Dumbo Feather

DAVID HOLMGREN RETROFITS THE STREETS

SUBJECT

David Holmgren

OCCUPATION

Permaculture educator

INTERVIEWER

Nathan Scolaro

PHOTOGRAPHER

Brenna Quinlan

LOCATION

Hepburn, Australia

DATE

April, 2020

One of the great legends of our time, David Holmgren is best known as the co-originator of permaculture, which he introduced to the world with his good friend Bill Mollison in 1978. Together, they developed a design system for living with the land based on ecological principles, generating one of the most important farming and gardening movements in history. Permaculture is applied to small- and large-scale land projects in the most privileged and destitute parts of the world, and has been referred to as “Australia’s most significant intellectual export.” Meaning “permanent culture,” it is based on 12 key principles, including “integrate rather than separate,” “observe and interact” and “use and value diversity”—principles which are now being used in organisational and systems design around the world.

Some time ago, David began shifting his strategic focus to how we retrofit our suburbs, so that they are productive and resilient for what he calls an “energy descent future.” The work has culminated in the bestselling manual, RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future, which is full of information and practical ideas for people to bring into their households and neighbourhoods. Flicking through its pages and speaking with David after a month of lockdown felt like the best kind of medicine. Suddenly I had affirmation and direction for making more of the domestic space, and valuing it as vital life-force. As I’ve oriented back to the home and local sphere these past few months, the pull of consumer culture has weakened, and what’s real and meaningful has gradually become more apparent. David’s invitation is for us to build our economies from that place, from what’s essential, utilising resources we are proximate to, learning skills that help us live well and working in rhythm with our natural ecosystems.

NATHAN SCOLARO: How are you processing everything that’s happening in the world right now? Most of us have done at least one month of isolation now, we’re living very differently as a result of the pandemic. Permaculture and home-based economics seems more relevant than ever!

DAVID HOLMGREN: Well yeah, for me being home-based is pretty normal! But I am feeling enormously energised and have a sense that oh, this is almost what my whole life has been for. I mean, when you live against the current of society, both from an ethical point of a view and a lifestyle point of view, and with a commitment to resilience and the future, all of those choices are understood to a degree within a limited social circle. They haven’t been at the core of important things for the mainstream. And then suddenly, all of these ideas and approaches—building a rich and diverse household environment—suddenly they are of utmost importance, and are considered an enormous privilege. So here I am feeling this enormous privilege, but also feeling it’s really an expression of what we’ve been on about for the last 40 years!

Well that’s it. So has the work felt like preparedness for a time like this? Or has it always been about how we needed to be living, and how you’ve wanted to live essentially?

So there have been four underlying factors. There’s the maths of equity in the world, knowing what and how much natural capital is genuinely available to support an individual lifestyle on this planet. Then there’s, you know, these days they’d be on their iPhones! Well the commuters are not there now! And I remember saying to myself, “I am never, ever going to live like this. Never going to be a commuter, where you get up in the morning and go somewhere else to be a part of society, to be a real person, en masse. I am going to organise my life in a way that I don’t do that.” I knew the limits to growth meant that that had to go, the pointless moving. And of course that was all before the Internet and all the tools we now have. Back in ’94 I did a presentation at a European permaculture convergence; my theme was “Permaculture as aid for the first world.” And in that, I discussed how permaculture could lure people away from their addictive behaviours to something which was actually better for them. Addiction is obviously a real problem when you’re trying to move to a world of less—people’s natural instinct is towards more! So to feel that that way of life is a better way to live, you actually need a first-hand experience of it being a better way to live. The fourth reason is resilience: a serious assessment of all these systemic risks that were just building to more and more problems. Of course what is amazing is how the affluent world has managed to push those threats into the future and displace them onto the poorest people in the world. The greatest of those has been the financialisation of the economy, and debt burden. One of the most frustrating things, looking back at my work, was that it barely acknowledged the pandemic threat. I think it’s a one-sentence acknowledgement in as part of the population problem, you know, that went along with the financial stuff and biodiversity loss. I was saying the really big drivers are essentially peak oil and climate change.

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