David Holmgren – RetroSuburbia: The Downshifters Guide to a Resilient Future

David Holmgren, co-originator of permaculture, joins me to chat about his book (and vision) "Retro Suburbia: The Downshifters Guide to a Resilient Future". We talk about the 12 principals of permaculture which can be applied to all aspects of our life, how we can downshift and redesign our lives to become more involved in our local community and the power that we have as individuals to make a difference.

David Holmgren – RetroSuburbia: The Downshifters Guide to a Resilient Future Introduction

Today we are talking about permaculture. We’re not talking about it in just terms of out there on the land. We’re talking about it where the vast majority of Australians and in fact, a lot of people in the world live in suburbia. 

And the title of the podcast today is the title of the book, which we’ll be talking to the author of David Holmgren, “RetroSuburbia: The Downshifter’s Guide to a Resilient Future”. And if we ever needed a resilient future, now’s a great time for it.

There is just so many gems in this episode, so many great resources that are mentioned, which will, of course, have links to at the end. So I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with David Holmgren.

Podcast Transcript

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:00:09] Hello and welcome to Unstress. My name is Dr Ron Ehrlich. Well, today we are talking about permaculture. We’re not talking about it in just terms of out there on the land. We’re talking about it where the vast majority of Australians and in fact, a lot of people in the world live in suburbia. 

And the title of the podcast today is the title of the book, which we’ll be talking to the author of David Holmgren, “RetroSuburbia: The Downshifter’s Guide to a Resilient Future”. And if we ever needed a resilient future, now’s a great time for it. 

There is just so many gems in this episode, so many great resources that are mentioned, which will, of course, have links to at the end. So I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with David Holmgren. Welcome to the show, David.

David Holmgren [00:01:06] Good to be here with you.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:01:08] David, there is so much I wanted to talk to you about your book, “RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future”. I mean, if there was ever a down shifter’s, God, we’re like downsizing down shifters. Yeah, but I want to ask about your journey in permaculture. How’d you get started? Where how do you get to this point?

David Holmgren’s Journey

David Holmgren [00:01:32] Well, of course, permaculture began as a concept and a term coined by myself and Bill Mollison in the 1970s. I had a brief, intense working relationship with Bill Mollison. A lot of people think he was my academic supervisor. That’s actually a lot more complicated than that. But of course, he was a generation older than me. 

He died in 2015. And I was at the time studying in a course called Environmental Design, which was probably the most radical experiment in tertiary education in Australia’s history from many points of view. But in that course, my interests had gravitated to the intersection between ecology, agriculture, and landscape architecture. And I could see how two of those crossed over. Any two of them actually in some innovative progressive ways, but not all three. And it was at that time that I met Bill Mollison, who was an amazing polymath who’d left school at 14.

Been a fisherman, rabbit trapper, CSIRO researcher, and then gone to university and the connexion between us in those years led to the publication of “Permaculture One” in 1978. And that really caught a wave that really I was only twenty-three at that stage. And you could say that permaculture then shaped my life because the concept took off due to the energy and charisma and efforts of Bill Mollison around the world became a sort of a worldwide movement. But so in some ways, I feel like, you know, it’s almost like that happened to me at a young age. So my journey with permaculture has been, you know, almost a lifelong one.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:03:53] Well, I mean, what a mentor to have. I mean, go right to the source of the whole concept.

David Holmgren [00:04:02] Yeah, well, it in a way, of course. Like most of the words in “Permaculture One” were actually my words. And people alternatively interpreted as I was approaching him as an expert in this area. He was actually a senior tutor in the psychology faculty at a different university. He didn’t actually have a label that said “brilliant ecologist”.

It was actually I who identified him and recognized him as “you really got something here”. As that. And he really was, you know, a genius in that regard. But he was also a great promoter, very charismatic, and very challenging. So he was a figure that the media loved. Of course, that timing in the late 70s was at a time when there was a huge interest in what today we might call sustainable alternatives before the term sustainability actually existed. And permaculture managed to launch into the popular consciousness in Australia in the late 70s and survive what I call the dark decades of the 80s and 90s of the Thatcherite Reaganite revolution, the greedy culture, and many other aspects that sort of suppressed a lot of the ideas of those ideas.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:05:40] Because what a concept to come about at a time when the Green Revolution, you know, and it really has been a very dominating concept at the same time. I mean, you know, it’s like, you know, in healthcare, there was this demonization of fat and somebody also identified sugar as being the culprit. But it was the fat industry that was, you know. The sugar industry that won out. And here we had the Green Revolution. And, you know, this industrialized agriculture side-by-side with permaculture, I mean, has. I mean, you know, the time has come.

