CREATING PERMANENT CULTURE > interview with DAVID HOLMGREN

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The Permaculture Flower Adam Grubb from Energy Bulletin interviews David Holmgren, co-originator of Permaculture, on the future of agriculture, oil peak and how an energy descent culture might look. Could you please give us your definition of permaculture and tell us a little bit about your role in it's creation and evolution? DH> Permaculture is a design system for sustainable living and land use. It came out of awareness about the limits of resources, especially the energy crises of the 1970's. It started looking at the redesign of agriculture using ecological principles., but it extended out from that to the redesign of the whole of society using those principals. The foundation text was `Permacuture One' which was published in 1978, a joint work between myself and Bill Mollison when I was a student in environmental design in Tasmania. Since then permaculture has spread around the world as a grassroots movement of activists and designers, teachers and land managers - both gardeners and farmers. It's also connected into a very broad range of sustainable alternatives in sustainable building, alternative currency, ideas, eco-villages --- many diverse areas. The biggest development of permaculture applications was then Bill Mollison's Designers Manual, which he published in 1988. And then more recently my new book - Permaculture Principles --- has taken those ideas to a broader frame of reference, away from just land management to practical issues dealing with the underlying links to resource limits, especially energy peak. What exactly is the `energy peak'? What do you mean when you employ that phrase? DH> Well, my understanding of that comes from both an awareness of the ideas of limits to non-renewable resources and the early predictions on some of those, especially the Club of Rome limits to growth report in 1972. Which in a way, has gone down in public intellectual mythology as being failed, you know - that they got it wrong --- when in fact it was remarkably on track. But more recently the work of Colin Campbell and other retired, independent oil geologists identified the fact that the numbers behind oil - arguably the most important set of numbers in the world, are in fact, largely garbage. They discovered that once you're halfway through a resource, the decline in the availability means that is the most critical point, not when you run out. The critical peak that we're reaching now is in relation to what's called conventional oil. Further peaks are to come in world gas supplies that are the really important ones. Generally an energy peak is a cluster of different resources that peak and then decline. What kind of role does your vision of permaculture play in that scenario? DH> Well, permaculture, as I've said in the book --- in a world of constantly rising energy and resultant affluence, permaculture is always going to be restricted to a small number of people who are committed to those ideals which have some sort of ethical or moral pursuit. It's always going to be a fringe thing. Whereas in a world of decreasing energy, permaculture provides the best available framework for redesigning the whole way we think, the way we act, and the way we design new strategies. It doesn't mean to say that everyone's going to have a vegetable garden or some other permaculture technique. But the thinking behind permaculture is really based on this idea of reducing that energy availability and how you work with that in a creative way. That requires a complete overturning of a lot of our inherited culture. What about within the broader environmental movement --- do you have a problem getting this awareness about limits to growth back in that arena? DH> Well, a lot of the current environmental activism is based on a bedrock foundation of the limits of climate and the Greenhouse effect. The energy peak arguments are the insight of the first wave of environmentalists of the late 1970's coming back to the fore, but folding in and combining wit the insight from the second wave from the late 1980's, which is all Greenhouse driven. I think that broadly, the same sort of strategies make sense whether you're looking at it from a Greenhouse agenda or from an energy peak agenda. But there's also blindspots that come with that awareness. Greenhouse has meant that there has perhaps been an over focus on fossil fuels being a bad thing, a primitive form of energy that we need to get past. Whereas what the insights relating to energy peak say is that no, fossil fuels are an incredibly good source of energy, but we've wasted it. To some extent they're mutually reinforcing arguments, and in other ways it's also a difference. The need to recognise the way in which fossil fuels are really the power that create the good and the bad things in society is really important. The Future of Suburbia What do you imagine for the future of suburbia? DH> I think it's a mixed message. There tends to be a view that suburban development - spread out cities --- are a product of the motorcar and cheap energy. And although that's true, the suburban landscapes are no denser in human settlement than some of the denser agricultural landscapes in the world. Now admittedly people living in those suburbs consume far more resources in total than people who lived in those densely settled agricultural landscapes. Somewhere like the Red River Delta in Vietnam has a higher density of people living more or less totally self sufficient off that land than say, Australian suburbs. Of course they're very special environments, they're all fed by integrated water systems, it's fertile, flat land, but similarly we can look at our suburbs and say they are an infrastructure. Our cities water system has the biggest articulated agricultural