Australia’s leading environmentalist is leading the change by making a an example of his own green lifestyle
Daylesford (Australia): David Holmgren grows almost everything he eats. He does not own a mobile phone or television, and most of his clothing is secondhand. He never flies, will not go to a supermarket and cannot remember his credit card PIN.
Such is life for one of Australia’s leading environmentalists, who decades ago encouraged homeowners to turn their forgotten backyards into sustainable gardens and is now calling for suburbanites to go further off the grid and make the whole of their lives green.
That effort to combine global activism with personal frugality is at the center of a new book, “RetroSuburbia: The Downshifter’s Guide to a Resilient Future,” which Holmgren describes as part manual and part manifesto.
Inside the adobe home he built himself in Hepburn Springs, a spa town in the southern Australian state of Victoria, Holmgren, 63, is putting his words into practice.
“We need to bring power back to local areas and local people,” he said in March from his home, which sits on more than 2 acres, where he grows 200 different crops. “The pursuit of local food is central to that and always has been. Frugal hedonism is our approach.”
That approach is seen throughout his home. In a corner of his living room sit a spinning wheel, baskets of nuts and piles of corn and apples. Excluding rice, coconut cream and his favorite soy sauce, everything Holmgren eats is grown on the property.
The house, known as Melliodora – a local variety of eucalyptus – is powered by solar energy and cooled, he explained, through passive design, not air-conditioning.
Unshaven, his ponytail graying and the nails of his broad hands dark from work in his garden, Holmgren looks the part of pioneering environmentalist, who more than 30 years ago helped coin the term “permaculture” and found a movement.
His status as an outsider has its roots in a childhood spent in remote West Australia. Born in York, the state’s oldest inland town, he was raised in the region’s only Jewish family.
A move to Perth meant schoolyard taunts about his faith – he was the only student in a school of 600 who did not attend religion classes – and about his lunches: whole-meal sandwiches and dried fruit. An iconoclast even then, he refused to stand for the playing of the national anthem in protest of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
A formative moment in his youth, he said, was watching construction crews drain the swamps of the Swan River to build suburban housing developments. The swamps, natural playgrounds, were a respite from the bullying he faced at school.
Seeing nature give way to tract houses, supermarkets and the other trappings of 20th-century suburbia awoke in him “an imperative to disconnect from the engine of global destruction.”
Now, he wants to rescue the suburbs from consumerism and teach others to do the same.
“RetroSuburbia” – edited by his friends, published by his company, Melliodora Publishing, and nearly 600 pages long – is aimed at teaching suburbanites how to grow food, produce power and reduce debt.
By example, Holmgren buys his clothes only at thrift stores.
“Since I was a kid I was interested in fashion,” he said, “so I started sewing my own clothes from 16. I only got them from op shops or my father’s discards.”
Among the skills taught in the book are how to retrofit a home with solar panels, collect and store water, use wood for cooking and warmth, defend against wildfires, raise domesticated animals, preserve food and recycle waste.
The book “removes the fences of the suburbs and the mind,” said Costa Georgiadias, a TV host with a gardening show, “and replaces them with practical and positive solutions.”
Another reader of the book, Louisa Mariana, a 65-year-old artist from the Melbourne suburb of Northcote, has implored friends to buy the book and said she had been inspired to plan a chicken coop and order a beehive.
To print “RetroSuburbia” in Australia rather than China, Holmgren said, he raised an additional 30,000 Australian dollars ($22,500) by crowdfunding. He has avoided selling the book through large multinational stores like Amazon, preferring to offer it through permaculture websites and booksellers.
For him, the process of developing and advancing permaculture, as well as writing the book, is rooted in soil that is particularly Australian – arid, infertile and unforgiving.
“I am just another Australian trying to work out how we move beyond camping in this land to being rooted to it,” he once wrote. “Permaculture has been my sustained search to find home.”
What is permaculutre?
Permaculture started with the idea of turning trashed suburban backyards into sustainable gardens, in which the natural environment dictated the garden’s plan and purpose.
That small idea became a global phenomenon, practiced by ecologists and landscape designers in 126 countries. The philosophy stresses a balance between agriculture and a site’s permanent ecology – its soil, water and climate.
Thousands of permaculture practitioners known as “permies” have come to Melliodora over the decades to live there and learn firsthand from Holmgren. But after a career filled with accolades and achievements, he is wary of being seen as a green guru.
“I have been reluctant to do anything to harvest recognition back to me,” he said. “That permaculture has gone viral is more than enough, for without any rah-rah hubris you can give more.”