Rather than waiting for society to all agree how we need to live in a different way, by focusing here in the suburban household, people can actually get on with making changes… a lot can happen right where people are. – David Holmgren, co-founder of Permaculture
Growing up in the suburbs of the US, I must admit our backyard vegetable garden was not my favorite place. First of all, my parents seemed to grow mostly “grown up” vegetables (squash, brussel sprouts, etc.), so my brothers and I could see very little value. Secondly, the garden bed occupied about a third of our backyard baseball field and caused a lot of arguments as balls disappeared into the zucchini vines, turning simple base hits into grand slam homeruns. It was my grandfather Pops who caused a shift in my experience. He grew up in an apartment in Chicago where despite having no lawn or garden at all, he always had an abundance of food growing in pots on the back porch. When he came to our house for a visit, it was like entering the garden of Eden. He would pull plants and herbs out of our garden that nobody even knew were growing there and he would transform them into extraordinary pasta sauces, zucchini breads, cakes and all sorts of dishes we, as kids, could relate to. Between Pop’s cooking and his boxing lessons that helped us handle ourselves during daily baseball tussles, my relationship to the garden started to change. Flash forward a few decades and I’ve now become that guy that’s grown food in pots when we’ve lived in small quarters, and am the first to claim prime backyard real estate for growing food (much to my own son’s annoyance J).
During his recent Transforming the Australian Dream tour on the east coast of Australia, the co-founder of permaculture, David Holmgren offered insights into the rise of our growing global movement back into the garden, and shared some principles of living that can help us transform even suburbia into a flourishing ecosystem of sustainable living on all levels.
The fact that we are going to be dealing with the unfolding crisis of peak oil, climate change, economic contraction – and basically we are already in that crisis in many parts of the world – we are going to have to adapt in somewhat “in situ”. There has been a very negative view of suburbia and houses on extended blocks as being unsustainable and very wasteful of resources. From a permaculture point of view we see that there’s huge opportunity for incremental household-based adaption. Rather than waiting for society to all agree how we need to live in a different way, by focusing here in the suburban household, people can actually get on with making changes… a lot can happen right where people are.
Drawn originally from the words “permanent” and “agriculture” the initial aim of permaculture was to ‘create a design system that was enduring and wouldn’t deplete its resource base.’ Sparked from the working relationship between David Holmgren and Bill Mollison between 1974-78, permaculture has attracted the minds, energy and gardens of sustainably-minded communities all around the world and has evolved into a great cross-pollinator and framework for integrating complimentary philosophies and approaches (such as bio-dynamics and biomimicry). The ultimate aim: ‘Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs.’
People, their buildings and the ways in which they organise themselves are central to how the system works and therefore the overall vision for permaculture has evolved from sustainable or ‘permanent agriculture’ to sustainable or ‘permanent culture’. How do we redesign the whole of society, not just our provision of food, but the way we organize and distribute our patterns for living?
In Holmgren’s view, while on one hand permaculture involves very abstract systems thinking, at another level, it’s actually just dealing at a very grounded level with the most practical basic elements of life.
Getting our own house in order
As David shares, “The experience in my own life has been that the most powerful things I’ve done are in the way I live personally, the way I operate in a family, at a household economy level. For example, the non-monetary economy of growing food at home, cooking, caring for children, maintaining space. Moving away from a mediated nocturnal existence to a direct experiential daytime existence – maintaining health and fitness by physical work to provide ones needs. Often times we can start with a simple household audit. Where is energy going to and coming from and how can we close the loop and stop the leakages of energy?”
Recognize the power of community
One of the clear and simple findings that David reveals out of the experience of a ‘household audit’ is that it’s a lot easier to go further the exploration of sustainability in a larger shared household than by one person.
It’s ironic that most of the things we have in society – our food production systems, our cities – everything is at too big a scale to be sustainable, and yet our households are too small to be sustainable. Not our houses (they are the biggest in the world) but our households (the amount of people living in our homes).
For the billions or so middle class people on the planet there are a lot of commonalities that permaculture can address simply by behavior change and changing the way we see things. For example, a lot of us can share our car, pick up other people and with that, have an instant four-fold efficiency and massive reduction in our costs – just by using our resources differently.
Grow food… and discover untapped abundance
Another one of the things that Holmgren shares that can be done by almost everyone is gardening and food production. For adults and children alike, this brings us into a direct, pragmatic connection to nature and a positive relationship with our environment that doesn’t require any complex filters of approval or money from the world around us.
Even the bad aspects of fighting weeds and pests are metaphors for fighting with bits of our own nature that we don’t like. It’s like bringing all those huge big system problems back home to a little scale where we have a chance to work with them and experiencing things that might contribute to a larger solution.
Overall, David encourages us to find new ways of looking at our environment, to say, “What are the opportunities that I’m not seeing? The abundances that nature or society is not valuing that I can take advantage of?”
This might be as small as noticing the things growing in the garden we didn’t even plant that we’ve been pulling out, that can actually be added into the salad. There has been a huge explosion of interest in edible weeds as people realize that many times the things we’re pulling out as weeds are actually very health giving if we know how to cook and eat them.
In the following video David shares valuable insight into a few of the simple and empowering steps each of us can take to begin to live a more harmonious and sustainable existence on all levels.
Permaculture co-founder David Holmgren shares his vision to “retro-fit suburbia” into a thriving ecosystem
While the task of transforming suburbia- and all of society- into a thriving, sustainable ecosystem may seem overwhelming or out of reach for most of us, it’s powerful to consider that every garden starts with the simple planting of a few seeds, and each of us has the power to start there. And the great thing about gardens (and global movements like permaculture) is that once we start them… they grow.
I say, if your knees aren’t green by the end of the day, you ought to seriously re-examine your life. ~Bill Watterson, Calvin & Hobbes
ARTWORK ‘The Fifth Sacred Thing’ by JESSICA PERLSTEIN