In the fourth episode of Sense-making in a Changing World, I am delighted to welcome David Holmgren, co-originator of permaculture, to explore how permaculture can help us practically navigate these challenging times and create locally resilient communities.
Grab a cuppa and enjoy this wide-ranging conversation. It is always a delight to talk with David!
David lives at his permaculture property, Melliodora in Hepburn, Central Victoria, with his partner Su Dennett. Here’s a video of Melliodora that featured recently on ABC Gardening Australia with Costa Georgiadis.
David’s most recent book is the incredible manual, Retrosuburbia: A Downshifter’s Guide to a Resilient Future. There’s a pay-what-you-feel digital download available too and study materials to work with your local community and an active Retrosuburbia facebook community you can get involved with.
Melliodora publishing is just about to release a their first novel, 470 by Linda Woodrow (more to come on her, next week.
Morag Gamble: Welcome to the sense-making in a Changing World podcast where we explore the kind of thinking we need to navigate a positive way forward.
Morag Gamble: I’m your host Morag Gamble, Permaculture Educator, and Global Ambassador, Filmmaker, Eco villager, Food Forester, Mother, Practivist and all around lover of thinking, communicating and acting regeneratively.
Morag Gamble: For a long time it’s been clear to me that to shift trajectory to a thriving one planet way of life we first need to shift our thinking , the way we perceive ourselves in relation to nature, self, and community is the core. What better way to make sense than to join together with others in open generative conversation.
Morag Gamble: In this podcast I’ll share conversations with my friends and colleagues, people who inspire and challenge me in their ways of thinking, connecting and acting. These wonderful people are thinkers, doers, activists, scholars, writers, leaders, farmers, educators, people whose work informs permaculture and spark the imagination of what a post covered climate, resilient, socially just future could look like. Their ideas and projects help us to make sense in this changing world to compost and digest the ideas and to nurture the fertile ground for new ideas, connections, and actions.
Morag Gamble: It’s my absolute delight to welcome to the show today, David Holmgren. David is the co-originator of permaculture with Bill Mollison. He was the co-author way, way, way back in 1978 of Permaculture 1, the very first book about permaculture, and has since published many books about Permaculture from the Flyway house, a case study in design against bushfire, to these 2002 book which has been translated into many languages and been spread around the world, Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability. He’s written case studies about the property that he and his partner Sue have designed and developed in Central Victoria, Melliodora, and in 2018 he published Retro Suburbia the down shifters guide to a resilient future. Earlier this year I visited David in his property to talk about how permaculture can help us respond to the massive bush fires that Australia had experienced over the summer and we had no idea what was about to come.
Morag Gamble: You’ll find the link to that interview down below. But I wanted to talk to David again to really think about where we are now and how permaculture can help us, as a tool, to make sense of this changing world and to help us collectively move forward. I hope you enjoy this conversation, I always have a fantastic time when I get together and chat with David and please feel free to share this conversation and in fact all the episodes of sense-making in a changing world.
Morag Gamble: So, thank you so much David for joining us on this show today. It’s been a few months since we spoke, I came and filmed at your place back in February and we were talking particularly about permaculture and how it related to the extreme bushfire catastrophe that had just come through and we had no idea what was about to hit us. Since that time the world has gone into lockdown with COVID, so on the back of all of this COVID lockdown, the bush fires, drought, and then the climate emergency that we’re in all of these things together, I keep coming back to permaculture as being such a practical way that we can respond to this and I’m just wondering whether we might be able to explore that a little bit about how you see permaculture really helping families, particularly families now that where we are around the world become far more home-based and garden based more than we’d ever possibly imagined that somehow your work, I think, with Retro Suburbia in particular has just become absolutely so much more relevant and visible to where people are at right now and, where do you think we need to be heading or how do you think permaculture can help us navigate these really challenging times?
David Holmgren: Yeah, well I suppose I’ve, over the years, had various points of urgency about some sort of communication work in relation to permaculture and I suppose when I started coming back into the permaculture movement through teaching permaculture design courses a decade after Bill Mollison started those in the early 80s and I started teaching in early 90s and then as we approached the amount millennium when released my book Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability and then again in 2018 with publishing Retro Suburbia, that sense of the world changing and needing to get ideas not just out, but people are being influenced by those and making positive changes built on the ones they were already doing whether that was from permaculture influenced or in other ways. I had a real sense over the last few years of crises that would fold in on people or and I knew enough about through my future scenarios work but it’s very hard to say what those will be, but the underlying systemic conditions of the civilization which is built on an unsustainable premise we’re going in some way or other bringing those crises back home to people in affluent countries, in our suburbs, and cities and to me the looming one was the insanely largest freight and property bubble seemed the more likely immediate proximate effect then either geopolitical, or people, or climate disasters.
David Holmgren: We knew climate disasters were increasing, but inevitably even something as catastrophic and extensive as the bush fires that for so many people on the East Coast felt like the whole world was burning is still in a sense a localized disaster. Whereas the pandemic has been sort of everywhere and so like finance and like some of those larger structural things and because of its immediacy and the sort of existential threat it’s remarkable how people’s behavior has changed but also how governments have changed from a position of “Oh, oh we’re the government!”, “Oh markets don’t fix these things”, “Oh, we have to do something”.
