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
  • Checking out the case studies on 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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27 Responses to The Problem is the Solution: how permaculture-designed household isolation can lead to RetroSuburbia

  1. Hannah Moloney March 31, 2020 at 5:14 pm #

    Onya Dave (and team) xx

  2. Heather-gaia Thorpe March 31, 2020 at 6:43 pm #

    Such a wonderful ,generous offer-thank you.
    We are starting an online book club down here in North West Tassie and this will be extremely helpful.
    Best wishes to Sue
    Be safe and well.
    Cheers Heather-Gaia Thorpe

  3. Amy Doran March 31, 2020 at 8:12 pm #

    That’s wonderful news David and so generous of you! I hope this is the start of a global retro-revolution!!

  4. Scott Jackson March 31, 2020 at 9:11 pm #

    Hi David,

    Thank you very much for taking the time to write this, and for the initiative to offer Retrosuburbia on a “pay as you feel” basis. I am a permaculture practitioner, advocate and teacher in Argentina, where the printed version of Retrosuburbia is not available. A digital version would be a godsend right now and I will happily pay a reasonable amount for the digital download, followed by a purchase of the paper version whenever it becomes available in my region. I already own various paper version of Principles and Pathways, and have adapted a lot of your materials for local use here in urban Córdoba where I live and teach.

    With the onset of the various lockdowns and the anxiety that has beset us all, I have been more convinced than ever that goals and the focus of permaculture are exactly what the world needs right now (and forever!). I’ve also been contacting my students and loved-ones, offering them free-of-charge virtual assisstance in getting their gardens going with permaculture plants and ideas. The digital version of Retrisuburbia has been atop my wishlist even though I haven’t sent an email asking for it. So thank you very much.

    I appreciate the risk of simultaneously offering a digital version while also undertaking the expense to print more paper version. I would also like to give you and your team a pat on the back during this moment. If the content weren’t so powerful it might not make sense to spend your savings on “more product” to circulate into the market right now. But the content (in the broadest sense an ecologically-focused, practical approach to human life applied to existing settlements that were not ecologically-focused in their initial construction or design) is so strong that it has the ability to really trigger the “a-ha” moment right now, for millions of people that haven’t been had that awakening yet. The conditions are perfect for people to see the beauty, the practicalility and necessity of a permacultural approach to life, and I will be supporting your work and initiatives.

    All the best,


  5. RIC March 31, 2020 at 9:35 pm #

    Good post David…timely…maybe many more now who will show interest and practice..all the best to you and all .ric.🌿🐸🙏🌏🦅

  6. Mary Ragno March 31, 2020 at 10:58 pm #

    Thank you, David. for this initiative to make RETROSUBURBIA available in electronic format. Is there a possibility of also selling individual chapters online? Thank you

  7. Philip East April 1, 2020 at 1:04 am #

    Timely word. Keen to hear more from such an insightful individual at such a challenging time for many.

  8. Gavin Hardy April 1, 2020 at 10:15 am #

    David, this is a wonderful offering. I’m soon about to launch ‘Eco Flat Brisbane’, a platform for learning urban permaculture in the SEQ context. I’ll definitely be promoting the Retrosuburbia concept and book. Hopefully you’ve seen my case study submission to the RS website.

  9. Peta Stavelli April 1, 2020 at 1:01 pm #

    Brilliant idea! My adult daughter has your book and swears by it. They live the idyllic retro-suburban life in Auckland, but I would most definitely buy the e-book. When will it be ready for release? Peta

  10. Nena April 1, 2020 at 1:03 pm #

    A big thank you! I have been planning on buying the book for a while but haven’t been able to afford it. I’ll pay what I can and pay it forward again as a gift when the bank permits.

  11. Meg McGowan April 1, 2020 at 6:04 pm #

    What a gift you are to the planet and to humanity. Much love to you and Su. Please stay safe.
    Meg X

  12. Justin B April 2, 2020 at 12:05 am #

    I am really pleased to hear you speak on this David.

    This virus is revealing a lot about how the ‘system’ lacks resilience. Economies are failing, and it sadly seems inevitable that our underfunded heath care systems will fail us as they have in other parts of the world. A professor of medicine overseeing intensive care wards of two Brisbane hospitals spoke very candidly on ABC Radio National about how they are far from prepared and that he dreads the inevitable decisions to come – who dies, who lives. Basic necessities are no longer available in supermarkets. People are afraid, and possibly wondering how and why the system has let them down.

