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Monday, June 18, 2007

Permaculture - principles and pathways beyond sustainability

by David Holmgren {1}

Reviewed by Rob Hopkins

At the end of his principle 'Use Small and Slow Solutions', David Holmgren writes "when an adolescent sense of immortality and values of speed, novelty and endless growth define a whole civilisation, I think we are close to its demise and the birth of a new cultural paradigm. Watch it slowly unfold."

This book is the clearest elucidation of what this new paradigm might look like since his permaculture co-originator Bill Mollison's seminal Permaculture: A Designers Manual {2} was published in 1988. It is no exaggeration to call this the most important book published in the last fifteen years.

While Mollison set off travelling the world spreading the word in his characteristically passionate and abrasive style, Holmgren chose to start at his own back door, building his house, home-schooling his kids, developing his home-place, Melliodora, into one of Australia's finest examples of permaculture in practice. He has also written prolifically, many of his writings were recently published on a CD Rom, David Holmgren: Collected Writings 1978-2000 {3}.

As Holmgren observes in the book, over the last few years, permaculture, despite beginning life as a radical and visionary concept, a new science of practical ecology, has become seen largely in the wider community as a quirky form of gardening, sheet mulch, herb spirals and so on. A fair percentage of the books published on the subject since the Designers Manual have done little to challenge this, and Holmgren sets out with considerable urgency to reclaim the scale and the importance of the original permaculture concept.

Permaculture, according to Holmgren, is the clearest and best laid out vision of how we might practically, as a race, avoid the potentially disastrous effects of energy descent. It goes beyond conventional sustainable development by realising that the concept of what he calls 'clean, green technology' where we can continue to live as we live now, just with cleaner detergents and lower energy cars is an illusion. The realities of living as such a huge human population in a low energy future will have profound implications for every area of life, and Holmgren states unequivocally that the illusion that we can continue with a business-as-usual scenario "appears only to have substance because generations of the world's more affluent urbanites have been disconnected from nature".

Energy affects all areas of our lives and Holmgren explores in depth the implications of the imminent oil crisis, and the many practical solutions offered by permaculture. He doesn't shy away from setting out the challenges we face, yet he is never alarmist, only gently building his case for the importance of permaculture. Holmgren's work is built squarely on the shoulders of a deep understanding of ecology, and he goes into the concepts of energy within ecology a great deal.

He sets out his version of the permaculture principles, and although some are very close to Mollison's, some stand on their own as being distinctively different. 'Obtain a Yield', is the principle that really strikes me as a notable omission from Mollison's, the idea being that if you design a system or add any new element, try to make sure it is productive, giving a yield of some kind - like all good permaculture ideas it is profound but also common sense. Holmgren's principles are a coherent collection which complement and deepen Mollison's original ones. The question for me now, as a permaculture teacher is which set of principles I will now teach!

Along the way he slays a few sacred cows. Photovoltaics are a waste of time in any situation other than off the grid tropics, he says, as the amount of energy it takes to make them makes them an unrealistic option for a reduced energy future. Trees, according to Holmgren, have developed over millions of years into the most efficient solar collectors, transforming solar energy into usable energy, for fuel and so on, far more effectively than any solar panel we could ever make. Our obsession with computers is also put in its place; information technology, he reminds us, "is the cherry on the cake, not the cake itself".

So what does this book mean to me personally, as someone who teaches permaculture and attempts to live within its principles? I only ever saw Bill Mollison once, speaking to a couple of hundred people in Stroud in 1992. He spoke for two hours with no notes, no slides, no overheads, and it was the biggest kick up the backside I ever had in my life and one from which I am still being propelled forwards today. Four years later I had the privilege of organising a public talk given by David Holmgren in Bristol, and again, it was a defining moment for me. Not so much of a kick up the backside this time, more of an audience with someone who had got to where I wanted to be and was saying "you can do it too, it's easy, and it is the most worthwhile thing you could do". This book has the same effect on me again.

It does have its limitations. It is not a good book for a beginner, nor is it a practical manual like, say, The Designers Manual. It is not really the book to leave lying around for the relative who keeps asking you what permaculture is. Holmgren's style is quite academic, and the book has little in the way of visual stimulation, there are no pictures apart from a few diagrams. The cover is also not particularly arresting as far as covers go. However, the strength of what this book is more than makes up for what it isn't. Reading the book is like eating a rich (organic) chocolate cake, you need to take it in small slices, and go off and lie down for a while to digest it. If you had too much of it in one go you would probably feel a bit dizzy and have to lie down anyway, you have to pace yourself. There is so much in it that I expect to have to read it a few times more to really get to grips with some of the concepts he puts forward.

I mentioned at the start of this review that I consider this to be the most important book published since A Designers Manual. This is not said lightly, and I suppose I should justify that. Permaculture is often seen as being an offshoot of organics, a branch of sustainability, whereas here Holmgren is saying that permaculture encompasses all the elements of sustainability, and also goes beyond that, and not only offers a model for us permaculturists, but offers a way ahead for the whole sustainability movement. What he is setting out here isn't just a few cosy ideas for those of us who already think permaculture is a good idea, it is the clearest template yet laid out of how the sustainability movement as a whole needs to think.

If you are looking for a guide on designing herb spirals or how to make a mulch garden, this is not the book for you. If you want a clear, deep and passionate guide to how we, as a race, might adapt to the rapidly approaching reality of energy descent in such a way that we not only survive but thrive, you must read this. "Watch it unfold" - indeed.



{2} Tagari Publications; Reprint edition (October 01 1997)


Transition Culture: An Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

Bill Totten


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