs that some of these changes are a wake-up call for many (for more on Holmgren’s thoughts on this, see “RetroSuburbia roadmap”, “The problem is the solution” and other 2020 posts on holmgen.com.au). 

Like the realisation that commuting to work is an unnecessary waste of time for a lot of people, destroying the amenity of cities while accelerating climate chaos, reviving the household non-monetary economy through growing food, fixing stuff, educating kids and caring for elders makes more sense. And it may become a necessity if vast swathes of the non-essential economy, from air travel to cappuccinos, fail to recover. 

The RetroSuburbia Community Facebook page jumped from 5000 to over 10,000 in a month as interest in household-based self-reliance exploded across our residential heartlands and hinterlands. 

“Aussie St”, a permaculture soap opera of empowering transformation in the Second Great Depression of the 2020s, Holmgren’s much-loved presentation and a fictional chapter in RetroSuburbia, is an ideal hook for the media to use to begin discussions around “the D word”. But with the Reserve Bank and Government desperate to prevent the deflation of the Australian property bubble, “Aussie St” and the wider retrosuburban strategy would be regarded as economic treason. Whether by Machiavellian self-censorship, just dumb ignorance about the diverse threats to business as usual, or the widespread belief in the left-leaning environmental mainstream that household level change has minimal impact on “the system”, the mainstream media continues to treat permaculture as a form of eco-fashion. The inherently anarchic nature of permaculture activism, the lack of a strong national voice on major policy debates, and the huge class and political diversity of those practicing permaculture have inhibited it being a force in Australian society commensurate with its persistent but subtle influence over more than four decades. This under-the-radar influence in Australia has many of its advocates smile at being ignored, with the definition often given on PDCs of permaculture being “revolution disguised as gardening”. 

If there was ever a time for the mainstream media in Australia to wake up to the power of permaculture influencing the lives of hundreds of thousands here, and millions around the world, and its central relevance to the big issues of our time, this is it. Whether it is the necessary transition to a renewable energy base, resilience to climate chaos, relocalising our economies and revitalising our household and community non-monetary economies, the shape of our cities, the inevitable contraction of our globalised, corporate-dominated economies or, of course, the redesign of agriculture and all other forms of land use from the backyard to the bioregion, there is a permaculture perspective that could be explored. 

RetroSuburbia provides the perfect way for mainstream journalists to connect with ordinary people facing today’s challenges, while simultaneously highlighting new perspectives on the big issues facing our nation and the wider world.

When they get the picture, we will hopefully get serious debate of permaculture responses to the challenges of we face, individually and collectively. Once these ideas are on the radar of established interests, we will no doubt also see attempts to denigrate and ridicule rather than debate. In the current climate of hysteria dividing people around identity politics, Holmgren expects a fair dose of fire as an older white male who has lived a fortunate life, presuming to tell us how to live. But as they say, any publicity is good publicity.

Holmgren is happy to engage in serious debates and to shine the spotlight on how permaculture thinking gives us the power to change how we experience the challenges we all face. For the tens of thousands of Australians who have done a PDC, and the perhaps hundreds of thousands who have been influenced by the ideas, permaculture is definitely out of the closet and spreading across the suburbs, whether the mainstream media notices or not. 

The Melliodora Publishing team, December 2020

1

That Mulberry Tree

Amongst all the beautiful images of the 2021 Permaculture Principles calendar, is Talia Davis’ stunning aerial shot of a mudbrick house and lush green tree amongst the devastation of bushfires on the south coast of NSW.

As with all the calendar images, there is a brief story that provides context: “Despite drought conditions this 40 year old mulberry tree had been deeply watered in the months before the fire went through in December 2019, and was on the fire side of the house. This tree in combination with cleared space, well-sealed and strong construction, appear to be what saved the house. Brett and Wendy are now installing water harvesting structures, aiming to increase soil water absorption and reduce the flammability of the forest around the house

The image and story are used to illustrate the permaculture design principle Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback. It does so in a variety of ways:

  • Firstly, the timely allocation of limited water to mature trees instead of annual gardens in drought shows prioritising what is important for the long term, as well as being conscious of the elevated risk of catastrophic bushfire.
  • Secondly, careful design and placement passively contributes to many functions (including in this case, bushfire protection). The mulberry tree is a passive (but growing) and largely self-regulating fire defense element. This can be contrasted with an active element such as a large firefighting pump, which depends on fuel, maintenance and an operator to be useful, and instead of growing, it depreciates over time, accelerated by lack of timely maintenance and testing.
  • Thirdly, the experience of the drought and bushfire has led to further action to more effective harvest water in the landscape through passive water harvesting structures to increase soil moisture, and through active management to reduce the flammability of the forest around the house.

