In her 2014 book, This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein makes the case that opportunities to combat climate change already exist. Inaction and disinterest in embracing these solutions, she argues, often have little to do with the costs or risks associated with them: rather, we resist because we’d prefer not to dramatically alter our everyday behavior. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that our current level of consumption and development is dangerous and unsustainable, unpleasant to learn to use and throw out less, and, most of all, difficult to be humble, to reckon with our sense of purpose and how we measure success.
Permaculture is one of those effective yet uncomfortable solutions, built around a series of design principles that encourage us to change the way we live. Developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the mid-1970s, permaculture aims not only to advance sustainable land use, but also to turn people from passive, selfish consumers to responsible, generous producers. The broad principles of permaculture seek to mimic the patterns found in nature, encouraging practical measures like water harvesting, forest gardening, and seed saving as well as the building of self-reliant eco-communities. And it aims to achieve this with limited energy use and waste and through a respectful relationship with our natural environment.
Holmgren met Mollison when he was an undergraduate at the Environmental Design School in Hobart, Tasmania. In his second year at the experimental school, Holmgren became embedded in Mollison’s radical circle of self-sufficiency activists and teachers. As Holmgren explains, “I came from a family of political radicals, but if something went wrong with the plumbing when I was a kid, my parents rang up the plumber.” He was inspired by people who “did everything for themselves, or if they didn’t, they knew someone else who could.”
Both Mollison and Holmgren were driven by this desire to be entirely self-sufficient and live outside the system. Their collaboration began with a mutual interest in considering how natural ecological principles could be aligned with environmental design, and they embarked on building their first prototype garden. But the two soon expanded their scope to develop a more holistic permaculture system, one that integrates the production of food and energy with a larger idea of collective and sustainable community.
In 1985, eager to offer a working demonstration site for the permaculture principles, Holmgren constructed a rambling property in the town of Hepburn Springs in Australia’s southern state of Victoria. He named it Melliodora, and today it remains one of permaculture’s largest demonstration sites, each year hosting numerous visitors eager to learn about the passive solar house, its gardens and orchards, dam, and livestock. A prolific writer, teacher, and design consultant, Holmgren has written extensively about permaculture principles, self-reliance, and the development of Melliodora. “There’s always constant tweaking,” Holmgren admits. “There’s always room for improvement.” He is currently at work on a new book that considers the potential for sustainable solutions in existing built environments.
For Holmgren, combating climate change is as much about altering one’s own behavior and becoming a useful member of a community as it is about large-scale governmental change. Having seen permaculture rise and fall as a popular movement across several decades, he is reflective when it comes to permaculture’s early failings. Bill Mollison passed away on September 24, 2016, but not before witnessing what Holmgren sees as another permaculture resurgence. As climate change accelerates, he believes permaculture’s ability to adapt and grow keeps it vital.
—Naomi Riddle for Guernica
Guernica: Did you have an interest in ecology and a concern for the environment when you were growing up?
David Holmgren: Environmental awareness was an emerging idea for my parents in the 1960s, as well as for my younger brother and I. My parents reacted strongly to the mining boom in the early ’60s in Perth [in Western Australia], with houses being knocked down for petrol stations and the ground being concreted over. But they were mostly interested in social justice. I saw my parents adopt utopian socialism as the savior of the world, and then it turned sour.
Both Bill and I believed that permaculture was going to be projected into a collapsing world and would rise as a whole conceptual framework. The fear that permaculture could turn into some sort of bizarre movement seems laughable now, but we saw real risks of it turning into some sort of ideological extremism.
Guernica: It seems that the principles of permaculture were drawing on and developing previous ideas of sustainability and self-reliance. What were some of permaculture’s historical influences?
David Holmgren: I see permaculture as being part of a big modern wave that got going in the 1970s, but which built on work done in the 1930s—and before that, especially in the Australian context, the 1870s to 1890s. The idea of sustainability and self-reliance is often linked with unstable economic times: during the 1890s there was the first great global depression, then there was a lull until the 1930s, and then another up until the early 1970s.
The Limits To Growth report in 1972, which coincided with the 1973 oil shock, was a huge influence on us, given it talked about how population growth wasn’t sustainable when there are finite energy resources. E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 book, Small is Beautiful, was another big influence on our permaculture principles, particularly the idea of small and slow solutions. The seed Bill sowed was thinking, if in nature some sort of a forest is the most efficient and optimal ecology, why doesn’t our agriculture function like a forest?
But of course permaculture has always had a larger context as well—it is about permanent agriculture underpinning permanent culture. So there’s a tension there between whether permaculture is about agriculture or whether it’s about everything that humans do. But if you understand it from an ecological or sustainability perspective, agriculture is the primary way we meet most of our needs, and it’s the greatest form of human intervention on our environment. It has intimately shaped our culture as powerfully as industrial modernity, but for ten thousand years rather than two hundred. It’s so central to what people call culture, but the modern thinking is still, “Oh, it’s just this little thing that happens over there that 2 percent of the population is involved in.” Bill Mollison and I understood that sustainable, healthy agriculture was the foundation of sustainable, healthy culture.
Guernica: Was there a strong political desire to reinstate this view at the time, that agriculture, culture, and sustainable growth are intrinsically connected?
David Holmgren: During the ’70s there was a sense that the whole industrial growth project was under threat. Many of us believed that The Limits To Growth report would lead to rapid and radical change across society, particularly because of expensive energy resources, the cost of food, and so on. And this would be circumvented by what economically is called a disintermediation, which just means becoming more self-reliant. It’s a simplifying and downsizing of society that would automatically make agriculture more central to life.
