David Holmgren’s Journey with Permaculture Design Process – Part One (e53)

I’m thrilled in this episode to share the first part of a two-part interview in which David Holmgren shares his journey with permaculture design process over the decades.

Scroll down to access the full transcript of this conversation, with huge thanks to David for sharing the historical photographs which really bring the story to life.

Note that in collaboration with David I had also previously created a downloadable PDF showing the timeline of David’s design process journey that might provide a helpful supporting reference.

Finally, be sure to check out the brand new Reading Landscape with David Holmgren documentary project website which is so closely related to this episode.

The Full Interview Transcript (Edited for flow and readability)

Dan Palmer (DP):Welcome to the next episode of the Making Permaculture Stronger podcast. I’m super excited today. I’ve travelled about half an hour up the road and I’m sitting at a permaculture demonstration property and home called Melliodora. Sitting next to me is David Holmgren.

David Holmgren (DH): Good to welcome you here.

DP: I’m very excited to be here with this microphone between us and to have this opportunity to have you share the story of your journey with permaculture design process over the decades.

David and Dan co-teaching in 2018

DH: Yeah, and that’s something we’ve worked on together in courses: our personal journeys with that. Certainly through those courses, working together has elicited and uncovered different aspects of me understanding my own journey.

Childhood

DH: Thinking about design process through the lens of childhood experiences, I was always a constructor/builder, making cubbies, constructing things and yet never had any family role models for that. My father wasn’t particularly practical with tools, and yet I was always in whatever workshop there was in our suburban home as a young child. So making things, imagining things which don’t exist, and then bringing them to life was definitely part of my childhood experience.

I don’t know, particularly, why in my last years of high school I had some vague notion that I might enrol in West Australian University in architecture. But I left to travel around Australia instead because I was hitchhiking mad in 1973. And in that process, I came across a lot of different ideas to do with the counter culture and alternative ways of living.

Studying Environmental Design in Tasmania

Most significantly, I came across a course in Tasmania in Hobart called Environmental Design and I met some of the enrolled students. I’d realised by that stage that I was not cut out to do any sort of conventional university course. I was too radical and free in my thinking and wasn’t wanting to be constrained within any discipline or accounting for things through exam processes.

DP: What age were you?

DH: I was 18 at that time, and this course in Environmental Design really attracted me. Undergraduate students, who were doing the generalist degree in environmental design, were sometimes working on projects with postgraduate students who were specialising in architecture, landscape architecture or urban planning at the post graduate level.

Mt Nelson campus where Environmental Design School was part of the Tas College of Advanced Education 1970-80

There was no fixed curriculum. There was no fixed timetable. Half the staff budget was for visiting lecturers and outside professionals. There was a self assessment process at the end of each semester, which then led to a major study at the end of the three year generalist degree. There was the same self assessment process for the postgraduate level. So you got up to the finishing line, and then had to show your results, and that was to a panel that included outside professionals that you had a say in choosing.

DP: Suitably radical.

DH: I believe it was the most radical experiment in tertiary education in Australia’s history. Set up by visionary Hobart architect, Barry McNeil, who saw that there was no point teaching design professionals a specific set of skills, because the world was changing so fast that by the time they came to practice, those skills could be irrelevant and that you had to teach them more how to problem solve, how to think, and that they would find and develop the skills that were relevant that way.

So that’s what led me back to Tasmania the following year to enrol in Environmental Design. As part of that first year, I explored a lot of different subjects. I was actually doing the backyard self sufficiency thing in a rented house and was documenting the organic gardens, the compost making, baking bread at home, all of that self reliance (that I would call retrosuburbia now) in a rented house was actually part of my study project.

Retrosuburbia
The book that came out 44 years after David’s early experiments in suburban self-reliance

I was also involved in projects with postgraduate Planning students, working with urban conservation activist groups, trying to stop high rise development in the historic Battery Point precinct. Setting up a shop front information for the community to explain planning law and plot ratios of how big you can build a building for how much open space and all of those sorts of things.

So I ranged across quite a diverse interest area, and I met a lot of people that came to environmental design, if you like, as refugees from all the design courses around Australia. So it gathered all the radicals at a time when most people went to university in the state where they lived. Whereas more than half of the students in Environmental Design were from outside of Tasmania. And of course, the whole interest in ecology was a huge focus and the crossover between ecology and design.

DP: That was a theme of the graduate school?

DH: Well, it was something that was identified as a huge area of interest of so many students. And at that time, so much so that they felt they needed to have an ecologist, actually on the staff, because most of the staff were designers (landscape architects, architects, engineers and planners). As an undergraduate student I was on the selection panel for the person who ended up becoming my supervisor in the course. So it was a context where I came across a lot of radical ideas in design.

But I still felt quite the outsider. I can remember a particular seminar that was about the design of the Australian backyard. People within the department were basically decrying how terrible backyards and front gardens were designed and how pathetic and hopeless it was people doing it themselves.

I can remember being really outraged and getting up and on my soapbox and saying, look, this is one of the last things that Australians still do for themselves – they design and create their own gardens and backyard spaces.

Hardly any of them build their houses anymore. Are we a radical design school, intending to extend design literacy and design capability as a universal literacy, or are we about commandeering and colonising another space? Taking something else off people and professionalising it.

So I have a strong memory of that, being part of my early thinking about design, that design was sort of a literacy that should be universal.

David more recently speaking to the reality and potential of the great Australian Backyard

DP: It’s exciting for me to hear permaculture bells going off, because there’s already that pre existing overlap between ecology and design. Then when you bring the flavour of being in control of your own design processes and designing your own spaces, you were well on that trajectory already.

It doesn’t sound like it was that kind of school where they said “here’s the design process you’re going to use the rest of your careers.” Were you getting a feel for a kind of approach to design or process at that stage or was it still quite open?

DH: Yeah, it was very free and open, and I suppose within the design professions, environmental design was either regarded as the best course in Australia because it involved outside professionals. You had to do the postgraduate degree part time and have a job in the field before joining the professional association. So there was a huge amount of practical reality that was encouraging to design professionals. Other design professionals regarded it as the worst course in Australia because people weren’t required to actually sit at a drawing board or learn any particular thing, classic principles of architectural design, or anything.

I remember being aware of quite a strong interest in Ian McHarg’s ideas. There were also others that involved designing in perhaps a different way, like George McRobie, colleague of EF Schumacher, famous for of course, writing the book Small is Beautiful, which was published just a year before I started Environmental Design.

George was there for six months teaching the whole intermediate technology notion of designing an appropriate technology suitable to scale especially for developing countries rather than just imposing large scale systems that were inappropriate to context. So there was certainly different design contexts and also design processes, but certainly there was no clear didactic direction. The whole thing was a chaotic exploration.

DP: You said you were documenting what you were doing in the rental with the compost making and everything. Were you also paying attention at that stage to the process side of things?

DH: Not so much, I think I was to some extent quite outcome oriented. But yeah, definitely grappling with that process of how you record and evolve ideas on paper, rather than just literally starting something with your hands, which is how a lot of people do things in the most rudimentary design process. So, definitely that thinking through and documenting ideas and then implementing those, but I suppose with limited awareness of the process.

It was in that first year that my interest really gravitated around food production and more broadly, agriculture, as humanity’s prime way for providing for its needs. And looking at that crossover between, if you like, landscape architecture primarily as a profession, and ecology, and how that applied to agriculture. I could see the overlap between two but not between the three.

I saw overlap between ecology and agriculture in agro-ecology ideas and organics. Although organic farming began in the 1930s, it was really incorporating early ecological ideas in its reaction against industrial farming. So I could see crossover of any two of them. But I couldn’t see anywhere where all three were brought together.

So agro-ecology, for example, didn’t seem to have much of a design focus. Certainly not a physical landscape layout, how the things relate in space. It was mostly concerned with agronomy, husbandry, those processes.

There was some crossover between landscape architecture and agriculture but really as cosmetic design overlay in some particular affluent parts. Or the conservation of agriculture in a larger sense, like McCarg’s work to protect agricultural land from inappropriate development and prevent conflicts of different types of land use; the whole zoning idea. But that was treating agriculture as a system with some sort of planning design overlay but design was not actually involved in the essence of agriculture itself.

DP: And the overlap between design or landscape architecture and ecology?

DH: Yeah, well, for example, one of my teachers in the course who I had a strong connection with was Phil Simons. She was one of the first landscape architects in Australia to use, in quite a few of her designs, local indigenous species. So we had debates and discussions about native versus exotic in those years. She was one of the pioneers of that sort of thinking; how can landscape designer create spaces that can support the diversity of nature and especially indigenous species. 

