Work with rather than against nature

Interview with David Holmgren, co-founder of Permaculture

David Holmgren

Forests, plants and soil bear our future. The earth can no longer sustain the damage caused by industrial agriculture, monocultural forestry, and thoughtless settlement design. We can either ignore the madness of uncontrolled industrial growth or take the path of life and survival.

Permaculture is "permanent agriculture". Its intention is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their needs in a sustainable way.

This interview is about how to take on responsibility for our own existence and that of our children.

Manuela & Carsten: When and how did Permaculture start?
David Holmgren: Permaculture started as a concept between myself and Bill Mollison in Tasmania in the 1970s, a time were there was a huge interest in what we might call sustainability solutions.

M&C: What is Permaculture and what are the main prerequisites?
DH: Permaculture began with the premise of looking at the way nature worked and what agriculture would look like if we designed it using the principles of nature. That was the seeding idea of Permaculture as a permanent agriculture that today we would call a sustainable culture. That required changing all of our ways of thinking. Permaculture is really a design system both for sustainable living and sustainable land use. It is concerned with both the consumption side and the production side of the equation.

M&C: One of the main principles is to work with nature rather than against nature. Are there any other fundamental principles of Permaculture?
DH: There is a diversity of ways of doing things in nature, and humans in their recent evolution, in industrial society, have taken the opposite approach of saying there is one best and most productive way to do anything. This is what in agriculture became monoculture: One crop, one variety! Permaculture builds in the idea that we should value and make use of diversity as a part of everything we do. It expresses itself through systems of polyculture, where we have many different plants growing together. It also expresses itself in a way that we provide energy and water, such that we don't just rely on one system.   
We take integrated solutions rather than focusing on segregated solutions. We tend to do things in small and slow solutions, if possible, rather than big and fast ones - which is the predilection of our industrial culture, to do things always at the largest scale.
Also, the idea of observation and interaction with nature is fundamental to learning how to do things and to designing more creative solutions. We don't just get this information from being told or poured into our head, which is this inheritance we get from our history of education, of compulsory education. Through direct observation we can use the textbook of nature as our teacher.
These are some of the 12 design principles that lie behind Permaculture. We see these as thinking tools that are underpinned on a deeper level by ethical principles of care of the earth, care of people and fair share - these are even more fundamental to Permaculture.

M&C: What are the challenges that we as the human race are facing?
DH: 90% of all the generations of people that have lived on the planet have been hunter-gatherers, and then we have this small experience in agriculture and this very recent flash in the pan of industrial urban ways of living. This great experiment all came about by tapping this ancient sunlight of fossil fuels, all would not have been possible without that. What do we do when this flow of energy starts to reduce rather than constantly increase as it has been doing for hundreds of years, and how do we deal with the impacts and rolling continuing effects of that use of energy? This is both the dilemma of the sources of our sustenance and where we send everything. The two issues that clarify this most fundamentally, are climate change and peak oil. Now both of this issues are coming together and then drawing into them a myriad of related issues: The loss of topsoil, the over extraction of water or the catastrophe of loss of species and life forms. Perhaps, the one which is most problematic to speak about is global population, which of course is still on the rise. Right now we are facing the consequences and this is like an historical turning point of enormous magnitude that cannot be over emphasized.

M&C: What are the negative effects of industrial agriculture?
DH: The overuse of fertilizers, which initially raised production, now cause a major form of ground water pollution. The use of toxins, mostly as herbicides and pesticides, accumulating in the food chain have all sorts of unpredicted consequences. One of the most recent and dramatic is the impact of chemicals on honeybees in the more intensive agricultural landscapes. The honeybee colony collapse syndrome still isn't understood and represents an enormous consequence, because in fact honeybees are how most of our agricultural crops are pollinated and without them we don't have a lot of those things!
We have been able to avoid the worst immediate impacts and push back the wall of consequences of these things because we have such abundant energy sources. We can find other ways of doing things. People in rich countries have not really gone hungry or suffered severe catastrophes as a result of let's say loss of topsoil. That is because we have been able to use the power that comes from fossil fuel technologies to offset or compensate with more fertilizers, more pesticides, more production from different parts of the world. And so in a lot of ways the underlying problems don't show up immediately, until a time when energy declines. For example, when farmers cannot afford to use very energy intensive nitrogen fertilizers made from natural gas with enormous amounts of energy, then the underlying lack of organic matter, lack of basic natural fertility within their soils will show up in dramatically reduced yields.