landscapes in Australia. So the water is there. We have an infrastructure of hard surfaces that actually harvests storm water, which is seen as a problem at the moment, which allows augmentation of natural rainfall to direct that water into the remaining areas that are potentially productive. We've got mostly individual houses that can be retrofitted to have solar access because they're generally set far enough back from neighbouring houses to get that. Now that might involve cutting down a lot of gum trees in those leafy suburbs, but there's a lot of ways in which the suburbs can be incrementally retrofitted in an energy descent world. One of the things I think a lot of the urban planners miss is that they assume that any future framework will be driven by public policy and forward planning and design. Whereas, I think, given the speed with which we are approaching this energy descent world, and the paucity of any serious consideration of planning or even awareness of it, we have to take as part of the equation that the adaptive strategies will not happen by some big, sensible, long range planning approach, but will happen just organically and incrementally by people just doing things in response to immediate conditions. In practical terms what that really means is that big suburban houses that have one to three people living in them, mostly not present, will actually re-adapt to have people work from home. Home based businesses and retrofitted garages with workshops and people making things , even with food production in them, will increase. The street, which is a dead place at the moment in suburbia, will again become an active space because people will be present rather than commuting away. Now that recreation of active urban life will be not that much different to what existed into my childhood in the 1950s. It's not that radical a thing to envisage suburban life where there's larger households --- whether that's a family or shared households. So I'm quite optimistic about how the suburbs can adapt. Ministry of Oil You talk about how the top down approach isn't going to solve out problems, but do you see any problems stopping the spread of permaculture ? DH> Whether these solutions actually spread under a label of permaculture or not is less significant than their spread itself. But the impediments are in many different forms. We can see in the global economy at the moment with the established powers in corporations, that are struggling to position themselves as to how to deal with the energy descent. Now that may not take the form of a corporate plan worked out in the boardroom, but I think somehow, there's an understanding in some circles that the current game is a short lived one. A lot of the big forces that are driving world politics and the global economy at the moment are very much reflecting energy descent. Essentially the global war on terrorism --- as Donald Rumsfeld said, `”the war that will never end in our lifetimes” --- is in fact their version of how to deal with energy descent. They're trying to gather all the key productive zones under their complete control. The idea that the society as a whole is completely ignorant of this is wrong. But it may not express itself in the ways we would expect. If you look at the drift towards fascism that's everywhere in the world at the moment, that seeks to find blame or causes for unfortunate circumstances as being the responsibility of some other group --- that is actually a classic response of established authority when it's caught with it's pants down. Whether we describe that as a conscious conspiracy if you like, or whether it's a natural, organic response to energy descent, is playing out in front of our eyes now. That is actually the biggest threat to the permaculture industry now. We have an opportunity to positively engage with energy descent and to learn and to change as we've done in the past. Could you talk about the idea under permaculture of energy accounting? DH> One of the very influences on permaculture in the beginning was the work of Howard Odeum. I dedicated my new book --- Permaculture Principles and Pathways to Sustainability to his memory, He died in 2002. Around the world theres a whole network of people who've taken his ideas of energy accounting called emergy --- embodied energy. It's a particular method of measuring the energy that it takes to make something, whether it's a built thing or a living thing. Whatever it is there's actually a currency with which we can measure the human and natural worlds. This idea has got quite a long history though past attempts haven't quite worked as energy itself and the ways of measuring the embodied energy in things have been more complicated. A lump of wood and a book can both be put into a fire. They both have the same amount of energy given of, but commonsense tells us that's a poor use of a book. We have in us an energetic commonsense which comes from a peasant groundedness connected to nature, which permaculture is trying to recreate, because we've mostly lost it. We actually have this energy hierarchy in our heads of energy quality and embodied energy. We understand that a lot of work one way or another went into making the book. As energy descent becomes a public issue, one of the big questions that emerges is how do you measure this economic or social process against that one. Is it worth putting resources into that or this. Now if we think the current discussions about public policy priorities are complicated - that's nothing compared to what happens when energy becomes scarcer. Then it becomes really important you're not wasting resources, putting them into a process which is actually a blind alley. You need forms of accounting that can compare very very different things. Some of the current attempts at energy accounting like the triple bottom line are actually