DP: Well, that’s great. I haven’t heard it quite that way before, it’s so clear. And you had yourself a very juicy question. Or a space of how would these things overlap that obviously influenced the course of the rest of your life.

Meeting Bill Mollison

Bill Mollison during a plant stock collecting trip around Tasmania in 1975. Writes David, “My close and intense working relationship with Bill during 1974-1976 brought together the ideas and the practice which we came to call permaculture”

DH: It was at that sort of pivotal time that I met Bill Mollison, and he didn’t strike me as a designer, and I don’t think I was looking for that.

I suppose I’d already come to a view that a lot of biological science was highly reductionist and, in fact, even within ecology, there was this tension between reductionist approaches, which would be regarded as mainstream approaches to science, and the more holistic.

So I was very much looking for that and then I met Bill Mollison through chance. He was at a seminar in Environmental Design. He wasn’t running it. He was just someone who made some comments that I thought were really interesting. I went to speak to him afterwards and realised oh, this person thinks ecologically. Holistically.

Note: see also this short article entitled A Chance Meeting

Through chance he invited me to come to his place and I was looking for somewhere to live and I was also a bit disabled because I had a broken collarbone as a result of motorbike accident. So I suppose it was also him taking in a homeless waif.

We began a discussion about what I might focus on in second year of Environmental Design. At the time, he was a lecturer in the psychology faculty, a senior tutor actually. The connection with design was really not through him at all. Particularly, as I worked with him, I didn’t see him primarily as a designer. He was an amazing polymath, a genius, and primarily an ecological thinker.

DP: And was he lecturing in psychology at the same school?

DH: No, at the older tertiary institution, the University of Tasmania. I was at the new College of Advanced Education, as it was then called where the Environmental Design School was.

DP: And you were saying you had this hankering for a more holistic approach to ecology and he was an example of that. So were you  learning a lot from him early on, soaking that up?

DH: Enormously. Our relationship was very much student and mentor.

Co-originating the Permaculture Concept

First page of part 5 of the articles by David and Bill published in the Tasmanian Organic Gardener and Farmer in 1976, two years prior to publication of Permaculture One

DH: The seed of the permaculture idea came in a discussion towards the end of ’74 in Bill asking me, knowing how free Environmental Design was, “so what are you going to work on next year? What are you going to look at?” I said, “you know that I’m interested in this crossover between these three things that don’t seem to cross over at all.”

DH: When I put that to Mollison, that’s what I want to work on, of course, he always had a million ideas and he said, “Okay, well how about this for an idea. If in most places on the planet, nature creates some sort of forest as an optimal ecosystem response to climate and geology and landscape to optimise production and diversity from a sort of an ecological point of view, why does agriculture, if not look like a forest literally, function like a forest? For example why is it not dominated by perennial plants? Why is it dominated by annual plants?”

I said, ‘That is perfect, it’s a design question, but it’s fundamentally looking at the design that nature creates, and why don’t we appear to be using that in our prime activity on the planet, agriculture by which we feed ourselves.’

I regard that discussion as the seed of the permaculture concept.

So I started sort of working on the permaculture ideas, when I started the next year in ’75. And it basically consumed all my time, full time. The staff were concerned that I wasn’t doing anything else. But I was free to do that. Mollison and I were developing a permaculture garden at his property on the fringes of Hobart, two and a quarter acre semi rural property about the same size as this place Melliodora.

It had forest on it, and he had owned it for some time and he’d defended it and saved it from the great ’67 bushfires not many years before I was there. There were neighbours and other people in that area who were developing self reliance as part of what we were on about at that time.

A lot of the interest initially was around what you would call economic botany, the exploration of useful plants, the components from which we might, build a permaculture system. Obviously perennial plants and especially trees. So there were a lot of elements that weren’t primarily design process in that.

Even though I was a bit separated from and critical of a lot of what I saw in the design professions and even in environmental design, and I was off on this other tack, with Mollison as my mentor who I did not see really as a designer, so I see the design side of permaculture, in a way came more through me, through the lineage of environmental design and the radical ideas of design that were part of that school.

DP: Wow, so 1974 was a hell of a year!

DH: Yeah. Two years after the Club of Rome Limits to Growth report, one year after the first oil crisis that precipitated the Western world into the first economic recession since WWII.

Of course, 1972 was also the election of the Whitlam government in Australia after 23 years of conservative government, and a whole huge cultural explosion of different ideas and different possibilities, which led to the great constitutional crisis of 1975. And it was the end of the long running war in Vietnam and eventually with the American defeat in Vietnam although Australia pulled our troops out in ’72.

So there was a huge social, economic and political turmoil at that time and an openness, certainly in academia, to new radical ideas. Environmental design as that radical school ran from 1970 to 1980. And then it was basically emasculated, turned back into a conventional design course and moved from its Hobart base to Launceston. So it’s very emblematic of the ’70s.

DP: You got your timing right!

DH: Yeah, the timing for permaculture, generally the huge interest in ecology and related ideas in science. For example, the embodied energy concept; How we use energy as a measure of human systems. In 1979 I went to the ANSAS conference in Hobart and there were five papers on net energy analysis of agricultural systems. Move forward a decade, there would have been none of that.

So there was a huge interest in all sorts of things that included design process. I mean, just as an example of that first year I was there, during that project I worked on with the Battery Point urban conservation. There was another project, working as consultants to the State Department of Planning as to how to do, for the first time, a strategic plan for Hobart with community consultation. Because up to that point, planning had just been engineers and staff, deciding where I imagine freeways are going to be built in new urban expansion and whatever. So those ideas of people being involved in design process in things that affect them at that social level was, of course, part of that period.

DP: Would you say that period, or that pivotal conversation about what you’re going to do with your project the next year was a kind of a moment? And did that culminate with Permaculture One?

DH: Well, I think in a lot of ways for me that did culminate in the publication of Permaculture One in 1978. And the huge interest that there was at the time. For Mollison, that was a stepping stone to moving out of the university, giving up his tenured position, and going to spruik permaculture to the world. Not just through the counter culture and the first areas of interest but more broadly and with huge popularisation. Whereas I felt at that time, not quite a fraud, but I didn’t have the broad base of experience that Mollison had in some areas and also being a generation older than me apart from anything else.

So my interest was in building my practical skills. In ’76, I completed the Environmental Design degree and I didn’t go back to do the postgraduate degree because I was actually at that stage, so sick of or beyond wanting to think about things academically and I wanted to do things with my hands.

David Holmgren at backyard greenhouse project at Arthur St Hobart 1979

Initially, a lot of that was already happening as gardening, forestry, ecological hunting, but also I had a big role in building and I built a big timber barn on a property that Mollison and I and others had bought to develop as a permaculture place.

I worked as an offsider with a friend of mine who was a builder my own age who ran his own building business. We were doing quite complex building projects and learning by doing.

 I didn’t like the idea of design, in whatever field, disconnected from the practice of, implementation. That separation wasn’t really viable, and that is apart from it’s class implications that there’s the designers and plodders who implemented. I didn’t respect any of that sort of idea.

I was much more interested in doing stuff and building a skill base. But in that process, I suppose beginning about ’76, I was starting to build a skill base for advising other people. I had a self directed apprenticeship really, working on other people’s projects, some paid, some voluntary, doing the odd design consultancy. 

That led to my mother in her middle age, out of the blue, buying a 180 acre rural bush property on the far south coast of New South Wales. And I thought, “I need to go and help her get set up and build a proper passive solar house and get gravity feed water supply systems and appropriate fencing so she can have gardens and be fire safe and implement all those ideas.”

Meeting Haikai Tane

DH: I’d been working at that stage continuously from when I left Environmental Design and graduated at the end of ’76 to ’79. In those three years, I’d worked in lots of different ways. But I’d also discovered my second mentor in New Zealand, Haikai Tane, who in a way I regard as my second mentor in permaculture.

I met Haikai at the Down to Earth festival organised by ex Deputy Prime Minister Jim Cairns, as part of the countercultural movement in Australia, the Down to Earth movement. I’d been there at that festival where there was this huge interest in permaculture. I hadn’t seen Bill for quite a while and we ran up a workshop under a big shady tree with about 150 people.

I met Haikai after that workshop and we wandered around this thousand acre grazing property (near Bredbo on the Monaro) exploring things and he made a comment about something that Mollison had said that just made me sit up. He said, “Mollison mentioned that this degraded grazing land needed gorse spread over it,” (which is of coarse a noxious weed), to improve the land damaged by all the sheep overgrazing. Typically confrontational comment, yeah. And Haikai said, “I’m not sure that I agree with Mollison about gorse.” And I thought “this is going to be a conventional argument about invasive exotic species.” He said, “I think Briar Rose is a more appropriate species for this.” Which is of course, another spiny noxious weed. And I thought, who is this guy? What does he know?