David Holmgren [00:06:20] Yeah. Well, a lot of these things are a sort of slow burn and they go backward and forwards in society. So I’ve written not in great depth, but about these sorts of multiple waves of modern environmental thinking that have advanced and been suppressed. And that there’s a correlation between those things and geopolitical cycles and larger-scale things that are happening in the world. But right down to what’s happening in people’s personal lives. 

And so, for example, at different times, we’ve seen interest in the “back to the land” movement living closer to nature, intentional communities, ecological agriculture, holistic approaches to health have sort of come to the fore and sort of gone back in in the popular consciousness, you know, over time. And we’ve seen that definitely with permaculture. There was that first great wave. And then Bill Mollison’s designer’s manual published in 1988, caught really what was the second wave following the stock market crash of 87. 

And in fact, the year a.D.A was the same year that the IPCC was formed and the official recognition that climate change is an existential threat to humanity. And that second wave actually I date as coming to an end with the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. And we are probably in the fourth wave now.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:08:10] My gosh, you know, when you mention Reagan and Thatcher and of course, the rise of a market-driven economy, the influence of corporations on all levels of their lives, agriculture, healthcare is enormous. And yet, you know, here we hear our treasurer re-imagine those names, hold them up as some kind of a beacon. You know, let’s re-explore Reagan and Thatcher. And I kind of go, oh, my God, where are we? Have we learned nothing? But anyway, we digress because I’m sure we could talk about this. You.

David Holmgren [00:08:51] I suppose that origin point of permaculture, of thinking about how we could redesign agriculture based on the principles in nature, was part of a sort of a larger recognition that agriculture is the core human activity on the planet by which we provide for our needs. 

Of course, it’s sort of become masked by the massive tapping of fossil fuels over the last 250 years. But agriculture is, in a sense, still the most important and the most problematic activity on the planet. So there was good reason for permaculture starting there, but it was always really about how we redesign everything we do and in fact, redesign our lives. 

So that element of permanent agriculture and permanent culture was, you know, and as seed there at the beginning, that permaculture, certainly in the early decades was very strongly associated with agriculture and growing things. And in the popular consciousness, cool form of organic gardening, really. 

And that’s been sort of a powerful way that it is spread. But it had a downside that it’s tended to be sort of ignored in the formalities and the serious consideration of sustainability issues. Oh, yes. It’s just a form of gardening.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:10:30] Yes. Well, your book certainly puts another perspective on that and it’s interesting that we have. We’ve had we’re having this period of reflection, global reflection. I mean, all of us, when we’re locked down. I think you’re in Victoria at the moment and you’re locked down and we’ve all been in lockdown. 

And in an incredible time of global reflection, that what is important and redefining, which makes your book “Retro Suburbia” and the combination of that with permaculture so interesting. And so. That’s why I was really excited to talk to you today. Let’s get back to let’s for those that aren’t familiar or familiar with the term permaculture, can we just get back to that permaculture 101, and just let’s talk about what it is.

What is Permaculture?

David Holmgren [00:11:19] Yeah. At its essence, it’s a design system for sustainable living and sustainable land use. So it’s concerned with both the production side of the equation where we provide our needs from a working relationship with nature and the consumption side. And that includes how we organize ourselves, how we live at a very, very basic, daily intimate level in our households, right through to how we organize society. 

I suppose there’s different pathways into that. And for a lot of people, it’s through connecting to nature, through growing some of their own food in environmentally benign but just not benign ways in the absence of toxins and destructive ways of managing the soil or working with animals, but also in ways that regenerate the basic resources of pure water, fertile soil, biodiversity and importantly, biomass, which was one of the core ideas at the beginning of permaculture. 

Why does nature have ecosystems that are composed of all these perennial as well as annual plants? Long live trees, huge eco structures. And yet our agriculture is largely annual plants which come and go with the season and then disturb the soil. Why doesn’t our agriculture actually, if not look like nature, function like nature? So in that sense, permaculture, the core of permaculture, is really focussing on design and design as a new literacy. How can we look at what we’ve got? How can it evolve into something or change from what it is to something else?