Behind this dramatic illustration, is the complex subject of bushfire resilient house and landscape design. A story by ABC journalist Kate Aubrey provides more detail on the observations of the owners and comments by forest tree expert from ANU that touch on some of the complexities of bushfire resilient design, including the role of vegetation as an asset and/or a hazard.

The idea that plants and especially trees might be an asset rather than just a hazard in bushfires was highlighted by our research during the mid-1970s for Permaculture One (at the house and property that Bill Mollison defended from the 1967 bushfires that devastated the mountain fringing suburbs of Hobart).

Over the decades since, I have looked closely at the role of species selection and vegetation management in contributing to bushfire protection. I agree with the owners about the likely role of the Mulberry in helping to protect the house. The ABC report of the quoted tree expert gave the impression that the species of tree was less important than the form and condition. Rather than disagreeing with the valid points conveyed by this reporting, I thought it might be useful to those inspired by this story to add some of my own observations.

It is true that any tree upwind of a house can act as an ember trap that can significantly reduce the likelihood of ember infiltration, which is the primary way houses are destroyed in bushfires, especially when they get into the roof space.

Secondly, a tree can catch large flying debris from a firestorm that might otherwise break windows and allow entering embers to destroy the building.

Thirdly, a tree can absorb radiant heat, so reducing the overheating of the house (and protect active house defenders from potentially lethal radiation levels).

In addition, an actively transpiring tree with abundant moisture can transpire so much water when heated by the radiation from the fire front that it steams water vapour which further attenuates radiate heat.

On the other hand, if the tree catches alight or breaks in the windstorm then these potential benefits turn into greater threats.

What determines whether sheltering trees or shrubs are a benefit or a hazard is affected by many factors including a fair dose of chance. Fine foliage, retained dry leaves and dead twigs, flaky, ribbon and fibrous bark are all downsides while large leaves that primarily shed in winter and smooth bark, such as a mulberry are an asset. Retention of low branches such as by most conifers is a disadvantage compared with the “self-pruning” nature of most eucalypts, although this is something that can be easily changed (by pruning!).

Volatile oils, resins and waxes in species such as eucalypts, many other Australian natives, and conifers are widely recognised as a downside but few understand the linkage between these flammable compounds and soil infertility that these species are adapted to. I have yet to find a comprehensive published explanation, but this is my understanding based on decades of observation, reading between the lines of lots different sources and some resultant hypothesising.

In geologically young regions with minerally rich and deep, free-draining soils underlaid by permanent sweet groundwater (much of the temperate and continental northern hemisphere), predominantly winter deciduous trees have access to essential minerals, especially calcium, boron, copper, manganese and possibly silica that contribute to strong cell walls allowing plants to retain water.

In geologically old regions where leached and compacted poorly drained soils with saline or absent water tables predominate (much of Australia), the vegetation has evolved to create organic compounds that to some degree are metabolic substitutes for minerals in the critical function of water retention.

Unfortunately these substitutes are as flammable as petrochemicals, so when vegetation does dry out due to drought and fire, they contribute to the intensity of combustion.

On the other hand, if plants evolved to mineral rich soils, and have access to balanced nutrition, they will have higher level of minerals that act as fire retardants within foliage. The ash remaining from burning any biomass is the total mineral content. Low ash content is one of the characteristics that make for good firewood, but the high ash content in our garden vegetation is a crude sign of fertility, the ability to hold moisture and low flammability. Consequently, fertile and balanced garden soils that retain water and are growing well-managed and productive food plants and trees are an asset rather than a liability in bushfire.

Beyond the transformation possible at the garden farming scale to create a fire safe zone around our homes, we have to be more circumspect about ways to make our broadacre farmlands and forests firesafe. In Bushfire Resilient Land and Climate Care I canvased diverse strategies including thinning, grazing, accelerated decomposition with or without the benefit of earthwork to rehydrating soils as well as appropriate patterns of ecological/cultural burning.

This focus on just a few of the factors in bushfire resilient landscape design inspired by this photo would be incomplete without at least mentioning the tricky issue of staying and defending vs early and safe evacuation. Research over many decades has shown that the presence of one “able-bodied” person is between two and four times more important than any other design factor or site feature in determining whether a house burns down (see Joan Webster 2000, pp 77-78).

In the absence of a stay and defend plan against the worst of fires, it is important to ensure as many the other factors are working in our favour. Passive and self-regulating elements of our property designs are critical in this situation.