David Holmgren: So, so many illusions that have been predominant over the last three or four decades and one of those that the market provides all answers have been smashed and I think at a more domestic level the idea that life and all the good things in life are sort of somehow we get through the monetary economy and that then totally supports combined with debt, some little sort of shriveled up version of homes compared with how our forebears lived where home was a rich and diverse place not rich in a material sense, but so many people living together doing things in the household and the community non-monetary economy. So as people have been thrown back through isolation, through job loss, through various aspects of the pandemic in their home space some have found it very dismal, very sort of like a prison, very lacking and others have found oh here is the opportunities to do so many things that they’d maybe thought about but had never had the time or never seen the priority and of course the dramatic one that we’re all aware of is how so many people have become food producers or scaled-up what they’re already doing in that domain.
David Holmgren: So permaculture, I suppose as an agent of positive influence over four decades in Australia, is sort of in the background of so many people’s sort of` concept of possibilities and I think that’s been an incredible positive influence on people making changes at home to make themselves more resilient to uncertainty, and shocks, and challenges but also just the boot in the bum like perhaps a drug addict needs from some sort of crisis to go, “Oh, we need to change”, so I think that’s been big positive change that’s come through what is inevitably sort of difficult time
Morag Gamble: Yeah, I mean it feels like you’re saying that the key to make it happen like people know about it and I think like a saying there’s a sense about what permaculture isn’t that there’s another way that we could actually be moving forward but actually getting the shift from the consumer way of life or from you know the dance or the type of that way to this to what you described in Retro Suburbia and what’s described in most of the permaculture work. How do you make that leap and think that’s it’s taken this crisis to create that leap at this point but from now? So the doors been opened or the lids being lifted in and this is new awareness, how do we continue to encourage people to either move towards this in an ongoing way or to actually take this opportunity now and to continue rather than just to have this idea that we can snap back to normal, like there is no normal anymore, there’s not gonna be a going back, that normal has changed, but how can we make sure that we weave in the permaculture way I suppose more visibly and give people more of an opportunity to actually find their way into this, like have you got any ideas on that?
David Holmgren: Yeah, well I think it’s a bit too broad levels. The change in the in the collective mindset of what is the story and what is the options mean there’s a possibility of extending the ideas to a much wider audience, it’s that classic thing of the group of people who are into something even in some sort of sub-cultural sense and some notion of mainstream so this is those opportunities start to open up more easily but perhaps even more important than that is the role of consolidating where there already is interest.
David Holmgren: So for example with food growing and so many people can see that home food growing is a good thing to do but the process of doing it is very site and situation specific and involves skill and persistence and involves dependence on the cycle of the seasons which you can’t fast track by throwing more resources at it. So I think as Kath Labor’s has pointed out, so many Australians are actually have tried home food production and many more keep trying it but also these people who drop out of doing that and some of that is well it’s just some sort of life change situation and it doesn’t suit their particular situation, but a lot of it is because it’s turned out to be a bit more team neatly complicated that I thought, or I didn’t get the results I’d hoped for, or you know that I first got so getting that resources to keep skilling people up and I think that’s everything from the chat over the fence with the neighbor and you know exchanging seeds and that sort of thing right through to structured online courses and those sorts of things.
David Holmgren: So for example, I’ve just given a promotional blurb to some local colleagues here who wrote a better fruit growing course or professional organic orchardists of narrowing retirement, I have this amazing online courses that people can really get down to nitty-gritty on getting more skill and whether that’s how to prune your apple trees or dealing with brown rotting apricots and ,you know, those nitty-gritty things that take okay here’s a good idea, yeah we can see how it works generally, how do we get better at that. So I think this and of course it’s not just in food growing it’s all aspects right through to sort of controversial issues like, okay, for example wood burning technology is wood; an appropriate sustainable energy source and how much can that be functional in suburbs, and in cities, and people’s experience with things like a rocket stove, a cool technology that a lot of people know about but actually exactly how does it work you know, what does that model really work well, what does these technologies can achieve so you’re not annoying the neighbors and you are actually doing something to reuse local renewable biomass and be more self-reliant. So those sort of is learning the skills, learning what’s relevant, and extending those examples in different ways. I think there’s a big part of the way …
Morag Gamble: Taking it from being, you know, something that we’ve supported or have a nice idea about or but I’m really diving into it in a very practical way and I I also think you know coming back on to what you were saying with Kath’s information that she’s done the research on about as many more people and doing it as they’re kind of falling off the other end but it’s not to say that those people who have done it and stop doing it and completely changed by that experience and something that’s happened by their experience of having a go at it that has either more connected than with their community, with their sees, their source of food, they’re thinking about food in itself, they’re thinking of community of the whole system and maybe connected them in with more localized food system and I think even if it’s a short term exposure to it, that itself is an important thing..
David Holmgren: Yeah, well that’s certainly some of those influences are ones that I wrote about in an essay in 1991 called Gardening as Agriculture and talking about how even the experience of being a home food producer and not that not becoming sort of a regular thing someone does, that experience often makes them a more appreciative customer of local in season produce and tolerant to the cosmetic ups and downs of whether something is perfect rather than the sport brat consumer that our centralized food system as made of most people, which is very difficult for any organic sustainable agriculture to supply without there being enormous exploitation of people and nature to do so.
