INTERVIEW WITH David Holmgren
David Holmgren (born 1955) is an ecologist, ecological design engineer and writer. He is better known as one of the co-originators of the Permaculture concept with Bill Mollison. Since 1983 Holmgren has acted through his company Holmgren Design Services as consultant for a large number of projects. Holmgren started teaching on Permaculture design courses in 1991 and from 1993 taught PDCs at his Hepburn home. Since the “70s, when the concept was born, thanks to the work of David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, the Permaculture method has spread around the world and now in many countries there are schools, courses and farm that adopt Permaculture principles. The word 'Permaculture' comes from 'permanent agriculture' and 'permanent culture' - it is about living lightly on the planet, and making sure that we can sustain human activities for many generations to come, in harmony with nature. But what exactly means Permaculture? Could be it the way to face the Peak Oil? How much progress Permaculture has done since its beginning? David Holmgren, co-founder of the Permaculture concept, answered to these and other questions?
INTERVIEW - (May 2013)
The interview was realized in April 2013 and published in May 2013 - (Original interview in Engish)
Subject: Permaculture: origin, development; the importance of sustainable agriculture methods
1. Question: The term Permaculture comes from 'permanent agriculture' and 'permanent culture' and implies living in harmony with nature. Could you explain what does it exactly mean? In particular, who is the main target of Permaculture (Agricultural multinational companies, local agricultural firms, local producers, local self-sufficient agriculture, communities, industries, politicians, single rural citizens with a garden or a vegetable garden to manage)?
I find this question very difficult to answer because Permacuture could be said to be a theory of everything. In simple words, Permaculture is a design system for sustainable living and sustainable land use. It covers both the production and the consumption side (how we live, what are our values and behaviors) of the equation. The permaculture principle to minimize the use of external inputs in agriculture is a contribution to making it sustainable (ie permanent). By contrast, world agriculture, like every other important support system of humanity is currently highly dependent on the subsidy of non renewable resources, especially fossil fuels. A key issue is how would Permaculture work long into a low energy future without any subsidy from non renewable sources. One answer is in the design approach (rather than new technologies): a well designed environment minimizes the need for external energy. Redesigning large systems (institutions or corporations) is very difficult if not impossible (because of their structural lock-in to current dependencies). Therefore permaculture activism is predominantly directed to households and small scale farmers, who are independent in making decisions.
In Permaculture, people act in their own interest,
but this is beneficial for the society at large…
Permaculture focuses on people who question the basics of society, people who want spend their energy in creating the world they want, rather than fighting against a world they don’t want. Permaculture is also quite a challenge to the conventional ideas of how change comes about in society. Through Permaculture, people act in their own long term self-interest, but their lifestyle is beneficial for the planet and society at large.
2. Question: So is Permaculture something like the Transitin Town movement?
The Transition Town movement is a very interesting phenomenon that came out of Permaculture (Rob Hopckins, the founder of the movement, was a Permaculture teacher in the UK). Originally, people had seen Permaculture either as an alternative lifestyle in affluent countries or as a tool for development in poor countries; The Transition Town movement, by increasing the awareness of the Peak-Oil and Climate change, has increased the understanding of more people in affluent countries about the critical importance of household and community economies with a solid basis in local food production.
3. Question: There are many agricultural models different from the traditional one-crop agricultural system: Permaculture, Agro-ecology, Biological agriculture, Biodiversity agriculture, Polyculture and so on. Could you explain what does make Permaculture different from these methods and why a farmer should chose Permaculture for his production?
Permaculture can be seen as a branch of organic agriculture (originated both in Europe and in North America in the 1930s, in opposition to the industrial agriculture system); so it builds on organic methods and insights, but also has its own specification:
- we should provide more of our food from perennial plants and tree crops, as variable annual crops are one of the main structural vulnerabilities in the traditional agricultural system;
- the process of design and ongoing evolution of agricultural landscapes and systems is as important as the more traditional focus on husbandry;
- Permaculture has a stronger emphasis on diversity through polyculture.