M&C: Heavily subsidized agriculture is common in most of the western countries. What needs to be done to support a more green movement in this area?
DH: There are things that can be done in a policy sense, but real changes have come largely through consumers who have decided to support the natural environment and local communities and organic agriculture, for both their own reasons and for reasons of trying to minimize the impact on the world. They don't want to consume food that is from the industrial system.

M&C: How is our western societies' belief in unlimited growth related to the distraction of our planet? 
DH: The issue of growth as a continuous process is unfortunately built into our money system. This involves perpetual interest and cumulative growth, which at one time was meeting basic unmet human needs, and artificially created needs didn't exist. In the mid 20th century it became obvious that basic needs would soon be met in affluent countries. And we had the super accelerating consumer capitalism that has really developed in the last thirty years, where peoples' basic emotional and inner needs, that are not being met for all sorts of complex reasons, were being met more and more by consuming more things. So we got this super accelerating consumption, of course always fed by new technological capacities to make new things and create new needs. That growth economy is locked in at a psycho-social level and at an economic level in terms of the money system always having to grow.
In the Club of Rome's research work in the 70s "The Limits of Growth" we learned that any exponential growth process eventually runs into a series of limits. We know continuous growth is not possible on a finite planet, but the struggle of the last thirty years has been to try and constantly get around these limits.

M&C: You mentioned consumerism as the gatekeeper to our problems. Why can we as consumers be a part of the solution?
DH: We can see the whole economy around us, one way or another, set up for our consumption. The billion or so middle class consumers on the planet, more than the very rich, are really the global engine of destruction. These people can choose their own behavior, because they are largely individuals and families and their behavior is not locked into extremely rigged traditional authoritarian or institutional structures. If they do change their behavior it can have a very positive effect, not only for themselves, but for the future of their children and grandchildren, but also for the other 5 billion people on the planet who are not the primary beneficiaries of the global industrial system.

M&C: Why is Permaculture the solution to many of our current problems?
DH: The first focus of Permaculture is on food and how we produce it and how we provide for other basic human needs like water or shelter. But the food issue is much more problematic, because our greatest vulnerability to future stress is through our food production, transport, distribution, packaging, processing, wholesaling, retailing and finally the preparation of food. The food supply system in total is our biggest source of impact in terms of water use, ecological footprint or greenhouse gas emissions to name a few.
Permaculture is a way of alternative agriculture, of bringing the food production back home. This has historically always been the case because it is the most ecologically and energetically efficient place to produce those things: right close to where people live. Of course food production is not necessarily something that everyone needs to do but everyone needs to be closer to the sources of sustenance. Closer not just in a geographic sense of how far your food comes, but also conceptually, emotionally and in a transaction sense to have more connection to the farmer who produces our food. Concepts like community supported agriculture, where a farmer supplies a series of customers reflects the Permaculture principles. The customers don't want to eat just one thing each week, they want a diversity. So this system of community supported agriculture pushes the farming system towards polyculture, whereas the central market system pushes the farmer towards monoculture.