Reading Landscape with the Land Systems Approach

DH: We spent a whole lot of time looking around that landscape and Haikai’s knowledge in reading the landscape just fascinated me and we spent days together. He invited me back to New Zealand to help set up permaculture in New Zealand, the Permaculture Association of New Zealand.

note: learn more about David’s approach to reading landscape here

He was already a member of the Farm Forestry Association of New Zealand, the Soil Association (the national organic organisation) and the Tree Crops Association. He was actually trained in Law, Planning and Geography, had studied at ANU and knew the Monero country very well, had worked in British Columbia, but had really adopted New Zealand as not just home but spiritual home almost. Then taken a name which was Japanese and Maori, but he was originally Australian. Again, much older than me, but not as many years difference as with Mollison.

Haikai Tane, Waitaki Basin South Island N.Z. 1984 Writes David: “I took this picture during my second visit to the N.Z. high country. This barren”naturally treeless ” area has a semi arid climate with very cold winters, but the growth of suitable species of trees on the fresh glacial soils is nothing short of spectacular as illustrated by the 15 year old plantings in the valley. Haikai and his love of the NZ high country was very influential on the development of my ideas.”

In working with Haikai in New Zealand in 1979, and then again in 1984, he taught me a lot about the Land Systems approach to understanding land. He’d actually done the Land Systems study of that high dry cold grazing country of the South Island for the New Zealand government Lands Department.

Mapping all of the land in a way that integrates the geology, the topography, the climate, and what he called the biophysical resources of soils, plants and animals that express those underlying energetic and geologic forces. And that was the basis of what we would call sustainable land use. You had to have everything mapped on to those patterns, both at a large scale, but also down at a fine scale.

DP: I know you learned a lot of holistic ecology with Mollison and I know you moved around the country a lot. So what was the difference in reading landscape? Was it kind of like going deeper or was it in different direction?

DH: Look, I was already in that process of reading landscape in the early research for permaculture. Because I would go and visit old forest arboreta and abandoned gardens, places where people have done stuff, and then nature had sort of taken over. I found those much more interesting from a permaculture point of view, to give instruction of the intersection between humans doing stuff and nature doing stuff; than going to some pristine wilderness. So I was already developing those skills and a lot of that was about ID, what is this tree? where is it growing? Why is it there? Those sorts of things.

Hot-off-the-reel teaser for the www.ReadingLandscape.org project

So when I met Haikai, his mastery of all that, and especially a deeper understanding of soil, not in the sense of the agronomist’s focus on the condition of the A1 horizon, the topsoil, but understanding the regolith, that deep structure underneath that often determines the moisture availability and possibilities of deep nutrient mining, and different geological strata that would produce quite different ecosystems, and had quite different potential to be developed and quite different vulnerabilities to land degradation processes.

DP: Is that an actual word, regolith? 

DH: Yeah, that’s describing the material underneath from which soils emerge whether that’s the bedrock or deep deposits of alluvial material. And in New Zealand, the newness of the country compared with Australia made all of those reading landscape skills, so much sharper, so much easier to see. Whereas in Australia a lot of the processes are so subtle, so ancient, it’s harder to see them.

Self portrait Mt Cook NZ 1984

The constraints of freehold land tenure for permaculture

DH: Haikai also convinced me that the permaculture vision of broad acre integrated land uses of agriculture, horticulture, aquaculture, beekeeping, forestry, all of these things being integrated, couldn’t come about under our freehold land tenure system.

So that understanding, from land law and from history of our ancestors before modern land title and the enclosures of the commons and all of those issues I learnt that the way we own and control land is actually a huge factor in how it could be designed. So, it was drawing me into understanding those sort of cultural institutional forces that shape design.

Strategic Planning

DH: I suppose the most important learning with Haikai was moving away from the master plan idea; design it on paper and then implement it. Which is always a bit problematic when that methodology was taken from designing the built environment and trying to master plan a garden or landscape, because you’re dealing with biological entities that change and complexities of soil you don’t fully understand. In urban planning where cities are so big and complex master plans are similarly problematic. You could say, of course, that Christopher Alexander was very strongly critiquing master planning within architecture too, that it doesn’t really work. I was sort of vaguely aware of that critique, because Alexander was one of the thinkers influencing people in Environmental Design. But because my focus was more biological, I didn’t pick up so much on his work.

Haikai really introduced the framework of strategic planning, which had become a tool used by urban planners, but it came out of the military, as he explained it. Military planners had to act with limited knowledge and where they didn’t control all the factors and that idea of having frameworks of action, but you don’t really know how that is going to express itself in final design form. We started applying strategic design process to what we call tree crop agriculture; how do you not just have grazing animals around a landscape or annual crops, but these permanent, long lived structures of tree crop. Like me Haikai was a tree crop nut; he was obsessed with trees. So the application of that sort of design process was very much part of learning from working with him.

DP: This is really fascinating and you were saying earlier even before Haikai, you had a sense it wasn’t viable to have a separation between in some cases, white collar design and blue collar implementation. That was already an irk.

DH: Very early on.

DP: So that was already there and Haikai really helped you go deeper into this?

More recent photo of Haikai

DH: Yeah, because he was very practical, hands on, as well as working in high level consultancy, to Government and business. He had a consultancy job working for the state government of New South Wales to review the Sydney basin regional plan, the whole of the Sydney metropolitan area. It had become a political hot potato internally, and they decided, unusually in those years, to get an outside consultant, and he somehow got the job. But in the process, he went and lived in five different locations around Sydney, always traveled with taxi drivers and explored the multiple cities and spaces that Sydney really was, rather than the myopic view, as he said, of the planners sitting in the tower overlooking Hyde Park. They had a view of the city and the suburbs, whereas he said Parramatta was already the the largest retailing centre in Australia. He identified as 21 centres in Sydney that had city level function. So he was an iconoclast in many different ways within the planning profession, but he was also a beekeeper and a totally hands on person. You know, so, that practical doing, as well as design and thinking.

Yeah, so he was a big influence on my whole design process. In 1979 he encouraged me to get a camera and record what I see in the landscape. So he really put me on that lifelong journey of reading landscape. And that certainly also began how I applied that in my consultancy work. And then, in trying to design in ways that is sensitive to, not just the form of the land, but the actual different types of land – recognising that first. So using that Land Systems approach, which had mainly been used at a macro scale, bringing it down to a much smaller scale of permaculture sites to decide where are the changes in land and understanding those first and mapping those before you start carving up the land into its uses or allocating it to different things.

Permaculture in the Bush

DP: So you’re well on truly into the domain of design process here, where a key part of it has to be deeply immersing in what’s already there, what’s happening, what are the land units.

DH: The first really big project in applying that was my mother’s property on the south coast of New South Wales. Because it was 180 acres of forest. There were 12 different eucalyptus species, three gullies, a boundary to a permanent creek, and two different geologies. As I analysed it, in a case study booklet that we produced on it called Permaculture In The Bush, it had three different Land Systems.

Permaculture in the Bush – Wyndham Far South Coast NSW, 1984

I used that macro, stand back, look at the big patterns first, before going down into the details. Looking across the landscape and saying, okay, where are potential house sites identifying five of those and and then checking them against different criteria. So I started using ways of scoring things to come to a complex decision making way, rather than getting locked into single factor design which saw a lot of those sort of processes.

It was also interesting as a design process for me, because I had the contour maps, and I had photographs my mother had taken, and I had her to interrogate, but I actually didn’t get to the property for six months into the project. I was in Tasmania and then we were back in Western Australia, selling the family home.

When we finally arrived at the land and drove down this bush track, I already knew what was around the corner from just going over contour maps, and trying to get another bit of information. It was squeezing more information out of it. So it was a very weird sort of experience, but a very useful one in terms of design process to explore something that closely through indirect means and then set up camp.

That very process of thinking ‘No, don’t make any assumptions. You’ve got a whole lot of stuff in your head. None of it means anything at the moment.’ The primary process of setting up a basic camp. And the first lesson about, ‘don’t set it up on the best spot! Because that could be where you’re actually going to develop.’

David free hand chainsaw ripping blackwood for door and window sills Wyndham 1979

There was also a huge number of practical learnings there in directing earthworks and timber milling, directing other people’s work in building a passive solar house. I had worked a lot in that side and I was actually really passionate about passive solar design. So ironically, that project was also quite a consolidation for me, in practitioner terms, as an ecological builder, more than an ecological farmer. It took me many years to sit and look back and say, ‘Well, actually, I’ve been more of a builder and more of my design work has involved a lot of the nonliving elements, the infrastructure, the earthworks and water supply systems and fencing and all that infrastructure as well as with building. And that knowledge base from the practical arts of woodworking and the processing of timber from tree to saw milling, drying, processing using timber was a greater development of skill in that area than I did with horticulture, let alone animal husbandry.