An interesting comparison concerns Permaculture and Agro-ecology
. Although they are very similar, Agro-ecology is well associated with academic research (focused on how it affects agriculture in developing countries), while Permaculture acts at a more practical level in both developing and developed countries. As for biodynamic agriculture
, while it has a strong emphasis on the husbandry of soil, plants and animals through the cycle of the seasons, Permaculture has a strong emphasis on design both in the physical layout (how the farm is organized) and in the time layout (how things change and evolve over time). Many practioners see these as complementary rather than competitive approaches. Some people from other organic approaches have said the design approach of Permaculture is just common sense but my reply it is no longer common
, because the way of thinking, especially in rich countries, has become divorced from nature and practical experience. Secondly the Permaculture focuses on the integration of crops and animals
(something not common in modern agriculture industries) is stronger than in other approaches. Thirdly Permaculture methods are flexible
and evolve according to the peculiarities of each area or country it is developed in. For all these things, Permacuture is something complementary (rather than competitive) to all the other ways of ecological agriculture.
4. Question: In particular, what are the advantages and disadvantages of Permaculture in comparison with the traditional one-crop agricultural system? Do you have data or researches’ results showing the differences in yields’ productivity, costs, profitability, quality of goods and pollution between the two methods?
Let’s me start with a premise. What we call traditional cropping is a system developed in the presence of cheap fossil fuels; in a centralized system, fossil fuels have a significant role in all the phases of the food supply chain, from production to distribution and consumption. But, as fossil fuels become more expensive and less available, food production must come back closer to consumers, geographically (from oversee to local production) and economically, from factories to households (household economy), with people satisfying many of their basic needs by themselves (what we traditionally call subsistence agriculture). The first main advantage of Permaculture is the resilience to scarcity of fossil fuels. The second main advantage concerns productivity. Permaculture is more productive than conventional systems, not in terms of productivity of single yields, but in terms of total productivity of the system, as Permaculture makes use of any space in the land (especially of the so-called marginal lands that are abandoned in conventional agriculture).
The ultimate challenge of conventional agricultural systems
is how to produce sufficient nitrogen in a world with less fossil fuels.
In this perspective the recycling of human waste become a big issue.
The third advantage I want to mention is the efficiency in recycling human waste in Permaculture that is not replicable in the conventional centralized system, where consumption is disconnected from production. The issue of recycling is very important, as, with fossil fuels becoming more expensive and less available, the production of nitrogen for crops could be a problem in the next future (this is the ultimate limit of sustainability in conventional agriculture), that can be faced only with an efficient recycling system and maximum use of nitrogen fixing species.
5. Question: You mentioned the reduction of using fossil fuels as one of the main advantages in Permaculture. But did you mean reduction or complete elimination of fossil fuels?
We are going to see a serious challenge in the near future: the enormous amount of net energy that was available in the past (thanks to high quality fossil fuels), will be no longer available in future. How to face this challenge? The key answer is not just the reduction in fossil fuels, but the reduction in the energy use at large as renewable energies cannot provide the net energy necessary for current systems. Agriculture plays a key role in making it possible: by re-localising food production, making it more integrated and space efficient and making the most creative use of human labour and skill through good design.
6. Question: The use of “Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)” is gaining ground in the public debate and among agricultural practices. What is your view on this important topic? And how are you acting in order to face or back it?
GMOs were proposed in 1980s as the next green revolution. There was a lot of expectation that by 2000 we would have had nitrogen fixing wheat yield 4 times more. But none of the crops using such technologies have produced anything like the original claim. Many of these crops actually have less drought resistance and perform more poorly than the traditional varieties they attempt to replace. In that sense, the contribution of GMOs in feeding a growing population is at best marginal. But why GMOs are gaining ground?
GMOs are a way by which big corporations are trying
to take control of the world food supply system
in order to preserve their economic dominance.
What we should clearly understand is that GMOs are a way by which large corporations try to capture the intellectual property rights of agricultural crops in order to take control of the world food supply system. In the past, fossil fuels were the key issue in ensuring the economic dominance; now, as fossil fuels are becoming less abundant, this position will be occupied by food production.
7. Question: According to the United Nations, in 2050 the global population will overpass 9bn people, an increase of more than 2bn people compared with now. Do you think the current agricultural system will be able to face such an increase in the global population? On the other hand, how do you think it should be? Is a change in the global dietary necessary?
The current agricultural system will probably fail in feeding the increasing population, because it depends too much on fossil fuels. But this failure is mostly due to a problem of distribution rather than of production. It’s surprising to see that part of the global crop production is used for feeding cars (by production of bio-fuels), while almost 1bn of people are not able to feed their stomach. A similar problem is related to diet. In the efforts to produce enough meat for feeding people in rich countries, other parts of the world suffer a lack of lands for feeding themselves. The mass production of meat (especially bovine meat) is inefficient and, over the years, market mechanisms have failed to solve these problems. Whether Permaculture design strategies and methods could be able, remains to be seen. Pemaculture cannot magically and massively increase global food production, but can bring such an improvement in food distribution to make it possible to feed 9bn people. The Permaculture approach in this issue is: “eat less meat”, “different types of meat” and “eat local food in season” rather than “oversees food out of season”.
