Reviewed by Steven Saint Thomas
The Downshifter’s Guide to a Resilient Future
Melliodora Publishing, 2018
Visiting David Holmgren at his 2-1/2 acre homestead in central Victoria changed my life. I caught a vision of what you might call ‘Permie Paradise’ – a family producing most of their own food and sharing the surplus with friends and neighbors doing likewise in the small Australian town of Hepburn Springs.
Maybe I could do this, too! Maybe I don’t need to find a 40-acre off-grid farm to pursue a self-reliant life. Maybe I could find it in small-town America.
RetroSuburbia – the new self-published manual/manifesto by permaculture co-founder David Holmgren – is an invitation to turn the average American suburb into a Permie Paradise.
The work validates The Permaculture City, written in 2015 by the late American permaculturist Toby Hemenway. After 10 years of isolated, energy-intensive homesteading in rural southern Oregon, Hemenway moved to Portland. He concluded that cities meet a lot of human needs and, if properly re-designed, might be our best shot at survival.
Holmgren agrees that suburbs are potentially the best of both worlds, a “sweet spot” between rural and urban living. He writes, “On the one hand, having enough indoor and outdoor space to create a vibrant and productive household economy that we usually associate with rural self-reliance, and on the other, the critical mass of community and connections we usually associate with urban lifestyle and enterprise.”
Transforming suburbs into planet-friendly, self-reliant human habitat will take work, but it is something we can do! Holmgren continues to expect the collapse of large, centralized systems upon which most of us depend for survival. He writes that the “energy descent” of the next decade will be marked by rampant climate change, food and energy shortages, and financial collapse.
He does not argue these dire assumptions, but asserts the essential good news of permaculture: humans lived happy, sustainable lives for eons before the Industrial Age – we can do it again.
“Retrofitting” is Holmgren’s term for going back to the future – or is it forward to the past? – implementing the best/better practices of pre-industrial and indigenous life. It’s a world where people are producers rather than consumers, givers rather than takers. And to the dismay of conventional liberals and progressives, it’s a world where people take the lead in creating self-reliant communities rather than hoping elected leaders will finally do the right thing. “My proposals remain valid if you’re looking for better ways to live now, rather than working for a version of the future sold by corporations, media and political parties,” he writes.
Holmgren’s book, available via his website retrosuburbia.com, moves from these patterns to the details of retrofitting the “built field” (housing and infrastructure), gardening and food production, and behavior – sharing economies and getting along. Australia is a lot like America, with the notable difference that only 24 million Australians have to share their continent and resources. Whether you live in Hepburn Springs or Colorado Springs, you best get on with designing your Permie Paradise to survive the coming storm. RetroSuburbia will show you how.
Steven Saint Thomas is the director of AdventuresInPermaculture.com.