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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

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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 

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RetroSuburbia Online: Innovation in Digital Publishing

RetroSuburbia Online
Permaculture: Innovation in Digital Publishing
The behind the scenes thinking

Our launch of RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future as a “pay what you feel” online flip-book in response to the COVID-19 health and economic crisis has galvanised enthusiasm in permaculture and kindred circles. However, it has also raised some questions, and even frustration, with our strategy.

We had always intended to release RetroSuburbia as a downloadable e-book, but we needed to do so in a way that didn’t destroy the market for the 592 page hardcopy, printed in Australia and retailing at $85. We were looking to price the digital version at $50, whilst allowing those who already own the content in the form of the hardcopy book to access it for around $10.

Kindle, ePub and other standard e-book formats allow text-only books to be converted and formatted at low cost, however for a long, graphics-rich book like RetroSuburbia, they become prohibitively complex and expensive to create.

So our default was to go back to a PDF format, a solid, universally readable format that has been around for decades. This was our choice in the early 2000s for our first effort at digital publishing: converting and updating our 1995 A3-landscape book Melliodora. This was a labour of love and innovation by permaculture graphic designer colleague Richard Telford. It came out on CD ROM in 2005, and included a then innovative HTML “virtual tour” of the property using early digital photos from 2003.

When e-books finally went mainstream, we were amazed that the formats used couldn’t take advantage of the graphics-rich, fine grained, full colour and multimedia potential of an interactive PDF. On the plus side, they were simple to use and had some of the qualities people were used to in reading a book.

In the lead up to the GFC, my colleague Adam Grubb offered to use his substantial web skills to put my Future Scenarios work online as a long-read website (futurescenarios.org). We both felt the urgent imperative to help inform social and environmental activists of the challenging future unfolding, driven by climate change and peak oil. This free access website launched my role as a “futurist” and led to an offer from our US book distributor to publish Future Scenarios as a book, which proved to be a modest success despite the contents being free online.

A decade later, printing our massive manual RetroSuburbia in Australia, costing $25,000 more than it would to print in China, felt like a case of ideological extremism but one that was well supported by crowdfunding. We have sold more than 10,000 copies, mostly in Australia, making it a bestseller by any standard, despite not receiving a single book review from any mainstream journalist. When the mainstream media eventually discover RetroSuburbia they will no doubt describe it as having a cult following. Of course, the “cult” in “permaculture” is a running joke and issue of serious discussion within the movement – but I digress!

With RetroSuburbia out there fermenting change across our residential heartlands and hinterlands, I felt content to wait for the storm which I thought would come through the bursting of the property bubble, in between intensifying climate change disasters. As it started to unfold with that other horseman of the apocalypse, Pestilence, we scrambled to launch RetroSuburbia for the mainstream stuck at home with digital access and time to read.

We decided that using a new online format that shows off the best of our beautiful book, and gives readers some of the qualities of book reading, would provide the best of both of our previous innovations in digital publishing. Being online would give us the option to modify and add links to the gathering trove of material at retrosuburbia.com and further afield. It would also allow us to understand how people were using the book. Further, it would reduce the chance of the PDF being just one more unopened attachment circulating the web and ending up a torrent download.

The speed with which made the digital book available created some premature and mixed message publicity giving the impression this would be a PDF download, whereas what we produced is an online book that can be read on a standard web browser with the look and feel of the original book (most suited to desktop computers).

The “pay what you feel” gateway invites everyone to consider, from the heart, the value and import of this material for them. This reflects the Permaculture Ethics – in particular the third one, “Fair Share”: people are asked to judge what they feel is a fair share is based on their own circumstances. We trust this faith in the sharing economy will allow us to survive and thrive. We are happy for those of very limited means to use the online book without paying fiat currency, but we don’t want to see it pointlessly passed around to those who would not value or digest its potentially life-changing words, photos and graphics. We also encourage other ways to contribute, especially for those who cannot afford to pay much: share retrosuburban ideas as widely as possible, join the online community to share your experiences, and perhaps submit a case study.