a joke. They're an insult to children even in terms of their intellectual content because they try and compare vague abstractions of social and environmental values against a completely financial body which is actually doing the work. So you've got two hierarchical levels --- one compares with qualitative things, and the other is internal to a system like the accounts of a corporation, and yet most of the environmental and social values that will be listed in triple bottom line accounting will be actually external to the organization. You can not add it up. Accounting is not an answer but it gives some guidance because we can look at other systems that do work and use these accounting methods as a crosscheck on our commonsense. What we find generally is that using energy accounting, permaculture strategies come up trumps as the most environmental strategy. A study was done in Britain some years ago on recycled paper. They concluded it was easier to just put paper in an energy efficient furnace and use it for fuel rather than recycle it. Elements of that are true looking at a whole lifecycle process. Ironically using the permaculture strategy of using the paper as a sheet mulch technique to establish a food garden is probably light years ahead of either of those options. Apart from energy accounting, systems ecology under Odeums development of it, provides a big picture, top down view of systems. Whether they're national economy and environment or a region, It provides a holistic framework to understand what's happening in any scale of human society or nature, rather than a reductionist view which tries to pull things apart into their components to study the bits. That reductionist view has dominated science has got to the point where it's creating more blindness than insight. The balance of that, the more holistic ways of looking at things - of which systems theory is the greatest example within the scientific tradition, has had enormous benefits in the systems of cybernetics and the computer revolution, yet the thinking behind it is virtually absent within public discussion. We need to see how things link together, what are the important flows and energy storages, etc, and how we can use an energy circuit language which describes things from a farm scale to a global scale. That way we can examine an ecosystem or an economy in the same way, down to a biological scale. Instead of thinking of a tree as just an organism we can think of it as a set of productive units, which are the leaves, the infrastructure which is the heartwood of the tree that holds everything up, and the tree becomes a habitat for other things and living beings. Systems theory doesn't necessarily divide things into the convenient compartments that we're used to thinking of. A forest can be seen as an interconnectedness of roots , as one shared system and the canopy as another. Leaves dropping down into a stream add to the nutrient flows. Fish migrate up and are eaten by animals and those nutrients go out into the forest . Systems theory connects us back also to indigenous and traditional peasant peoples connected with nature - their ways of understanding things. Systems Theory, while it's an incredible abstraction of maths and science, actually brings up more insights into the ways indigenous people think. The Future? What do you think the world will look like in twenty or thirty years? DH> Well, we're actually in a change phase now which is so multileveled and inherently chaotic --- our understandings of chaos theory and ecological change that suggest we're at this big turnover point where things can go in many different directions all at once. What we should expect is that the pattern of the world becoming more globalised will continue into the future. But we can also expect a counterflow of things starting to become localised and differentiated to different outcomes in different places. At the moment the globalising forces tend to take the same set of economic solutions and ideological values and methods of production of agriculture and living and try to apply them everywhere in the world. So there's a conformity of monoculture wiping out cultural diversity. This is a great source of angst, this loss of ecological and cultural diversity, this huge loss of languages, which is in parallel to the catastrophic loss of biodiversity. But counter to that, as energy descent consolidates, the globalised flow of genetic material - plants, animals and people from all over the world in a particular place, responding to a particular set of social and economic, environmental and political circumstances. They are forced to develop systems which are less subject to global buffering or counterflow from elsewhere, so they go their own path. What that means is we'll have everything from paradise to hell simultaneously in different places, that are not necessarily predictable. You can see that in the breakdown of the nation state and it's power, from autonomous communities to feudal warlords. The pace at which that emerges will be variable --- a lot of these things exist in the world already, but we have a very affluent reality view of what the world will be like in the future. What most people are really asking is what will the world be like for the billion or so middle class consumers of the world. Sometimes people assume that engine of change has been a straight acceleration, even in the last thirty years. But thirty years ago there were the signs of this energy slowdown. When I was a child it was the general assumption that supersonic air travel was just around the corner --- and it was, in the form of the Concord. Well that's now being taken out of service --- it never made a profit. We've already reached some energy peaks. Things like the computer revolution have enabled all these other ways for that technological engine to