David Holmgren: So learning to go with the flow of the seasons and the incredible abundance and the sort of things that happen in a community-supported agriculture where you get the abundance, where the fair and not so much, you know when it’s not that appreciation comes from having grown some of your own food and I think the other huge one of course is when people do that at home with children and those children only really need to be just around that, that they are automatically absorbing that especially of course as very young children and even babies more than cranky chip-on-the-shoulder teenagers but people who experience that early and may sort of reject that or think that’s not interesting, of course later in life affect that seed is there and in the right circumstances. We’ve seen a lot of examples with it comes back immediately, so just exposing children to those diverse aspects of self-reliance, do-it-yourself, doing things in there sold in community economy that’s not everything based on money, I think sort of what’s that idea in children’s heads “Oh yeah, there’s other ways to provide for our needs other than earning money” and then that being the source of everything.
Morag Gamble: I think, I was just gonna say, they’re good waitress Suburbia concepts are you talking about which is in a way similar to you know our rural version of that here in the eco-village where it’s not just what you’re doing in your own household – it’s what you’re doing in between the households in an area that in that neighborhood, that relationship, your community economy, your community food growing, and it’s a kind of a level that embraces your household and creates a context for your household to be able to do all those things and to see how you can have those relationships of trading and exchanging and helping and supporting and that actually you can do so much without having to use money at all. I mean, I forget to take my purse when I go to town because I don’t need any money where I am based here, you know, it’s such an interesting way to live and when you grow up in that, with those exchanges, those non-monetary exchanges, those you do it because it’s part of your mutual aid and not because you have to but because you want to because it’s a much more joyful way of having an economy, and it’s a real economy, but it’s just not a monetary one and I think it’s perhaps right growing up feeling that joy in that is really interesting.
David Holmgren: The value that comes with a product or a service like the meaning that what the source is increasingly the thing which is lacking in the centralized economy, so any product or service doesn’t really have any embedded value in that sense because you’ve got no idea who produced it, or where it came from so whether it’s a dining table that you’re sitting, eating at or the way, you know, who made the table and where the wood came from let alone a whole house or whether it’s the food you’re eating. Those connections which of course can be there in the monetary economy when it’s small-scale, when it’s local, when it’s by people who are working in businesses that are actually controlled by a natural person rather than an unnatural person called a corporation those sorts of possibilities of course are there and those monetary economies themselves grow naturally out of where people do things for themselves, and their family, and their community, and get good at it and get better at it, and it actually becomes a livelihood.
David Holmgren: So that natural organic process of sensible monetary economies emerging out of those household and community non-monetary economies is interesting. What you’re saying about in a rural context a lot of people recognize the strengths of possible greater self-reliance at a rural context and often feel that unless they can move to the country with a larger property they can’t do that and what I’ve suggested in Retro Suburbia my whole work is based on it apart from the fact that Suburbia is where most Australians live and most Australians are not going to be able to just by choice or whatever change where they live and our experience has been of course that that is quite a difficult transition and in itself if you don’t have that experience. I found as a consultant to people making the move to the country that if people came from families where there was a background of self-employment or small business they often actually, even if they had no experience of ruler living and farming, they met it better go over because moving to the country was like going into business where you had to take more decisions for yourself.
David Holmgren: Whereas people who grown up in families where money comes in into the bank account you know there’s not a connection between work and actually your sources of sustenance that it is quite challenging this shift how do we do more things for ourselves and the best place for most people to do that is in the territory that they’re familiar with the scale they’re familiar with and for most people that is Suburbia but I think Suburbia also has is a sweet point because apart from the fact that at least on a 500 plus square meter block with a modest house in most Australian climates you can produce a very significant part of the diet of fresh food and in houses where there’s workshops and storage space you can actually have lots of if you like home maintenance, and manufacturing, and tools stuff that is hard to do in high-density apartment living where you depend more definitely on collective resources where those are collectively owned or whether they’re in the market economy and now that suburban scale. So you have some of the elements that we associate with rural self-reliance, but you also have the collective critical mass of people close together within walking and bicycling distance to actually develop those community exchanges without it being dependent on cars and longer distance commuting to find those people.
David Holmgren: Now, of course, that also depends on where are the places where these cells of, if you like retro suburban living start to develop and I think it doesn’t take too many people along that line in a neighborhood or inner street to start to sort of build those possibilities, and those possibilities can then draw in other people over time and of course the opportunities created by the pandemic mean that more people who might not have the ideas but just suddenly “Oh what’s that person doing down the street?” those possibilities are there for creating those critical mass of people that we historically associate with the capacity of cities. So in that sense, Suburbia is that sweet point where the advantages of the rural and the city can come together which was actually of course the original vision when Suburbia started but in a lot of ways it’s become the worst of both possibilities.