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:13:24] Yes, well, there’s a recurring theme on our podcast now. I know I’ve mentioned this to you. We’ve been exploring regenerative agriculture for the time of this podcast and there’s one expression that I loved and I heard Charlie. Charlie Massy. I don’t know whether you know this one. Yes. Charlie said something in one of his presentations and one of his conversations to enable rather than dominate nature. Yes. And I just. Wow. I just thought, wow. There is a statement. Permaculture is very much about some guiding principles there, aren’t there?

David Holmgren [00:13:59] Yeah. And of course, permaculture in some ways historically was like a branch of the tree of Organic Agriculture, which had its origins way back in the 1930s in many countries simultaneously. 

But then a lot of people sort of associated organics with when organics became an industry certified agriculture, globalized trade of, you know, environmentally benign agricultural produce. And in some ways, the term regenerative agriculture was showing the know, the real deep focus in all of these lineages is really actually building and regenerating nature, not just minimizing adverse impact because that association between the way organics became an industry, a certified industry was very much part of that second wave. 

How do we minimize the impact on nature? And permaculture has always been from the beginning about how do we actually create abundance, not just for us, but nature’s abundance. And so a lot of the themes in regenerative agriculture, whether they were influenced by permaculture or whether they arose independently, are basically working around those same principles.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:15:26] I think one of the words that I know Charlie took exception with was the word sustainable because what he felt was that what we had at the moment, we needed to do better than sustain it. Yeah. And then maybe it’s semantics, but I think it’s an important point.

David Holmgren [00:15:43] Yeah. And that’s why I’ve always been a little bit cautious about using that, saying permaculture is a design system for sustainable living and land use because that’s a sort of an access point that people can relate to the concept. But of course, as I said, permaculture and the ideas of permanence in agriculture can also be critiqued. 

Well, actually, we do want things that are enduring, but permanent can imply static and fixed. And the problem with sustainability is… Yes, are we seeking to sustain what already exists, which is in fact, unsustainable. So that, you know? And of course, these terms come into the public consciousness with important meanings but are inevitably corrupted and abused and discarded. 

As time goes on and we can say the same process with the recognition of resilience taking over from sustainability, because resilience is a sort of implicit acknowledgment that we are not going to be able to stop impacts on systems we value, including ourselves, that we’re going to actually have to bend like the tree in the flood, that we are going to have to adapt and accept impact rather than the idea that we can completely resist those.

 So that subtle shift from speaking about sustainability to resilience is, of course, built on some very key understandings in ecological and systems theory. But it’s also sort of politically this slow way by which we say, oh, well, you know, we’re going to have to accept a lot of change that we actually can’t control.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:18:00] It’s interesting that word resilience because what I’ve come to observe and I’ve been very interested in holistic health care for almost 40 years and regenerative agriculture for probably about 15 or 20 years, is this word resilience and diversity. 

Because some because in, for example, my background’s dentistry, oral microbiome, the more diversity it is, the more healthy and more resilient it is and the healthy you will be. The same is true of the gut microbiome. The same is true of the soil microbiome. But it’s actually biodiversity equals resilience. And that’s a central pillar, isn’t it? Because.

David Holmgren [00:18:41] Yeah, well, it’s interesting that some people, in reviewing my framework of 12 permaculture design principles sometimes said, oh, but resilience is actually doesn’t sort of figure there as some as a principle. And I’ve argued that actually all twelve design principles contribute to resilience, which is a fundamental system, property of living, evolving systems. And of course, a big feature of that is diversity. The principle of diversity. But similarly, all of the other twelve principles, I believe sort of contribute to that. But certainly, if you have a monoculture of one microbe or one crop. That system is very, very vulnerable to change.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:19:47] You’ve mentioned twelve principles, some, you know. Can we touch on them briefly? What what? What they are.

12 Permaculture Design Principles

David Holmgren [00:19:53] Yeah. They’re, you know, the start with observe and interact, catch and store energy, obtain a yield, self-regulation and accepting feedback and use of renewable resources and services, producing no waste, designed from patents to details, integrate rather than segregate small and slow solutions that use and value diversity. Use the edges and value the marginal and creatively use and respond to change. 

Now, in a sense, that is like a whole framework for redesigning anything we do. But it has its basis in seeing the way natural systems work and inevitably, as general principles they are incredibly general and abstract, whereas most people will relate to permaculture or any conceptual framework through “Show Me the solution” that actually sort of represents that because most people won’t relate to that so much. And that’s really important. That sort of concrete connection. 

