When does a book become news?
When it becomes a bestseller?
When its author is famous or influential?
When it develops a cult following of readers?
When it addresses the circumstances of a large segment of the population?
When social media algorithms reinforce awareness of the book?
When it addresses critical issues to the future of society and nature, be that through fiction or nonfiction?
So why would a book that meets all of these criteria fail to be news?
What makes a book newsworthy is still largely determined by the intellectual gatekeepers of serious journalism, based on numbers of reviews in mainstream print and broadcast media. But for books to be reviewed, they almost always need to come from established publishers – the most important gatekeepers in determining what gets published.
This is largely determined by financially rational formulae developed by the publishing industry predicting likely numbers of bestsellers, break-evens and lemons. Beyond these ruthless metrics, a significant number of books are published because mostly smaller publishers decide the book is important, and they chose to take the financial risk, or even loss, to see it published.
The power of established publishers to be the gatekeepers has of course been declining for decades. First in the 1980s, when the almost occult art of typesetting was replaced by software, then in the 1990s when the rise of the internet stimulated network communities of authors and readers, through to today’s digital publishing, social media and crowdfunding that allow a multiplicity of voices to be “published” in different ways. While these changes have levelled the playing field for writers and other creators, allowing a greater diversity of voices, it has led to what some may see as a “Balkanisation” of our cultural commons or even a “Tower of Babel” when different subcultures do not understand, let alone value, anything from outside their own tightly reinforcing sources of information and influence. This could be a contribution to, or perhaps just a symptom of, the decline in globalised industrial civilisation, or at least the western world dominated version that is fracturing under the weight of its internal contradictions.
In times of crises such as this, established elites have historically tried to maintain their power by more rigid, even fundamentalist, application of norms. Swirling chaotic social diversity threatens to engulf the ivory towers of not only academia and science, but the sacred heart of politics and its religious ideology of economics guided by the priests of finance. Open enquiry, which is part of the proud heritage of the enlightenment, is increasingly closed to ideas, art and the chaotic diversity that finds expression in the virtual market place, the street and, especially, at the interface between society and nature in the rural hinterlands. New networked and increasingly virtual communities form around their own self-reinforcing versions of reality, reinforced by algorithms that feed off confirmation biases.
Competing groups of elites battle each other for control of the algorithms to tame these expressions of wild creativity, resistance and downright dysfunction for their own Machiavellian ends. Ironically, professional journalism has itself become similarly dependent on its own self-reinforcing versions of reality about what is important and even what constitutes news. In many cases, all journalists do is recycle the same angles on the same stories, while different angles, let alone different stories, increasingly do not compute for those without the protection once offered to serious journalism by the broadsheet newspapers and public broadcasters. This is compounded by the shrinking attention span of audiences and the 24/7 news cycle.
Meanwhile the most potent new actors using the power of the internet to speak truth to power find themselves increasingly under threat, with the greatest of them all, Julian Assange, being destroyed by a combination of character assassination, psychological torture and the most spectacular corruption of legal process (which makes authoritarian regimes elsewhere in the world scorn the hypocrisy of so-called western democracies).
These and other forces are increasingly leading to journalism and media failing to fulfil one of its functions: providing early warnings to society at large, or even to the elites of forces from the periphery that represent new creative opportunities or existential threats.
This myopic focus in all matters on the centre rather than the periphery is a failure to understand or apply the permaculture design principle “Use edges and value the marginal”.
What is permaculture? A fashionable form of gardening or self-sufficient living? So what has that got to do with such weighty issues, or this rave about book publishing?
Maybe a little history is in order, especially for Australian journalists still caught in the cultural cringe that everything of importance, especially to the future of civilisation, must come from the centres of empire in the northern and western hemispheres.
Over time, historians may come to recognise Tasmania as the crucible of the global environment movement. This outpost of Anglo-American culture represents the interface between nature and civilisation. More than a decade before the sustainability discourse of the 1980s, it gave birth to both the first green political party in the world, and a world-changing movement for the redesign of humanity’s relationship to nature.
