David Holmgren’s Permaculture Revolution

“Some people describe permaculture as revolution disguised as gardening”, co-founder of the movement David Holmgren tells me down the phone from somewhere deep in the Victorian bush. He reckons the innocuous perception of gardening might just be one of the reasons the permaculture movement – it’s concepts and ideas deeply challenging to existing economic and political structures – has stuck around for the last forty years. “What could be revolutionary about gardening?” David asks with a chuckle. Plenty in fact, as he and I both know.

In 1978, aged just 23, David Holmgren and a teacher at the University of Tasmania, Bill Mollison coined the term Permaculture. Based around three core tenets – care of the earth, care of people, and return of surplus – permaculture is an ecologically based design system for sustainable human living. When the pair initially coined the term it was a mash up of permanent agriculture, but has since evolved to refer also to permanent culture.

Over the last 40 years the seeds of Holmgren and Mollison’s ideas have grown into a global movement that has touched millions of lives and provides an alternative framework for individuals to interact with each other and the earth. Thousands of projects have been implemented locally and internationally – from small city gardens to farms and large communities. David has spent much of this time teaching, writing and experimenting with permaculture ideas and principles on his property Melliodora with his partner Su Dennett, near Hepburn in Victoria.

It seems gardening is the veil behind which the permaculture movement’s revolutionary ideas continue to simmer, grow and evolve.

The garden at David Holmgren's property, Melliodora.

The concept of permaculture was born of revolution – personally and politically. David lists the 1973 oil crisis, the Club of Rome Limits to Growth report of 1972 and the radical nature of the University of Tasmania’s environmental design course as key influences on the development of the idea. At the time, he was living with his teacher Bill Mollison who was a member of the world’s first green political group, the United Tasmania Group, and a founding member of the Tasmanian Organic Gardening and Farming Society – the first organic organisation in Australia.

On a personal level, David was moving away from a worldview inherited from his political activist parents. He was wandering away from a ‘let’s analyse what’s happening in the world and fight against the bad things that are happening, to a ‘how do we create the world we want now just by living it?’ approach.

The timing was just right. In the late 1970s there was a sense of optimism and interest in environmental issues, which allowed the concept of permaculture to gain traction and thrive.

The emergence of permaculture was not just because Mollison was a charismatic, somewhat confrontationist figure that the media liked or that we had brilliant ideas, it was also the right time,” David says.

The sense of promise and positivity in the air, fuelled by the axing of plans to dam the Franklin River in Tasmania and the subsequent political aftermath, was soon crushed, David tells me. “When the Labour Party won the 1983 election, the environmentalists thought they’d won, that the new world had come,” he says. “It was actually the end of it. Everything went backwards a decade. We lost two decades of awareness of permaculture and associated movements in the 80s and 90s.”

It took until the global financial crisis in 2008 for the movement to gain ground again, David suggests. “Interest in growing food, self-reliance, frugal living, community rather than climbing up the ladder accelerated a lot at that time.” He reckons the movement is now bigger than it was in the late 1970s and early 80s.

David attributes permaculture’s staying power to the somewhat misguided perception that it’s just gardening. “What could be wrong with gardening?” he jokes. “It’s a pleasurable, reasonable and safe thing.” The revolutionary soon emerges from behind the joker: “Being non-threatening is very important in engaging people at times of social conservatism,” he suggests.

The big ideas behind permaculture stretch way beyond backyards and chicken coops, fundamentally challenging the dominant paradigm of work more, earn more and spend more. The brilliance of the movement, however, is that they’re also found right there in the veggie patch, the compost heap and the community garden. They’re accessible, individual choices with potentially revolutionary outcomes. “Even just the idea of ‘let’s grow food for ourselves in the suburbs’, as innocuous as it sounds, is threatening,” David suggests.

You only need 20 percent of people never turning up at Coles and Woolworths for those corporations to go ‘what the hell is going on?’”

He talks of solving the housing crisis by making better use of suburban houses – sharing them, getting out of debt, growing food in backyards, etcetera. These ideas, if acted upon, could lead to less land required for new buildings, stronger community connections, less personal debt, and more efficient use of services like public transport and sewer systems. A win, win. Right? But, according to David ideas like this never arise in public discourse as potential solutions because “the system has a deep intelligence that recognises them as economic treason.” They’re squashed, like a caterpillar on a concrete path.

Rather than fight the system by rallying against what’s wrong, David’s brand of permaculture seems to be more about taking revolutionary tools and ideas and placing them in the hands of individuals, to experiment and learn, and do with them what they wish. It’s less about mass movements and more about smaller, decentralised changes.

“Permaculture is about treating yourself as a guinea pig and saying ‘well, let’s see if the permaculture principles can be applied at a personal and at a household level.’ If we do this, then we achieve one thing – we’ve followed our own ethical paths. If it has turned out successfully, then we’ve also had a good time and have been rewarded. This is different to the activist idea that one’s got to sacrifice oneself for the cause. No, let’s actually reward ourselves. If we succeed and have a good time, other people with their eyes open will look and say ‘I can do that. I don’t need the permission of the government, the bankers, or the technical whizz kids, I can just do it.’”

Melliodora residents.

After 40 years of talkin’ about a revolution, David Holmgren knows a thing or two about communication and human behavior. As is often the case, revolutionary speak is all about framing.

Asking ‘how do we do things that are beneficial for ourselves’ is a much easier way to connect to people than asking ‘How do we stop doing things that adversely affect other things?’ If you achieve the same result, you achieve both.”

He makes it sound so simple, this man. And it is and isn’t. Because most of the changes required are behavioural. “We can see behavioural change as both the simplest thing in the world to change, because we humans are just so incredibly flexible,” David says. “Yet, behaviour often seems like the hardest thing to change.” We discuss this in the context of the western addiction to consumption and resources. “A fat cat given lots of food just lays in the sun getting fatter and fatter and doesn’t do anything, even though it probably knows it would have a much better life if it was out, lean and hunting. We naturally fall into that state,” he suggests.

David Holmgren’s brand of revolution works for me. It’s quiet, personal, grounded in the earth, and transformative. “The important thing is to be leading a life that is contributing to building a better world and minimising harm; doing something that’s the most ethical that’s achievable in a completely mad world. And at the same time, enjoying yourself in a basic way that doesn’t require trashing the planet and exploiting other people,” David tells me as we wind up our conversation.

He does suggest, though, that it’s time to ramp things up a bit. “I think the time is really ripe to boost the revolutionary side of permaculture,” he tells me. “I think a lot of the public are ready for something a bit more radical.”

So, how about that? Revolution disguised as gardening is on the up and up. Of course it is! Tell your friends, tell your neighbours, just don’t tell the big wigs. Let’s surprise them.

David Holmgren has a new book in the pipeline called RetroSuburbia. It’ll be released in early 2018.

All images supplied by Kirsten Bradley of Milkwood Permaculture.

The Melliodora garden in summer.
The lawnmowers of Melliodora