And that’s the big difference between my book, “Permaculture Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability” and “Retro Suburbia”. Because the former is, if you like, a book of abstraction and theory. A framework. Whereas “Retro Suburbia” is the grounded can do ideas of how those ideas, you know, express themselves in practice. 

So in the book “Retro Suburbia”, the principles are sort of backgrounded slightly as Oh yeah this pattern here sort of is a great example, you know, with our use of our icons that we’ve been communicating these principles over the last 20 years or so, and especially through permaculture design courses, people learning to use these as thinking tools or a checklist for when considering difficult or new situations.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:22:19] As you were listing those 12 principles. I was just had to remind myself we were talking about, you know, I mean, we could’ve been talking about society. Really? Yeah, well, I mean, really, that’s much as you say, it’s a systems approach.

David Holmgren [00:22:34] And earlier articulations of permaculture principles, and especially in Bill Mollison’s books, felt a more concrete connection to land management, agriculture, gardening, nature. And the working sort of generalizing, those of saying actually no there’s a sort of a deeper thing that applies in everything we do. And a lot of people have taken those principles in different fields of expertise in including holistic medicine and sort of done their own analysis and said, oh, this is very much, you know, describing what we are doing in this field. 

So we do believe that you know, over the years, these are sort of connecting to sort of more sort of fundamental reshaping that we need to make in society rather than just like reforming this little problem here or that problem. Because so often the permaculture aphorism that the problem is the solution, reminding us to say look at what’s annoying us, because it actually may have a lesson for us that what we see in society is when we find solutions that are genuine, deep solutions to some dilemma, that somehow society turns them back into the same problem. So how it indicates that we need a different form of thinking about what we’re doing.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:24:14] Yes. Which makes our treasurer’s reference to Reagan and Thatcher saying even more crazy. But let’s set a picture, know when we think about agricultural growing food, often we are kind of transporting ourselves into the country and doing, you know, let’s get our part of land and let’s do this. But this is about suburbia. And you really made suburb suburbs so valuable, and I even look out of my own window, I see so much land that’s just not being used. What’s happened? Why are suburbs so valuable? I mean, in what is.

Why are suburbs so valuable?

David Holmgren [00:24:49] Yeah. I suppose I’ve over the decades had a lot of focus and passion about rural land use and regenerative agriculture. But recognizing that the majority of Australians live in inner cities and most of those live in low desert cities, separated residential houses in what we call suburbia. And with that scene around the capital cities or in the larger regional towns or even in small villages like Hepburn Springs where I live, that’s how most Australians live. And that’s been very strongly criticized in the planning profession, in environmentalism as unsustainable, car-dependent, all sorts of things. And we need to make our cities more compact and high density to be efficient. I’ve never accepted that orthodoxy. 

I was arguing against that in design school in the 1970s. But what it’s become sort of more obvious is, is in recent times we are going to be heading into the multiple crises of climate change and resource depletion, geopolitical instability, pandemics, all of these things with what we’ve got, we’re not going to wipe the slate clean and design new, gleaming, sustainable settlements because we actually don’t have time. 

We’re going to be adapting in situ. And it turns out that suburban landscapes are remarkably good places for Australians to adapt in situ. Apart from knowing something about where you are and just the skills of gardening in a climate and soil that you’re familiar with rather than somewhere else, the fact that householders have an enormous amount of autonomy to get their act together and start doing things before the whole of society agrees that we need to live in a different way. 

Whereas when you’re talking about higher density development in apartment blocks and inner-city, there are so many stakeholders and it’s quite technically complex, how do we retrofit those buildings and those environments in those ways of living? You know, we’ve seen in the recent pandemic, oh, lifts people crowded in lifts. Oh, that’s not such a good thing. There’s a whole lot of things that are actually quite difficult when we’re talking about redesigning, retrofitting our high-density cities, whereas suburbs have this sweet point balance between access to space, sunlight, soil to get productive, get the household and community nonmonetary economy happening to provide a degree of self-reliance and resilience at that level and to complement all of the other activities that are happening in the monetary economy and that the hinterland, as we rebuild localised economies and that there’s also still a critical mass of people that we associate with cities where you can have exchange and social interaction within walking or bicycling distance. 

So that makes suburbia a great place to start. And the fact that so many Australians are there, and especially the ones that are raising the next generation, that a higher proportion of children raised in those environments.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:28:44] Well, I think one thing that this pandemic, I mean, has taught us or is teaching us is the importance of connection and not just connection with people in real life, but connections with nature. And so this retrofitting of suburbia locally, that’s another word that we’ve become familiar with. Globalization seems, and there are many benefits to it, obviously, but it has its downfalls as well. So localization is an interesting concept and connecting with that.