Erecting posts at Venie’s Wyndham 1979

DP: That’s fascinating. You were already very hands on with building and stuff. But to then be working with contractors as well which is another step and working indirectly through them and collaborating.

DH: Well, it was mostly friends working at mates rates, jack of all trades. So it was the beginning of that sort of, artisanal building process and definitely doing a lot of thinking things through and planning on paper, and then being prepared to change the design.

Of course, when you are actually doing something yourself that you have gone to huge efforts to put on paper, but you see yourself as a learner, and you are at the receiving end, it’s very clear that you will change the design. Whereas when it is separated, and there is someone invested with the authority of being the designer, and this person, the builder or someone further down the chain is experiencing the disconnect between the design and reality, there’s a power relationship, a whole lot of investment that it’s hard to bring that through unless of course those designers very deliberately working in that way.

DP: Yeah, it’s almost always like in that model, when there’s a clash between reality and design, the native inclination is to try and make design win. Which of course, it ultimately cannot do. 

From Permaculture in the Bush, Wyndham, late eighties

Setting up Holmgren Design Services (HDS)

DP: I’d be really keen to hear about your transition into professional design consultancy. Is that an appropriate thing to tell us about next?

DH: Yeah, because, that project on the south coast in New South Wales was really the final or most important project that really led to me setting up Holmgren Design Services as a registered business in 1983. It was just a couple of years after completing the initial phase of development of the property with my mother. Also the documentation that I took to the first permaculture convergence in 1984, of a case study of that property. 

I presented two papers at the convergence. One was on reading landscape, to the young permaculture movement where there had already been four years of people having done a permaculture design course, rushing out enthusiastically trying to design the world, and not necessarily making a very good job of that.

I was introducing the idea that skill in reading landscape is one of the core skills for a permaculture design.  As a consultant having to come onto a site where people don’t necessarily have a deep multi-generational historic connection with the land, where there’s not necessarily good mapping of soils or even topography, even decent contour maps and having to advise on key design decisions and needing to be able to read a lot of things very quickly in the landscape.

So there was that and there was the case study because I saw that the ‘talk to do ratio’ in the permaculture movement, felt to me quite high.

DP: The talk to do ratio?

DH: Yeah, that’s what Haikai called it. He talked about how the ‘talk to do ratio’ was higher in Australia than New Zealand. Much higher in America.

DH: So the case study documentation of places that had been permaculture designed, and then implemented, rather than just places where people were saying, “oh, here is something that illustrates permaculture ideas. Great. That’s really good.” But was permaculture thinking actually influencing how that came about? Because that’s that next test of the concept, can people use these ideas to actually end up creating more appropriate systems that reflect permaculture ethics and design principles?

So then to document that design process and how that was implemented. I saw it as important on an ethical level, of being guinea pigs, of trying out your ideas yourself. And so that was all happening around that same time. And in ’84, I also went back to New Zealand and worked with Haikai again, and through the New Zealand Tree Crops Association working on how did these ideas apply to actually implementing the transformation of pastoral landscapes into multi purpose tree crop dominated landscapes?

LSD, Intuition, and “A Case for the Coin”

DP: You’ve talked to me in the past about how you grew up in a very free thinking, rational, intellectual household and you’ve told me a few stories over the years about how during your time with Haikai where he’d give you spontaneous lectures about Lao Tzu and bring a sort of Eastern mysticism flavour. Did that have any impact or bearing on or relevance to design process?

DH: Yeah, well, actually, that reminds me of a story. I suppose I’d see myself growing up as a super rationalist. Even as a child, I would wake up and not remember any of my dreams, probably because the dream world was, like just too inconsistent with reality. There were a few things that broke down that process. The primary one was the experience of LSD made it clear to me there were more things in the human mind that could possibly be comprehended through simple sort of reductionist methods.

Another marker in that was certainly working with Haikai, setting up the site for these workshops over Easter in 1979, on a high country grazing property. We were designing the site “where are people going to park?” “where was the camp kitchen going to be?” “where was the sauna by the stream?”; just designing a small festival space.

Both of us as designers were running through all the factors, circulation here or what if its wet weather, etcetera. Anyway, we got to a bit of a stumbling point where there was one option over here and another there. We’d run through a few of the factors and Haikai said, “This is a case for the coin,” and pulls out a coin and he flips it. I was flabbergasted at this idea that you could actually make a decision, a design decision, based on the flip of a coin.

And then he gave me this lecture on the I Ching and a whole lot of ideas in Eastern mysticism about firstly connecting to a deeper level of your feelings about what is the right thing to do and part of it is your own reaction to this chance decision. But also that you uncover a different way of accessing part of your understanding. So that was one of the stepping stones in that breakdown of that super rationalist control.

Another one was when I was working with my mother, on developing the property, the early stages of the design, and we were refining where the house site was going to be on this 180 acres and looking at gravity feed, water supply, dam site options, all sorts of different factors. The chosen site was fairly thick regrowth logged over bush site. So it involved clearing quite a lot of trees and a lot of thick regrowth.

I’ve been working through with my inclinometer looking at tree heights and because you’re talking about forest trees that were 35 meters tall, and how are we going to make the clearing, minimising impact with retention of trees that we wanted to keep and get full sun access into the passive solar building, and full winter sun access to gardens.

I was trying to do that through thick young regrowth and big emergent trees. I was using the inclinometer measuring sun angles across tree canopies, working backwards and forwards over a period of more than a week. In the meantime, my mother had wandered in and found an old box that had been left with some rubbish and she stood it up, saying, “I reckon the house should be about here.” And as I worked around, I ended up coming back to where the box was. Now it may have been completely dumb luck, but it was interesting that rational evidence based process somehow connecting with something that came completely intuitively.

Stay tuned for Part Two and meantime please a) visit the Reading Landscape with David Holmgren documentary project and b) consider becoming a patron of Making Permaculture Stronger to support the creation of more episodes and articles like this.

Also please join the conversation and write a comment below.

Rosemary Morrow Reflecting on Four Decades of International Permaculture Work (e52)

Such a deep honour to have my dear friend and very first ever podcast guest Rosemary (‘Rowe’) Morrow from the Blue Mountains Permaculture Institute back on the show (after being my very first ever guest!) sharing her permaculture journey over four decades this week.

Some of the topics you’ll hear in this truly wonderful chat are Rowe’s:

  • new in-progress book
  • thoughts on the adequacies and inadequacies of permaculture
  • issue with most permaculture being taught to middle class westerners
  • work in refugee camps and other largely invisible margins which are rapidly growing
  • thoughts on designing yourself into your place vs designing yourself out of overseas places you work
  • chapter on a permaculture approach to the oceans
  • thoughts on decolonisation and re-indigenising
  • thoughts on the essence of permaculture

Please note after our chat Rowe asked if I would please share this link about supporting a permaculture project addressing the Humanitarian Crisis after the burning of the Moria Camp on the island of Lesbos.

Rowe also mentioned Milkwood’s Permaculture Living Skills course which you can check out here.

Photo from a project in Lesvos Rowe was part of

Holistic Decision Making shop talk with Javan Bernakevitch and Dan Palmer (e51)

Continuing our recent focus, this episode shares a lively chat with my friend and fellow decision-making innovator Javan Bernakevitch. For several years we’ve been catching up regularly to talk shop and explore what’s alive for us with respect to our shared interest in values-based or holistic decision making. This time we hit record to explore the difference between procedures with steps and processes with principles. How clear are you on the difference? Take a listen to find out!

  • Find more episodes on Holistic Decision Making here
  • Learn more about Javan’s excellent work here and watch his Facing Fire film here
  • Find out more about my online courses in Holistic Decision Making here
  • Check this link in a week or so to learn more about the David Holmgren Reading Landscape Documentary project
  • Check out the site of April-Sampson Kelly (whose voice makes an all-too-brief appearance) here
  • Become a patron of Making Permaculture Stronger here to access powerful permaculture design resources and enable the creation of more content like this

I hope you enjoy our holistic decision making shop talk, bless all you fathers out there (it is father’s day in my part of the world), and catch you in the next episode.

Holistic Context for a Permaculture Design Business (Part 2 of 2)

This episode is the continuation and completion of the last episode where I started an interactive rolling review of a holistic context for a permaculture design business.

Here we follow through and finish the first pass of Porvenir Design’s Holistic Context with owner-directors Scott Gallant and Sam Kenworthy.

To tie in with our current focus, by the way, I have created an online course on Holistic Decision Making starting September 4th, 2020. This course will educate and resource participants to develop their own holistic contexts and start making decisions aligned with that context.