keep driving forward. The possibility is that some of those will continue to accelerate in the next thirty years depending on the state of the world economy and a lot of things which aren't to do with hard numbers or facts, but concern faith. Already the world economy may be largely an article of faith. It's like a thing projected out over the precipice by the collective belief of everyone. After the 1987 stockmarket crash, Ronald Reagan --- the most powerful man in the world said, in an amazing, naïve insight ,“There won't be an economic collapse as long as people believe there won't.” People can bring the whole house of cards down just by losing faith. That underlies the inherent unpredictability of things. It's not just when does this resource run out, etc. It's to do with the people at some extent prefiguring what is actually happening through their awareness and their unconscious, They start to withdraw, individually and collectively their support for systems. Historians might end up looking back, post energy descent, and argue whether it all could have continued if people had of kept the faith. That notion of collapse and having to rebuild can happen at any multiple scales. So something that looks like a collapse at one scale is just a small adaptive, creative move when you step back. If you look at the decline of the Roman Empire, it didn't go in a cataclysmic bang like other civilisations. It went in a slow rundown, and a lot of the knowledge and systems of value managed to be condense, repackaged and held on to, because that process of wind down into the Dark Ages was gradual. Map of CERES Environmental Park Are there any positives to the middleclass environments? DH> Over the last thirty years, starting with the babyboomers and the generations since, people have actually taken a different pathway to maximising material gain. In the process of going against what's in peoples apparent economic self interest people have explored all sorts of different ways of living, skills and travel, and have built up this great collection of experience. In an energy descent world of tougher conditions most of that will go into the dustbin of history. But parts of it actually represent new ways of doing things that you can't predict which bits will be useful. We can see this in the revival of traditional skills like blacksmithing, which is a skill bas e that is important in a low energy society. These type of skills have come out of middle class affluence that may be seeds of new ways of doing things. CERES How will the energy peak affect those people and environments? DH> Well for people very much on the treadmill, the social limits to affluence will become apparent. Clive Hamilton's book `Growth Fetish' talks about this. People are driven mad by the total continuous drive to consume and the hollowness of this sort of existence, the lack of community and identity. In an energy descent world a lot of those destructive behaviours are just set aside because there's more important things to do. At the extreme it's like what happens in a society where there's a natural disaster. Community is rediscovered, people set aside their differences and get working on the fundamentals. A lot of the angst about alienation and intractable problems evaporate. For a lot of people I think this would be an enormous relief. Most people can't get off the treadmill because of peer pressure and individual and collective addiction in society. Sometimes people want to change but they need a crisis that affects their peers so they can all change together. Do you see some large scale planetary crisis actually occurring in the near future? DH> Well, there's the `die off' scenario --- which as a wake up call to the species is useful and can't be discounted. A large catastrophic drop in populations, like bigger versions of what happened in Europe with the Black Plague, could be likely through infectious diseases. The evidence points to a re-emergence of infectious diseases and mutation of new strains, so the possibility of a die off is there, but it gets confabulated. In the same way in the Third World now, AIDs in Africa could be seen as a die off scenario, but if you step back to look at previous wipe offs through history, those things on the bigger scale are relatively hiccups. The die off scenario is actually the whole end to the development of intensive settled agriculture, civilisation and industrialisation. What goes with that is a enormous drop in human population in a relatively short time and loss of technology, back to possibly a hunter gatherer type of organization with a much depleted resource level and without the capacity to use the resources we have now. There would be a complete regrowth of wild nature and the cycle starts again, but without the possibility of using fossil fuels. Self Organising Systems But even that is not the end of the human story. Fossil fuels represent hundreds of millions of years of stored energy --- effectively the surplus of the abundance of Gaia as a self organising organism on terrestial surfaces. You could say that now we've dug it all out again, in a way we've done nature's task for it --- humanity's task is now over. We've put it all back into the atmosphere, recycled all the biological elements and nature can now use that to develop to a higher level of energy. That's at the God level, perhaps, that's for the earth to decide, anyway. We can't do anything about that, we're not God, we're not Gaia, yet we're understanding systems at a scale which are well above our capacity to have any influence over. We just have to worry about what it means to be human and to continue to attempt to live out that story. David, thanks for your time. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- To learn more about the work of David Holmgren visit his website at: http://www.holmgren.com.au/