In 1977, 15 mainstream publishers approached a cantankerous senior tutor (of psychology) and a graduate (of environmental design) wanting to publish their manuscript about “permaculture”, a term the authors had coined to describe their vision for redesigning agriculture, and culture, from first (ecological) principles. Permaculture One, published in 1978 by Corgi in Australia, was perfectly timed to catch the first great wave of modern environmentalism. The genius, charismatic personality, and tireless efforts of the older co-author Bill Mollison, especially through residential Permaculture Design Courses (PDCs) held around the world, seeded permaculture as a world-wide agent of positive influence in environmental thinking. Some regard this as Australia’s greatest intellectual export.
Despite the success of Permaculture One, that early experience with the publishing industry led both co-authors to separately pursue more DIY approaches to publishing. Bill Mollison took back the rights to Permaculture One from Corgi for later print runs under his Tagari Publishing imprint as well as translations in six languages, as well as his Permaculture Two in 1979, and his opus Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual in 1988. That 600-page book of unruly ideas, plus brilliant drawings by colleague Andrew Jeeves, was created on a Mac Classic (with a 9” screen) in the northern NSW hinterland. As with Permaculture One, The Designers’ Manual, was perfectly timed for the second wave of modern environmentalism from ‘87 to ‘92 and has sold thousands of copies around the world.
After the experience of being a successful author at the age of 23, the other co-originator of permaculture applied another permaculture design principle, “Use Small and Slow Solutions”, to his journey in book publishing. A series of case studies of his design and implementation work that no publisher would have considered (had they been asked), more than covered costs with no funding from benefactors. These helped influence many within permaculture networks who were hungry for documentation of the application of permaculture design (see Permaculture in the Bush, 1992; The Flywire House, 1993; Trees on the Treeless Plains, 1994; Melliodora, 1996).
Regarded as a quiet practitioner within the movement, David Holmgren surprised many with Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, a deep conceptual dive into the ethical and design foundations of the concept, self-published through Holmgren Design Services in 2002. Despite its abstract, and at times difficult, text, this was the first publication for which the author actively sought mainstream media reviews. Even with launches by well-known Melbourne comedian and environmental activist Rod Quantock, charismatic leader of The Greens in federal parliament, Bob Brown, and the ABC’s Robin Williams, an East coast book launch tour, and selling out of the first print run of 5000 in less than two years, there were no book reviews in any mainstream Australian newspaper or broadcast.
The author’s impression that the power of the internet had broken that of the gatekeepers in mainstream media was wrong, with reviewers automatically discarding any self-published book.
Another thing “wrong” with the book was its combination of abstract and difficult to grasp ecological systems theory, social comment, down to earth examples and personal anecdotes that no professional editor or publisher would typically accept within the same book.
After selling 10,000 copies, Holmgren Design unsuccessfully pitched a story to the producers of “Books and Writing” on ABC Radio National, about this self-published book of complex ideas selling that many copies here and overseas, with translations pending and no mainstream media reviews. The success of permaculture in the popular imagination as a cool form of organic gardening or self-reliant rural living acted as an inhibitor to it being considered as contributing to the sustainability debate, let alone other serious issues affecting society.
For those involved in the already diverse international permaculture movement, the framework of design principles in Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability clarified the universal application of permaculture ethics and design principles beyond the garden and the farm, and spread awareness of the concepts outside of what some criticised as the “cult” confines of permaculture. Despite its abstraction, carefully crafted icons, a website devoted to the ethics and principles of permaculture, a teaching kit, incredibly popular electro-swing music and myriad other expressions of this work have seen these powerful thinking tools used by practitioners, teachers and activists in active positive responses to the environmental crisis, from cities to remote hinterlands of the richest and poorest countries.
Successive waves of growth in the interest in, and influence of, permaculture have increased the profile of permaculture’s younger co-originator, especially after Bill Mollison’s death in 2016. Publishing (under the imprint Melliodora Publishing) now includes other permaculture authors, editors and illustrators, and distribution by Permaculture Principles bypasses the online distribution monopolies to provide fair return to creators and publishers.
