David Holmgren Interview on Permaculture, Energy Descent & Future Scenarios

I’m David Holmgren, co-originator of the permaculture concept and I’m here at Melliodora, our home in Hepburn Springs in central Victoria Yeah I suppose in the 1970s, the limits to growth ideas that came out in ’72 had a huge influence on my thinking, and a lot of people at the time, about the unsustainibility of industrial society and of course that was building on long lineage going back to “hmm what happens when population keeps going up- when resource extraction keeps going up on a finite planet?” and that surely humanity would follow some sort of pattern that we see in nature, and in past civilizations of some sort of decline, if not collapse and most dramatically, people thinking about that have talked in terms consistently of collapse I found over the decades, the lack of thinking about what do societies look like when they stop growing and start contracting in some form- what does that look like? and I thought there was a middle space between what i call the techno-explosion future of this onward and upward acceleration of humanity going to the stars the idea of the techno-stability future where we would somehow stabilize everything- the population, the extraction of resources and move out onto some durable, steady state and the idea that we would go through a decline like the Roman Empire but on a global scale because the system that is doing this is actually now global and really it was global even before the collapse of the Soviet Union and a different version of the same thing that industrial modernity is really one global model so that when that peaks and goes through some decline it would affect everywhere in the world although might affect it very differently so we don’t have separate civilizations the way the Roman Empire was confined to the Mediterranean, European contexts but the idea of Energy Descent is distinct from some sort of catastrophic collapse where everything ends is that its a change culture so it goes on for not possibly just decades but even centuries where there’re less resources and energy available to support humanity progressively in each generation now not according to some smooth process and not exactly the same everywhere and it may be experienced in the same way that growth was experienced as these eruptive disturbances like wars or very rapid technological innovation and then a stabilization and consolidation Similarly Energy Descent could be some sort of crises and then stabilization and that those processes could go on for a long time The very positive thing that i’ve tried to portray of that future is because it’s a change culture rather than a sustainability culture or a steady state is that we could bring a lot of our learning from the last 500 years of continuous change to bear (?) there’s some skills we actually have culturally the idea that- gee- every generation has to do something different to the last one we’re used to that. It’s just, of course, it would be in a very, very different direaction and of a very different nature So the evidence for that, I think, I’ve seen is very strong the timing and the details are the thing that i think is the most interesting to debate

but it is in public discourse my techno-explosion version of the future that is the official and accepted view that somehow humanity will just move to greater and greater complexity inevitably supporting larger and greater control of the environment and be able to do that with or without population expansion I suppose Energy Descent as a word “descent” seemed to me the most honest word in the english language that directly described the process without avoiding the fact that it’s going down but, of course, the possibilities of creative adaption to that is what’s really been my life’s work Well the difficulty with this issue is that it’s not widely understood or agreed that energy basically determines energy availibility and especially the measure of net energy how much you get out after all the costs of extraction – direct and indirect – are subtracted that whether it’s a hunter-gatherer society or an agricultural society or an industrial one the structure of those societies is largerly determined by the quality and nature of the energy sources that sustain them and of course from a humanist point of view that feels a lot like bio-physical determinism which is very strongly critiqued in a certain view of the world because it views humans as inherently brilliant that are not subject to the laws of nature and that we run by some of our own making Of course, that idea emerged in the Enlightenment right alongside this growth process that was largely powered by fossil fuels and there were a few other precursors to that, like the discovery of two continents – North and South America – and 90% of the population dying at contact leaving those resources available for Europeans to exploit so that was one of the very important precursors, and that was why I date this process as largely a 500 year process of endless expansion so when you review history in terms of the field of ecological history and one of the first thinkers in that area, Lewis Mumford the American historian, it was later recognized that he was really, in a lot of ways, the father ecological history And an article I read by Edward Goldsmith in 1972, an ecological interpretation of the decline of the Roman Empire, had a big influence on my thinking and all of the work that i was doing with permaculture- of how we would design human systems in keeping with nature’s, and energy laws basically So that is the hardest concept for people to grasp and when they start looking at renewable energy they’re looking at it through the lens of human brilliance being able to manipulate and manage things apparently without obeying the laws of thermodynamics and the laws of ecology but we haven’t ever really escaped that, it’s just that the fossil fuel was so dense, so high quality and it was a stock of energy rather than a flow so we were able to mine that stock in the same way that animals or plants can mine a stock of fertility or food and do extraordinary things for a short period until that stock is gone and then it’s back to whatever the base, renewable flow energy is So renewable energies basically are that flow of solar energy and humanity was using those pretty fully and effectively before fossil fuels and we didn’t stop using them when we added this enormous extra wealth from fossil fuel