There is also the opportunity to attend a PDC with Porvenir Design in either 2020 or 2021.

If you are interested in this topic you might also want to listen to my introduction to Holistic Decision Making in episode 40 and my recent interview with Allan Savory. You can also catch up on my prior conversation with Scott on the practical and professional realities of a more living design process in episode 41 and episode 42.

Some quotes from this episode

Whether you grow the business or shrink the business, that’s a decision, not a quality of life statement. – Dan

The entire job (of enabling actions) is to make the quality of life statements true. You know, what do we need to be doing or producing to make them true. One point I’ll make is whenever I do this I’ll make it very clear which enabling actions are attached to which quality of life statements. Even though sometimes one enabling action will serve more than one quality of life statement. I find that really helpful particularly later on when you’re auditing and you’re realising, oh right now this quality of life statement is the least true, so what are we going to do about it? That’s our focus for the next six weeks is to make that more true and then move on to the one that now is least true. Let’s go straight to the enabling actions in service of that and find out what’s wrong there, what’s happening there, what we can change. – Dan

When I first got into this I dove really deep into it and really read Savory’s book very closely, workshops and all that. And where I got to with the ‘resource base’ is that he construes it in terms of how things need to be 10, 20, 100, 200 years into the future, socially, on the land. As I tried to work with that, what I found that it directly connected to enabling actions. That’s their job for me. So you’ve got your purpose – where you’re heading, you’ve got the quality of life statements – the core things you need to feel are true along the way if you are getting quality out of being involved and want to stay involved, and then you’ve got the enabling actions – things you need to be doing day by day, week by week, in order to keep those quality of life statements true, which if they’re true, that enables you to actually deliver on your statement of purpose. The future resource base does look into the future, and it’s says, what are the resources that you need to be in place in order to do these enabling actions. What are the enabling actions, what resources are they dependant on, and how do those need to…I think of them as variables. If the key future resource base variable diminishes over time, a classic one in any business is the goodwill of your customers, if that’s going downhill over time at some point you don’t have a business anymore. So it’s one of the core resources you depend on into the future to continue operating. – Dan

This is where we put relationships with suppliers. They are in a certain state. And if the quality of our relationship with the people who supply the timber we make our veg beds out of or even the screws and bolts that we bolt them together with or whatever, if those relationships are going down hill, at some point they will say screw you, and give the timber to someone else instead. These are core resources that we depend on to do what we do and we want to bring our conscious attention to them so we can nourish them and keep them strong. And if we have a strong resource base we know that moving forward that we are able to keep doing the things we need to do have the quality of life we want as we pursue our statement of purpose. That’s what gives you resilience and that deep feeling like – we’ve got this, we’ve got a future” – Dan

While we were coming up with this, we knew that we were going to bring someone on, we knew we were going to put this out as a blog post, so there was to a certain extent that context that if we create this then others that aren’t me and Scott (because we have so many conversations everyday) could also look at that and go, Oh ok, I see what professionalism means to you. – Sam

Porvenir Design’s Holistic Context

Thanks to Scott and Sam for letting me reproduce the version of their context they have shared publicly in this blog post. A Holistic Context for an entity (such as a permaculture business) created for a specific reason comprises:

  • a statement of purpose
  • quality of life statements
  • what Allan Savory called forms of production and I call enabling actions
  • a future resource base

Porvenir Design’s Statement of Purpose: Why was this entity created?

Porvenir Design exists to help clients achieve their goals within the context of tropical land planning and management and to provide meaningful livelihood for its employees.

Quality of Life Statements: How do we want out life to BE?

Regarding Economic Well Being

  • We are financially secure with a cash flow that is consistent and allows us to prioritize long term planning and quality of life decisions.
  • We have comfortable places to live that allow for gardening and food practice (Note: this is where the current episode starts)

Regarding Relationships

  • We have relationships among our Decision Makers and with our Resource Base which are
    • Transparent
    • Mutually beneficial
    • Clear and openly communicated
    • Balanced with regard to power dynamics
    • Empathetic
    • Compassionate
    • Empowering
    • Professional
    • Safe
    • Non-toxic
    • Fun
    • Diverse

Regarding Challenge and Growth

  • We continue learning and gain confidence on how to run and grow our business.
  • We grow on a personal level as communicators and facilitators.
  • We accept work which:
    • Encourages us to keep learning.
    • Features diverse projects, ecosystems, and contexts
    • Has clear objectives and outcomes.
    • Brings clear and obvious value to our clients.
    • Align with our values.

Regarding Purpose and Contribution

  • What do we want to be?
    • We are effective in helping clients meet their goals.
    • We specialize in tropical agroforestry, permaculture design and education, and project and client facilitation.
    • We are a design firm with an excellent reputation for professionalism.
    • We work within our tropical climatic and culture expertise as a place based organization focused on Costa Rica.
  • What do we ultimately want to accomplish?
    • We create regenerative productive systems that inspire people to spend time in nature every day and actively participate in their landscape.
    • We earn enough money to achieve our individual quality of life goals.
    • We have time for professional development and personal free time.
    • We grow the business in a way that others (community, future teammates, etc) can benefit from the structures we create.
    • We contribute to the efforts of regenerative tropical agriculture and its impacts on social, financial and ecological systems.
    • We are an active and positive presence in the permaculture community in Costa Rica and beyond.

Forms of Production: What has to be produced to achieve the quality of life and statement of purpose.

  • We act with integrity, follow our business code of conduct, and foster the quality of relationships described in our quality of life statement.
  • We manage projects that result in productive, beautiful, functional landscapes which are evident in their improved soil/water/microbial/ecosystem health.
  • We manage projects which create safe and reliable livelihoods for workers and meet the financial, environmental, and social goals of the clients. 
  • We have clear expectations and deliverables for clients.
  • We actively engage the Costa Rica permaculture community, visit other projects, network with leaders, and support their work.
  • We work with people whose primary project(s) and focus are in Costa Rica.
  • We monitor our progress through a year end business review, tracking our project outcomes, and ecological surveying.
  • We train teammates to evenly share work responsibilities so that we can all meet our free time goals.
  • We balance our current work capacity, our future financial needs, and our desired time off.
  • We have clear and well documented agreements regarding ownership, finances, decision making, and entry and exit strategies.
  • We have legal working status in Costa Rica.
  • We are legal residents of Costa Rica.
  • We actively seek out workshops, reading material, and mentorship in order to improve our communication and  facilitation skills, and our understanding of power and gender imbalances.
  • We have a network of mentors and advisers.
  • We invest in professional development for ourselves and our team.
  • We work with providers and contractors who are based in Costa Rica in order to foster intimate working relationships
  • We regularly check ourselves against our capacity and skill set when taking on new projects.
  • We have clear and precise language in our public outreach about where we work, what we do, etc
  • We offer employee ownership options to future teammates.
  • We consider all our work and knowledge open source.
  • We document and share our work through blog posts, teaching, open houses, etc.
  • We offer mentorship opportunities to the Costa Rican permaculture community.
  • We actively stay in touch with former, current and prospective clients and students.

Future Resource Base: A description of the resource base as it will need to be in order that future generations can live lives described in the Quality of Life statements.

People: We have relationships steeped in the values laid out in our quality of life statements. Our clients, students and general network see us as diligent, professional, creative, empathetic, humble and constantly seeking to improve.

Land: The lands where we work are abundant in diverse sources of food. The cycles of water, minerals, soil, and microbes are thriving. Wildlife is evident. Succession is moving toward a mature ecosystem.

Community: We are surrounded by friends and neighbors who are dedicated to regenerating the planet. Our community is interested and supportive of our work. They supply us with resources, fill niches as they arise, and participate as clients, students, and friends.

Was this article useful? Become a Patron to support the creation of more pieces like this and to access support in applying holistic decision making and much else to grow your permaculture design capacities.

Articulating and Evolving a Holistic Context with Scott and Sam’s Permaculture Design Business: (Part 1 of 2)

This interview will show you what working on a holistic context looks like and how you could do this for yourself, your family, or your permaculture project or enterprise. Scott Gallant and Sam Kenworthy from Porvenir Design in Central America have recently created a holistic context for their business. In this episode I review it with them and support them to evolve it further. Here you’ll get a better feel for applying what we learned from Allan Savory in the previous episode on Permaculture and Holistic Management. The whole Holistic Context idea comes from Allan.

If you are interested in this topic you might want to listen to my introduction to Holistic Decision Making in episode 40. You can also catch up on my prior conversation with Scott on the practical and professional realities of a more living design process in episode 41 and episode 42.

In conjunction with this episode, I have also created an online course on Holistic Decision Making starting September 4th, 2020. This course will educate and resource participants to develop their own holistic contexts and start making decisions aligned with that context.

