Charles Massy (Call of the Reed Warbler) launched RetroSuburbia in Canberra last week at the 2018 ACT Permaculture Festival. Here is his wonderfully received launch speech:
It is both a pleasure & an honour to help launch David Holmgren’s new book here in Canberra: a book by a person I regard as one of the deepest thinkers in the fields of regenerative agriculture, the environment and future pathways for society a nd urban Australia.And I know that this book also comprises a communal effort – not just representing a lifetime of David’s work and thinking but also of Su’s & Oliver’s and that of trusted friends, and indeed an entire national and global Permaculture community. In addition, a book like this comprises a team effort – and key players I know will be mentioned by David.
The context here is that this book heralds the next important phase of Permaculture thinking: from a movement that became the first major global export from Australia of a new modern approach to both regenerative agriculture and urban living and design.
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RetroSuburbia I believe is one of the most important and practical books to emerge in decades in this field – for it epitomises David Holmgren’s personal life and precept: ‘to think global but act local.’ The book also captures the design ethos, as expressed by the wonderful ecological literature advocate David Orr in his book ‘The Nature of Design’: that ‘Ecological design is the careful meshing of human purposes with the larger patterns and flows of the natural world, and the study of these patterns & flows to inform human nature.’
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So, what is the context in which we live, act and launch this book? Well, it has to be that we have undoubtedly moved into the Anthropocene epoch, where humanity has grossly disturbed the inter-related, self-organizing set of 8 Earth systems – of which climate disruption is but one (albeit a major one).
This disruption is manifested most immediately in accelerating land degradation, dysfunctional cities & suburbs characterised by less & less of the natural world and few places for children to experience nature and community; of increasingly dysfunctional societies; of the highly probable likelihood of the crazy Australian property bubble and debt-load bursting and thus of a major recession; of rising costs & pending shortages of not just energy but also healthy food & other basic needs; of worsening natural disasters; of social disconnection & isolation and loss of personal control; of deteriorating physical & mental health; and where, under the growth-fetish of an economic irrationalist, industrial system, we are delivered food that is bereft of diverse nutrients that we were co-evolved for – and food contaminated by elements destructive of our immune systems. And over all this hangs the inevitability of ‘Energy Descent’: what David, in the wake of his great influence Howard Odum, describes as ‘the erratic but on-going decline in the material & energy base available to support humanity.’
In other words, as David says on page 33 of RetroSuburbia, ‘The reality is that most people live in a private domain supported by public infrastructure managed by remote authorities that largely respond to dysfunctional aspirations & needs.’
So – that is the context – but here [holds book] is the paeon of hope: a deeply thought-through philosophy, but also with a sophisticated & interconnected plethora of solutions & practical examples & principles on how to turn around this dystopia: of how to once again regenerate Earth & meaningful, sustainable society & community.
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Believe it or not, David, as a long-haired youth in the 1970s, was already thinking about these issues even then – growing up not just in a post-1960s counter-culture period – of rebellion against the Vietnam War and consumerism and greed – but also post Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ & post the travesty of the drowning of Lake Pedder. And he grew up in a counter-culture household in W.A., with parents as semi-outsiders – his mother from a fine Jewish tradition, and father Swedish – & a household committed to social justice & political activism & the experience of little things, like David being ridiculed at school for having home-made bread sandwiches that were filled with home grown, healthy food. David told me recently: ‘Yes, we were a bit counter-culture, but I was comfortable with, and proud of being a bit of an outsider – & of the questioning of orthodoxy of every kind.’ Sound familiar?
The rest we know as history: David shedding his skin & hitch-hiking around Australia as a youth; settling in Tassie to do an environmental design course but discovering cultural elements of self-sufficiency; renting with Bill & Philamena Mollison & the exciting exploration of ideas & future possibilities; David’s environmental design thesis becoming the basis of Permaculture One – which erupted onto the scene in 1978. I remember buying a copy with its interesting cover on its release (interesting covers being a common theme here) – & it strongly influenced my own attempts to try & develop at least part household self-sufficiency then on our farm. Permaculture One also joined similar books on my shelf at the time – books that I am sure influenced David: such as EF Shumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’; the Meadows ‘Limits to Growth’; and other books by leading thinkers of the time like Kenneth Boulding, Barry Commoner & Paul Ehrlich.