While researching The Flywire House case study in 1983, one of our conclusions was that bushfire resilient house and landscape design works at two levels:

  • Property design and management covering all bases collectively increasing the chance that passive design will lead to survival of houses and other critical assets.
  • Having these bases covered increases the confidence that the house and property is a haven that can be actively defended to survive the worst of firestorms. Whether we are psychologically and physically prepared for such an experience is one of those tough questions that no one else can answer for us. However, thoughtful design, fine tuning, careful maintenance, good kit, and fire plan testing in the worst of weather, all contribute to empowering that most potential element in bushfire resilient design: the human element.

Finally, for many of us facing the relief of a La Nina benign summer in some of the world’s most bushfire prone regions, this is the opportunity to seriously consider our choices and move to less challenging locales or double down with long term resilience strategies to make our place the best safe haven we can for challenging futures, from whatever quarter.

Here’s to a safe and prosperous way down in 2021.

David Holmgren
Melliodora
November 2020

0

Stephen emails David: a collaboration

What follows is an email conversation between David Holmgren and Stephen, a reader and practitioner of RetroSuburbia.

Stephen 10/10/20:

Dear David,

Due to your experience in both considering possible future scenarios and devising frameworks to adapt to them, I would like to ask you a few questions if you have the time to answer them.

To provide some background, I feel as if I am in a similar position today to where you were at the beginning of the rise of Neoliberalism in the late 1970s where leaders around the world decided to press the accelerator in response to the growing awareness of ecological limits.

David:

Thank you for your thoughtful and important questioning about the retrosuburbia strategy in an increasingly uncertain future. I trust that in replying at some length to your questions, you will be happy for us to repost these in some form online.

Stephen: 

Today, it is clear that the federal and state governments in Australia are pressing forward with major gas and coal developments despite a general awareness that we are fast moving towards dangerous climate change (and other ecological limits) and a lesser awareness that we may not even have an adequate supply of energy in the future to deal with these crises.

David:

I agree that the more interventionist (Keynesian) economic responses to restart the national and global economy mostly seem extremely dysfunctional in the face of such pervasive evidence of ecological limits. As the stark contrast between the issues and the action become clearer to more people, this tends to drive some people to radical political action, others to adaptive behaviour (including retrosuburbia) and still more to depression or denial. I have always been sceptical about whether some combination of these is likely to change the course of history. However in my essay Crash on Demand: Welcome to the Brown Tech Future (2013), I postulated that radical self-reliance associated with retrosuburbia by some significant minority of the population could trigger changes more effectively than mobilising mass movements demanding structural change. 

As always, I remain circumspect and sceptical, rather than certain, in considering how much agency we have to avoid more severe economic and social chaos in response the multiple Limits-to-Growth factors. Because I have had to live with these evolving, but more or less consistent, understandings most of my adult life, I don’t get so caught up in the sense of emergency that characterises both radical political reaction and survivalist responses. While I respect those using the Climate Emergency framing to galvanise action with the implied hope of avoiding catastrophe, it bad for health and not really possible to maintain emergency level alertness and action for a lifetime. All crises become normal as they extend over time, something that is no longer necessary to point out to people in Melbourne enduring the longest continuous Covid lockdown.

The limits of any rapid renewable tech rollout to both avert dangerous climate change and maintain some more efficient version of globalised consumer capitalism for the masses of currently rich countries, let alone the rest of the world, is one of the messages that gets lost amongst most people desperately hoping for “the right” policies. Carbon Civilisation and the Energy Descent Future by Samuel Alexander and Joshua Floyd is my current recommended quick read for those still needing to decide whether to maintain faith in the various versions of ‘Green New Deals’ discussed in the media and promoted in Australia by The Greens (but not yet by either of the major parties even though the case for Australia succeeding with some version of this big renewable tech future is stronger than almost any other country).

Stephen:

It seems even more clear on a scientific level that the effects of climate change could make human survival unlikely. The language that scientists are using is becoming more alarming and I am becoming more convinced that we may not avert this catastrophe due to the absolute recklessness of our political leaders.

Based on your research, is this an alarmist position to take or are we headed into such severe territory?

David:

I incorporated the risks of both unstoppable climate tipping points and near-term collapse in oil production in my 2009 Future Scenarios work, leading to the more severe Earth Steward and Lifeboat scenarios. But in my ‘Crash on Demand’ essay I “called it” that we were heading into the Brown Tech near-term scenario, which could unfold over the next few decades. I see more and more evidence that the subtle complexities I gather under the term “Brown Tech” are our present and near future (next few decades). I still assume that any deep transformation of the Earth leading to human extinction would take centuries, independent of whether it could be averted by human action or not.

There is nothing wrong be being alarmist when the stakes are so high and the uncertainties about the dynamics of climate change so complex, let alone the other intersecting Limits-to-Growth factors.