We actually used that fossil fuel to accelerate our more effective use of renewable ones and in the process made them not so renewable by depleting soils, over-cutting forests beyond their capacity to grow back polluting rivers beyond their capacity to self- purify so we did that and we’ve recognized we need to repair those things in nature but we’ve now gone off said “ahh with technology we can find a better pathway to collect sunlight than trees” and we’ve called it solar panels we can find a better pathway to collect the energy from the flow of water flow down rivers other than the building of ecosystems and all the productivity by damming them with hydro-dams and some of those things are definitely really important ways tapping renewable energy sources in the future by using the technology we have but they’re not actually, really a step change up from fossil fuel they’re a step change down and all the step changes we’ve been through in energy transitions over the last 500 years have been steps up in energy quality So, of course, there was previous belief that there needed to be another bigger, denser, higher quality sou rce of energy and the belief was that that was nuclear power so in 1950 the chief advisor to the Australian government on nuclear power Sir Ernest Titterton asserted that by 1980 nuclear power would be too cheap- so cheap that it would be free, there would just be a service charge for the electricity We can laugh at that now, but also in the 1970s the solar technology enthusiasts were saying that within a couple of decades we would have solar breeder industries that would make solar panels that would then power the factories to make more solar panels and this would be an exponential, bootstrap growth process up into this solar powered Nirvana Well we finally have got around to doing some reasonably large scale solar manufacture but it’s still dependant on the subsidy of cheap energy from fossil fuel The furnaces are not run with solar panels Now in theory maybe they could be but the panels would be much much more expensive and the ideas that these things can go from quite rapid expansion, which they are, to continuing to grow after the fossil fuel subsidy has declined so the fossil fuel subsidy comes not just in terms of the amount of oil and coal and gas that’s being used in the global economy but the quality of those sources so as you move from the very easy to tap super-giant fields in the Middle East for example and you’re getting the deep ocean oil in the ultra-deep zone off Brazil or the Arctic oil or the Tar Sands or these very, much more difficult to tap fossil fuels then the net energy available for society to do other things, including make solar panels for example, is actually less So the total flow of energy in the system may be great but it’s a bit like a peasant farmer with declining soil structure having to hoe his field twice to get the tilth so he can sow the seed for next year’s crop double the amount of economic activity, hoeing it twice, the same crop because he’s having to compensate for the fact that his soil is getting poorer, and we’re doing the same with energy, basically our energy industries are growing and that’s a good and necessary thing to do any sort of transition to lower quality energy source but they’re actually providing less benefit back to the rest of the economy and society to support all its complexity

And the somewhat tragic thing is that when economist look at an economy where there’s a rapidly growing energy sector that may be compensating for the fact that people are actually travelling less distance in their cars there’s less money for the governments to put into hospitals and a million other things that are going on they say “the economy is growing,” but they don’t recognize that there’s a difference between net energy harvesting parts of the economy and parts of the economy that are actually consuming that wealth for them it’s just all economic growth so this is the difficulty when people come from this long history of seeing the brilliance of technology and going “oh yeah, we can automatically improve on a tree’s ability to harvest solar energy.” So i think when looked at in that larger scale there needs to be enormous skepticism about the limits of what renewable energy can do Now that doesn’t mean to say that technical innovation has necessarily come to an end- it may do as a result of other processes like the global financial system collapses that actually provides all the money and allows all the agreements to invest and build all these new complex systems but it does mean that even if we do all those things you end up having to say “what are you going to use the energy that you’re getting out for” and you’ll find that you’ve got less of it So as a society, one way or another, you’ll have to do less we can do that in many many different ways that are both ethical and horrible, with all sorts of other adverse impacts, but from my perspective the renewable energy wont change that dynamic of declining net energy yield to support humanity Well permaculture was a concept that Bill Mollison and I worked on in the ’70s in this last great period of interest in all of the issues that today we call sustainability and it was based on a simple question really, related to the design of agriculture if most of nature is dominated by perennial plants- trees and other long-live plants- why is our agriculture all dominated by just annual crops? that 90% of our food comes from that why doesn’t it look like or follow the design rules of nature? and from that sort of simple, naive question came the idea that because of Energy Descent we actually had to redesign everything in society but starting most fundamentally with agriculture because that’s what provides our food and before fossil fuel, that was our prime source of wealth to support everything else and that the idea that agri-culture is actually the source of human culture as well so that it wasn’t just a technical redesign of some arms-length energy harvesting system it was actually the whole way we related to nature and so human settlement, the design of houses, the way we organize everything in society was a part of that so it was a big picture view, but starting also from a political point that rather than fighting against the world we didn’t want or just trying to analyze our own extinction as the saying goes- ‘scientists are documenting human extinction’ – that it was more important to actually just directly do things and so the whole self sufficiency movement of that time was the context in which permaculture was providing a framework for people who were trying to think about doing more things for themselves becoming more self reliant, living in a simpler way