Not being available offline is a significant disadvantage for some, and a hazard in some future scenarios. Enduring online access depends on our ability to continue to pay the substantial costs of maintaining today’s complex websites (and for the world wide web to survive in usable form). However, any lasting digital form of the book, whether online or downloadable, relies on technology in a way that a printed copy of the book doesn’t. If you are worried about the future availability and reliability of technology, a paper copy of the book is a good investment.

The response to the launch party has been huge, maybe big enough on social media to see RetroSuburbia scale-up for the masses, and we are grateful and moved by this remarkable show of support. Our team is incredibly energised but the effort and complexity has been enormous with some fallout, including the struggle to service customer queries and problems. We trust our network community to give us useful and honest feedback so that our third innovation in online publishing can help change the world for the better.

We are all drawing breath and attempting to look after our health as we work to make the delivery of RetroSuburbia online smooth, robust and resilient in a fast-changing world. And if the proverbial shit really hits the fan, we might just dump a PDF of RetroSuburbia out there to circulate – if necessary on memory sticks attached to carrier pigeons. It makes you realise that despite the wonders of the digital world, there is nothing like a book in your hands, just like “a bird in the hand being worth more than two in the bush”.

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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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Reclaiming the Urban Commons

We are in the midst of a great shift, a fundamental transformation in our relations with the earth and with each other. This shift poses humanity with a challenge: how to transition from a period of environmental devastation of the planet by humans to one of mutual benefit? How do we transform our relationship to the land, nonhuman lifeforms, and each other? Reclaiming the Urban Commons argues this change begins with a deeper understanding of and connection with the food we produce and consume.

This book is a critical reflection on the past and the present of urban food growing in Australia, as well as a map and a passionate rallying call to a better future as an urbanised species. It addresses the critical question of how to design, share, and live well in our cities and towns. It describes how to translate concepts of sustainable production into daily practices and ways of sharing spaces and working together for mutual benefit, and also reflects on how we can learn from our productive urban past.

                    Reclaiming the Urban Commons:
                    The Past, Present and Future of Food Growing in Australian Cities and Towns
                    Edited by Nick Rose and Andrea Gaynor
                    UWA Publishing, RRP $29.99

David Holmgren’s chapter is Garden Farming: The Foundation for Agriculturally Productive Cities and Towns.
Here’s the opening paragraph:

Australian suburbs can be transformed into productive, resilient and sustainable places to live through garden farming. Growing food right where people live, in back and front yards, has environmental, social and psychological benefits. Garden farming in the household, non-monetary economy is complementary to commercial urban and peri-urban agriculture that, collectively, can be the heart of a resilient bio-regional food system.

You can buy the book here.

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Permaculture, Collected Writings and Julian Assange

This website and all its posts are devoted to my permaculture life and work committed to creating the world we want. It is solution- and good news-focused. But my life’s work has always been informed by a rational understanding of the intensely political world we live in. Longer-term readers may have noticed that in recent years some of my writing has focused more explicitly on exploring the underlying nature of the problems we face to show why permaculture is a real strategy for addressing more than just personal well-being with a low ecological footprint.

For instance in ‘Money vs Fossil Energy: The battle for control of the world’ (2010, dedicated to the memory of my brother Gerard Holmgren) I used the ecological systems thinking that underpins permaculture to provide new insights and understandings of the titanic changes occurring as industrial civilisation collides with the limits to growth. ‘The Household Level Counts’ (2013) was a brief and early articulation of why permaculture design, activism and living should be taken seriously as a social and political change strategy. This underpins my focus on the household level in RetroSuburbia. ‘Crash on Demand: welcome to the Brown Tech future’ (2013) built on my Future Scenarios work (futurescenarios.org) and represented a further step into the role of positive provocateur in the debate about what constitutes effective environmental activism in a world of climate chaos and repressive governance.