After ‘Permaculture One’ David of course left it to Bill Mollison to promulgate the Permaculture ideas globally, while he sailed his own self-development course – gaining practical skills, hunting, gardening, reading, thinking, meeting the love of his life Su and forming a family. By 1985 they had purchased Melliodora, having formed Holmgren Design Services in 1983, and teaching intensively from 1993. That is, David by the 90s had returned once more to his Permaculture vision and passion. Moreover, in the meantime David, Su, Oliver & helpers were walking the talk at Melliodora – living by their precepts & principles.
The fruit of all this in 2002 was the important publication of ‘Permaculture: Pathways & Principles’- involving the articulation of 12 key Permaculture Design principles & Structures.
By this time the Permaculture movement (in the footsteps of one of its antecedants – Yeomans Keyline approach) had become the first major global export from Australia of a new modern approach to both regenerative agriculture and to urban living and design. This more public re-emergence, in my view, established David as one of the leading thinkers in regenerative agriculture and urban living – & not just in the global Permaculture movement, but increasingly involving how such design & practical living principles can be applied to urban communities.
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And so, to this next major book – RetroSuburbia.
In my opinion this is a world-leading manifesto for the restructuring of modern, urbanised society – and in both the developed & developing world. Please let me explain why.
In my recent book on regenerative agriculture I talk about ecological literacy & the need to understand 5 key landscape functions – of which the 5th (& most important in many ways) is the Human/Social. David calls this the ‘Behavioural Field’- because, as he says, ‘we CAN change how we see & experience life for the better.’
RetroSuburbia is the vital missing link in this whole regenerative story – as suburbia is where the majority of people live. So what David is spelling out in this book is a major & desperately needed revolution – what I call in regenerative agriculture an ‘underground insurgency’.
Paul Hawken in his book ‘Blessed Unrest’ said this: ‘Healing the wounds of the earth & its people does not require saintliness or a political party, only gumption & persistence. It is not a liberal or conservative act; it is a sacred act.’
This book – a seemingly innocuous tome with a delightfully unique cover – is actually a revolutionary manifesto – because, as David says, it shows how we can undertake the re-ruralisation of suburbia; how to bring agrarian & social abundance back to suburbia. That is – RetroSuburbia gives us a philosophical & practical series of tool-kits on how to change our suburbs, country towns, cities & ourselves – to live, as Hawken says, as if it were a sacred act.
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David Holmgren began his journey with design, & it is design that is the weft & warp of this book. From page 53 in the book David broaches the important context of work/life balance & its 4 quadrants – which opens-up the philosophical questions of ‘how’ & ‘why’. So it is through good design that we can have better built biological & behavioural fields – to integrate rather than segregate. One of the important influences in David’s thinking was Christopher Alexander – originator of the concept of ‘Pattern Language’. In ‘The Timeless Way of Building’ in 1979, Alexander wrote: ‘The fact is, a person is so far formed by his surroundings, that his state of harmony depends entirely on his harmony with his surroundings.’ And as David says on page 29: ‘I have framed the whole book in terms of patterns for resilient downshifting’- using ‘The Permaculture principle of Design from patterns to details.’ This of course is a systems overview also.
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So – this book is like good wine – it has taken decades to build and then mature: derived from healthy earth, & dozens of subtle and not so subtle flavours, influences, nutrients & free radicals – and chock-full of wonderful case-studies & inspirational designs; of examples of housing, retrofitting buildings, gardens, social living etc.
In this ground-breaking wonderful book, the labour of David and others & their collated experience reveals the promise that, with vision & the courage to dare to be different – to take the road less travelled – that we can have suburbs, communities & lives that allow us, as David says, ‘to create the world we want by living it now.’
This undoubtedly is a major book for our times, and it gives me great pleasure to be involved in its launch here. And because, as David concludes in the last paragraph of the book: ‘The innate human capacity to Creatively use & respond to change suggests the working together necessary to create a prosperous way down is at least a plausible energy descent pathway. “And in any case” he concludes, “giving it our best shot promises a life well lived.”
This the Holmgren family have done, and they & the book are exemplars for the rest of us. Thank you.