Stephen:

Would the RetroSuburbia framework still be a mitigation strategy in the face of this continued fossil fuel development or is it a serious adaptive strategy even in the most severe scenario that we could be facing? Or is it a way to buy time before the seemingly inevitable takes place that scientists are now warning us about?

David:

The pandemic has highlighted how much of the economy is unnecessary or extravagant ways to meet the psychosocial needs of the population, and these needs could easily be met without the need to commute and consume. I believe there is still a fair chance that the pandemic will be the trigger for the global economy contracting enough to reduces GHG emissions faster than any likely combination of climate policies worldwide. The most likely way for this to happen is that the unprecedented creation of money by central banks will fail to convince the global connected networks of market traders and investors (probably less than 0.1% of the global population) that the values being created in the stock, real estate and financial markets are worth enough to avoid a rush for the exits that more money creation fails to stop. 

However, I thought the scale of money creation following the GFC would have been enough to do the job. Instead of crashing the system, it led to the greatest transfer of wealth in history (possibly being eclipsed by the latest larger round of money creation) and triggered the right populist politics most dramatically associated with Trump in the USA. Amongst other impacts, it managed to further accelerate dysfunctional growth in energy and resource consumption and consequently in GHG emissions. So, as with hopes around the peaking of conventional oil around the same time, hoping for a crash to save us may be as naive as hoping for Elon Musk to do so. So much for my attempts to predict the future – even if I am a little chuffed at my timing of 2020 for “The Second Great Depression” in my ‘Aussie St’ story. 

To address the core of your question, I think widespread ad-hoc adoption of RetroSuburbia across the low-density residential landscapes of Australia and other similar countries could be a significant contribution to a “convergence and contraction” strategy, where affluent countries radically reduce their consumption and resulting GHG emissions and so provide leadership and modelling for change in more problematic higher-density residential habitats in both rich and poor countries. 

I doubt whether the direct mitigation effect would be as great as what countries like Australia could do through a diversity of regenerative agriculture and forestry systems to sequester carbon (or the less proven, but great prospects for Marine Permaculture to do the same in the coastal, if not oceanic, domains). The problem is that so few Australians have the connections, skills or access to land to participate in these processes, other than indirectly as the consumers of the products of land- and sea-based regenerative systems. Short of some sort of harsh return to the countryside, most people are going to contribute and adapt to future scenarios in our current residential habitats. 

I see retrosuburbia as an integrated mitigation/adaptive strategy that is accessible and realistic for viral adoption and adaption by the majority. It will help in other indirect ways through:

  • undermining the financial and other drivers of GDP growth, thus it could extend the growth-contracting effects of the pandemic, while generating social and biophysical assets for cushioning the later stages of energy descent.
  • acting as a benign nursery in which to raise the next generation with the skills to face harsher realities, which may require greater degrees of urban to rural migration to manage the land for collective sustenance and essential ecological services. 

As an example of the sorts of actions we will need to take to defend and strengthen retrosuburbia, my ‘Bushfire Resilient Land and Climate Care’ essay outlined how the community-based management of forests fringing our residential landscapes could be an emblematic and practical way to address the divide in our communities about the causes of the bushfire crisis and what can be done, which satisfies truths on both side of the divide.

In my ‘History from the Future’ story (2016) I attempted to show how the positives of the retrosuburbia strategy might play out in our central Victoria bioregion over more than half a century into the future. As you may note from the story (which is a hybrid of my Green and Brown Tech scenarios), the conditions in Melbourne are more dire. Presumably efforts at retrosuburbia have partially failed to avoid the adverse impacts of social and economic breakdown, until the success of retrosuburbia and other solutions in regional and rural Victoria lead to restorative action in Melbourne. While the world avoids the worst climate scenarios in this story, the relocalisation of the economy to reduce both the advantages and adverse impacts of globalised forces only really takes place as a result of the second crisis of 2060s. It is interesting to note that the short war between the USA and China in 2022, contributing to the dire economic conditions in Australia, looks more plausible than when I wrote the story. One of the aims of this story is to show that while climate change and resource depletion might be the primary drivers of future scenarios, their expression is likely to be through economic, ideological, political and military outcomes while environmental factors are likely to remain in the background.

While we are talking fiction as a way to understand emerging futures, 470 is a great read with a very realistic near term climate change future. It is interesting that in both my short story and Linda Woodrow’s novel, the places with more resilience tend to be rural and small town rather than large cities. I think that while retrosuburbia in some form is the best option for many people making personal and collective plans for the future, I think smaller towns provide more of a sweet point for implementation of those strategies than our largest cities, even if the dynamic of the Brown Tech scenario suggests government and other services could contract from rural and even regional centres, to maintain those in the city.