Importance of Connections with Nature

David Holmgren [00:29:19] Yes. Well, permaculture has really been part of a worldwide movement for 30 years of saying actually we need to do all of the things that suit being done at the local scale and only scale up to the largest scales, national and international, for the functions that can’t be done at the local scale. And part of the reasons for that is it’s just way more energetically efficient. And the environmental impact is a tiny fraction of doing everything at the global scale. 

Even though economics has created this ridiculous system where it’s economic in theory, to harvest fish in one place and send it to the other side of the world, to be filleted in another place, and then packaged, you know, so these absurd inefficiencies and destructive impacts on the world. When we grow food in our backyard. And it is actually possible to feed the family all of the fresh fruit and vegetable needs and small livestock products and more in the neighborhood from one typical suburban back yard. Obviously, there’s a skill set in that. 

But when that’s done, it disconnects a whole supply chain of trucking, of centralized food supply systems of refrigeration, and massive waste that is inevitable when you try and centralize the production of perishable food. Now, that doesn’t mean to say that we’re also going to get in our backyards and grow a crop of wheat to provide our staple food. That’s something that really does suit being done in a big paddock. And there’s no problem transporting that sort of food. But it’s a crazy world where the most perishable food is coming from these sorts of huge distances. So we can say that in quite recent history that around our cities we still have this intensive horticulture very close in. 

And in fact, in our cities that provided a lot of those perishable foods. And there’s a huge upwelling in interest in people doing that again. And some of that’s driven around lifestyle and health, connection to nature for children. Some of it’s driven increasingly around the recognition of the fragilities in the centralized systems that we’ve become accustomed to. And also that people some people recognize this is actually the way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impact to a massive degree by relocalizing simple things, especially in a household and community, nonmonetary economy, which is really the core of retro suburbia, how we do things for ourselves at home again, like our forebears always did.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:32:42] Yes. This whole globalized food system, providing us with seemingly cheap food and I say seeming because when you factor in the environmental costs, let alone, as we’re now learning, the health costs, it’s really actually very it comes at a very, very high cost, very, very high costs. You kind of when you’re looking at this permaculture, you identify these three fields of permaculture, you know, the biologicals built-in behavioral health and whether we could touch on it.

David Holmgren [00:33:15] So if we think about it in terms of the retrofitting paradigm, how to change something and make it fit for new purpose, that we mostly relate to that in relation to the built environment, how do we put insulation in a house, weatherstrip the doors, maybe put solar panels on, double glazing, maybe you installing a wood heater to provide some other form of heating rather than being just completely dependent on everything on electricity and that heater might be heating water and cooking food and many other things that we can think of all of that as being part of the built field. 

But we can also think of looking at our gardens that might need tweaking, changing or in fact more radical retrofit that might include even removal of some large evergreen trees so we can allow sunlight into buildings and garden space and have more modest size food-producing trees. 

So we can think that the biological field needs retrofitting. And that might include what is the role of companion animals, cats, and dogs with jobs instead of more sort of parasitic relationships and productive animals, poultry and even in some suburban context, animals of the scale of goats. Is it huge interest in people keeping goats now in the suburbs? So that we can see all of that, the diversity of the living from living soil, plants, animals. That’s the biological field and then the behavioral field is really everything about us. 

Everything about how we live and organize ourselves in our houses. Who makes up the household? What are the complementary roles around the different functions, issues of sustaining and sustainable diet? Working from home. Health and well-being. All of these like really quite difficult issues that really shape what we do. 

We call that the behavioral field. So that sort of really covers everything that we have to deal with in our lives one way or another. And so “Retro Suburbia” is really in some ways three books in one, because it’s focussing on those three fields. But they, of course, all overlap and interact in many, many different ways. But it’s just a framework for a lot of people they will be passionate and interested in one of those that might be the entry point into a journey to be more self-reliant at home, less dependent on money, less dependent on debt, and debt-fuelled consumption.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:36:53] Well, we’ve certainly been retro charged on the behavioral principle, haven’t we? Because we are all I mean, I mean I shouldn’t say we are all, that’s a big statement. But many people are at home thinking about what is important in life and how vulnerable we are. So if someone was now saying “ok so I’ve got to make changes” and obviously reading your book is a good first step. But before they get to that point, and if you were going to advise them as individuals, how would you say we should get going? Start it. What’s a good way to start?