living in a smarter way so rather that just reinventing- oh we’ll just do what our grandparents did, or the ancestors did can we use modern design thinking, ecological concepts to maybe, yes bring in some of those older ways, but tweak it to make it both more sustainable, lower impact on nature but also more durable for the future so permaculture is really a design system for both sustainable land use and sustainable living and so it’s addressing both the production side of the conundrum and the consumption side and saying “why not bring those things back together?” well we eat food, why don’t we grow a garden why don’t we grow the food in the garden and integrate that whole rather than the industrial system which stretches everything out in these long supply chains so bring it back together and through that a whole lot of design principles emerge that small scale systems actually make more sense that large scale ones that you need a diversity rather than a monoculture that the systems need to be integrated rather than all segregated the way we do with town planning: live over here, and work over there, and go to recreation over here at all scales there were quite different design principles from what was usual in society so permaculture over time has been developing a deeper understanding of what are those underlying design principles Now of course, permaculture has spread around the world as a movement rather than just a concept it’s spread through the permaculture design course process and a whole lot of other processes it’s incorporated information and ideas from other sustainability related concepts and it’s changed according to whether it’s in a rich country, or a poor country, different climatic environments; permaculture is different everywhere so it’s only really the ethics of care of the earth, care of people and fair share and the design principles which are the universal parts of permaculture The strategies and techniques are completely different everywhere and that’s why it’s difficult to say there is a permaculture solution or a permaculture strategy because it may be appropriate in one place but not in another and that reveals a certain frustration or confusion that exists in the modern mind because in the fossil fuel era we’ve gotten used to the idea that for any key problem or important activity there’s one big solution that trumps all others and some version of it ends up everywhere You know, you go into international airports. They’re basically all designed, and work the same way The architects do a little bit of superficial fiddling, but it’s the same template We’re used to that with computer software and almost everything else in society industrialization has allowed this one big design solution once you start dealing with nature and start dealing with the fine grained character of local resources, local situation, then the design solutions are all different in the same way that in the world before fossil fuel all cultures had all different ways of addressing human needs and of course what came out of that is the 6500-7000 languages on the planet and a huge diversity of approaches to basic problems that all reflected to, some degree, the local environment So modern people going into that energy descent world are gonna have to get used to the idea that there isn’t just a universal answer that you can apply and that is difficult for us cause we are used to that and that has been one of the things that permaculture education has been trying to help with how to get the design thinking, the problem solving thinking, rather than just the copying but the copying is an important part of it because examples local examples of “yeah that works, I can copy what my neighbour has done, maybe it’ll work,”

that has been an important part of how permaculture can contribute So I think people applying permaculture don’t necessarily have an Energy Descent view of the future but gradually people are coming to understand that in its original conception, and with its ongoing evolution, it’s really been evolving towards not just addressing an immediate problem but how will this work in a world of less? So there’s many many simple examples we could look at the cool permaculture idea of a living fence which is really just some version of hedgerows that existed in England before wire fences T here you’re growing the fence as a barrier to animals and it’s more work but it doesn’t require that extraction of resources out of the ground and a steel mill to make the wire So some ideas like that in permaculture we might go, “the wire is more convenient and available, “but it doesn’t provide bird habitat, and it doesn’t provide some food and shelter, “but the hedgerow, the living fence is more work,” so there’s all these little tradeoffs that we might look at some permaculture solutions and say, “yeah that’s interesting and beneficial but it’s not absolutely necessary.” Once you look at the Energy Descent future you find oh, so many more of the permaculture strategies not only just make sense but they become the easiest and best way to deal with issues That issue of what stage of technology is appropriate to use that will be viable in the future is part of that issue, and part of it is an ethic about, well, I don’t want to take advantage and therefore support some destructive process by saying ‘yes we want more of that’ by going down to the hardware and buying something like the roll of wire that I talked about I take what most people would see as a fairly pragmatic approach to that with the lens where we, say, think about the cost of something as a reasonably rough way of evaluating environmental impact If you are using a lot of resources to support some lovely permaculture project in terms of purchased things through the global economy then that is probably causing quite substantial environmental impact If on the other hand you find those materials at the rubbish tip, or you get them second hand at some clearing sale, or you’re involved in a reuse process of something that already exists, then a few things are happening: you’re reducing waste and other imapcts and you’re feeding less economic signal back into the system to say, “yes produce more of that!” It’s the same as when you buy a second hand car it’s not as big a stimulus to the car industry to make more cars as when buying a new one So just moving down the degradation chain from primary consumption to feeding on the waste is in my observation of permaculture projects around the world almost a bigger characteristic of permaculture projects than ecologically producing food with food forests and perennial food systems; and i think part of the reason for that is the wealth the real net energy that’s available in an affluent society by throwing away the idea that says “I must have a new shirt”