Morag Gamble: I grew up in a suburb, I had a brilliant childhood, you know. I grew up on the outskirts of Melbourne, it was a place called Ringwood, and from where I was I could see all the bush and I grew up knowing all the local birds, and the local species, and we had some gardens down the back and some chalks, and I knew everyone up and down the street there actually weren’t many fences in between all of our places and all the kids were out on the street all times and gradually you’d hear people calling out to come in at a certain time and down the bottom of the development was a creek and we go down there and collect the tadpoles, and go on expeditions and it was a wonderful place, my school was down the bottom end of the road.
Morag Gamble: My parents still live there now and they still know many of the people up and down the street. My mum still runs the book club which has been going for, I don’t know 60 years, there’s this great sense of community because I think it was over scale you know a quarter acre blocks there was there was enough space to have nature and food and community and there had reasonable services like schools, and local shops, and local libraries and you know there was the services embedded within it and it had a great sense of place. It was my world for you know 15, 16 years until my concept of the world expanded quite significantly and so I actually agreed …
David Holmgren: Did that provided like a base or a foundation for your later discovery or..?
Morag Gamble: Absolutely, because I had a really deep sense of place I understood, you know, I understood how nature fitted into our world, I understood the deep sense of safety and connection that I felt with that community and that though I knew everyone up and down the street and I felt safe walking up and down the street and I knew who was the builder, who was the person who did, you know, like this the lady down the road was a seamstress, so for me I think my 14th birthday my mum gave me a sewing machine and sewing lesson so I went and learned how to sew with her and there was all these interconnections that were happening up and down the street, my dad still goes and borrows tools from the guy across the road who’s the builder and the relationships form in that way.
Morag Gamble: What’s not there though is any sense of work in terms of monetary work, there’s a lot of non-monetary work and a community connection, but I’m wondering like where do we start to layer this, you know, I could hear you talking about that in what you were saying before and I’m thinking maybe it’s something that we need to really start thinking a lot more particularly as a economic system is in decline, it’s changing rapidly there’s a lot of unemployment now how within the Retro Suburbia system can we be looking at those types of communities or any type of suburban start to think differently about how we work and generate income within as well because as well we can diminish our need for, okay, we still obviously need a nurse and so where does that fit and also particularly from thinking about the young people, thinking about hope, and future, and positivity, and ways of moving forward, and actually like the saying “Building your economy out of those gift economy that exists there” and I think that’s how my livelihood is emerged. I followed my passion and then eventually it became the thing that I just do. I’ve never had a real job, my job is teaching permaculture, and doing permaculture, designing permaculture and it’s my livelihood that’s emerged out of my love of doing that and, how can we lay it that kind of thing on into Retro Suburbia or even just be really practical, I suppose?
David Holmgren: So just going back to the brilliant example that you gave of your own experience growing up, I tried to capture that of course in my Ozzie Street story which charts a typical Australian Street from the 1950s through to the Second Great Depression of the 2020s to show that sort of how we can actually create the best of what existed in the past with new opportunities that exists today and in spite of the huge challenges that range from unaffordable housing to learning climate catastrophe that there are unique opportunities historically about the current situation that allows us to do so much more than was done in his suburbs that you and I grew up in. I think the first one is the way the miniaturization, and of technology, and the networking, and the obvious one of course is information technology and the incredible potential of home based work which didn’t exist when we were young.
David Holmgren: So you and I, and many others, have learned how to be are doing engage in the world from home and it’s amazed me how long it’s taken for society to “Oh, a whole lot of things are directly possible”, “Oh maybe we don’t actually need to commute”, “Oh maybe as a company we don’t need all that office space”, in the city maybe all that traffic isn’t actually as big a problem as we thought it would be, or even the needs are massively expensive city metro networks to allow everyone to commute. So making full use of what is that obvious potential I think is a huge and obvious part, but there’s downsides and risks all of that – of the online digital book world but even when we go back and look at more traditional jobs like manufacturing and I look at my own role as an ecological builder and wood worker and I think of what was required in a joinery workshop to make sophisticated things like a door or windows you know 50 years ago and these huge lives and milling machines and you know very complex big expensive heavy cast-iron equipment that so much about of it is available at a very small scale technology and a lot of people actually even have this stuff sitting in their workshop but in any third-world country people would just with those few tools be making a livelihood out of their garage.
David Holmgren: Now, of course, in an affluent economy like Australia you know there’s a lot more challenges and difficulties and one of the impediments has been also the planning regulations have said this is a residential area you can’t do your business activity but we’ve got the militarization of actually manufacturing technology, we’ve got the complete availability of information technology, and then the third element is we’ve got relative to the past we’ve got huge houses, huge garages, huge spaces with actually very few people living in them and spent very little time in them. That means there’s a huge capacity, unused capacity, if we look at it from a business point of view in the family home and of course without a tax regime that allows people to do that and build great extensions and never be there even if they’re away working paying the debt to sort of pay for it all, it doesn’t need to be used and occupied because that idea that well that’s just home, whether that’s because those privileges of the protection of the family home against government tax and whatever decline or whether it’s people just taking the opportunities, I think there’s huge opportunities, for yet building monetary economies through local livelihoods where people live and that they are completely new opportunities that didn’t exist before.