These and other writings are currently being reviewed in preparation for the digital publication of the third volume of my Collected Writings that will include essays, reviews, obituaries and presentations from 2007 to 2018. As a package with the previous editions, it will mark 40 years of writings since 1978, the year Permaculture One was published. Inevitably, this retrospective consideration brings up the claim that permaculture may well be Australia’s greatest intellectual export – driven by the warrior energy of Bill Mollison. People who know me, or my writing, will know my scepticism of the warrior energy and its limitations in creating the world we want. However that scepticism does not take away from my appreciation and respect for what has been achieved by warriors devoted to true and noble “causes” (as my political activist mother called movements for social justice and ecological sustainability).

Reuters File Photo

Which brings me to Julian Assange, languishing in a unique form of detention in London and now under imminent threat of ejection into the fire of US imprisonment or worse. His treatment by national governments has been appalling, especially the US and the UK, but also Sweden (previously a symbol of fairness and good governance), Ecuador (plucky protector now succumbing to pressure), and Australia (meekly standing by while our fellow Australian is tried and found guilty by politicians and the pack of media hacks who resent Assange for showing up their own failures to shine a light into the backrooms of power). Assange, the technical brains, publicist and warrior behind Wikileaks could, for all I know, share some of Mollison’s personality flaws, but even if the worst of the claims about his personality are true, none of them take away from Assange being the most globally important independent journalist and publisher using the power of the internet to challenge the rapid rise in authoritarian power and propagandised media. That Assange is being treated as the sacrificial pawn in the chess game being played out in Washington around the fabricated Russia hysteria highlights the power of people creatively working outside of centralised systems.

By promoting Mollison and Assange as equally great Australians who have contributed to a better world, I may alienate some people for whom Mollison is a hero but regard Assange with suspicion or even as a “traitor” deserving whatever happens to him. This is a risk I am willing to take, especially as Mollison’s contribution is now a secure legacy whereas Assange’s is still unfolding but under mortal threat.

We should do all in our power to bring Julian Assange home to recover from his ordeal of these years – with no expectations about what he might contribute in the future. His sacrifice for shining the spotlight on the power behind the mask of representative democracy, and providing the inspiration for younger people to use the tools and capacities they have at hand to create the world they want now, has already been too great.

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Is David Holmgren on Facebook?

Is David Holmgren on Facebook?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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David reviews Heartwood by Rowan Reid

Heartwood: the art and science of growing trees for conservation and profit

by Rowan Reid

Heartwood by Rowan Reid is a heartfelt story by one of the pioneers of blending forestry and farming in this country over the last 30 years. His story is told through chapters focused on tree species planted on his farm at Bambra in the Otway Ranges of Victoria. While this is a personal story focused at Bambra, Reid draws on his decades of experience teaching forestry at Melbourne University, facilitating farmer initiated tree growing through the Master Tree Growers courses and his local Otway Agroforestry Network. In Call of the Reed Warbler Charles Massy says that “Rowan Reid has dedicated much of his life to addressing the key area of increasing the knowledge, resources and confidence for farmers engaging in agroforestry. Along the way he has helped redefine the very concept of farm forestry”.
This beautifully produced book records the trees and the learnings that mark that life.

Each story is complemented by brief but informative science and practice pieces that provide the reader with knowledge to help shape their own tree growing journey. For those applying permaculture ethics and principles to growing trees for timber, Heartwood is one of the most inspiring and informative books about the subject, even if the only reference to permaculture is a passing one.

Reid’s journey as a forester amongst farmers, from youthful vision, applying science and trial and error, to teaching and collaborating across communities and landscapes is a remarkable one of achievement and lessons learnt. His major theme is that conservation and production are compatible and complementary rather than contradictory.