Scott Gallant and Sam Kenworthy

Setting a Focus for the conversation: The Task Cycle Framework

After hearing a little something of Sam’s backstory, I started by introducing the Task Cycle Framework to clarify our focus for the episode. I learned about this framework from Carol Sanford and the Regenesis folk. Among other things, this framework invites you think through:

  • The task
  • The purpose of the task
  • The products that need to be produced to pursue that purpose
  • The processes that will generate those products

In this case, the task was reviewing Porvenir Design’s Holistic Context as a podcast episode. As for the task’s purpose, what came up for me (and resonated for Scott and Sam) was:

We are recording this interview to review your holistic context and potentially help you increase its depth, clarity and decision making power…

…in a way that supports Porvenir design’s vitality, viability, and capacity to evolve…

..so that you and your business are becoming an increasing potent agent of regeneration in Costa Rica and beyond.

The main product was a tight, focused podcast episode that adds value to Porvenir design and to our listeners in terms of resourcing them to do this kind of work for themselves. Then the process we used was, after some scene setting, slowly working our way through the Porvenir context, reflecting on each bit for as long as we need.

In addition to going through the task cycle, Dan brought a personal aim to the conversation of evoking reflection and sharing experience more than providing answers.

Porvenir Design’s Holistic Context

Thanks to Scott and Sam for letting me reproduce the version of their context they have shared publicly in this blog post. A Holistic Context for an entity (such as a business) created for a specific reason comprises:

  • a statement of purpose
  • quality of life statements
  • what Savory calls forms of production and Dan calls enabling actions
  • a future resource base

Porvenir Design’s Statement of Purpose: Why was this entity created?

Porvenir Design exists to help clients achieve their goals within the context of tropical land planning and management and to provide meaningful livelihood for its employees.

Some snippets from our conversation about Porvenir Design’s Statement of Purpose

On a meaningful livelihood…”One of the things I sometimes struggle with, with the holistic context, in the (purpose) statement and everything that flows from it, is when are we making decisions to regenerate landscapes and all these things that get us super excited and that we love doing everyday. We also formed it to buy a little piece of land ourselves and have the highest quality of life that we can live, and so I always see those two things and wonder how the rest of our statements flow from there and if there is any tension. I don’t feel like there is any tension within those two statements, those two separate purposes, but they are different purposes.”

“…It often feels like an almost irresolvable tension for people. I could do this stuff to make money, and I could do this stuff about the shit I really care about and make a meaningful difference in community and the world, and they seem to be in different directions, and so I will go and earn some money and then come back and do something I care about, and then life becomes this yoyo back and forward. A thing that can literally fragment and tear you apart. And so I think key to an operation like yours and others, and you talked about them being two separate purposes, is reframing to what degree is it possible for them to be fully aligned and in the same direction. And one impulse I had as you were speaking is around nestedness and whether it’s not so much the two things are at the same level and we’re going to try to reconcile or balance them, but maybe one is nested within the other.” – Dan

“…oftentimes clients approach us in a way that they want us to be problem solvers for them. And some of the solutions are simple enough for us to come up with, but that’s from our context and what we would do in a given situation. And what we sometimes struggle with is, What do you want? And how can we help define what your context is?…I think that achieving their goals has a lot to do with client willingness to get involved.”

“Part of what you exist to do is to help them actually know what their goals are. To articulate and state their goals. So you can’t help them achieve their goals until you’ve got them. And it’s not just helping them articulate goals that they don’t already have, but it’s also helping them become unattached, or to let go of goals they do already have that aren’t a good fit for their context. So a core part of the value you offer is around supporting people to actually arrive at a context appropriate set of goals.” – Dan

“The phrase “achieve your goals” reminds me more of running a race and you accomplish the marathon or something. It’s like now it’s this finished thing. But none of landscape management is ever finished. So it’s this ongoing piece and I feel like the idea of “achieve your goal” implies some finite end, but no part of our work is like that and no part of the client’s ongoing management of whether it’s a little kitchen garden or a big agroforestry system, has that end. It’s an ongoing process, and the phrase “achieve your goals” doesn’t capture that process, that ongoing interaction, that ecological literacy training that people have to develop in order to regenerate landscapes.”

Quality of Life Statements: How do we want out life to BE?

Regarding Economic Well Being

  • We are financially secure with a cash flow that is consistent and allows us to prioritize long term planning and quality of life decisions.
  • We have comfortable places to live that allow for gardening and food practice

Regarding Relationships

  • We have relationships among our Decision Makers and with our Resource Base which are
    • Transparent
    • Mutually beneficial
    • Clear and openly communicated
    • Balanced with regard to power dynamics
    • Empathetic
    • Compassionate
    • Empowering
    • Professional
    • Safe
    • Non-toxic
    • Fun
    • Diverse

Regarding Challenge and Growth

  • We continue learning and gain confidence on how to run and grow our business.
  • We grow on a personal level as communicators and facilitators.
  • We accept work which:
    • Encourages us to keep learning.
    • Features diverse projects, ecosystems, and contexts
    • Has clear objectives and outcomes.
    • Brings clear and obvious value to our clients.
    • Align with our values.

Regarding Purpose and Contribution

  • What do we want to be?
    • We are effective in helping clients meet their goals.
    • We specialize in tropical agroforestry, permaculture design and education, and project and client facilitation.
    • We are a design firm with an excellent reputation for professionalism.
    • We work within our tropical climatic and culture expertise as a place based organization focused on Costa Rica.
  • What do we ultimately want to accomplish?
    • We create regenerative productive systems that inspire people to spend time in nature every day and actively participate in their landscape.
    • We earn enough money to achieve our individual quality of life goals.
    • We have time for professional development and personal free time.
    • We grow the business in a way that others (community, future teammates, etc) can benefit from the structures we create.
    • We contribute to the efforts of regenerative tropical agriculture and its impacts on social, financial and ecological systems.
    • We are an active and positive presence in the permaculture community in Costa Rica and beyond.

Forms of Production: What has to be produced to achieve the quality of life and statement of purpose.

  • We act with integrity, follow our business code of conduct, and foster the quality of relationships described in our quality of life statement.
  • We manage projects that result in productive, beautiful, functional landscapes which are evident in their improved soil/water/microbial/ecosystem health.
  • We manage projects which create safe and reliable livelihoods for workers and meet the financial, environmental, and social goals of the clients. 
  • We have clear expectations and deliverables for clients.
  • We actively engage the Costa Rica permaculture community, visit other projects, network with leaders, and support their work.
  • We work with people whose primary project(s) and focus are in Costa Rica.
  • We monitor our progress through a year end business review, tracking our project outcomes, and ecological surveying.
  • We train teammates to evenly share work responsibilities so that we can all meet our free time goals.
  • We balance our current work capacity, our future financial needs, and our desired time off.
  • We have clear and well documented agreements regarding ownership, finances, decision making, and entry and exit strategies.
  • We have legal working status in Costa Rica.
  • We are legal residents of Costa Rica.
  • We actively seek out workshops, reading material, and mentorship in order to improve our communication and  facilitation skills, and our understanding of power and gender imbalances.
  • We have a network of mentors and advisers.
  • We invest in professional development for ourselves and our team.
  • We work with providers and contractors who are based in Costa Rica in order to foster intimate working relationships
  • We regularly check ourselves against our capacity and skill set when taking on new projects.
  • We have clear and precise language in our public outreach about where we work, what we do, etc
  • We offer employee ownership options to future teammates.
  • We consider all our work and knowledge open source.
  • We document and share our work through blog posts, teaching, open houses, etc.
  • We offer mentorship opportunities to the Costa Rican permaculture community.
  • We actively stay in touch with former, current and prospective clients and students.

Future Resource Base: A description of the resource base as it will need to be in order that future generations can live lives described in the Quality of Life statements.

People: We have relationships steeped in the values laid out in our quality of life statements. Our clients, students and general network see us as diligent, professional, creative, empathetic, humble and constantly seeking to improve.

Land: The lands where we work are abundant in diverse sources of food. The cycles of water, minerals, soil, and microbes are thriving. Wildlife is evident. Succession is moving toward a mature ecosystem.

Community: We are surrounded by friends and neighbors who are dedicated to regenerating the planet. Our community is interested and supportive of our work. They supply us with resources, fill niches as they arise, and participate as clients, students, and friends.

Was this article useful? Become a Patron to support the creation of more pieces like this and to access support in applying holistic management and much else to grow your permaculture design capacities.

Allan Savory on Permaculture and Holistic Management (e48)

In this very special episode, I enjoy an in-depth conversation with Allan Savory, originator of Holistic Management, President of the Savory Institute and Director of the Africa Centre for Holistic Management. While Allan is best known for his work on holistic planned grazing, I was especially excited to dive into the decision making framework at holistic management’s core and its implications for permaculture.