Stephen:

I wanted to ask you specifically because I like your analytical style of thinking and how it transcends multiple disciplines. Plus I can clearly see that you have given this a lot of thought in the RetroSuburbia book (bought one two years ago, a fantastic book, well done).

David:

I think the pandemic has highlighted for many people the paucity of their household situation, especially for those living alone in apartments without connection to nature, partners or kin. The household consolidation strategy that we highlighted in RetroSuburbia as the most likely way in which ordinary folk would adapt to harder times, has been unfolding in the US for decades, but anecdotal evidence here suggests an enormous acceleration due to the pandemic. For my initial reflections on the relevance of the retrosuburbia strategy in the context of the pandemic see The Class Divide in a Time of Pandemic; a permaculture perspective. For a rare foray into highlighting sensible policy responses to the Limits-to-Growth crisis see RetroSuburbia, Energy Descent, Degrowth and TEQs and my more recent rabble-rousing RetroSuburbia Roadmap.

Stephen:

Thanks for your time and if you get the chance to answer, I would be really interested in what you think about this.

David:

Hopefully these thoughts and linked writings will help with your own plans to grasp the opportunities of rapid changing context, contribute to minimising the damage in the local and wider world, and find the wisdom to recognise what we cannot change and deal with the resulting grief.

Sincerely

David Holmgren


On 15
th Oct 2020 at 3:09pm Stephen replied with the following points and further references 

In response to David’s comment on the framing of climate change as an emergency Stephen replied: 

It’s a very useful way to think of the Climate Emergency framing; a way to galvanise action but not a state of mind that can be maintained over the long term. Having read Kris De Decker’s article on what a 100% renewable Europe or US region would look like, it looks very clear that infrastructure would need to be oversized to overcome the intermittency of renewables which would greatly increase the cost and possibly negate the environmental benefits (as compared to fossil fuel energy systems) of renewable energy. 

Ironically, Australia is actually one of the few countries that could pull this off given our low population density, wealth and high amount of wind and sun energy available though I completely agree that demand reduction should be the first priority; once demand is really reduced, more benign and localised energy sources become far easier to implement. Also enjoyed the Crash On Demand essay, given that the financial system is heading that way anyway, it’s an idea that could allow us to choose the timing of what is an inevitable financial collapse to shift onto a better path, especially if community and household infrastructure can be developed to cushion the landing or so to speak.

In response to David’s comment about “alarmism” Stephen replied:

I had a read of the Future Scenarios website, very interesting especially that the Brown Tech scenario is unfolding. I particularly liked the explanation of nesting which is a useful way to look at why responses across different power hierarchies have ranged from Lifeboat to Brown Tech where even the same political parties in Australia have somewhat been different or where different political parties have had the same response (e.g: Green Tech response in South Australia, Brown Tech response federally or that Northern Territory and Queensland state Labor governments have adopted Brown Tech policies in line with the Brown Tech policies of their opposition party at a federal level).

 

In response to David’s “prediction” of the Second Great Depression in the 2020s Stephen replied:

When the pandemic and consequent lockdowns hit Australia, I had to remember the mention of a 2020s “Second Great Depression” in the RetroSuburbia book (first read it in 2018). Was a little amazed at the coincidence of timing with your predictions. As for other future predictions, I am understanding that it is very hard to make predictions when there is a dynamic interplay between the financial sector, energy use and extraction and what is happening to the greater biosphere. 

I never thought that governments and investors would be foolish enough to chase lower grades of fossil fuel energy on credit nor to throw billions of dollars at the real estate market to keep pushing land values out of reach for first time buyers but the last two decades have left me with the feeling that anything can happen if the wealthiest people want to try and keep this system going. Whilst I still know the possibility in my bones that this can’t keep up, I have conceded that this may continue on for longer than I thought would be possible and have adjusted household planning to reflect this reality. 

In response to David’s comments about bridging the ideological divides in our communities Stephen replied:

Thanks for the clarification. It is imperative to keep skills alive and ready to be upscaled when it becomes absolutely clear to the majority that these skills are vital. I think this is a really big strength of the RetroSuburbia vision. Through my personal experience, I have also found that many of the elements of RetroSuburbia are appealing regardless of a person’s political leanings. As an example, installing rainwater tanks, wicking beds and solar panels are something that I have found to be popular amongst people across the political divide. 

In response to David’s comments about ecological and energetic drivers of future scenarios not be recognised Stephen replied:

Absolutely. It is sometimes hard to imagine what climate change and resource depletion will actually look like, the likely scenario being as you described an economic, political and military expression. This is eerily reminiscent of what has happened in Syria where climate change induced drought led to civil unrest which was fuelled by geopolitics. 