when i could go to the op-shop and get a second hand one is an enormously empowering process and it’s economically advantageous to do so So if we say “oh no, we’re not going to do any of that because that shirt was originally made in a sweat shop,” or “shouldn’t we be growing the flax to work out weave our own shirts out of linen or out of hemp ,” or whatever then both those become quite disabling because firstly to exist in the modern world and not use any of it’s products is extremely difficult there’s a long pathway of development that might take several generations to achieve even a reasonable way of life not depending on those systems and the other aspect of the development of the new skillset becomes sort of a very difficult balancing point so you could say, like a lot of people did in the ’70s, well we’ll need blacksmith skills again in the future and people started learning blacksmithing and it’s great because that’s why we have those blacksmith skills ’til today So we have those blacksmith skills today because people in the ’70s thought gee society’s going to collapse, or the industrial system’s going to collapse and we’ll need to know how to work metal so i’m gonna learn now to do that Now those people who did that, some of them gave it up in the ’80s some of them became art blacksmiths but because they did that we have that skillset still in society because when i was young, the last of the old blacksmiths, apart from people who did horseshoes for horses, were dying out, and we would’ve lost that skillset completely But choosing those levels of appropriate technology that might be useful in the future is a difficult thing because the Energy Descent concept suggests actually not some collapse back to some level where a particular set of technologies and ways of living will be workable, and then they’ll be workable continuously; it’s actually a change process So for example, having the skills to fix up computers even if it’s just pulling out hard drives and fixing solder joints may be a useful Energy Descent strategy for quite a long time but it’d be good if people knew how to use a slide rule because at some stage in the Energy Descent future computers might get to the point of being no longer useful, no longer fixable, that there’s not the technology available Now, how long that could be could be generations but similarly, the corrugated iron roof on our mud brick house is one of those really difficult things. How will this be made in the future? Well it’d be great if we still had steel rolling mills and the first corrugated iron was made in Birmingham, I think, in the mid-19th-century surely we could continue to make that really useful material for hundreds of years into the future but it’s also good for there to be slate-roofed houses around, slate that lasts 500 years of a high quality, maybe on a roof rather than fifty to a hundred years for corrugated iron So there’s a whole lot of complexities there that there’s no one right way and when i was at the Gaia Eco-village in Argentina they have cob houses with thatch roofs, and yes they do have solar panels and a wind turbine but they take a quite radical approach to that Energy Descent future of really simplifying. A lot of other people take more of a salvage approach

of use what’s around but try not to embed complete dependence on very very complex things so it’s mixing both the ethical driven, the environmental impact the resilience for the future, and the responsibility to redevelop technologies that might be needed in the future that’ve been lost and i don’t think there’s a sort of fixed line of where it’s the right place to be The last thing i’d say on that question is back in the 1970s I thought when this Energy Descent process gets underway things like poly pipe and stainless steel will become very expensive and hard to get and gee they’re really good things that the industrial system’s produced By the nineties i’d moved to a view where I could see that there was so much of this stuff already in the global economy that just the salvage economies that could persist after the manufacture had stopped would allow a more frugal economy to have plenty of those materials for a long time in the future and in the case of stainless steel, possibly thousands of years so on top of that a contracting financial system could crush the capacity to buy and transport cars all sorts of things that wherever those things are there’ll be such a flood of them available for reuse that it will exceed anything we’ve experienced so far So for example when the [Global Financial Crisis] happened the downturn in global trade meant there was a flood of surplus containers- shipping containers onto the market at ports and of course people build houses and all sorts of things shipping containers are fantastic so possibly a lot of housing in the future will actually be shipping containers at least in and around ports where all of these things will end up because if global trade shrank to ten percent of what it is it’s mind boggling the number of these containers there already are and even though we thing “awh yeah there’s a lot of people in the world, there’s a lot of need for these resources,” most of it’s the need of the economy just producing and consuming and as soon as you stop doing that we’ve got so much stuff From the point of saying that energy descent was the least thought about future even less than the idea of catastrophic end of civilization I thought it was important to try and look at the diverse ways in which energy descent could unfold Not just differences from place to place but also in a sort of a global process level And my future scenarios work, was based on a two way variables of, the variable of how fast oil would deplete post peak; the uncertainties about that ranging from maybe 2% per annum to a more catastrophic 10% per annum And then the other driver that I thought was the, the most powerful, single driver of the future which was climate change And whether that was going to be relatively benign and slow in onset, or whether it was going to be more severe and rapid And that then created four quadrants, four combinations that I called the scenarios So I was suggesting that these macro energetic, climatic factors; even though they are sort of caused by sort of human activity, would end up being things that happen to humanity that it will have to adapt to both at a collective level, and a sort of a community level, and right down to an individual level And so I called the relatively benign onset of climate change and relatively slow decline of oil, Green tech and obviously that’s you know the most, sort of least disruptive of the energy descent four scenarios And then Brown tech was a similar slow decline in oil but rapid climate change,