Like my own early co-authorship of Permaculture One (1978), Reid’s co-authorship of Agroforestry in Australia (1985) saw him driven to put into practice ideas outlined in that book. Even though integration of conservation and production values was taken for granted by the permaculture, agroforestry and landcare pioneers, this vision was corrupted by a number factors. Reid’s stories illustrated how the war over native forests as well as government sponsored Landcare programmes both contributed to the segregation of trees for nature from those for profit. Reid’s stalwart stand against this dysfunction and lost potential for transformation of our broadscale farm landscapes by more widespread tree planting for multiple values is clear through the book, but this is not the primary message of all his stories. They all show that the rewards to those with the passion and persistence in tree growing have been economic, environmental and emotional, despite the continuing dysfunction in this country’s relationship to forests and forestry.

My own passion for sustainable forestry over the decades since Permaculture One has been diluted by my jack-of-all-trades spread across the vast territory that is permaculture. Apart from his focus as more of a master-of-one, Rowan Reid has also used the resources and opportunities of his position as a teacher in one of the few Australian university forestry schools to leverage his vision and trials with scientific evidence that has been mostly lacking for those of us who have worked outside of the system. Although we have known of each other’s work from early days, our paths have rarely crossed. I found myself in heartfelt and at time furious agreement with most of Rowan’s stories and lessons, especially his examples of sustainable management of regrowth native forest by innovative land holders. His learnings in choosing native and exotic species at Bambra reinforced my own experience and observations, especially with Coast Redwood. I also had many a-ha moments as Rowan explains how trees grow and the effects of different management, much of it based on recent science by his colleagues and students.

Some permaculture folk might begrudge Reid’s failure to acknowledge permaculture as a broader conceptual framework for what he has demonstrated, but I know that Reid’s innovative work may have had less influence by being associated with permaculture through the dark decades of the 80s, 90s and 2000s. Hopefully those days are passing with both Reid and myself being included in Massy’s influential book about ecological land use in this country.

The only point of strong difference for me was his reinforcing of the nativist orthodoxy that naturalising willows are bad for the environment. Sometime I imaging having a long discussion with Rowan, and our mutual friend and long time closet permie Jason Alexandra about willows. The science about naturalising species is certainly open to on-going debate and many of Rowan’s stories illustrate how scientific evidence has been a constant factor in refining and redirecting his practice and teaching. But Heartwood is also a beautiful illustration of how passion, intuition, happenstance and art have been important factors in Rowan Reid’s life’s work with trees.

David Holmgren
permaculture co-originator

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You can buy Heartwood from our online store.

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A History from the Future

We are thrilled to be sharing with you an excerpt from David Holmgren’s A History from the Future – a prelude to his upcoming book RetroSuburbia.


A HISTORY FROM THE FUTURE: a prosperous way down

future-scenarios-logoLong time central Victorian resident and co-originator of the globally influential permaculture concept, David Holmgren draws on his Future Scenarios work to paint a picture of how simple household and community level strategies can build resilience to the hard emerging realities of economic contraction, peak oil and climate change.

Holmgren has spent decades modelling how low impact resilient ways of living and land use provide a happier and healthier alternative to dependent consumerism. In this story, based on an original presentation from the Local Lives Global Matters conference in Castlemaine 2015, he shows how these informed lifestyle choices and biological solutions become the basis for surfing the downslope of the emerging energy descent future.


A LOCAL STORY FROM 2086

Prelude: The World at Energy Peak 2000-2015

At the turn of the 21st century the evidence for energy descent driven by peak oil and climate change was already strong. The quasi religious belief in continuous economic growth had a strong hold on collective psychology in central Victoria as much as anywhere in the world. The global financial system began to unravel in 2008 at the same time that global production of conventional oil peaked. For a minority it was increasingly obvious that the policies put in place ensured that the collapse was even more severe when it did come. It was like the powers that be had pushed the accelerator hard to the floor in one of those supercharged sports cars of the time, to attempt to jump across the widening chasm that humanity was facing.

The collapse of global financial growth unfolded differently in different places but here the story had many upsides that were partly due to luck and partly a result of visionaries and innovators who helped create a better future. These are the bare bones of how we got from what a few people still consider was the golden age to what we call the Earth Steward culture.