David Holmgren: So the terrace house that soon I used to rent in Carlton before we moved to Hepburn Springs, I believe in the depression you know there was 16 people living in their Terrace house well we were relatively densely populated in the 80s there with three adults and two children a lot of the terrace houses in that street had one or two people in them. Now if you said to the people in the depression well you need to put twice as many people in the house to get better efficiencies out of the household economy, sorry it’s already full and overcrowded but in our current situation there’s huge opportunities for more people to be living together, or working, coming to work at a place hard time without necessarily that commuting long distances and of course that’s how some of us have been living in permaculture we’ve been modeling this but now I think there’s the possibility of a lot more people living this way.
Morag Gamble: I think so too and I’m really interested as well as their Retro Suburbia model of rethinking the existing suburbs and I had friends who lived in Carlton in some of those streets and what I thought was, just before I go into my next question, it was fantastic cause I actually blocked off some of the streets and those really broad avenues of grass became parks that people would be having picnics in this street and I imagine back then to like what do you actually just took away the roads there in you know in that grid system and half of them just became parks and food forest, automatically you would to be transforming them and it wouldn’t really affect much of the traffic system there anyway because there are all little localized streets it would be a brilliant way to make a shift.
David Holmgren: The spiced residential communities once you start to see the public space in a way other than this is all allocated to cars and that it’s all outsourced to all the council manages that to gain community engagement of course all by Retro Suburbia focuses primarily I have control over the property it spills over of course into beyond the boundaries of management of public land and that redeveloping that in formal community governance of the commons that of course existed for our ancestors but to an extent even existed in the suburbs and certainly in small town like where we live here in Hepburn Springs, all of the public land historically was just managed by the community with sheep and you know other grazing animals and whatever and of course we’ve been in the last 20 or 30 years really developing permaculture versions of that informal management of the community land and I think those sort of models from the more feral fringes of small rural towns where councils don’t have the money anyway to manage or lease land it’s a problem for them, but that those models can progressively move back into the more formally managed neat and tidy suburbs as councils run out of money, you do that management and people don’t want the herbicide or even you know the noisy mowers.
Morag Gamble: I think there’s another set of possibilities with the commons and I’m also thinking to my next part of the question was about taking that it’s not so much retrofitting but thinking about well there’s still so many new suburbs that are being developed. Where are the permaculture people on the table of those? and there was some really fantastic suburbs that I visited in places like Denmark where they have the farm and I also hear that there’s Agri-Suburbia, what they call Agriburbia models like when they look at the whole land they go, okay so we put the farm here this is the best agricultural man we’ll have the farm and then the house is pushed into smaller plots around that and so the commons is a farm, an organic farm, and they actually employ a farmer and then all the waste water and nutrients come from those houses into the farm and then you can either work at this farm to get on the weekend and get a discount box or you can just pay a little bit extra and get a new box, but there’s this sense that the commons in your landscape is around about actually collecting the nutrients, and the waste, and producing your food, and being you know you’ve got shared bees, shared cows, goats, shared chickens, and so it doesn’t have to be either a rural thing or an eco-village thing it could actually be a suburb that is designed from scratch with these principles in place, have you seen the invitation of permaculture people to be on these types of, how can we get them to be on the table maybe?
David Holmgren: Having been a developer of a rural eco-village the fries first village owner on a smaller scale and where you live and having been involved at that scale and then you might work more focusing on retrofitting the suburbs and the view that the crises were coming on us so fast that largely we would be living with the building stock that we’ve already gone and I’ve been on the record as saying actually we’re probably got enough buildings in this country if we really use them and especially when all the dog shampoo services, and excess cafes, and gymnasia businesses go broke and there’s more buildings to retrofit and when people are working from home all those offices, so that in a sense I’ve been a strong advocate for a decade or more that we’re moving into a world of retrofitting what we’ve already got rather than you build, but it’s interesting you say that because of course yes suburbs are still being built and will continue as long as the real estate bubble doesn’t deflate and of course governments will see if it’s the last thing they’ll do they are trying to sort of keep that going because that is actually the driver or more housing is actually needed.
David Holmgren: But in at my own community in Daylesford in hipper and there’s very little land for expansion but there is strong demand for people wanting to come and live in a nice small town and we have some of the best horticultural land in the district, which is sort of in town, that was zoned residential because it’s relatively accessible and close to the services decades ago which is finally being developed and there’s a one proposal now for 50 houses and other land and are being seen is happening and of course there’s tensions in the community over this and I’ve been approached by both the people who are opposing this development taking it to the Appeals Tribunal and by the developer wanting to get a permaculture framework into this development and that it was already had has in the heart of it a co-housing model, which will be important developed by an older women’s residential co-op.
David Holmgren: So this year these amazing possibilities it’s an example of sort of being on that, if you like ethical boundary of how much are you prepared to sort of try and put effort in to make existing development a bit better and how much do you radically sort of reject and resist these inappropriate developments and actually hope for the day when property values are going down and all of this development will come to an end rather than being constrained by environmental regulations. So how can we sort of manage those things and I think there are openings because people are now saying that maybe the potential customers don’t necessarily want to move into a place with black roof houses with no leads to the boundaries of the flock and some there are a bit of public land that the council manages and no space to grow food, that they actually want something different to that and breaking that spell that’s been created and this has been well documented by academics, that a combination of the real estate industry the banks and the big builders have created that template of suburbs – of modern suburbs – as though this is what people want, they don’t, this is what the Bechtold will be the best investment for your money even if it’s a place to live you will be out paying the mortgage on it and hopefully in your dreams you will move to somewhere nicer. You know, so I think of doing something different there’s a lot of interest in there.