M&C: It's a common argument that you can only feed 7 billion people through industrial agriculture. Is that true?
DH: How to fix the global problems is something that I've tended not to dwell on because Permaculture is about creating the world we do want rather than trying to stop the world we don't want! Firstly that notion, that one particular valid example can be repeated everywhere as one solution, which means, one big solution fixes everything, is part of the thinking that comes out of the industrial mentality. And this is wrong! In the future we will have many different ways of doing things.
For example, thirty-five percent of the world's grain, which is the basic stuff that sustains people with most of their energy needs in food, is fed to live stock! A crazy idea of enormous inefficiency, we should close down all of the beef feedlot systems around the world. This would free up an enormous amount of food to feed the world.
Seventeen percent of the world´s grain is used for biofuels to feed motorcars. We could deal with that need by just putting two people in each car. We would have immediately freed up more fuel capacity than the world´s biofuel production.
A lot of the world's best agricultural land is devoted to growing fiber, particularly one fiber for our clothing: Cotton. These requirements are enormously water intensive, require huge amounts of chemicals, a lot of fertilizer and very good quality land in areas with good climate. In the western world at least we don't need any more clothing for another ten years, but we do need to eat more or less each day. We could close down huge parts of the world´s cotton growing for clothes and convert that into growing food.
So, just in those few examples we can see that sensible reorganizations around the same sort of principles would free up a lot of capacity, although they don't answer the problem of continuing population growth and declining oil. The issue of how many people the planet can support after fossil fuels are exhausted is a very substantial one, but it's a question we cannot really answer. All we know is that it will be substantially less than the number of people that are here now. But all we have to do is follow the pathways of change and accept that without the industrial energy we can't do the industrial methods. The industrial method of agriculture is coming to an end anyway.

M&C: Is Permaculture a solution for people living in urban areas?
DH: There are Permaculture projects in some of the poorest and in some of the most affluent and densely urbanized countries in the world. Some of those Permaculture projects are in urban areas where people are modifying and retrofitting urban buildings to reuse gray water and even black water to grow food, to have roof gardens. There are community gardens in urban areas within walking distance of where people live in apartments. One of the examples that is being associated with Permaculture is balcony gardens. These include very small and intensive gardens where people are growing a few selected perishable things in containers that are well suited to their environment, like fresh herbs and salads. They are growing a surprising amount of food in very small areas, using methods that would be completely inappropriate on a large area of land. So the methods change depending on where we are.
The other side of the equation is that Permaculture is concerned with both the production side but also the consumption, looking at ways we can radically reduce our consumption of resources. An example could be the use of wasted material in urban environments.  A huge amount of what we would associate with Permaculture projects in urban areas and even in rural areas is not so much how to produce something that is new but how we can creatively reuse something which is being thrown away, like reusing a glass bottle and remaking it into something else. These creative reuse ideas are much more sophisticated than the primitive industrial recycling systems that smash everything down to it's constituent parts like melting a glass bottle and making a new glass bottle out of it. The more we start to organize our way of life as a self reliant way of life, the more we can use many of these things. Whereas when we live a consumer life style where we have money and get all our needs, we don't have any use for all of the things we find around. This creative reuse is a big part of urban Permaculture.

M&C: If our readers would like to change their life towards a more sustainable life style, what would be your advice or suggestion?
DH: The first thing is really to do an audit, to stand back from one´s own situation and look at all the inputs and outputs of what you do. Where does your water and food come from, where is your energy coming from and what is going out? Who are the people your are connecting to via what system? What is the structure of your dependence and the degree of autonomy? How many of those structures are mediated through the monetary economy, how much of them are coming through the household non monetary economy and the economies of community: gift and exchange, reciprocity between relatives and friends? How much is from other individuals or from small businesses and how much of it is from very large globalized structures? So looking at all of these connections in an objective study sense, not in a judgmental or moral sense, and then saying: "How can we move from where we are, what are the easy things to change that will increase the resilience and self reliance, reduce our dependence on those very complex systems and at the same time reduce the direct and indirect impact that we're having on the planet and the adverse impact on other people?