David Holmgren [00:37:31] Yeah, well, it’s interesting because the pandemic has sort of thrown a lot of people back into whatever the domestic home situation is. And some people have experienced that as.. “wow, now, I can actually do all of those things that I’ve been meaning to do but haven’t had time. Get the garden cranking clean out the workshop so we can fix up the repair to the bicycle so they work and all of those things. 

A lot of people have been enormously empowered by that. A lot of other people found, wow, this is pretty glum. The paupertate existence that their living situation actually doesn’t have much of those possibilities. And so in both those situations, I think that’s sort of a reflection on, gee, we’ve allowed our household economy and everything to deteriorate. 

So doing an audit of what one’s household is and that includes, you know, who are the people in it? Because what we find is that the smaller a household is, not the house, the fewer people who are living together, the more they are dependent on all of the outside systems for both their needs and also their social interactions. Whereas when you have larger households that have been working together and whether that’s an extended family or whether a well functioning, shared household, there’s a whole lot of capacity that exists there. 

And of course, when people are isolated in a microbiological sense, they can function as a unit. So obviously, people can’t necessarily change that situation. But thinking deeply about one’s household is something that always happens when society is hit by these shocks and changes. And we know that in economic downturns in the past. The dominant strategy and response is that people amalgamate together in larger households.

 A lot of it just family. And since the GFC in the United States, which was hit very badly by that impact, there’s very strong evidence of this household consolidation. There’s also that now happening as a result of the pandemic. 

Obviously, people making a lot of last-minute sort of changes to that, but I think that the pandemic is that opportunity to do a serious audit of where you are and thinking not in a sort of a panic, immediate sense. Okay. How come we learn from this? And that may involve small changes. Oh, we’re going to take in a border to sort of help pay the mortgage. 

And, you know, I have someone else that might be interested in gardening or that sort of change or no, we need to downsize and get out of debt and move to a cheaper house, maybe move to a country town and get a similar sort of house. But without the level of debt. So this audit can result in identifying small, important first steps that can be done or they may identify, gee, we need to really make some big changes first here. So we’ve developed tools to assist that. And on the Retro Suburbia website, there’s a retro suburbia real estate assessment tool that helps people assess their own property. 

It’s a little bit different when you’re assessing your own behavior if you like. But that’s a way that people can approach that in all sorts of different ways. And certainly, crises and change always inspire us to stand back from our situation a bit and say you know what? What can we improve on what we’ve got? So it varies enormously, of course, because of people’s circumstance and also their stage in life. 

There’s a really big difference, you know, with people who are empty nesters rattling around in a large house thinking ok we’re really committed here. How are we going to stay here in our older age? You know, maybe we need to share with some young people. So there are Australians learning to share what they’ve got is one of the biggest challenges and one of the biggest opportunities we have, rather than all being progressively more isolated in our little individual bubbles.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:42:53] I think it’s probably David why I got down shifter’s wrong and not downsizer’s and mentioned downsizes, you know because that’s when my wife and I have done we’ve downsized. But you know and I think that idea of doing the audit, I mean we’re obviously going to have links to the website through all of those things. But doing that audit is really an opportunity. It’s confronting. It’s definitely confronting, but that it’s an opportunity as well. 

What about for the person or people who have been keen gardeners, the wonderful garden they’ve got here, it’s all flowers and wonderful stuff. But no, we wanted to do so much more or we’ve got to medium, medium strip outside the front of our house and it’s constantly being mowed by the council. And gee. Is that a bit of a waste? What do you know? Where do I go with that?

What about the keen gardeners?

David Holmgren [00:43:44] Yes. Well, the last chapter in the biological field is called Beyond the Boundaries, and it’s this sort of exploring how the design and one’s participation spreads out into the public domain, not in a sense of colonizing and privatizing that, but whether it’s, yes, planting trees on the street verge or being involved as is easier in less intensively managed landscapes like around smaller towns like where I live, of actually taking goats out on the common land to manage the blackberries instead of them being sprayed by the council, which doesn’t actually have the money to do that work so that we see so many opportunities to connect with neighbors, to informally start doing things in managing beyond the boundaries, as well as reassessing how we deal with some of the more structural challenges within gardens. I mentioned large trees.