So when Holmgren’s decades-long research, teaching and writing about the capacity to retrofit the built, biological and behavioural fields of suburbia culminated in a 600-page, full colour, richly illustrated, printed in Australia book, RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future (2018), one might assume that what is left of the mainstream media might take note. Despite the book and the marketing strategy being unashamedly targeted to the SE Australian market where the majority of Australians live, with events supported by local government drawing crowds from 30 to 300, a foreword by Gardening Australia’s Costa Georgiadis, a website of case studies and supporting information, a growing Facebook community page, an article in the New York Times (amongst other global interest) and the first print run of 5000 selling out in 8 months, there were no reviews of RetroSuburbia in Australian capital city newspapers or broadcast media (other than an interview by Jon Faine on ABC Melbourne radio).
Unlike the dense heavy text of Principles and Pathways, the language of RetroSuburbia is accessible and engaging. A book weighing 1.8kg, retailing at $85, and without mainstream distribution selling out that quickly must represent some sort of publishing record in Australia. Far from being a one-day wonder, the second print run sold out with the rush of interest as the pandemic storm clouds gathered. An online edition of the whole book on a “Pay What You Feel” basis has so far reached over 6500 readers while sales of the physical book increased. Interest in home-based living has exploded during the pandemic and there are lots of signs that some of these changes are a wake-up call for many (for more on Holmgren’s thoughts on this, see “RetroSuburbia roadmap”, “The problem is the solution” and other 2020 posts on holmgen.com.au).
Like the realisation that commuting to work is an unnecessary waste of time for a lot of people, destroying the amenity of cities while accelerating climate chaos, reviving the household non-monetary economy through growing food, fixing stuff, educating kids and caring for elders makes more sense. And it may become a necessity if vast swathes of the non-essential economy, from air travel to cappuccinos, fail to recover.
The RetroSuburbia Community Facebook page jumped from 5000 to over 10,000 in a month as interest in household-based self-reliance exploded across our residential heartlands and hinterlands.
“Aussie St”, a permaculture soap opera of empowering transformation in the Second Great Depression of the 2020s, Holmgren’s much-loved presentation and a fictional chapter in RetroSuburbia, is an ideal hook for the media to use to begin discussions around “the D word”. But with the Reserve Bank and Government desperate to prevent the deflation of the Australian property bubble, “Aussie St” and the wider retrosuburban strategy would be regarded as economic treason. Whether by Machiavellian self-censorship, just dumb ignorance about the diverse threats to business as usual, or the widespread belief in the left-leaning environmental mainstream that household level change has minimal impact on “the system”, the mainstream media continues to treat permaculture as a form of eco-fashion. The inherently anarchic nature of permaculture activism, the lack of a strong national voice on major policy debates, and the huge class and political diversity of those practicing permaculture have inhibited it being a force in Australian society commensurate with its persistent but subtle influence over more than four decades. This under-the-radar influence in Australia has many of its advocates smile at being ignored, with the definition often given on PDCs of permaculture being “revolution disguised as gardening”.
If there was ever a time for the mainstream media in Australia to wake up to the power of permaculture influencing the lives of hundreds of thousands here, and millions around the world, and its central relevance to the big issues of our time, this is it. Whether it is the necessary transition to a renewable energy base, resilience to climate chaos, relocalising our economies and revitalising our household and community non-monetary economies, the shape of our cities, the inevitable contraction of our globalised, corporate-dominated economies or, of course, the redesign of agriculture and all other forms of land use from the backyard to the bioregion, there is a permaculture perspective that could be explored.
RetroSuburbia provides the perfect way for mainstream journalists to connect with ordinary people facing today’s challenges, while simultaneously highlighting new perspectives on the big issues facing our nation and the wider world.
When they get the picture, we will hopefully get serious debate of permaculture responses to the challenges of we face, individually and collectively. Once these ideas are on the radar of established interests, we will no doubt also see attempts to denigrate and ridicule rather than debate. In the current climate of hysteria dividing people around identity politics, Holmgren expects a fair dose of fire as an older white male who has lived a fortunate life, presuming to tell us how to live. But as they say, any publicity is good publicity.
Holmgren is happy to engage in serious debates and to shine the spotlight on how permaculture thinking gives us the power to change how we experience the challenges we all face. For the tens of thousands of Australians who have done a PDC, and the perhaps hundreds of thousands who have been influenced by the ideas, permaculture is definitely out of the closet and spreading across the suburbs, whether the mainstream media notices or not.
The Melliodora Publishing team, December 2020