Instead, in the 80s, real economic growth shifted onto fake credit-based growth under Thatcher and Reagan. The irony is that we thought markets were more intelligent than they really were. But in reality the high-energy cost stimulated a huge amount of new resource exploration. Petro-dollars were being cycled back through the World Bank and the IMF, back through third world countries to develop their own resources, which then crashed the price of copper and to other commodities. Suddenly there was all this wealth, and the people out there doing the self-reliance thing, battling kangaroos and cockatoos, noticed that their friends had gone and become millionaires. These larger geo-political and economic cycles had a direct impact on all those working on self-reliance. People perceived the failures of that time as their own failures.
Guernica: It seems that because of some of these failures during the 1980s, there was a distinct shift towards a more specific idea of permaculture, which was far more focused on how you could enact these broad principles in a physical way.
David Holmgren: Since 1976, I had been advocating to people in the permaculture movement that there should be working demonstration sites, rather than just us trying to convince people of ideas. I felt the weak link in permaculture was the lack of living examples. And there was too much of a focus on communicating the word, the idea of the campaign and the ideology, rather than concepts embedded in practice. I thought if this was a good idea, we should be able to apply it to ourselves as guinea pigs and do something with it, rather than just tell other people what they should do.
Guernica: Were there permaculture principles that didn’t work as well as you’d hoped?
David Holmgren: There were quite a few things. A lot of the applications of permaculture on a small-scale garden and domestic level didn’t necessarily relate to what you could do with broad agriculture landscapes. I also had a more sober attitude to the potential of tree crops—things like nut trees, which are actually pretty particular about soil—to colonize the harsh and degraded ancient soils of places like Australia. People were buying up the cheapest land in the middle of nowhere, so the experiments were happening in some of the hardest places. This was partly hubris, that we can tame these harsh difficult places, but it was also because all the good land was occupied by large-scale industrial monoculture. A lot of the examples we’d relied on were in places that were geologically young, compared to Australia.
Guernica: A lot of people have the impression that permaculture is trying to become part of nature or remove the human figure from nature. Is the aim of permaculture to reduce this human influence as much as possible, in order to let the systems of nature take over, or does there still need to be a level of human control?
David Holmgren: Permaculture was really focused on reducing the amount of control and manipulation that comes with rampant industrialization. But when compared with the lifestyle of modern couch potatoes, permaculture still requires engaged, physical hard work and manipulation in order to keep a system in a particular state. Yes, the idea was that it would develop a greater degree of self-regulation with positive and negative feedback loops, but humans are still a part of that system. It’s more about the manipulation and modification being modest in scale and scope, using the design rules that apply in nature. The whole principle of having to work with nature, rather than fight against it, is not just an ethical restraint. It’s also about realizing you’re not the one in control. Nature is not only a nurturer but also a great destroyer.
Guernica: I recently read an essay by the poet Mary Ruefle called “On Fear,” and she made a similar suggestion: that humans need to be more afraid of nature, that we’ve become too complacent in our position of perceived power.
David Holmgren: That’s part of a shift that I’ve seen in modern environmentalism, it’s moving away from the idea of nature being a passive maiden that needs to be nurtured and assisted. Permaculture has always been predicated on a long-term relationship with nature, with the inference that if we don’t keep ourselves in order, then we’ll get squashed.
That was not unique to permaculture; it was part of the shared understandings that were emerging in the ’70s. But the savagery of the ’80s and the rise of neoliberalism distorted environmentalism in many ways. Some ideas need to be continually reinvented and rediscovered, particularly an idea like the omnipotence of humans. It takes a long time to give up.
Guernica: Are we at a turning point?
David Holmgren: I think we’re on the edge of a precipice. We’ve already been suffering the huge shocks of the energy and climate crisis—for numerological neatness, the start of the millennium was pretty much when the crisis was really starting to accelerate. The evidence on climate change now is way beyond what even the most alarmist scientists were saying a decade or two ago. I think it’s very clear that the rising cost of energy and inequality, along with bubble economics, were the primary reasons the global economy fell in a heap in 2008, and it was only through a massive creation of extra debt with free money that it stopped. But I thought the 1987 stock market crash was the end of bubble economics, so I’ve been wrong before!
Guernica: With climate change, people have a strong tendency to not want to engage with it, or to deny that their day-to-day living needs to change in any dramatic way.
David Holmgren: I’m under no illusion that the future will be a neat and tidy or desirable world. We will gain a lot of things through necessity and a lot of them through all sorts of fragile dysfunction—not because they’re bad ideas but because they will inevitably be adopted in a chaotic, reactive way. I think permaculture will become much stronger and more significant because the ideas behind it will grow rapidly as the system becomes more fragile.
If you give up on trying to change larger structures and just go off on what some would say is a personal indulgence or being a survivalist, it can be seen as incredibly negative or pessimistic. But the other way to think of it is this: through manifesting the way we live and acting as if it’s normal, you’re defending yourself against depression and dysfunction, but you’re also providing a model that others can copy. And that is absolutely about bringing large-scale change.
Guernica: What advice do you have for people who, like me, are very concerned about the environment and their own contribution to climate change, but live predominantly in cities, renting, with limited access to land, and often have a low income? What do the principles of permaculture have to offer us?
David Holmgren: Part of my upcoming book, RetroSuburbia, is concerned with finding ways to work with property owners, allowing you to bypass real estate agents. While you may not be able to gain so-called security of tenure, there are ways of developing working relationships with people who do have their names on those funny bits of paper called title documents. It may not be secure in the long term, but what you learn through using other people’s land, other people’s capital, and other people’s tools is often far more valuable.
A lot of people do get stuck on the idea that they can’t pour energy into something unless they own it. Given the current situation, property ownership is getting more and more unlikely. And it is not the essential part. If you’re able to roll with adaption, and build the skill base of being a really useful person, there are so many more opportunities. And that’s a skill for the future, because that’s what the world is going to be like.