and that was characterized by more weather and climate crises: droughts, floods, cyclones, that sort of thing As well as, the same as what’s happening in the Green tech; a contracting economy, cause my Green tech scenario is not what a lot of people talk about of a green tech growth scenario And then the possibility of a much more severe decline in oil, that would actually lead to a quite rapid unraveling of the global economy and leave people much more dependent on just whatever was actually in their bio-region or accessible locally So that would involve what a lot of people would call, some sort of collapse, and but that is likely to lead to a reduction in green house gas emissions so dramatic, that it might save us from severe climate change And so I call that Earth steward because it’s a scenario, where having gone through this sort of quite catastrophic collapse, things then settle out into the new scenario where the seasons are still largely working, nature is working, agriculture and food growing are possible but in a much simpler society Scarred by the huge effects of the collapse of the global industrial economy but of course with all of those resources all lying around to reuse And then the fourth scenario I called Lifeboats, and it was where there is that same collapse in the global industrial system but we end up in the climate cooker anyway And that is possible via the tipping points that have been postulated by scientists that there are mechanisms like the release of the tundra methane, and the melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, and ocean acidification, and other processes, that once they get to a certain point, it will no longer be driven by just green house gas emissions from humans, it’ll be self reinforcing too And mostly you know, people just talk about that as, “Oh well that’s just the end of the world” Whereas I suggest that even in that world, some sort of reorganization would happen and I model a lot of that on what happened in the decline of Rome with the monasteries How small groups of people actually conserved a lot of the knowledge and capacity of civilization; who were better set up to do so But society overall goes through some sort of dark age at least So of course that does assume that the runaway climate change just doesn’t keep leapfrogging and actually lead, take us out of energy descent into truly collapse, where maybe there’s a few people living on the edge of the Arctic as hunter gatherers as some climate scientists and activists have said is a possibility But that, that would push us out of the energy descent future truly into collapse So all of these things are sort of quite relative but what I showed from that is that those, it was possible to have strategies and responses that were adaptive to all four of those scenarios and a lot of what we’re talking about in Permaculture, and transition initiatives, and simplicity concepts, are actually useful no matter which of those four scenarios is emerging because that’s actually the point of scenario planning, to try and tell plausible stories and not necessarily pick winners but have strategies that are useful in all of them Retrofitting the suburbs is accepting that the energy descent process, we are into the early stages of it now, and we don’t have time to redesign all of our human settlements

