6 Dec 2005
Spending Time with David Holmgren
**David Holmgren** is the co-founder of permaculture, originating the concept in the late 1970s when David was Bill’s student at a progressive university in Australia. For many years, David had been overshadowed by Bill’s outgoing and occasionally outrageous character; while Bill toured the world inspiring many people and infuriating a few more, David stayed at home, home-schooled his son, built his house, planted his garden, walked his talk. With the recent publication of his latest book, ‘Permaculture – principles and pathways beyond sustainability’, David has begun to reclaim his place at the heart of permaculture thinking, and their international tour this year was a large part of that process.
This summer I had the honour of hosting David Holmgren in West Cork, which was then my home. When David and his partner Sue Dennett arrived in Ireland they were coming straight from the International Permaculture Convergence in Slovenia. David was one of the speakers at the Fuelling the Future conference, and on his first day in Ireland, did an interview for RTE for a piece they were doing about permaculture and the college. Extraordinarily, they also interviewed Richard Heinberg, but ended up using none of the footage at all, preferring to use interviews with college students and teachers! You can hear David’s talk at Fuelling the Future here.
Two days after Fuelling the Future, David gave a 3 day Advanced Permaculture Design Course at The Hollies. I had been wanting to do this course for years, and to have him doing it where I lived was very special. Ted Trainer recently wrote an article in which he was critical of permaculture, saying that if a permaculture teacher taught permaculture without also putting it in the context of profoundly redesigning society in the context of oil depletion, it could ultimately be self defeating. David could never be accused of that, as in recent years he has refocused his work around peak oil, it forming the background to his book and to all his teaching. In a recent interview, David said;
>”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.”
…which is a nice way of summing up the Energy Descent Action Planning model which we developed directly inspired by David’s work.
The course took place over 3 days in the big yurt at The Hollies, and was attended by about 17 people. The course revolved around David’s new interpretation of the principles of permaculture. To begin with he talked about the need for principles, saying that we need principles which become embedded in our thinking and give us a background understanding. Whereas techniques are not universally applicable, principles are. David also spoke of how our current situation requires new principles, that “doing what our grandfathers did is no longer relevant”. He placed permaculture in the context of peak oil and energy descent, speaking of permaculture offering “opportunities for creative descent”.
He emphasised practicality, questioning permaculture gardens with an abundance of greens but little else. His thinking is that the ideal garden has a mix of staple crops, salads, fruit trees and small livestock. He often finds himself looking round gardens thinking “where are the spuds?”. The bulk of the course explored David’s new 12 permaculture principles, as outlined in his book, and gone through one-by-one in this article.
He talked about the Permaculture Design course and that he feels that no single teacher should teach more than 50% of a design course. He added that “a permaculture course is not about downloading skills, but rather a personal transformation process”.
He was asked a question about what was the most effective way to influence people to change. He said that the most important thing was the creation of models, so that when people start looking around for solutions there are examples in place. He said the important thing is to find the point of connection, and start where people are.
David’s book, ‘Permaculture – principles and pathways beyond sustainability’ was a life changing event for me. I was reading it at the same time as my friend Tom, and every morning we bounced ideas about from what we had just read. I was an exhilarating time, Holmgren’s writing is dense with observation and insight. What is wonderful about the book is that he places permaculture right back at the centre of the sustainability debate, as being the key discipline for energy descent. It is a powerful restatement of the permaculture case, the most important book published since Bill Mollison’s ‘Permaculture – A Designer’s Manual’ in 1988. It is not uncontroversial, and I often return, when I hear people being too idealistic about a rosy post carbon future, his quote that;
*”…in the end we have to get our hands dirty if we are to adapt to energy descent. The image of clean green technology where we do not need to mess with nature or kill anything to provide for oour needs, is, in the final analysis, an illusion. That illusion appears to have substance only because generations of the world’s more affluent urbanites have been disconnected from nature”.*
You can hear interviews with David here and here. You can read some articles of his online, The End of Suburbia, and a wealth of other articles here. David also has his own website, and you might like to hear these two talks on permaculture. I am hoping to be able to post David’s Powerpoints from the course here, but I am just waiting to hear if David is happy with that.
You should also check out his fantastic E-Book, Melliodora, a case study in cool temperate permaculture 1985-2005, which is just wonderful. Really shows how this technology can be useful, and contains a wealth of insight into the processes that went into the development of his place and the lessons learnt from it. It is the best case study I have yet seen of a permaculture site, documented in exquisite detail.