It’s one of the controversial issues, especially in the southern areas of Australia, in colder climates like Melbourne, where the big, huge, especially evergreen trees taking a lot of the light, preventing houses from being effective, passive solar. Preventing solar panels from functioning efficiently and preventing the growing of food. So we talk about that process of different ways of pruning trees and also the appropriate removal and reuse of actually turning trees into the timber and how that all can fit in an urban design where we relocate a lot of those big trees in a lot of the public land that will become available in the future when our cars are traveling at slower speeds on our highways. 

So this vision of how we reshape the urban forest and our cities are actually huge urban forests in many ways. So we need more trees in our cities, but we need them in very designed ways. And the the the garden around houses should be something that ameliorates the climate of the house. And the living environment makes it a better place to live outdoors and all those functions. But it can do that and produce food. So for a lot of people, there’s all different sorts of situations that they will look at and say, oh, well, I can’t do anything about that. 

And so that if we take that example of large trees taking all the soil and water, you know, there’s things like wicking beds where you can garden is effectively a large container where rooting filtration from trees doesn’t occur. And that’s an incredibly water-efficient way to garden as well. So that’s an example of one of the patterns that we illustrate in the book in reference to more detailed resources on, you know, all of a lot of the information that’s available about all of these different things that we cover in the book.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:47:22] And individuals is one thing, and you mentioned doing an audit, but bringing communities together to share. I mean, when we may only have a small space ourselves, but collectively we actually have a very big space. How have you found community organization? What are some hints about organizing your community? What would you say to somebody who’s looking to do that?

David Holmgren [00:47:48] Yeah, well, there’s been a long lineage of permaculture activism that’s focussed at the community level and especially in the creation of Australia’s city farms and community gardens, and all of these strategies are, you know, incredibly important. 

But anyone who’s worked in that community space knows that it’s a long and slow process. And there’s, you know, working with bureaucracies and regulations and funding and there’s also a sort of a lowest common denominator effect of a sort of social conservatism that anything that’s done has to be what sort of everyone can agree on. “Retro Suburbia” is sort of starting from the household where we have a huge amount more freedom to act. And if we can connect with a few other households within a walkable distance that are on the same page, the exchanging things with them. And that may then develop opportunities for more radical engagement that actually spread in the neighborhood. 

But we can do even simple things with people like you know, the exchanging the lemons for the eggs type of situation or our kids are over in your place where you’ve got a big climbing tree and a trampoline, whereas we’ve got this, you know, really cranking veggie garden. But we have to push the kids out on the street to play because you can’t have ball games in with the veggies. So, you know, the kids can play at your place. We can supply the veggies of a huge number of these complementary relationships are possible and it just sitting and waiting to be done as people build self-confidence and relationships between each other. I really like that one, actually. You know, the the the big climbing tree and the and the trampoline and the veggie garden in some someone else.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:50:03] You’ve also captured my imagination with goats as well because just out the back of my place, we’ve got a cliff full of brambles and overgrown. And I thought, gee, I said to my wife, maybe we should just keep a couple of goats in there for a day or two and it would clear it all.

David Holmgren [00:50:18] Well, of course, this is now an increasing actual enterprise service, the most environmentally benign way to manage excess biomass. I mean, not everything, but goats are very eclectic eaters of shrubs and trees and surplus biomass. And so that is a business activity that people are doing. 

It’s one that can naturally emerge from people who have, you know, have the animal husbandry skills and empathy. Because obviously, when you do keep goats actually in a small space, there is a constant supply of that needs to come in to keep their hungry mouths. But in “Retro Surburbia”, we have lots of photos of goats being walked around the suburbs eating a lot of that surplus biomass. 

And, of course, you know, negotiating with the neighbors. If those goats sort of eaten someone’s prized roses out the front that issue of how we navigate also issues of conflict and redevelop self-governing communities in simple wise is a strong part of the “Retro Surburbia” agenda that we can work things out with neighbors, solve problems and deal with those things direct and not burden the police or the council with these minor things that were always in the past part of self-regulating communities. 

There are some of the ways that we rebuild this community resilience. From that perspective and of course, those perspectives are still very complementary to those genuine community-level community organizations and all the things that can’t be done so easily in that informal way.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:52:25] I guess chickens and bees are a little bit more accessible and I’m a little bit easier to manage.

David Holmgren [00:52:30] There’s a huge increase in interest in it in poultry and in beekeeping. And we’re finding, of course, that urban areas are incredibly productive for bees because of the diversity of flora sources means they’re in some ways much more suited to what’s called sedentary hives that are permanently in the one place which is much better for the bees than being trucked to, you know, to different forage sources, as is often done with large scale beekeeping. Because there is this constant source of all different floral sources.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:53:12] I mean, my sister-in-law lives in rural France and they grew a vegetable patch and they were a bit disappointed because it wasn’t as productive as they thought it would be. And part of the problem was that there are very, very few bees in that area.

