Book Review: David Holmgren’s Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability

71CQMQ7BjaLI recently came across Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability written by David Holmgren at the library. To be honest it wasn’t a book on the top of my must-read list. When one talks about permaculture books, there will be more well-known ones like Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual (a.k.a the permaculture bible) or Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden. It just happened that I was going to be spending three weeks back in the military as part of mandatory national service and that means lots of spare time to read.

The Author

Lets start with the author. Some of you might have heard of David Holmgren because he was the co-orginator of the permaculture concept together with Bill Mollison. Mollison was actually Holmgren’s professor at that time. The first time they introduced the permaculture concept to the public was in Permaculture One in 1978. At that time Holmgren was only 23 years old. Talk about precociousness!

Holmgren did not co-author the other permaculture books that Mollison published thereafter. He was also less prominent in public with teaching and spreading permaculture than Mollison. So what has he been up to? It was 24 years between 1978 when he published Permaculture One and 2002 when this book was published. Apparently Holmgren has been spending all this time testing and refining his theories on different sites in Australia. I was very interested in seeing what this guy has to say after all these years.

The Book

Firstly, this book does not actually say much about gardening. This will be surprising for most people because they associate permaculture as another “smarter” method of organic gardening. In fact, Holmgren mentioned in the book that he is frustrated that most people only associate permaculture with sheet mulching. While permaculture has its roots in sustainable farming and food production (permanent agriculture), it has evolved to a design system for sustainable life (permanent culture).

The diagram below is taken from the book and as you can see, permaculture is about gardening and farming but also much more.


The general misunderstanding that permaculture is merely another form of gardening reminds me of something that a friend (that I met through this blog) said about yoga. Most people associate yoga only with static poses to improve flexibility. Yes, the downward dogs and tree poses are all part of yoga and provide an accessible entry point. However yoga is also much more. It is also about the movement transitioning between static poses, the breathing, the mindfulness of body, etc. Even beyond the physical, yoga is a way of life covering mental and spiritual aspects.

The book is structured into 12 chapters corresponding to the 12 design principles of permaculture.Permaculture-Principles-cut600

Through these 12 principles, Holmgren touched on many topics relevant to leading a sustainable life. The topics are too numerous and too diverse for me to even try to condense them. While reading the book, I was very impressed with his breadth of knowledge across a range of subjects. He goes from ecology to economics to anthropology to chaos theory to building and so much more. Because of this breadth of knowledge, I think that he is one of the rare people that can contemplate the world more as a whole (another one being Jared Diamond). Most of the PhDs or CEOs would fail terribly in this.

Underlying the whole book is Holmgren’s effort to prepare humanity for a future where we no longer live in a high energy environment made possible by burning fossil fuel. In this sense he is an optimistic because he uses the word “descent” instead of “collapse”. He advocates a top-down thinking but bottom-up approach to the issues we are facing today. Permaculture is very much about taking personal actions rather than trying to change the world from the top. Personal actions can be small but can be subversive and challenge the powers of corporates and governments if taken on by many.

On the whole, this was not an easy read but was very fruitful for me. Like Holmgren mentioned in the book, a reader that is not able to do whole-systems thinking would think that he is crazy to write such things. This whole-systems method of thinking is probably the hardest to acquire of all, more so than any farming technique. Holmgren said that for people that grew up in a modern and fast-pace technological society, we lack the ability to observe very subtle and slow but powerful changes so common in nature and complex systems like societies and economies.

Unfortunately, this ability to think in whole systems would be crucial in the future energy descent whether in our lifetimes or our children’s. The only way to re-acquire this skill is to start from scratch with Principle 1 – observe and interact with nature!

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