8. Question: Permaculture began in 70s. How much progress has it done since then? Do you have some data about this progress (number of people or farms that follow this approach; number of books or articles written about this theme, number of associations around the world and so on)? How much is it widespread around the world?
Let’s start with Australia. Well, Permaculture here is better known than in other countries in the world. Many people see it as an ecological and friendly way to grow food at home, but it is still not taken seriously by political institutions. In Australia there are a lot of activists (relative to the population size), but they account for only a small part of the total activists in the world. By now there are Permaculture projects in almost every country in the world. The development of Permacuture has followed different pathways. There are some countries, like China, where Permaculture is very tiny, and other countries like Cambodia, Cuba, and Vietnam where governments’ supports for small scale farmers have facilitated the diffusion of Permaculture; finally, in rich countries, as I previously said, the diffusion of Permaculture is following a bottom-up approach: people do it in their self-interest. In conceptual terms, some important original ideas have found difficulty in developing because of the lack of financial resources, while other external ideas (coming from work done in parallel with Permaculture) have strengthen Permaculture. More and more people (perhaps hundreds of thousands of people) have followed a course in Permaculture, and more and more books in different languages have been published. Permaculture is spreading also in a more indirect way; some of its ideas are adopted by farmers even if they are not Permaculture farmers at all. But because Permaculture is not a specific set of methods that can be clear identified; it is hard to quantify the influence of Permaculture in agriculture specifically and society more generally.
9. Question: Economy is facing one of its worst crisis: Western countries are facing a deep recession, rising unemployment rates and debts (both public and private); Emerging countries are growing faster than expected and their pressure on Earth’sources can threaten the Earth’ social and environmental stability. Do you think is a change in the economy’s principles necessary? What kind of change? In particular, one of the biggest problems in developed countries is the rising youth unemployment rate. What do you suggest to youth? Can a return to agriculture help on this matter?
The current economic system is dominated by the bubble economy, a belief in a continuous growth that leads to overdevelopment and to inflation of asset values; the problem is that economic bubbles always collapse: period of prosperity are always followed by period of crisis.
Much of the current wealth in reality doesn’t exist
and is destined to disappear. We have to find way
to cope with the series of crisis following
the collapse of the current economic system..
Currently, a huge amount of wealth in reality doesn’t exist, and the money underpinning it is disappearing. The unique solution to this problem of wealth illusion is to accept the deflation of value and deal with the crisis in a more equitable way. This means developing a parallel economy, a new economic system (rather than reforming the current one), that will help in coping with the series of crisis that will come with the collapse of the current economic system. Fortunately, this parallel economy, that is based on household community, grows naturally when the economy contracts. In fact, we have noticed that the interest in things like Permaculture and related ways of providing people needs more simply and directly is countercyclical to the conventional economy: when the economy is poor, the interest in Permaculture increases, whereas when the economy grows very fast, the interest in Permacuture diminishes. A return to a local economy can also be the solution to the problem of youth unemployment. What we are seeing now is that universities in rich countries form people able only to do complex jobs in large institutional organizations or corporations, while the system doesn’t provide them with these kind of jobs; at the same time, the absence of other skills makes young people unemployable; on the contrary, in a local economy, youth can learn different kind of skills (not necessarily agricultural skills) that they can spend in the local market and exchange with other goods or services. The transition will not be painless but it will be better than hoping for the return of growth and any hoped for equity in distribution of wealth in globalised economies.
10. Question: Finally, if you could send a message to humans, what would you advise them to do to preserve themselves and our planet in the long period?
Resilience; resilience to oil, credit and technology failure. This is the main massage I would give: building models that can work without a massive financial market and without technologies developed only in some countries in the world; we have to build systems that support local people and that are replicable in locally adaptable ways. In the process we gain the knowledge and political leverage to reform the centralized systems before they become completely dysfunctional. And if we fail in this last task, we can still use knowledge and autonomy we have created at the household and community scale for slowly building new economic and political institutions after the ruin of the centralized ones.