Photo Erica Zabowski

Choose from a vast array of nothing, or perhaps a different path. Photo Erica Zabowski

First Energy Descent Crisis 2017-2026

In 2017 the Australian property bubble burst. For our communities, this marked the start of the First Energy Descent Crisis (of the 21st century). Ballarat Bank was the first financial institution to fail and a government forced take over by the Commonwealth Bank saw the Community Bank network hived off as local lending co-ops backed by local government hoping to restart economic activity in regional towns that were increasingly on their own as State and Federal governments focused on dealing with hardship and social unrest in the cities.

The crisis was world wide, so dramatically reduced global Greenhouse Gas Emissions and the peak of global oil (what they called Total Liquids at the time) the same year was very much in line with the 1972 Limits To Growth report default scenario showing industrial output peaking about that time. More recent studies suggest that net energy available to support humanity peaked closer to the turn of the millennium but it’s all a moot point because it seems that economic growth had been a net drain on human welfare for decades before that.

As capital investment in oil fell off a cliff, and production from existing fields declined at nearly 10% there was a second oil price shock, a US currency collapse and a short war between the USA and China in 2022. Australia got punished in the trade embargo imposed by China. The economic crisis in China had already caused nearly 100 million of the recently urbanised workers to return to the villages, and reimposition of a command economy to continue the shift to renewable energy and revitalise agriculture. Consequently China was able to cope without Australian coal and gas and there was so much scrap steel in the world that the iron ore exports had come to a standstill.

While oil and food remained costly (at least relative to falling wages) most manufactured goods were dirt-cheap. Solar panels from China (somehow getting around the trade embargo) accelerated the trend for retail customers going off grid which, combined with collapse of commercial demand for electricity, led to a “Death Spiral” in the power grid with rising prices and increasing blackouts (and surges due to excess wind and solar inputs).

A newly elected Federal Labor government renationalised the power grid, along with price controls, rationing an Australia ID card allowing rationed access to subsidised supermarkets that had been experiencing shortages of fresh fruit, vegetables and dairy.

In Victoria, a Liberal government implemented policies to encourage people to be more self-reliant. Permaculture education was adopted as a framework for integrating aspects of self-reliance including home food production, owner building, water harvesting and waste management.

Rationing of fuel led to hitch-hiking, ride sharing and in rural areas a rush to convert vehicles to wood gas. Bicycles became the default personal transport around town in Castlemanine but in Daylesford and Hepburn, electric bikes and vehicles powered by the Hepburn Wind charging stations installed for tourists before the property bubble burst maintained mobility for locals.

Kanagawa Chuo Kotsu Charcoal Bus

Charcoal powered public transport from Japan. Photo: ‘Lover of Romance’

Conversion of vehicles to wood gas by a range of bush mechanics and ex-hot rodders had mixed success. The market value of higher powered larger vehicles and trucks rose as a result of the first wave of conversions. The Castlemaine Obtainium Engineering Institute was established to test and improve local designs and prototypes. One of the motivations was a competitive spirit with the electric car networks centred in Daylesford and Ballarat.

Use of Bitcoin (a virtual currency), local currencies, precious metals and barter all increased to support exchange in the rapidly growing informal and grey economies. Bitcoin then failed in mysterious circumstances after being targeted for funding terrorism.

The Internet began functioning again after major breakdowns during the conflict between the US and China. But Facebook and Amazon were bankrupt, cyberspace was littered with defunct and unmaintained sites and Internet marketing was plagued by cyber crime and draconian government regulations. Local computer networks using wireless technology, as well as a revival of two-way radio, started building back to basics communication pathways.


A History from the Future eBookletTo read the full story, purchase the eBook here or get the download for FREE when you sign up to our mailing list for updates to David Holmgren’s upcoming book RetroSuburbia, due for release in March 2017.

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