This is our conversation at a glance.

Dan Palmer & Allan Savory – with thanks to the Savory Institute for creating this image.

Here’s a link to a recent episode on how I’ve been practicing holistic decision making, here’s an article I wrote about it (back in 2014), and below is the full transcript of our conversation (my questions italicised).

How we start the process of managing holistically when commencing new projects

Allan thanks so much for this conversation. I’d love to start with the deep relevance of managing holistically for permaculture designers, and in particular, how we start the process of managing holistically when commencing new projects. Where us permaculture designers regularly encounter clients who, as soon as we ask them what they’d like our help toward, bombard us with a long list of goals or objectives. “We want a pond and ducks and an orchard and a vegetable garden and a campsite and a meditation platform and and and.” Could you please explain what it means to engage clients on a deeper level than the goals they present us with, how we might go about this in practice, and how important this is if we aspire to be managing holistically?   

Sure, let’s see if I can help Dan. You could either start by explaining what the reductionist management of humans is and how essential it is to manage holistically.  That is what is needed if Permaculture (or any agriculture) is to be regenerative. And that is essential if civilization is to survive now facing global desertification and climate change, in which agriculture is playing as large (maybe larger) role than coal and oil.  That gets boring in today’s short attention span and people’s eyes glaze over.

So the best way if there has been no training in how to manage holistically is to simply do it.

Everyone just wants to be told what to do and how to do it – it is almost impossible I find to stop farmers just wanting to know what to do and to help them decide how to make those decisions, that they don’t want to hear about.  Allan just tell me what to do!  I don’t want to hear about reductionist management and how it is the single cause of almost all that ails us, including desertification and climate change!

So the best way if there has been no training in how to manage holistically is to simply do it.  Think trying to explain how to ride a bike vs having a bike and just starting to ride it.  The more you explain how to ride a bike, the more confusing it gets, but a person simply riding a bike gets it in a day. 

So, assume I am advising or helping you Dan the farmer.  I would simply say, Dan let’s not talk about your crops, orchard, ducks, cattle or whatever until we can both understand the context in which you are deciding what to do.  What are you managing here? I gather you Dan are making all decisions. Does anyone else make any management decisions?  No, only you OK that is great.  So, Dan what land are you managing? Answer this 500 ha farm. Ok.  What financial resources do you have? Answer –  none but a small salary in a part time job while I farm. OK so all the money needs to be generated from the land.  Now I have an idea  of the whole situation you are managing in this case and we have very little money to work with.   

Before you can decide to build that dam, how to graze your animals or anything else, there is more I need to know from you.  Dan, we manage always for one main reason, which is to improve our lives. So let me ask you now, very personally and deeply, how do you want your life to be? Answer – something like, I want to be prosperous, independent, get married, raise a family, be healthy, free to pursue my own beliefs in my culture.   Ok that is great. 

Dan, what will your land have to be like 200 years from now if your great great grandchildren want to live a life like you want?

If you want to live a life like that, then let me ignore the state of your farm now, which I see doesn’t look very good, and ask you this.  Dan, what will your land have to be like 200 years from now if your great great grandchildren want to live a life like you want?  Don’t talk about species or any of today’s issues, simply describe how this land will have to BE. 

So that we get away from obsession with weeds, gullies, or anything else, Dan let’s describe your land using four processes:

  1. how water will cycle,
  2. how minerals or nutrients will cycle,
  3. how the biological community dynamics will function, and
  4. how sunlight energy will flow to support your descendants. 

Answer – rainfall will need to be fully effective, nutrient cycling rapid and high, biologically very complex diversified communities with solar energy flow very high indeed. Great OK.

Now one more question if you are managing to improve your life Dan. You told me you are the only person who makes decisions. However, like all farmers and people, you are totally dependent on other people. So, you have many people in your life who you live with or deal with – friends, clients, suppliers, etc etc.  You are going to need their support.  What can you do to make them support you through thick and thin?  Answer – nothing you cannot change other people. So, what can you Dan do?

As Ghandi so wisely said, you can only be the change you expect.   So now please tell me how you yourself are going to have to BE for people who are really a resource base to you to WANT to support you at all times?  I don’t want fancy words, a list of values or any branding, marketing hype – at end of day Dan you are judged by your behaviour not your words. So how must you BE?  And you will describe how you are going to always behave in a few words.

All this is very deep and very personal  and is never to be used or bandied about (as I see people doing trying even to use it in marketing!!!)

At this point by simply doing it and not explaining you have the nucleus of what is needed – a holistic context to guide all management actions as you go forward.  And this in three parts – A quality of life statement – a description of the land as it will have to be to ensure future generations can live such lives – and how you are going to behave to ensure people want to support you and your family.

Now, Dan you might ask me about the dam you want to build for instance, or raising pigs, chickens, growing any crop.  I would say yes, let’s look at that and I would perhaps ask why you want to build it, run pigs or whatever ?  Always, and without exception, because it is how humans all make decisions – you would describe either that you are doing it to meet a need. Or you are doing it to meet a desire. Or you are doing it to address a problem.  That covers countless trillions of decisions humans make daily, and always have done.   I would explain that when we “reduce” the full web of social, cultural, environmental and economic complexity that is inescapable in our lives, to meeting needs, desires or addressing problems THAT IS REDUCTIONIST MANAGEMENT.

So now Dan you will still have such needs and desires – there is nothing wrong with them and you will still want such as well as still need to address problems.  BUT and here comes the difference, you will now no longer have those as the sole reason or context for your actions.  You will now have those as needs, desires or problems but in the holistic context of how you want your life to BE.

Now, open your mind to all science, all sources of knowledge, and just as before consider any action as you have done in the past through one or more of many factors – past experience, expert advice, friends advice, cost, research results, compromise, expediency, cash flow, profitability, peer-pressures, risk, intuition etc. etc. etc.  And when about to decide simply make sure it is in line not with the need, problem, etc. but with your own very personal holistic context. 

Most people do this well and almost intuitively as long as they really want that life more than anything else in life.  If they only pay lip service to it they continue with reductionist management and always unintended consequences due to complexity.  And when there is any doubt at all, we have seven context checking filters or questions.  These you can learn later.

Moving from reductionist to holistic management is moving from a reactive to a proactive orientation

Thank you so much for clarifying the transition from reductionist to holistic management. Where we move from merely addressing problems, needs or desires to doing so in a way that aligns with a three-part holistic context we have articulated for ourselves. One aspect of how this lands for me is a sense of moving from:

  • more of a reactive orientation to life, where we’re constantly responding to problems and opportunities the world throws our way, to…
  • more a proactive orientation where we are consciously and holistically deciding toward however we deeply want our life to be.

Does that sit right for you? That an aspect of moving from reductionist to holistic management is moving from a reactive to a proactive orientation?

Dan you have been more astute than most people in that you have realized right away that managing one’s life, farm, or any business holistically becomes proactive. 

This began first with the management of the land as the Holistic Management framework was developing.  If you read my textbook you will see in the framework a feedback loop at the bottom.  What I realized long ago was that nature’s complexity (what we are managing) is beyond human comprehension.  What we have been engaged in for thousands of years was reactive, or adaptive management.  We do our best making a decision to meet a need or desire based on research, expert advice, etc. etc. and then almost always we experience unintended consequences (like organic/sustainable agriculture destroying civilizations in every region of the world). So, through millennia we took an action, saw the results and we reacted or adapted.  So, the oldest management in the world is adaptive management. 

…when we take any new action affecting the environment then, no matter how well supported it is by research, expert opinion or anything else, we should always assume it is wrong.

When I realised this I introduced the idea that when we take any new action affecting the environment then, no matter how well supported it is by research, expert opinion or anything else, we should always assume it is wrong. On that assumption you would now say, OK in this case assuming I am wrong, where will I first detect it?  When you have decided that, you then set up a feeback loop starting with the simplest possible measurement or documentation, so you detect any change as rapidly as possible.  If the change in the ecosystem processes is going the way you intend well and good. If going any other way, you back off immediately and relook at the decision or action.  Proactively managing to bring about the results you intend – not adaptive management reacting to changes.

An example so you get the idea. When I first realized that nothing but changed animal behaviour and greatly increased physical animal impact could reverse desertification, that was new.  Never thought of or tried throughout history and totally condemned by all scientists, environmentalists, ranchers, universities, etc.  So, with the very first ranches where we did this I set up a feedback loop based on the assumption I was wrong as everyone predicted.