In response to David’s recent writings about the pandemic Stephen replied:

To build on the move from the household to the community (and even beyond) in terms of a better future, there are two things that I think may help to bridge the gap between the household and governmental level. Adam Brock’s book, Change Here Now is permaculture inspired and seems to look at pattern-based solutions for community transformation. I am also interested to see what happens with the 2020 Glasgow agreement (not to be confused with the UN climate talks) which can be found at https://glasgowagreement.net/. It is a coming together of 55 environmental organisations that are drafting an agreement to take action on the climate situation in the full knowledge that governments, the UN and big business can no longer be relied upon to deal with this crisis. 

Although, this focuses on climate change rather than the other crises that we are facing, it could be a very interesting dynamic in your future scenarios if the realisation hits home for activist organisations that asking governments and big business to change is no longer a viable strategy and that a new strategy is required.

Finally in response to David’s comments about personal plans and grief about the world Stephen replied:

Thanks again for your really thoughtful response and having read all of the linked writings, it has definitely provided some clarity around what to do next (at a personal and community level) and to have the wisdom to practice grief for the things that we have lost and are unlikely to recover. It has been very enlightening to converse over such big picture issues and the RetroSuburbian vision.

Yours Sincerely,

Stephen 

1

RetroSuburbia Roadmap

The continuing pandemic restrictions are an opportunity for Melburnians to create their own roadmap to something new, rather than reverting back to normal, when restrictions are eventually eased. 

The extension of stage 4 lockdowns in Melbourne has led to a diversity of public and personal reactions from outrage, depression and gritted teeth, to relief and, for some, hope. 

Many of us in regional and rural Victoria are thanking our lucky stars we don’t live in the city. We are keenly aware of the relocations, and desire of even more people, to flee to our more comfortable conditions. Comfortable not just because we are living under stage 3 rather than stage 4 restrictions, but because we have more access to nature and some meaningful control over our habitat compared with Melbourne residents. 

That rural and regional Victoria could be more comfortable and secure than in the sprawling suburbs of Australia’s second global city, let alone the confines of the CBD and the residential spires that cluster around it, is a turnaround that can give rise to a smug schadenfreude rather than empathetic solidarity. However both these emotional responses could be replaced by anything from entrepreneurial opportunism to resentment at having so many city folk disturbing the peace, as city dwellers vote with their feet and head for regional centres, small towns and rural locales. Even relatively small numbers choosing to relocate out of Melbourne could create growing pains in many small, and even larger, communities. In desirable coastal communities, and inland ones like Daylesford and Castlemaine, the gentrification could intensify as the well-to-do push up real estate prices to even greater heights.

Relocation within Melbourne, from apartments accessible only by lifts and stairwells to suburban houses with garden and breathing space, is another response that many are likely to consider. The inner urban lifestyle of eating out, cultural events and workplace meetings has definitely lost some of it allure, and public transport may even inspire paranoia. While the Melbourne real estate market is likely to decline, if not collapse, once government money and the leniency on rent and mortgage repayments end, suburban prices could hold up relative to the likely cratering of the apartment market, which is already bloated from bubble economics for years if not decades. And those suburban prices might reflect genuine appreciation of gardens for growing food, keeping animals and for the kids to be able to play in quiet streets, rather than just another opportunity for knock-it-down-for-infill development of more apartments that no one wants to live in. 

For so many living in the suburbs, the spell of commuting each day, mostly to crowded CBD workplaces, has been broken.. The cold turkey shift to working from home has been hard for many, but commuting as an unquestioned assumption of urban, and even rural life, for the majority of workers and students is not returning. Whether workers like it or not, adoption of these new patterns may be driven by gains in productivity experienced by some businesses despite the chaos of rapid restructure, the consolidation of online identity and interaction, and the opportunity for employers to take advantage of residential infrastructure, space and amenity of workers’ homes, without the costs and responsibilities of managing workplaces.

Another empty office (Image from here)

As businesses cut back on rented workspaces, especially prestigious CBD offices, the likely culling of huge numbers of retail businesses, especially in catering and hospitality, are unlikely to be replaced. Entrepreneurs will not be keen to keep doors open to massively reduced day and night time crowds. While the pandemic may pass, the fear, or at least distaste, for crowding is likely to stay. With the immigration and overseas student spigot turned off, and unlikely to generate more than meagre flow when turned back on, Melbourne CBD is likely to seem very dead to those who revelled in the financial and cultural rewards of one of the world’s most liveable cities. Even if the collapse of city life is not as severe as that unfolding in New York, the chances of a return to normal seems less than that of a snowball in hell.

