Backyard answer to energy crisis
Several of us blitzers are currently in Sydney for APC9, the 9th Australian Permaculture Convergence. We gave a well received talk today and have been inspired by brilliant stories from many of the permaculture greats and relative unknowns. Two of the greats, the two founders Bill Mollison and David Holmgren who both spoke this morning are featured in the following SMH article which is a light primer on the beginings of permaculture.
A return to 1950s suburbia may be the answer to our needs in a low-energy future, writes Fran Molloy.
With crude oil now more than $US110 a barrel and the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries announcing this month that it will not succumb to demands for raised production quotas, dark predictions of an imminent descent into a global energy crisis appear to be coming true.
But the permaculture co-founder David Holmgren, who has been warning of such events for decades, believes the energy crisis heralds the beginning of a low-energy future – a future that may involve a return to 1950s suburbia.
These days Holmgren is a quietly spoken farmer in his 50s, his ponytail the only hint of the radical visionary behind the frameless spectacles.
Thirty years ago Holmgren was a university student who came up with the concept of permaculture, a blindingly simple idea: why not design our living spaces so that human needs for food, water and shelter imitated natural self-sustaining ecosystems?
Bill Mollison, a university lecturer who had worked as a wildlife biologist and helped to start the Tasmanian Organic Gardening and Farming Society, was Holmgren’s mentor and co-creator of the idea.
Leaving as dux of his Fremantle high school in 1973 to hitch-hike around Australia, Holmgren became fascinated by a growing culture of self-sufficiency that he saw; ecological building, alternative technology and organic gardening gathered momentum, spurred on by the oil crisis.
He enrolled in the revolutionary Environmental Design School in Tasmania, which he calls the most radical experiment in tertiary education in Australia’s history. With no fixed timetable or curriculum, it was the perfect environment in which to devise something as divergent as permaculture, which borrowed from landscape architecture, ecology and agriculture.
In 1978 Holmgren and Mollison published Permaculture One, describing their research in detail. Human ecosystems could harvest and recycle water; they could plant food in companion plantings, generating self-renewing food forests, they could use animals to provide food and manage pests and weeds and fertilise gardens.
There was a flood of interest from all over the world and Holmgren, an inexperienced 23-year-old, was happy to leave it to Mollison to spread the word.
Spread the word he did, travelling to more than 120 countries, publishing further texts and founding the Permaculture Institute, which gave qualifications to thousands of future permaculture teachers.
“While I was the co-originator of the concept, I definitely describe Bill Mollison as the founder of the permaculture movement,” Holmgren says. Though he and Mollison remain close, their paths have diverged widely.
While Mollison became the public face of permaculture, Holmgren wanted to ground his theoretical ideas in practice. He left university without completing his higher degree, working with a builder friend to learn some self-sufficiency skills.
Holmgren moved to a remote valley in northern Tasmania where he grew food, learning skills in hunting, forestry, building and agriculture.
His mother had moved to Wyndham, on the South Coast of NSW, aiming to become self-sufficient. Holmgren helped her develop her property, which became a permaculture case study.
Holmgren says he has been influenced by the ecologist Haikai Tane. He went to New Zealand to work with him in 1979. “In a way I was putting myself through a permanent training course for permaculture design consultancy – which has really been my continuous, if small, livelihood over many years.”
Holmgren and his partner, Su Dennett, now live on a small farm near Daylesford in Victoria, where they grow most of their own food, selling and swapping the excess with neighbours.
The one-hectare property supports chickens, geese and goats, a small dam hosts fish and yabbies, and more than 100 fruit and nut trees supply produce.
While permaculture in the 1970s focused on the suburbs, with edible front-yard landscapes, chooks in the backyard and food trees on the streets, by the mid-1980s most advocates had moved to rural properties, with a global return to cheap energy and strong conservative politics making “hippy” a four-letter word.
But the modern consumer-driven lifestyle is driving families mad, with moves back to sustainable living, where Holmgren believes suburbs may hold the key.
“It’s technically possible that the traditional older suburbs could actually produce all of the food needed to sustain the people living there,” he says.
“The amount of open space – both public and private space in backyards – means that you’ve got a population density not that much greater than some of the densest traditional agricultural landscapes in the world.”
It is a return to the 1950s, Holmgren adds. Traditionally, broad-scale agriculture provided basic grains and staples, but in most countries gardening provided a huge part of the perishable food supply.
“The suburbs offer an opportunity for people to gain more food security and social insurance at home and in their neighbourhood than in systems where everything is dependent on the government and corporations managing to keep the supply lines of everything running smoothly.”
Rebuilding the structure of the community is an important part of retrofitting the suburbs.
“Without saying anything, we can create a revolution in society; I can exchange some food with you and we can direct the roof run-off from your shed into our water tank and then you can have some of that water back.”
In 2006 Holmgren joined the US peak oil commentator Richard Heinberg on a speaking tour around Australian cities. “It was like a rock’n’roll road show. I’ve never done anything like that before,” he reflects.
Holmgren joins many other luminaries in the permaculture world, including Mollison and Professor Tane, over the Easter weekend at a conference celebrating the movement’s 30th anniversary.
The Ninth Australian Permaculture Convergence, Glengarry Training Centre, North Turramurra, 20-24 March. Information/program at www.apc9.org.au.
Source: Sydney Morning Herald