into some sort of ecologically… eco villages, and eco cities adapted to a world of energy descent Because that process, even when you have growth economy takes decades if not centuries So largely, people are going to face the energy descent future with the physical infrastructure and the housing that already exists And most will probably face that through some sort of economic contraction crisis where they’re living now Some may move, and there’s a whole history of these sort of energy descent ideas and permaculture being associated with a move to the country; a move to rural areas as a place that’s a better place to be more self-reliant And that still may be true but for most people, there’s both a necessity and an advantage in looking at where they live already And for most Australians, that is some sort of detached housing in what we call suburbia, whether that’s in our capital cities or whether it’s in similar housing in our regional towns, and even villages like the one we live in; that most people are living in those separate houses on small blocks And what that template of living makes possible is, it’s possible to incrementally adjust what is happening there and provide a lot of people’s needs by growing food, by modifying the house to make it more…less dependent on energy, by harvesting some of the water, and by using some of the space that exists in our relatively large houses to start doing more in the household economy Doing things for ourselves rather than depending on money And that it’s easier to that in a suburban house than it is in an apartment Especially when we talk about modifying the environment or growing food As we move to higher density residential areas, it requires more of all of the residents, and the whole community, and often the policy makers and the law makers agreeing that these changes are necessary Where as in suburbia it’s possible for people who are motivated and able, to initiate some of these changes before society has agreed they’re necessary And that the modifications can also be done to some extent even, under the radar of regulations that might inhibit them; and whether that’s having chooks in the backyard, or making a grey water system that’s redirecting the water out to the garden All of these things are much easier at that scale And on top of that, because Australia… most Australian cities are relatively mild, benign climates compared with Northern hemisphere cold climates, the capacity to grow food almost year round, and the ability to survive in houses without any heating; if people are reasonably fit and active, means that there’s not so much critical dependency on centralized systems So Australia is both a place where most people live in this pattern and also where there’s the greatest opportunities to make those changes So in the process of doing that, it’s not just a forward thinking adaption to energy descent it’s also, “Oh this is actually a better way to live.” So at the moment a lot of suburbia is a sort of social dead zone because they’re dormantary suburbs where people leave and go to work If people are more working from home, if there’s more activity happening at home, then that builds the capacity for community

As well as things like less crime because there’s more casual surveillance on the street because people are around more Now if we look at this in the conventional sort of urban framework say, “Oh that’s more activity happening at home, that’s crowding.” Now when people lived in a terrace house with a family of 8, yes having more activity at home might’ve increased stress of crowding but we have the opposite situation mostly where we’re suffering from under crowding at home That there’s empty houses where people are not around, where there’s loneliness and lack of social interaction And a huge dependence on going out everyday to work, to social engagement, which gives us a sense that our cities are crowded with people but half the buildings are empty at any one point So we’ve got… the city’s being crowded by people moving between those empty buildings, mostly in cars But if we actually make better use of the facilities we’ve already got, that’s a way of adapting to frugality brought on by economic contraction, by less job opportunities, by less wages And a lot of these adaptive strategies are actually necessary to deal with the first phases of energy descent which are most likely to express themselves as a contracting economy So they don’t necessarily express themselves by a shortage of food; the governments will ensure there is food in Coles, if it’s the last thing they do (laughs) That, and defend the territory But of course if people are thinking about this situation and thinking their job is very insecure and wondering about, “Hmm will the government still be paying for healthcare?” and, “Gee we might have to pay to go to the doctor” or pay, and pay to go to Coles to buy fresh food “Well I can grow some vegetables, I can’t manufacture antibiotics.” So clearly what people do in any sort of economic contraction; that’s happened in the past, is they do the things they can do, and save money for the things they can’t do And so what happens is you get this restarting of household and community non-military economies and all the simple things of maintaining the building, childcare, a degree of home education, and entertainment Doing those things yourself rather than doing them by money So a lot of these things are actually just rebuilding the normal living patterns and capacities that existed in my childhood in the suburbs of Australia in the 50s and 60s So some of retrofitting the suburbs is radical Some of it is just re-establishing what people of my generation remember as normal And that process overall, might take an economic contraction, but a large number of people are already doing it partly for thinking about energy descent but partly because they reckon it’s actually a better lifestyle And the big issue that often underlies this retrofitting is the issue of debt because housing is worth so much because of our “bubble economy”, or costs so much whether you’re buying it or renting it The money to support that is the biggest problem And a lot of people pursuing this are saying, “Got to get out of debt first.” And that might involve moving from a high mortgage in a capital city to a much less mortgage or getting rid of the mortgage by buying a similar house in a country town Or a more radical approach of, “No, we’re actually going to buy a house in a much poorer suburb”, and actually get out of debt So then we can actually do what we really want to do rather then being forced to work to the maximum to pay for the debt So debt is sort of one of those big inhibitors in the retrofitting in the suburbs process and a lot of the changes that are needed are actually at that sort of behavioural level