David Holmgren [00:53:27] Yes. Well, we’re very lucky in Australia in still being free of varroa mite and also having relatively low toxicities in our agricultural landscapes compared with a lot of places in the world, partly because their aren’t the agricultural subsidies to encourage farmers to use as much of these toxins as happens in other places, but also because our native vegetation and amazingly enough, so many of our weeds in our landscapes are incredibly abundant floral sources. 

For these, of course, our eucalypts are renowned, known around the world as nectar sources for bees. So, yeah, beekeeping is really a thing that’s on the rise, even if it is pretty much inevitable that varroa mite will arrive in Australia at some stage. But we believe there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic that a healthy, holistic, natural approaches to beekeeping can avoid the resort to more poisons to poison the pests. In that case, the varroa mite.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:54:50] Now David we are just coming towards the end of it. Why are there so many, you know, so many resources in this book, we’re obviously going to have links to it and your website. I wonder if we might just finally take a step back from your role in permaculture, in retrofitting suburbia to permaculture. Because we’re all on this health journey through life in our modern world. What do you think the biggest challenges for individuals on that journey?

The Biggest Health Challenge

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:55:17] Well, I think that varies enormously, but I think the issue of how food is not just central to our providing our sort of basic needs, but our deeper form of health and well-being, that that basic truth and that food is central to culture and community and sharing of food and what is appropriate food and what is appropriate diet is an incredibly complex question, which is sort of up in the air in so many different ways. 

And of course, there are so many opinions about these issues. But I think that is that that issue of how food becomes our medicine and that understanding what genuinely nutritious food is and where it comes from and how to produce it is really central to health in so many ways. In “Retro Surburbia” we talked about the retro suburban diet, not in the sense of a prescription of what people should eat, but an expectation that as we develop a reconnection to nature with local sources of food supply, the way the diet is likely to morph to reflect that connection away from what might be the base of the average Australian diet. And I’ve explored that more in an essay called “Feeding Retro Suburbia From the Backyard to the Bioregion”. 

I really see that food is so much a fundamental connecting thing. We also need to be aware in Australia as the old geologically oldest continent with the most worn-out soils that just because plants grow, it doesn’t necessarily mean that as food they are minerally dense with the soils that we have in Australia. So that issue of how we work on that, both in our gardens and at agricultural scale, is, I think, a really great task ahead of us. That is really important for our health and that of our children and future generations.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:57:59] David, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ve really so look forward to this conversation. And I really thank you for your time.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:58:10] So there it is. I mean, this kind of dovetails into so many of the podcasts we’ve done on regenerative agriculture, talking to Allan Savoury. You know, Allan Savoury talks about a holistic context for every decision that is made. But that David’s 12 principles, if we broke them down and really think you need to go back.

I certainly will be going back and looking at the transcripts for those 12 principles. That is a holistic context in detail if you like. And David references Allan Savoury’s work in his book “Retros Suburbia”. And this is the book “Retro Suburbia: The Downshifter’s Guide to a Resilient Future”. And we will have links to this book and the website Retro’s Suburbia, where there are so many fabulous resources. 

David mentioned that article “Feeding retro suburbia from the backyard” that’s available on that website. So, you know, great resources on that retro suburbia website. And he also has a very special pandemic offer for people who are in this reflective state and wanting to explore this and may not feel financially viable to buy a book, which I hope you do, because the book is such great value. But he actually offers it as a, you know, pay what you think it’s worth and maybe it’s worth 200 dollars. And I’m not even sure what it retails but it doesn’t retail for that. 

But I think it is a very valuable resource. So there it is. So retro suburbia. So also, stay tuned for some amazing resources we’ve got going coming courses, coming in the next few weeks and months ahead on the five pillars, which is going to be a sleep pillar course and one for each of the others, breathe and nourish, move and think. Don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes and push the ratings up. And don’t forget, there is also the Unstress with Dr Ron Ehrlich app, which keeps you informed of all the latest. So I hope this finds you well and until next time this is Dr. Ron, be well.


This podcast provides general information and discussion about medicine, health, and related subjects. The content is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice or as a substitute for care by a qualified medical practitioner. If you or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner. Guests who speak in this podcast express their own opinions, experiences, and conclusions.