Morag Gamble: Yeah, because when you see the marketing of it, you know the big billboards or anything, they showed people walking through natural area or long bike paths with the kids on bikes or at the little local farmers market but they don’t actually show that what the development looks like. So the values that are being expressed are what we’re talking about but the reality of what’s delivered is something quite other, so I think it’s not such a shift to be able to bring in permaculture design a really holistic approach to landscape design, architecture, urban design and development into it a new frame that I think if there’s a few really substantial examples that show a different way it could flip and it’s not to say that either that I support the expansion of you know the major cities, but they are happening in instead of actually them being now still creating these dreadful places that people can’t really live in for, they just dwell, that if there was another way for that could give could spark the imagination and that could then maybe reap reline it and create a different …
Morag Gamble: I don’t think we can’t see that there’s other alternative unless we see examples of something that’s working in unreal, so part of what I can see where we needed to go at the moment is in this storytelling and this is what you do a lot with your Ossie Street I know and so it’s helping to create a new narrative about what it is to live in a suburb or a city and not to just reject it outright and say, I know if you’re gonna believe this sustain my life you have to go out to the country that’s absolute rubbish. We know that that there are wherever we are, we can be making significant changes and embedding deep more deeply into our community and place and so helping to tell new stories and that’s kind of where you’re going to in your publishing world at the moment too, isn’t it?
David Holmgren: It’s interesting, the Ossie Street, which is of course a fictional chapter in Rhett recipe itself but started out as a presentation that I’ve been doing now for many many years, it’s really a sort of a permaculture soap opera of what happens in the street, the good and the bad, and really telling that story in a positive empowering way. I found it was the most powerful presentation I’ve ever done of all the different lectures and presentations I’ve done and it allowed me to deal with very challenging, difficult, threatening futures through humor and storytelling where people can look at the story and get something from it rather than you know closing off old that’s like completely frightening, or not what relates to my own experience so dealing with the issues of legality, and neighborhood conflict, and what are the processes by which we move to self-governance, and being able to tell any explore those stories as really for me brought out that very important part that is being part of this general societal rediscovery of storytelling and of course in our publishing business which has gone from just self-publishing of my own books to progressively I think that the first one we did was the permaculture pioneers for which you had a chapter in stories of for Australian permaculture activists and how that shaped their lives.
David Holmgren: That was the first book which wasn’t just my own writings and we’ve done several books now by other people, and colleagues and we got sent this manuscript by permaculture teacher and writer, Linda Woodrow, whose book of course influenced many people the permaculture. Her garden book and her novel and it’s in the Cli-Fi genre of a near future climate change disaster set in northern New South Wales in the region where she lives and a fantastic ripping yarn and all of us involved in Melliodora publishing. When we read it, we said we’ve got to publish that book because it was so fantastic and this way of exploring, not just how climate change realities actually express themselves in a sort of way, they unfold very like with the bush fires that have just happened but the personal stories and the way people adapt, and brought down, or come into their own power and the characters in the story and also an amazing connection through family lineage that which is actually back to Melbourne from this connection between Northern New South Wales and Melbourne and really charting the ideas of the counterculture, the back-to-the-land movement, and implicitly permaculture how their influences over three generations all set in only two years, it’s a future.
David Holmgren: So that book, I think, is also been not just like any good author of fiction researchers so that there is the background facts are provide sort of real substance to the story. Linda is a course drawn on her own extensive experience to sort of give that concrete reality of the nitty-gritty of what those people are actually doing. How they grow food, how something gets fixed, how they work in community governance so although permaculture is sort of barely mentioned in the book it’s all through the whole book and so I think those stories are very important as part of how do we see models for facing challenging futures and seeing the positives and how to navigate those challenges.
Morag Gamble: Yeah, oh gosh, and I hope there’s many more stories like, I can’t wait to read it. When is it coming out? Is that coming out soon?
David Holmgren: Very soon. It’s gonna be hot off the press in a week or so, having a digital launch with Linda and then I think she will probably be doing a small local launch in the Northern Rivers region as well but one of the things I know she is wanting to do with the website will be to actually put her own research and evidence, not just about the climate science who which she knows a lot about that side of things, but all of the practical technologies and things that people actually do in this story and because that’s part of, okay you know are those things that some readers might be interested in further exploring?
Morag Gamble: I think it’s such a powerful way to share through story and also through film, I think there was a film that you were talking about to me early before we started recording that there’s come out as well. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
David Holmgren: It’s involved in quite a few documentaries related to permaculture in recent years ,but this one by two Belgian filmmakers who had a connection to Australia really starting with the climate activism youths, the kids on the street in Brussels and that do we have a future? What is happening to the world? all of that story and then that being connected both locally to permaculture farms, and environmental education, and other projects that are happening in those areas where those students live but then the filmmakers coming out to Australia and interviewing myself and another local, Patrick Jones, and right through to luminary influences on permaculture Ellen Yeomans, the son of PA Yeomans, talking about climate, the crisis, and the positive futures and it literally involved questions from on some of these directly to us and very quirky and amazing brilliant documentary making those connections between across the planet and across the generations.
