Why Permaculture?

David Holmgren On The Social And Political Underpinnings Of Permaculture

My small family and I recently had the great privilege of attending the 13th Australasian Permaculture Convergence in Perth, Western Australia. Upon completion of the three day convergence, filling our brains with beautiful, challenging and enlightening ideas from our peers, friends, mentors and heroes, I was lucky enough to attend two of David Holmgren’s master classes. The first being Future Scenarios, the second being Advanced Principles and Reading Landscape. Once the more intensive phase of a few days of learning was nearing it’s end I was able to field David a particular question that’s been on my mind for at least a few years. Here’s the edited transcript of my initial question and David’s thoughtful, concise response:


I recently wrote an article about the social and political underpinnings of permaculture, and we touched on the topic of competition versus cooperation in the advanced principles workshop, and within your [Permaculture:] Principles and Pathways [Beyond Sustainability] work you referenced Peter Kropotkin and his works Mutual Aid [a Factor of Evolution] and Solidarity. In this respect I’ve often wondered what other anarchist thinkers and/or social and political underpinnings influenced your own and Bill Mollison’s thinking in the creation and founding of permaculture?

Well, I think the work of Murray Bookchin and his work in Social Ecology was definitely one of the contemporary ideas that was breaking out of those old leftist moulds that saw the resources that were available were something for humans to use at will, and that we could have control over things, and how we divide up the spoils – to actually say, “no we need to do that within an ecological framework”. Social justice could not exist without ecological sustainability. And people could argue the reverse.

I think that to some extent both for me and Bill Mollison, when we met we were at a point, for slightly different reasons, we’d both come to the conclusion that we didn’t want to fight against the world we didn’t want, but wanted to just actively create the world we do want. For him (Bill) he’d been involved in a series of environmental campaigns, I think starting in the late sixties as a fisherman and in the early days as an academic galvanising a campaign to stop a fish processing plant that was going to catch a vast amount of fish and export it for fishmeal to feed to livestock somewhere else in the world. Then there was the heavy involvement in the campaign to save Lake Pedder. Including him being a candidate for the senate in the nineteen seventy-two election for the United Tasmania Group, which is acknowledged as the first Green party in the world. So, before the Greens and before the German Greens. But when I met him in seventy-four he was already thinking this, ‘fighting against things’ was not so productive.

I’d come from a family of political activists, you know my parents were linked to the communist party and in my childhood they were both founders of the most radical political organisation in Australia opposed to the war in Vietnam. My mothers ASIO file says that this organisation was the most serious political threat of all the organisations that were against the war. (Smilingly) So that for me was just like normality, you know this act of trying to stop all these bad things. So in a way Permaculture was quite deliberately apolitical, and avoided that direct confrontation. But I think it was informed by a radical political view and it was never cast as being anarchism, but I think both myself and Mollison, if you were to just objectively analyse what our general attitudes were it mostly fit into the framework of anarchism.

Kropotkin was pretty special for me because it was so much in my environment, when I read Mutual Aid – by the way I got Mutual Aid as an old Penguin paperback off my parents bookshelf, you know it was (laughing)… which was long before, well, not long before but was before the science of ecology was sort of ‘recognised’. He is a sort of prototype of an ecologist, really, in his descriptions of nature as that of a predominant relationship of cooperation, mutualism, and competition. So it was an answer – a critique and answer – to the social Darwinists who used Darwinian selection and competition, therefore society, and laissez-faire capitalism that that is following the patterns of nature, and he showed that there was this huge lineage in nature of mutualism and then he looked through history and showed how mutualism and cooperative behaviour ran right through societies…

He was an absolutely brilliant thinker. And then his book Fields Factories and Workshops of Tomorrow is in someways a precursor of Permaculture because before the industrialisation of agriculture it was addressing the way in which the productivity could be increased to support the worlds growing population. It showed that garden agriculture could actually outproduce field agriculture. Though we didn’t actually end up needing that because fossil fuels ended up increasing the production of agriculture anyway… [interupted, for time constraints], (again, smilingly) And here we are.

Thank you again David for your time. I look forward to compiling more about the history and influences of the global permaculture movement. The next Australasian Permaculture Convergence will be held in and around Canberra in 2018. To find out about the upcoming International Permaculture Conference and Convergence, go to: https://ipcindia2017.org/


    1. I read The Ecology of Freedom before Prinxiples and Pathways and it seemed so obvious. As it says in the introduction, it was a thought that had been on my mind for a long while.

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