The real estate agents’ adage that it is all about location, location, location remains true; it is just that the perceived values of locations have all been overturned. 

While the move to more desirable locations post-pandemic might not be an option for most, the question of how to live and with whom, is an existential one facing so many under household curfew in Melbourne. While many are currently chafing at the bit to escape their confinement and inevitable tension with partners, parents or housemates, others may recognise how much their household, family or otherwise has provided intimacy, refuge from public and workplace pandemic protocols, and an assurance of shared capacity to weather threats from whatever quarter. Strengthening relationships at home and kickstarting the household economy of self-provisioning and neighbourhood exchange, highlighted in RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future, is the priority for some, despite the absence of mainstream media attention on this creative response to the pandemic and its aftermath. 

For some living alone there may be a superficial sense of security from the virus but the almost 100% dependence on telecommunications and just-in-time delivery to provide both their material and emotional needs is a huge vulnerability that the pandemic has exposed. The absence of casual and intimate connection to friends, family and partners has highlighted just how fragile the modern pattern of apparently autonomous urban living is for a future full of change and challenges. Household consolidation, typically in extended multigenerational households, has historically been the main mechanism by which ordinary folks cope with hard times. Anecdotal evidence suggests this has already been occurring during the pandemic, while data from the US shows it is accelerating a longer term trend since the 1980s. Just as the pattern of commuting for work and other needs might be fractured, the ideal of the ever youthful and upwardly mobile autonomous consumer barely tethered to a solo home base may have been transformed by the lockdown into a nightmare to be abandoned. Despite the challenges of sharing house, let alone the complexities of extended family relationships, it seems clear that the pandemic will be a wakeup call for many, especially previously free and easy young city dwellers. 

Back in early 2018, when Melbourne was bursting at the seams with growing pains, I penned an opinion piece to contribute to the debate in the press about Melbourne having a choice between following the Los Angeles, New York or London models of development. In casting the RetroSuburbia strategy as the “Melbourne Model”, I pointed to the potential to avoid any of the proposed development models by simply consolidating our households in the existing underused residential housing stock, revitalising our suburbs in the process. Progressively converting much of the unnecessary commercial building stock to housing would also be part of this model. The Age declined to publish my vision (presumably as far too leftfield) and, likewise, the mainstream media debate about post-pandemic options remains stuck in the old grooves. Even visions of bold Green New Deals mostly revolve around accelerating the renewable energy roll out, electric cars and more public transport to city centres that are likely to be unused. 

As I said in the Melbourne Model:

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 taking 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.

It is possible that the pandemic and resulting lockdown response could trigger a mass of behaviour change in Melbourne unlike anything we have seen before, restructuring personal and collective living arrangements in ways that might be better for the punters but bad news for corporations and governments still flogging the dead horse of Gross Domestic Product. 

The potential to build a new economy from a base of revitalised household and community non-monetary economies is the good news that the media won’t be too happy to air. Let’s do it anyway, and spread the good news while so many Melburnians are pondering their future. 

 

David Holmgren
Melliodora
September 2020

2

RetroSuburbia, Energy Descent, Degrowth and TEQs

Can Changing Habits for Self-Reliance and Resilience help society avoid the worst of unfortunate futures?

Our release of chapter 25 from RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future as a free downloadable pdf is another small gesture to spread positive messages in a time of pandemic. This is especially so for all those locked down in Melbourne, the geographic focus of the book and our further efforts to stimulate a wider a retrosuburban response in the wake of the pandemic. While our primary appeal is to people already voting with their feet to retrofit their own lives, not having these strategies recognised, let alone debated, in the mainstream media continues to act as a break on their wider adoption. Even the much-vaunted capacities of social media to allow communities of interest to share and adapt their activities are increasingly constrained by corporate and other powerful interests’ ability to manage and manipulate the proliferation of content through social media platforms.

A lesser recognised constraint is the dearth of academic investigation of options for more radical behaviour change. It is still true that most ideas to change society get a good working over in academia and policy think tanks before they surface in the mainstream media. For example, mainstream media discussion of the concept of “degrowth” is recent and introductory, even if the academic discourse and activism in this field has been intense for nearly twenty years.

Permaculture was unusual in the way it burst into public consciousness after very little exploration in academia. Research and investigation into the logic behind permaculture strategies has always been sparse, but in recent years we are starting to see increasing recognition that permaculture (including retrosuburbia) is more than a fringe green lifestyle choice. Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary is the first academic book to recognise the critical nature of retrosuburbia and kindred strategies in dealing with the Limits to Growth crisis.