    On the plus side . . . . pollution in major cities around the world is clearing, showing us that if we stop producing it, it doesn’t take long to clear. Yeah, yeah . . . . it drifts off to somewhere else but . . . . if we keep hitting the pause button, it will eventually be diluted by the various natural carbon sequestering systems on this planet. If, when this virus passes, there is no significant action taken towards living better (see David’s RetroSuburbia for many examples), no significant action taken to introduce concepts of resilience-building within the broader community, then this is a massive opportunity to fast track change lost.

    Will such an opportunity occur again? I wouldn’t count on it.

    So, let’s take up David’s challenge.

    Justin (Brisbane)

  13. Marisa April 2, 2020 at 4:32 pm #

    this is wonderful.. warm sunny fuzzies all the way 🙂 thank you so much
    Marisa – Bridgetown WA

  14. Virginia Solomon April 2, 2020 at 5:21 pm #

    Great to see your perspective, David. PA will help promote tge digital roll out. Stay safe and well. Cheers Virginia Solomon

  15. Anthony April 2, 2020 at 8:10 pm #

    I have the book so i dont need the digital version but what a great legacy if more and more people switch to retrosuburbia ideals. Thanks for all you do to move towards a sustainable future.

  16. John April 3, 2020 at 10:49 am #

    Dear David and Team,

    thanks so much for your words David. Reinforced my own reaction: “well, it’s finally kicking off!” Thanks for your positivity and “problem is the solution” attitude. I will be posting further on FB and to friends about this, with this encouragement, spreading the Good News! This is exactly the kind of incentive and opportunity needed to spread the message. The time has really become ripe.

    Thanks also for your generosity and courage in putting out the e-book at the same time as more hard copies. Who knows what the future holds, so just go for it! Good for you, and this is exactly the kind of open-handed attitude we need. I already have a hard copy for myself but will definitely be doing my best to spread the pc virus to those who are susceptible, with this extra bonus gift!

    Re personal resources: my attention often tends to focus on the change of heart & thinking that I think generally precedes a change in outward behaviour. Doing a PDC was definitely an eye opener. Since then two of the most significant things have been reading ‘The one straw revolution’ and ‘The more beautiful world our hearts know is possible”. As it happens both free e-books. The latter in particular just spoke so much to the direct, visceral sense that things aren’t right with what we’re doing, and there’s a much better, more natural, easier and actually enjoyable way. And of course sharing some of these ideas with friends… when I’m back home in Canberra we have an informal ‘permaculture reading group’, which is basically just an ideas sharing/eating occasion!

    Thanks again, John

  17. Nicole Lutze April 3, 2020 at 3:12 pm #

    What a brilliant and generous offer. I’ve been fortunate to still have work during this uncertain period, and have been humming about buying Retrosuburbia for a little while. I’ll now take the plunge and purchase it as an act of support.
    Good luck and thank you.

  18. kate campbell-pope April 4, 2020 at 12:49 am #

    Wonderful news! Spreading the word further with the online copy of RetroSuburbia is a generous and inspired idea. As an owner of a hard copy version, I am confident you will sell out your next print run, and will be looking toward the next before too long! There’s such palpable change afoot right now, and you offer such a powerful and intelligent range of solutions. Philosophy and practicality combined so artfully.

  19. Rachel von Ganske April 4, 2020 at 1:51 am #

    Thank you for making this book widely available! I just ordered the physical copy of the book from your UK distributor to support your daring leap forward & can’t wait to have it in my hands. Blessings to you and yours!

  20. Ann Duncan April 4, 2020 at 11:51 am #

    I guarantee that releasing the digital version will result in increased demand for the print version!

    Healing blessings…

    Ann Duncan

  21. Eric April 9, 2020 at 7:48 pm #

    It’s amazing how much I agree with Permaculture people until they start to bash capitalism and go for the socialism ideology of UBI. Permaculture is regenerative and sustainable; principles that you can build a real economy on, as opposed to govt-issued debt notes. Why do all the permies have to hate on capitalism, as if what we have is free-market capitalism? (its not) A successful permaculture project is capitalism in action.