David Holmgren: So I was sort of quite skeptical whether this sort of rural Australian sort of themes of solutions would, you know, connect to young urban school kids in Brussels of the way they filmmakers decided to put this together, but I think it comes together incredibly well.
Morag Gamble: What was the title of the film?
David Holmgren: We have time.
Morag Gamble: That’s a really good title actually because it, you know, we’re constantly having this sense that we’re run out of time. It’s like we have time it’s kind of really hot positive and hopeful thing and I love the way that it’s connecting like you’re saying across the planet but also across the generations and I’m definitely going to link the our emerging permute global youth network in with this and use it as one of the things that they, they’ve just finished working their way through all the principles and they’re writing songs, and poetry, and doing artwork, and they’re starting it by a YouTube channel and I think it’s really important for them to also see it’s exciting group to be involved in because it’s kind of that age they’ve come through where they’re not young kids anymore, but they’re not adults either.
Morag Gamble: This it’s on that edge and they’re kind of asking lots of big questions about what’s going on in this world. Why is it got to this point? What is the future for us? What does it hold? We just see so many things collapsing around us and where’s that where’s a place for us? Where, you know, when we were growing up there were so many different possibilities when we were facing lots of crises then too, I mean I think that’s what drove me to be involved, it was the Franklin dam. There was the Chernobyl crisis, there was like so many different crises which led me to take the permaculture route of finding positive way forward and address those entire but through creating a different way so to really bring to the fore, I think permaculture now in a way that speaks to the teenagers. I think is such an important role that we can play to kind of unlock the potential for them but also to share this vast knowledge that’s in you, that’s in all these different people around the world who’ve been living it for decades and who thinking it through and have experimented with different technologies, and ways, and ideas, and that’s not getting passed down through the school system
Morag Gamble: It’s not getting passed down in any way except if they have conversation I’m really interested in how we can not just have it as a friend thing or a couple people learning. How can we actually share that a lot more so that young people have a sense that they can deepen their Ecoliteracy, deepen their design thinking skills, deepen you know their understanding of this way not just wait until they get to be disgruntled, gone through university, started working talk “Hang on it there’s something else, this is not the way forward”.
David Holmgren: I think another example of that use of the creative arts in extending permaculture to young people of course has been incredible work of Charlie McGee and formidable vegetable and I believe today they are actually at Glastonbury after they said they weren’t flying anymore and not going to Glastonbury Festival but they’re there digitally, virtually since blessed and brew festivals not happening of seeds. That extension of permaculture thinking of the sort of complex systemic thinking but behind permaculture in design principles and ethics that music has been incredible and give understanding out there in different forms like we said with they’re storytelling, in fact I’ve said that challenge as music is pet that spec perhaps sits alongside the permaculture design course itself as like an enormous mechanism which has extended these ideas and his new partnership with permaculture illustrator, Brenna Quinlan, and the work that they’re doing taking a lot of this stuff actually back down the years from teenagers and young adults to young children in school programs and a lot of their recent music which is sort of written for primary school-aged kids, but still the same fantastic music and ways that help kids who are also part of families pushing the boundaries into this new territory owning that subculture in the same way that ethnic and indigenous communities are learning to own their own culture and say, no this is actually a positive thing that I am growing up with rather than that industrial modernity which always seeks to diminish and demonize and make irrelevant whatever local knowledge from family from context and of course it’s the way of the colonization of people.
David Holmgren: So reversing process for example Charlie’s song, My Dad’s Danny, and about a compiler it’s really appealing to kids who might have actually have grown up in a place where there’s a compost toilet and feeling very embarrassed or phobic about bringing their friends home or that thing of reversing that of showing how positive these things are so those types of artistic endeavors, I think are incredibly important and the results in schools with teachers looking for what’s the next level of better staff in environmental education that we can be doing of being lapping it up even though they said sometimes the kids are for Charlie McGee visit.
Morag Gamble: It’s fantastic, I guess we’ve been talking for a really long time and I’d love to keep on talking but I know you probably got things to get on and doing your day but before we close I know that you’ve released, is that all of your book or a part of your Retro Suburbia book online? Do you want to tell us a bit about how people can access that?
David Holmgren: Because the book is 2 kilos, yeah it’s you know 600 pages. It’s sort of a life manual and you don’t want to fall asleep reading it in bed because you might get a bruise on your nose and it’s $85, which a lot of people said is the best $85 they’ve ever spent, but we’ve released the book in an online format on a pay what you feel basis so that means it’s actually accessible to people who don’t have money and we’ve had people pay a few dollars for it and we’ve had people who said they want to support this and have paid the full price of the book or even in some cases even more. So that this was a complete experiment we did and what’s happened is at the same time sales of books through the pandemic have massively increased, so it’s actually worked but it’s also been a whole much more than just a digital book. Because it’s actually just a platform for whole community information and we’ve got a lot of people working very hard to sort of like answering all questions that come so it’s really becoming a platform for Retro Suburbia education.