Samuel Alexander and Josh Floyd’s recent paper “The political economy of deep decarbonization: Tradable Energy Quotas for energy descent futures” published in the academic research journal Energies, focuses on policy options for dealing with likely futures that are still well beyond the scope of any media recognition. The TEQ concept developed by the late David Fleming could allow society to “power down” rather than just hoping that the much heralded, but still barely begun, 100% transition to renewable energy will allow industrial civilization to continue on a path of growth and increasing complexity. Alexander and Floyd use Joseph Tainter’s theory of the development and collapse of complex civilizations as a framework to show how voluntary simplification of the economic and organisational structures of society has the potential to chart a degrowth pathway, as an alternative to chaotic and damaging decay and collapse in the face of a reduction in the energy supply essential to sustain complexity.

Such academic discussion of policy options is still at the margins, and it is probably too late to build the conceptual capacity, let alone the political will, to avoid the historic pathway of dysfunctional energy descent that Tainter observed with past civilizations. At the very least this, and similar works, help confirm that retrosuburbia, and permaculture more generally, are much more than lifestyle choices or personal preparations for hard times. Retrosuburbia provides the patterns and models that need to be replicated across our residential heartlands to achieve a scale of impact. By replacing a fair slab of the current household consumption activity (currently about 55% of GDP in Australia) with downsized and much more efficient ways to provide basic needs in the household and community non-monetary economies, society could radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions beyond the 8% reductions resulting from the pandemic. Of course the other half of the Australian economy is dominated by unsustainable resource extraction, most notably, coal, gas and iron for export. But when pointing the finger at the corporations digging and shipping our non-renewable resources, many Australians forget that those exports provide the balance of trade to pay for our consumption of new mobile phones, and cars, whether they burn fossil fuel (mostly imported), or are recharged by renewable energy from turbines and panels, which are also imported.

Tradable Energy Quotas issued free to all adult citizens would require high consumers to pay for their damaging consumption more effectively than a carbon tax, while simultaneously rewarding those whose consumption was minimal. All businesses, organisations and government would have to buy their rights to consume. Reduction in the quota each year in line with the carbon budget and/or the depletion in total energy, would force the much-needed powering down of the production/consumption cycle of globalised capitalism. Among other effects, this would reward the employment of labour and skill over capital, resource extraction and pollution. While I believe such policies could sustain the annual falls in resource consumption and carbon emissions we have already seen from the pandemic, while at the same time equitably improving quality of life for the majority, the chances of such policies being publicly debated, let alone adopted, seem very slim. Whatever the chances for progressive policies, what we know for sure is that we need the spontaneous, organic evolution of our own household and community-level non-monetary economies. This enlightened self-interest simultaneously builds resilience and solidarity to unfolding shocks from any quarter, and acts as a consumer strike against corporate-dominated monetary economies of bloated production and consumption that economists, politicians and the media call “The Economy.”

While many environmental activists see this focus on the household and community level as a weak compensatory response to our collective failure to capture control of the levers of policy power, I see it as the essential precursor to any larger scale policy-driven change to reorganise the more complex structures of centralised monetary economy.

From years of practise by the pioneers, retrosuburban strategies powered by permaculture ethics and design principles can make our household economies far more complex (and resource consuming) than default consumer living funded by full time work in the monetary economy. However in doing so, we displace demand for mind bogglingly complex and resource-consuming systems of finance, regulation, production, distribution and promotion that currently provide most people’s basic needs.

The voluntary simplification of economic and social systems that Alexander and Floyd identify as so essential requires that we replace mindless consumption with mindful permaculture productivity at home. Changing our habits for self-reliance and resilience requires us to skill up, get in touch with our sources of sustenance and help the next generation find what they need to survive and thrive in challenging futures.

My guess is that 50% of the growth in GDP over my lifetime has resulted from simply pushing economic activity out of our household and community non-monetary economies. For example, as workers started to buy rather than bring lunch from home, GDP rose, although no more lunches had been created – the process of making lunch had simply become monetised. So if it is better for ourselves, society and the planet to move at least some of that activity back into the non-monetary economy, then we can do so and call it “Growth”! Consequently, I can claim to be “pro-Growth”, a much easier sell, than explaining the nature of Degrowth, an unfortunate term in English, even if it is more attractive in French (Décroissance).

In the process, we might just generate enough BDP (Benign Domestic Product) to replace GDP as a measure of how we are powering down for a safe landing (on Planet A).

 

David Holmgren
Melliodora
Spring, 2020

1

Introducing 470

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

David Holmgren, Melliodora Publishing
Hepburn, Victoria

 

Watch the launch now!

0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

David Holmgren
Hepburn, Central Victoria
12 May 2020

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] See futurescenarios.org

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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

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