    • MegU April 14, 2020 at 11:35 am #

      Hi Eric and thanks so much. Have you seen this video? It might help to see where permies who are critical of capitalism are coming from:

      • Lena Mazza April 23, 2020 at 11:38 am #

        Hi, I had to consult my trusted dictionary for the precise interpretation of the word ‘capitalism’. The central being ‘private profit’. I have always argued that there is nothing wrong with capitalism as long as it is modest and sustainable. Arguing also that trade has always existed even long before money, as such, was invented. I do believe that a desire to improve your conditions is a deep, primal need/want in humans….Communism attests to the fact that when you replace capitalism with this, society stagnates. One could see many examples of this around the world. The legacy ‘hangs around’ for many generations, in part because of what the system does to the human spirit. And the elite seems to survive whatever system is in place, hyper left or hyper right. So, what needs to happen now? I have taken on board the principle of ‘mimic nature’ as a central tenet of PC. We can no longer ignore the universal, unambiguous law of supply and demand. We have surely lived as if this is not an issue for 50 or so years. For a beginning to get ourselves out of the havoc we have created I believe nature has the model and the answers. We need only observe closely, take note, and begin to create another more inclusive and sustainable future based on the free gift of natural systems. PC (RetroSuburbia specifically) perfectly points us in the right direction and gives us the inspiration and the tools.

    • Charlie April 22, 2020 at 10:48 am #

      Hi Eric, I consider myself a Permie however I don’t hate all capitalism as you suggest all Permies do. It isn’t black and white, you can have a mix of socialised business and privately owned businesses within the one economy. Like all things I think diversity is the key. Runaway capitalism or full laissez faire economies where the majority of production is owned by a concentrated set of corporations who operate under full market forces and thus inadequate regulation has clearly shown itself to benefit the elite at the expense of the general population and simply isn’t sustainable. Likewise rampant socialism has also shown itself to be just as bad. Personally I am no fan, like many Permies, with the populace being highly dependant on the government teat (such as through UBI or even dare I say maybe middle class welfare like FTB) nor do I like large governments getting too involved in my day to day life, so by definition I am not a lefty, however nor am I a fan of large multinational corporations being left to squeeze every cent from a market at the expense of community and our ecosystems. A balanced mix seems to be more logical. So what that might look like ….. well for starters I don’t think mega-corporations should be running our food system, we the populace need to take back food sovereignty in the form of more farmer/worker owned co-operatives and community owned retail food co-operatives. Many of these already exists and many don’t realise these are socialised business models however you don’t need to be a Marxist to believe in them.

  22. Terry Leahy April 11, 2020 at 11:02 am #

    Great, releasing the digital version is an excellent idea. Sure you will sell all the printed copies. People are really enthusiastic about home provisioning now and they have plenty of time to do it. Yes, printing money to pay for a UBI is what they should be doing. Borrowing from the rich now with bonds and then giving us an austerity budget later down the track is crazy and unnecessary. It is just a matter of rationing the goods and services to those who now do not have a job in the market economy.

  23. Pedro Di Girólamo Armanet May 16, 2020 at 8:07 pm #

    Hi David! :- )

    Thanks for the great, informational and inspiring Text You have wrote!
    I have order “The Book” from ‘Australia’ to ‘Chile’ where I live, and I am beginning to study it preoccupied by the present and eventual more negative future of the suburbia and slums poor settlements of ‘Santiago’, the Capital City of the Country, and of the Regional other Big Cities of it.

    Anyway: What about “Composting” and “Community (Edible) Gardens” in Cities and around the Cities, using hygienically and separately garbage and sewage, as a way to fight the “Coronavirus” and the Hunger’s Reality and Danger ?

  24. Sally July 14, 2020 at 9:03 pm #

    Thanks so much for your generosity and faith in offering this book in a digital form on a “pay what you can basis”.
    I have been thinking about buying the book for awhile. The pandemic, and your generous action, prompted me to go ahead.
    As I am fortunate to be working and able to afford to do so, I purchased two paper copies – one for myself, and one for my teenager. He is interested in permaculture himself, and hopefully will find the book a useful resource in the hard decades to come.
    Cheers and keep well

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