Morag Gamble: Yeah, and you have study circle material, study group materials as well don’t you?
David Holmgren: Yeah, yes there’s a lot of resources on the Retro Suburbia website year for book clubs and study circles and progressively we’re sort of adding more information to there that complement what’s in the book.
Morag Gamble: So this could be a really great way for people who wanted to start a Retro Suburbia movement in their local community to get the book? I know those people have even got sets of books and distribute them in their community and started to register, go be a book club, and then you know that everyone’s kind of on the same page they look at things together and then start to implement things locally.
David Holmgren: It’s just really three books in one year. The built on building physical technology staff, the biological, the gardening, and backyard animals and all of that, and then in the biggest feel really the behavioral, all the way we live and organize. So it covers a great spectrum and people have found that book clubs and discussion groups where they look at a chapter and then come and discuss how is that relevant to us and certainly our distribution partnerships through permaculture principles, run by Richard Telford and our son Oliver Haan grain, that actually also allows through their management of the Melliodora publishing wholesale that anyone can get the bookshop discount and buy yes what are you for those sort of discussion groups and a lot of people have done that and are quite surprised the discounts they can get by just getting together and buying books and in the same way that we’ve encouraged a lot of permaculture teachers and people running courses to that sort of collective purchase and building those sorts of things into course formats.
Morag Gamble: So I heard that you were teaching retro Suburbia trainers as well pre-k. Is that something that you continue doing or maybe going online doing possibly?
David Holmgren: Yeah well we’re just looking at whether that will go online or maybe can continue after COVID, but that’s mainly been done by, Beck Lowe, the editor of the book and of course she’s one of the most experienced permaculture teachers in the country and we’ve worked together very closely apart from the book and she, probably more than who else, knows the material inside out and as diverse and a great experience in developing permaculture curricular material for this trainers who might want to do that and run Retro Suburbia workshops formally right through to people who just want to have a kitchen table discussion with neighbors and stuff.
Morag Gamble: So if a lot of people should get in touch with you, maybe I can put some links down below of how they’d like to start up a book club, do some Retro Suburbia facilitator training all that kind of thing we can put all those links below and also to the novel which is called, 4:17, and they can download Retro Suburbia from as well all those things. We’ll put all of that in the description box.
David Holmgren: More like the Retro Suburbia community Facebook page, I’m not really on social media rooms don’t do that side of things but many Oldman in the office here is there have been managing the growth of that over the last two years to 5000 active people and then in one month that we do over 10,000 people on the retro server via Facebook community. So a lot of exchange and an interesting and including debate happening about controversial subjects like, I looked at one that’s pretty a passion for me, about wood burning and there was a hundred and twenty seven comments about something that had been put up about wood smoke in urban areas so both tips and exchange of information and who’s in areas but also sensible debate about issues.
Morag Gamble: It’s good to have a lively debate about that, isn’t it? We need to sort of unpick some of the ideas we have about things too began to get to the heart of it and to find our way forward differently so that’s great. Well, thank you so much David. It’s been an absolute pleasure chatting with you this morning and I’m really looking forward to continuing talking with you over the coming months as the next book comes out, maybe we could…
David Holmgren: I’m always supportive of the work you’re doing. I think its fantastic being with your hands in the soil and all of your work online. You’ve been such a fantastic ambassador for political culture all these years, so keep up the good work.
Morag Gamble: All right, thank you so much again. It’s been a pleasure and I’ll talk to you again soon. All right, take care.
Morag Gamble: So thanks for tuning into the sense-making in a changing world podcast today, it’s been a real pleasure to have your company. I invite you to subscribe and receive notification of each new weekly episode with more wonderful, stories, ideas, inspiration, and common sense for living and working regeneratively and call positive permaculture, thinking, and design into action in this changing world. I’m including a transcript below and a link also to my four-part permaculture series, really looking at what is permaculture and how to make it your livelihood too. So join me again in the next episode where we talk with another fascinating guest. I look forward to seeing you there.
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Thanks for tuning into my podcast today, SENSE-MAKING IN A CHANGING WORLD. It has been a pleasure to have your company. I invite you to subscribe (via your favorite podcast app like iTunes) and receive notification of each new weekly episode. Please also feel free to share.
Each Wednesday I will share more wonderful stories, ideas, inspiration, and common sense for living and working regeneratively. Positive permaculture thinking, design, and action are so needed in this changing world.
What is permaculture?
Take a look at my free 4 part permaculture series or Our Permaculture Life Youtube and my permaculture blog too. For an introduction to permaculture online course, I recommend The Incredible Edible Garden course. Become a permaculture educator (Permaculture Design Certificate and Permaculture Teacher Certificate) through our Permaculture Educators Program, and involve your young people in permaculture through Permayouth (11-16yos)
Please support our permaculture work with refugee children, the Permayouth, by donating to our registered permaculture charity The Ethos Foundation. Every dollar goes directly to support these young people.
Photo of David Holmgren: Jesse Graham
I acknowledge the Traditional owners of the land from which I am broadcasting, the Gubbi Gubbi people, and pay my respects to their elders past present, and emerging.
Thank you to Kim Kirkman (Harp) and Mick Thatcher (Guitar) for donating this piece from their album Spirit Rider