Book review: Permaculture by David Holmgren

What would you expect of one of the co-founders of the concept of Permaculture? Would you expect him to write clearly, weaving examples from both the natural and human worlds (as if the two were separate!) to support his arguments? Would you expect him to challenge not just the orthodoxies of the mainstream but also to cast a compassionately critical eye over the “counterculture”? Would you expect to come away with hundreds of thoughts and provocations and germinating mental seeds?

David Holmgren will meet those expectations, exceed them and leave you in awe of his intelligence, humility and ‘unrealistic pragmatism’ in his book “Permaculture: Principles & Pathways beyond sustainability.”

After an introduction and a chapter titled “Ethical Principles of Permaculture”, Holmgren spends a chapter per Permaculture principle – observe and interact, catch and store energy, obtain a yield, apply self-regulation and accept feedback, use and value renewable resources and services, produce no waste, design form patterns to details, integrate rather than segregate, use small and slow solutions, use and value diversity, use edges and value the marginal, creatively use and respond to change. Within each he has important and useful things to say to gardeners, activists, citizens, husbands, wives, children, parents… He’s not trying to be a guru, (he wants the reader to think, not blindly accept), but that doesn’t mean he isn’t sharing a whole lotta wisdom.

I have read a lot about resilience, complex adaptive systems and earth system science over the last couple of years. So much so that I resisted reading this, thinking most of it would be old hat. It sat accusingly for quite a while until I had to either read it or return it. I wish I had read it at the outset of my journey. Whenever anyone says “what should I read on sustainability”, then this is where I will send them. I wish I could get Will Steffen, the Resilience Alliance gang and some Vandana Shiva/Wendell Berry types around a table in Holmgren’s garden and lob some questions at them all and see them riff, and listen to each other.

Permaculture
Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability
David Holmgren
2002
ISBN 0-646-418440

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Below the surface...
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