So my work on Retrofitting the suburbs sort of started off with the focus on the built and the biological The sort of permaculture redesign of the backyard, the addition of passive solar greenhouses onto the Northside of buildings or you know the installation of water tanks and grey water systems But the behavioural domain is at least important, and as we move closer and closer into the energy descent crisis the behaviour change is the low-hanging fruit in retrofitting suburbia So in the same way that we’re not going to rebuild the cities and ignore all this existing housing stock, when we’re actually in a house say, “Well gee, we can get out of debt by taking in 2 boarders and having someone share the house.” That’s a big behaviour change but is very effective, and very achievable, and a real thing that people will do So people who are doing that ahead of the necessity make a better job offer So that is what my work is trying to encourage and help those on that pathway Well firstly, if you’ve got a couple who are both working full time, if they sat down and did a serious economic business analysis of this project of both working full time, and the costs of doing that; both the direct costs of clothes and transport to go to work and the knock on effects of not having enough time and energy to make your own lunch, let alone sort of fix up the… you know, clean up the gutters on the house or a million other things that require you constantly to buy those services in an economy where the costs of those are very very high because wages are very high in Australia, mostly to cover mortgage debt So this whole cycle of trying to earn more money to pay for the mortgage and all the costs of living, for a lot of people now, if they did a proper analysis, they would say, “One of of us should go back home and restart the household economy, work out how to live with less or both of us go part time, earn less money, and put our remaining energy and time into productive activities that reduce our costs of living.” And so that’s already the case, that people have been conned into the idea that work is actually maximizing their economic opportunities For a lot of people, it already isn’t doing that, it’s uneconomic activity that they’re engaged in, when looked at as a household So then that’s the first thing, and a lot of people would actually prefer to do that A lot of people find in their work that it’s so bureaucratized, it’s so rigid, there’s so little opportunity to make their own decisions A lot of people are now looking back to what you used to be sort of the really boring things of being at home, being a housewife, and saying, “No, this actually autonomy” “This is where I get to decide what I’m going to do at what part of the day.” The other effect is, of course, the huge opportunities that have come about as the result of information technology, to be partly working from home anyway for so many people And of course many people thought that once this technology was there, there would be a massive return to home based work, it’s been very very slow to actually emerge and take advantage of that The third thing is the relatively large size of houses and the under-utilization means often people have a home office already set up but it’s not actually sort of really being used So being able to go to work in the morning in the office and then go out and work in the garden and you know let the chooks out at lunch So many synergies that happen from a home based lifestyle Now if you’re doing that in a place where there is no one else about, or course you’ve got to be a bit of a pioneer

If you’re doing it where other people are starting to do that too, then instead of the place around you; other than your own place being a hive of activity, that sort of suburban wasteland If there’s other people doing that too, then it starts to sort of build community and connection So there’s a strong sense of these things work better when people are clustering, even if it’s just 2 or 3 people in a street or within walking distance of each other So for example, parents at home organizing some mutual child care arrangement with 2 or 3 other families and creating a new normal of not just what happens in that child care but in the whole way they’re living, can shape that with the next generation Because this is almost the most important part, a lot of people are going, “What do I actually want for my children? And a lot of people are responding to, “Oh, the kids in primary school have got iphones. Is that what I really want for my child?” So there’s a lot of people from all sorts of reasons saying, “No, I don’t want to be exposed and exposing my children to more and more things that I see as dysfunctional.” And the best way to do that is some degree of withdrawal and rebuilding a new normal And the easiest place to build a new normal is at home, and then building that with others in the community So I think there’s you know, a lot of those reasons that are actually driving the huge surge in people interested in growing their own food; and people actively doing that So people… the idea that people would sort of reject these ideas as radical I think they’re at a point where a lot of people would like to do that but they just can’t quite see how to get out of the treadmill and the trap they’re in Yes, well Permaculture has been seen as an apolitical approach to making a better world and I think that’s been really useful that it hasn’t been driven by ideology or that we even need to agree about energy descent before we can, “So let’s go and plant some trees” or make a garden, or do any of the other things that are classic permaculture activities So I think that’s been a great strength but then that’s also led to a view amongst political activists; especially on the left and from the environmental point of view and saying that, “Well all that activity is fine but it’s not really addressing the big issues and doesn’t sort of really change anything in society.” That until you change the policies at the top nothing really changes And it’s true, that decades of Permaculture activism haven’t really succeeded in transforming the suburbs, that the examples are small and scattered, and modest in their achievements But we can also make the same critique of social justice and environmental activism over the last 30 years You can see lots of little achievements and what’s been won but a lot of people will admit that maybe it’s actually generally gone backwards That the problems have got larger or they’ve broken out in other forms, or that the “bad players” have worked around the legislation etc So the Permaculture approach is, I believe, has a political intelligence behind it and that it starts from the premise that, if we’re facing a world of less, it’s actually hard to get a mass movement shouting for less