M&C: Permaculture is based largely on scientific research. But what role does ancient and indigenous wisdom play to cure the land?
DH: It is true that a lot of Permaculture comes out of the scientific linage of agriculture, more out of the holistic approach to science expressed through the science of ecology than the reductionist thinking that tends to pull everything to pieces. But Permaculture is also strongly informed by indigenous and traditional knowledge of cultures of places where people lived connected to the land before the industrial era. There is a common sense, a wisdom that runs through all of these cultures which we have largely lost. And a lot of Permaculture certainly is common sense but it is no longer common. A part of Permaculture is to make it common again. We unashamedly adopt things from various traditions from around the world and accept that the indigenous cultures long embedded in a place before the emergence of agriculture have some deeper lessons to teach us. Like the basic ideas in indigenous cultures about the earth being alive and that everything has some sort of value and consciousness, so when we consume other things we take some of the being into ourselves. Also their attitude to other animals that we eat, where there is a respect and reciprocity between lifeforms and we recognize all as completely connected with everything around us. Those basic understandings of how everything is interconnected, how we are what the earth was and again will be, all those things we have to relearn, because they are ecologically adaptive ways of thinking. Humans have survived by having those thoughts, because they get us to behave in ways that help to support the larger system that we depend on.

M&C: You said that we have to relearn how everything is interconnected. How can we as a society and as individuals reconnect to nature?
DH: The best way to start is actually with children. When we grow a food garden to provide some of our needs and raise babies in that environment, they start to explore that world and put things into their month and discover red berries and other things. This is the reconnection to the basic animal nature through our stomach and mouth. Permaculture is about a very grounded, ordinary every day reconnection with nature. Just seeing the cycle of the seasons and the fact that you can't fast track or renegotiate the seasons, are important learnings that we have to relearn. When we live in the human mediated world we have come to believe everything can be renegotiated, and that it's just a human decision. Well, some things aren't (laughs).

M&C: Can you tell us a little bit about your spiritual connection to the land and the earth?
DH: I have difficulty calling my own a spiritual journey, because I come out of a family bubbling of atheism and scientific rationalism, so I see myself as a scientific rationalist. It is through the highest form of our rational cultural understandings of the world, through fundamental physics, through ecology that we can reflect back and see the sense in traditional spirituality, but for myself the personal pathway is a long, slow and continuing way. I have developed trust in my own intuitive response to things, whereas when I was younger I was the super rationalist. I didn't believe I had any intuitive abilities and I think by just connecting to that intuition is part of connecting to the more mysterious ways the world works. Perhaps this is a spiritual pathway.

M&C: You love being close to nature?
DH: The practical and grounded work in the garden, doing things with my hand, has always been for me a balance to all of this conceptional abstraction going on in my head. To maintain this balance is the hardest thing to do in the modern world.

M&C: Do you have hope?
DH: Permaculture has always been informed by a pretty dire view of the state of the world, but I believe that we may as well focus on what we can do and do it for our own immediate balance as a contribution to seeing a positive change in the world. The thing that gives me most hope is that the simple ideas of Permaculture, which we put forward not so long ago, have actually spread all around the world by a process that hasn't involved any support from governments or corporations; as just an almost organic process. That gives me a lot of hope that people, through changing their own lives  and willingness to share that with other people, have already been an amazing positive agent of influence. That suggests to me that these sort of organic changes can happen also on a larger scale and that they don't require enormous power behind them to happen. So I think transformative change in humans is possible, even though we don't have the power to magically change the nature of the material world, but we do have the power to change ourselves. I think humans are enormously flexible and adaptive given the right circumstances. People's behavior can change in a very radical and transformative way, so that gives me hope.

M&C: Is there anything else you would like to tell our audience?
DH: That the journey of taking responsibility for our own situation is an empowering process rather than a burden and that it is actually a better way of life. Even when we come into some difficult consequences of past actions by ourselves, it is a process of living more deeply. I encourage everyone in that journey!

We met David Holmgren an his partner Su Dennett on March 24th 2010 at their farm Melliodora in Hepburn Springs, Australia

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