Extracted from the original Treehugger interview by Paula Alvarado in Buenos Aires, October 2007.
“Many of the mainstream approaches to how we might make things more energetically efficient and ecologically friendly, although well intentioned, are a waste of time”, says David Holmgren. From a permaculture point of view, that is.
This is because this set of principles called permaculture have a more radical point of view to green. But don’t be scared just yet: we’re not asking that you leave all behind to live in an eco-village in the middle of the country.
In this talk TreeHugger held in Buenos Aires with Holmgren (one of the two people who created the concept of permaculture in the 1970s), you might discover that a lot of what he has to say makes perfect sense, and is a great way to stop and think. About what we really need, about the way we live, about the green movement, and about productive systems.
Some of it might be too much, we agree, but we promise this is a man worth listening; and the things he says, worth reflecting about. Specially in times where everybody is trying to sell us anything for green.
TreeHugger: How was permaculture born?
David Holmgren: Permaculture came from a wave of modern environmentalism in the 1970s, which was a reaction to many bad things that were happening in the world.
In the context of the energy crisis, it became evident that industrial society was incredible vulnerable to both the cost and availability of fossil fuels, and there was an urge for positive solutions.
So permaculture began as a design question around what would agriculture look like if we designed it using the principles of natural ecosystems. But it was not about just adjusting current agriculture systems, but trying to redesign them from first principles.
Embedded within that, was an idea that industrial society as it was designed had no future, that we had to redesign the culture we inherited from the industrial era. So the word permaculture was focused in ‘permanent agriculture’ but also implicit was the idea of permanent culture.
The set of principles we came up with emerged as a result of a working relationship with myself and Bill Mollison in the mid 1970s and led to the publication of ‘Permaculture 1’ in 1978. Bill then moved on to public speaking and teaching all around the world in the 1980s, and this grew as a worldwide movement.
TH: The point of permaculture is that it’s not just one recipe but a process for gaining control of our lives and greater integration with the community and nature. Could you explain the basic principles for those not familiar with it?
DH: Permaculture changes as it changes from place and situation. But for many people is about producing food at home for direct consumption and growing a mixture of vegetables, herbs and fruit trees together, integrating them with animal systems all in a design system in which each member is assisting the other, so that it requires minimum input from the outside. Once it is established, the system draws from its own resources.
This includes methods for maintaining soil fertility that involve minimum or no cultivation, use of compost and extensive use of productive trees, which are a more mature form of nature than annual crops.
Human food supplies are often dominated by annual crops, which require large amounts of lands, fertilizers and pesticides.
Permaculture is also about doing those things where people live, because many of the energetic inefficiencies of industrial systems have to do with the fact that everything is spread and maintained by huge transport systems.
TH: Do you think these principles for ‘design systems’ that maintain on their own can be adapted to other areas, like objects production?
DH: The issue is that we believe that many products that we take as normal permanent needs are very recent in history and will not exist in the future, so they are not worth re-designing.
A lot of the mainstream approaches to how we might make things more energetically efficient and ecologically friendly, although well intentioned, from a permaculture perspective are a waste of time.
So we can see some parallels between permaculture and other ideas that have influenced industrial manufacturing like biomimicry for example, where you use the patterns in nature to design industrial systems of manufacture. But the question is, What are we manufacturing? And, Is this necessary?
For example, nowadays there is much focus on how we can make clothing manufacture more ecologically friendly, but we have enough clothes in the world for the next 20 years, we don’t need more clothes manufacture.
The issue of food, on the other hand, is present all the time and is extremely important. Not just for the poor but for people in modern cities too.
The food supply system is extremely vulnerable, fundamentally because of its dependence on oil and non renewable resources which are depleting rapidly.
TH: What about the aesthetics or cultural needs of individuals?
DH: It’s interesting that aesthetics has become a separate form of consumerism: people are living in concrete environments and consuming culture as a compensation, whereas in an eco village, the buildings made from natural materials are themselves work of art and not bought works of art.
This way, art comes back into life as a normal part of living, rather than being another thing that needs to be consumed.
TH: What about the aesthetics or cultural needs of individuals?
DH: It’s interesting that aesthetics has become a separate form of consumerism: people are living in concrete environments and consuming culture as a compensation.
TH: Can a person who wants to experiment with permaculture principles try them in an urban environment?
DH: Yes. For example, we’ve had a presentation on our website that is a positive view of the suburban towns, which are usually seen as the most unsustainable form of living, since they are car dependent. From a permaculture point of view, the suburbs are very adaptable to the future of continuous energy descend we’re facing, whereas the high density cities are more problematic to redesign.
There are many strategies about how we can change the way we live in the suburban landscape producing food in the gardens, start adapting buildings to make them more independent (self heating, self cooling, collecting water of the roof and reusing it).
Another powerful idea connected to food supply in cities is ‘community supported agriculture’, where a group of people have a financial relationship with a farmer usually not far away from where they live, who provides most of their organic fresh food in a box every week and they pay in advance for this.
This forces the farmer to grow many different things, and makes the consumer eat with the seasons. So it drives the production system towards a more ecologically balanced approach, and the consumer to change his behavior in a way that is synchronized with the region and environment where they live.
This is expanding rapidly in Australia and is popular in California, but comes originally from Japan, where 5.5 million households get their food directly from farmers.
TH: Can the permaculture principles be applied at government levels or at a large scale?
DH: Centralized ways of doing things are in themselves inefficient, so it is difficult for corporations and governments to contribute to these programs without ending up somehow making them worse.
That said, I think there’s a strong role for local governments, which are closer to where people live.
Of course if national governments could recognize the scale of the problems and opportunities, they could generate policies that could encourage these ways of living.
But the commitment to the growth economy is very ideologically embedded in government systems, and many of these policies that would bring positive environmental and social outcome could lead to contraction of the economy. For example: the community supported agriculture takes away the economic activity of the middle: the supermarket, the transport systems.
And this is the filter for governments when they are searching for ways they can support environmentally positive solutions: “only if this leads to economic growth.”
TH: So what would you say to people who feel this way about changes that leave some sectors out?
DH: We have to regard human capacity as the biggest asset we have, so we have to come up with creative ways to make use of all of those skills by adapting them.
TH: In Argentina and in many countries, people use land to plant only one crop because they have better yields and earnings and that is leading to an erosion of the soil. How do you see this phenomena?
DH: The shift of the production in many farming areas is part of a global movement where the corporations are starting to focus on the world’s big areas of productive farmland as prizes to capture.
In the era of declining oil, the relative importance of good farmland, good forests and water supplies becomes more important, so we are seeing a great struggle for control of those resources.
There’s also a struggle of what is going to be produced: food for people, feed for animals or fuel for cars (biodiesel, ethanol).
From the permaculture point of view, it’s food for people that’s got to be the absolute priority. We have to accept the fact that we need to move goods around the world less and people need to move less.
“We have to accept the fact that we need to move goods around the world less and people need to move less.”
TH: All of our readers might not be whiling to radically change their lifestyle from one day to another, so What are the things you think they can do within permaculture in an urban environment?
DH: You can start by doing an audit of your household situation: find out where is everything coming from, where is all the waste going to, and understanding that as a whole system.
Then, look at ways in which you can reduce dependency on those inputs, specially if those come from a long way or from a large centralized system, and replace some of those dependencies with other things you produce or do yourself.
Also, take advantage of things that are currently being wasted not just so that’s better for the planet, but so that’s better economically for you. Finally, connect with others within your community who are doing similar things.
The opportunities for change will be different in every situation, and the point of permaculture is that it’s not just one recipe but a process for gaining control of our lives and greater integration with the community and nature.