(Laughs) There’s not many precedence in history for that but if people can see that as the system becomes more dysfunctional, they can just quietly start withdrawing and doing other things and that they’ll be better off as a result; like some of the strategies suggested Then that’s an immediate gain for the early adopters; the people who have to sort of try and imagine this and go against the flow of society, get the benefit of being the “first in” It’s like, you know going to the op shop when there’s not much competition because everyone else is out consuming clothes and feeding them into the op shop, you get first choice When everyone’s doing this obviously the choice will be less So there’s an advantage to early adopters which compensate for the very difficult social drag and obstacles in having to be pioneers And that’s really important, if we are moving into a world where we’re actually moving into voluntary frugality through some process or other, there’s got to be some gains in it to drive the process Because a lot of movements in the past social justice were how people, dispossessed people can reclaim what they have been taken from them or gain something new Whereas here we’re having to say, we’re having to gain something new that is quite an abstraction by giving up some form of materialism, that the system is driving towards That then creates an example which is at a small scale by definition cause it’s a household, it’s a behavioural thing, it’s maybe a rural property, but it’s not a change in a whole industry or a government policy That means another person, another household, another farmer, land owner, small business person can copy that Without the permission from the gatekeepers, the banks, the regulators A lot of what’s happening at that scale can just be copied by people And that’s really important because it avoids the blockage where here you have a model but for it to really work it’s got to be done by some whole industry So you can just get replication, and what that then does is also create a learning cycle of what I was talking about before about how the new solutions will be so placed and situation specific The lot of things when copied don’t actually really work that perfectly, so that you keep getting incremental modification So more people doing things at that scale in their own lives at the household and community scale provide more examples and small scale mistakes Because the mistakes are small scale they don’t have too much adverse effect and they don’t totally kill off whatever that innovation or idea was because lots and lots of people are doing it Once there is a significant number of people are adopting these strategies; and I’ve suggested between 5 and 20 percent of the population in affluent countries or at a global level, 5 to 20 percent of the global middle class The effect of that would be enormous on the global economy because it would actually be 5 to 10 percent contraction and the global economy is absolutely dependent on constant growth So that if people go on what’s really a consumption strike, not against one manufacturer, one company, but just generally, systemically, and are rebuilding the household economy I’ve suggested that people could reduce their participation in that global corporate, government dominated system and rebuild it in the household and community non military sector, and in the sort of cash economy, and exchange economy by at least 50 percent without it being too hard to do So yes, if 20 percent of people did that, that would be a 10 percent contraction in the military economy and gee would the governments and the corporations notice that Now there’s two things then that could come out of that, they could go,

“Right, squash all of that, repress all of that.” And we see elements of that, a bit like the raw milk scandal in Victoria, where small dairies producing those products directly into consumers that happen to be a threat to the mainstream if they grew to any significant scale you know are sort of eliminated by regulation or whatever But the difficulty of authorities doing that is the solutions are so diffuse and difficult to see and a lot of them are not actually even happening in the military economy and a lot of them are behaviour change that it’s hard to regulate them out of existence The other thing that could happen is that authorities could go, “Uh what do you people want?” And that would create a constituency, the possibility of a political discussion from a position of strength Whereas a lot of current activism is, people are shouting loudly for certain changes but are totally dependent on the system Therefore all they’ve got is their voices, they don’t have anything in there what they are doing, that actually adversely affects the system cause they continue to consume They continue to work, they continue to have their money in the bank contributing to the same system Whereas if people have withdrawn that, their capital out of the bank, their work out of the system, and their consumption out of the economy And not eliminated those things completely but as much as possible have brought them down where that system actually can’t get those things Then that is a position of some degree of economic autonomy and that is a position of strength even if it’s only 5 to 10 percent of the population Whereas conventional approaches to change say you’ve got to get a majority of people on side But when you look at that and say, well in the campaign against Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war, I think we got 70 percent or something of the population were against going to Iraq, but we still went So conventional politics often doesn’t work at the 50 percent level It’s sometimes, to do some radical change that the system really doesn’t want to go there, you need 80 to 90 percent of the population Whereas people not participating, you may need a much smaller proportion; and if that fails, you’ve built (at the worst case scenario) you’ve built little lifeboats, even though they might be leaky ones and not very good ones But you’ve built the basis of the parallel economy that may be able to build as the other one breaks down Now none of those things are certain but that strategy is a real political strategy, and you know if you wanted to analyze it politically you might say, “Oh that’s sort of anarchist.” But Anarchism is not a sort of very useful term because you know for more than 100 years it’s been sort of demonized as the mad bomb throwing person or a very depressed poet who sort of drinks too much (Laughs) Some other view of what an anarchist is But if you just look at that Permaculture strategy and say, “Oh well that’s sort of like an anarchist sort of view of the world.” but it doesn’t… we don’t start from that premise, we just, “Oh you know this a better way to do things”, and that may have agency or it may not have a political level But it’s got as good a chance or better chance than the conventional approaches to activism