Where I had been taught at university that plant spacing in grasslands was a function of climate, I now believed it was rather a function of animal behaviour overriding climate.  So, I decided that the very earliest indication I was wrong would come from the soil surface and plant spacing. And then looking at the soil surface I asked what I could measure that would indicate almost immediately that I was wrong? That was I decided the nature of the top millimetre of soil – did the capping break or not, and from that did plant spacing start to close up or open out?   On every ranch in five countries I was working in at the time the plant spacing began to decrease, litter and soil cover to increase so we knew we were on the right lines.

One way I got early clients to understand this was with brush or wildlife.  A rancher for instance would ask me.  Allan as I start managing holistically like I am doing, what is going to happen to the brush encroachment on my ranch.  Or what is going to happen to the impala or bushbuck?  Those are typical questions associated with what they were accustomed to – reductionist adaptive or reactionary management.  I would simply reply asking them – What do you want to happen to the brush?  Or what do you want to happen to the impala or bushbuck?  Tell me what you want to happen, because that is what your management is going to produce.

Almost all government and large environmental organization policies we find lead to unintended consequences.

Once we got this concept of proactive management operating as we managed holistically, it became easy to extend it to all aspects – financial, social and land or environment – as is described in the textbook.  And most of all to build in the proactive nature of the framework in policy development.  Almost all government and large environmental organization policies we find lead to unintended consequences. 

The policies of all the major environmental organizations and governments, including UN policies here are leading to the worst cases of habitat destruction, biodiversity loss and contribution to desertification and climate change being our 30 odd national parks surrounding my home in Africa. The opposite of what they intend, but their policies remain unchanged year after year. 

The US government soil conservation policy actually increased soil erosion. Their policy on noxious plants costs over a Billion dollars a year and has for over forty years – it has not resulted in killing out a single noxious plant in any State but had poisoned the water, caused health problems and done far more damage. But it continues unchanged.  The worst I have come across was a policy in India over 200 years old but followed by their Forest Service still every day, although everyone just laughed because its purpose ended over a century ago.

The process of defining what important is

Thanks again Allan. I love this idea of making decisions proactively then proactively seeking evidence that the decision might be wrong (or creating an unintended consequence) in order to proactively make the next decision in a process of continuous course-correction. Taking even baby steps in this direction has resulted in a real boost in my own sense of agency and power to contribute toward changes I believe in, while living a meaningful life.

One thing I’d love to ask you about here is my sense that managing holistically in your sense sheds much light on the Eisenhower-Covey matrix of urgency and importance. For the process of articulating an holistic context is the process of defining important for the decision makers in question.

The importance/urgency matrix (Source)

Increasingly we are then able to spend more and more time doing things that are important and not urgent which to me is where most of life’s most quality moments happen.

Once this is in hand, we can consciously decide to spend more time on what is important to us, and less time on what isn’t. Which in turn frees up the mental energy to start then noticing the difference between what is urgent and what isn’t. Then, by making time and space for things that are important and not urgent (such as articulating an holistic context!), we can slowly remove the root causes of much of the important and urgent stuff.

For example routine dental checkups (important not urgent) reduce the emergency toothaches (important and urgent). Or servicing the water pump (important not urgent) reduces the chance of the cows smashing up the trough and suffering dehydration because the pump broke (important and urgent). Increasingly we are then able to spend more and more time doing things that are important and not urgent which to me is where most of life’s most quality moments happen.

After explaining the idea of an holistic context even a little I have had people come up and thank me for having a clear way to define what important is so they could then navigate the importance and urgency matrix much more successfully. Before coming back to the relation of holistic management and permaculture, I’d love to hear how this does or doesn’t resonate with you?

You are, I believe, correct but I had never thought of it in the way you are doing. I am very aware of the excellent concept of using that breakdown – urgent and unimportant that occupies us most, versus not urgent but very important, that gets neglected.  I think the very reason we manage at all is with the intent to improve our lives, but few succeed as they hoped. 

There are, I believe, two main reasons why most of us are less successful in leading the lives we would like. One is best explained I believe by Robert Fritz in his book “Path of Least Resistance” – explaining so well why people make wonderful resolutions each year about being fit, and there is a multi-billion dollar industry in running shoes and exercise machines, but most don’t follow through and the machines lie gathering dust. This more than anything else I believe explains why thousands of farmers and ranchers have undergone training in how to manage holistically, but then reverted back to reductionist management. 

The other reason we don’t achieve what we want for our lives is that all humans unknowingly are managing the complexity of our lives, organizations, businesses, environment and economy in a universally reductionist way. Reducing the web of complexity to the context of meeting needs, desires or addressing problems.  

So, yes I think you are right, that once any person or family really think deeply and agree about the lives they desire and they develop the needed holistic context, it has in effect indicated to them what is absolutely vital (more than important).  Clarity on how they want their lives to BE. Clarity on what the state of their life-supporting environment has to BE generations to come. And clarity on how they must BE or behave is they want people important in their lives to be fully supportive through thick and thin.  

The relationship between holistic management and permaculture

My next question is whether you’d have anything to offer to the question of how we can most usefully think about the relation of holistic management to permaculture for those aspiring to work with both. I have heard people say that holistic management brings decision making and permaculture brings design. I have heard people say that holistic management is a specific decision making and land management approach that can sit within permaculture as a general sort of wardrobe of earth and community healing tools. I have heard people say that holistic management is the broader approach we might at times decide to bring permaculture into (say when we are initially designing our gardens or farms).

Can you help clarify what seems to me to be widespread confusion about the relation?

Let me try to clarify this important difference.  People are confused because we always seem to learn something new by relating it to what we know.  We even learn new words that way, and we learn to remember things easier by relating them to something we are familiar with.  So, for the moment try to think of PC and managing holistically as entirely different.  Don’t try to relate managing holistically to Permaculture.  You are familiar with permaculture and your whole excellent movement – seeking permanent agriculture through sound principles and design concepts. The different zones as you move out from say the home or centre as Zone 1. That essentially is permaculture as it has been repeatedly explained to me by many people including Bill Mollison. And in the many minds and writings of permaculture practitioners you have a vast body of knowledge that permaculture people keep communicating and helping one another understand and apply.  

You will also note that it is difficult to get any of the millions of hectares of vast monoculture cropping areas changed as we have to do through changing agricultural policies, or the immigration, noxious plant, drug or terrorism policies changed with permaculture design and principles.

Now as you think of permaculture and observe you will see some really wonderful results with the inner zones, some excellent design principles extending to outer zones, etc.  And we see increasingly more integration of small stock, poultry, rabbits into the polyculture cropping and food production. And this people are achieving by making their decisions to meet their needs, their desires or solve problems.  However, if we think in terms of agriculture being the production of food and fibre from the world’s land and waters as it is, I am sure you will see gaps. 

I do not hear of how permaculture principles and design is going to address the major problems with the fisheries or the oceans, or for that matter even the vast teak forests surrounding my home in Africa. These forests are larger than some countries and all these forests are dying gradually because of desertification.  No amount of planting trees, using machines to develop swales or any changed design is going to get the main trees germinating and establishing.

Also it is not clear at all how we could use permaculture design and principles to prevent the 30 odd national parks around my home to not be the worst examples we have here of biodiversity loss contributing to climate change.  You will also note that it is difficult to get any of the millions of hectares of vast monoculture cropping areas changed as we have to do through changing agricultural policies, or the immigration, noxious plant, drug or terrorism policies changed with permaculture design and principles. And to tackle global finance driving environmental destruction is I believe beyond permaculture principles or design.

Addressing complexity with a holistic framework

OK so let’s leave permaculture now.  So what  does it mean to be managing holistically to enable people in any walk of life to address the unavoidable web of social, cultural, economic and environmental complexity?  It means people recognising and clarifying what is being managed – is it a single person in a job in a city? Is it a family who are farming?  Is it a corporation manufacturing widgets?  Is it a nation’s government developing an agricultural policy?  Is it ensuring good governance in a nation? Is it a UN body trying to develop Sustainable Development Goals that will go beyond addressing symptoms of desertification and failing once more?  In every one of these cases we have discovered that we can address the full complexity simultaneously by using the holistic management framework to decide the best actions and to develop policies. 

Remember that almost all scientists are now agreed that humans are causing rapid climate change, and we have known for thousands of years that humans were causing global desertification. That means we are doing so in the only way that is possible – through our management of nature and human organizations. 

When you think of this whole spectrum of management – remember the things we “manage” are our lives, families, communities, organizations and nature.  Everything else we do is making things using technology.  All that we “manage” is described in Systems Science jargon as “complex soft” and “complex natural” systems.

With all that we are managing, clearly holistic management doesn’t have a large body of knowledge (like permaculture does) but using the holistic framework enables people to embrace all known science and other sources of knowledge and begin to manage complexity.  Humanity’s Achilles Heel.  

The only areas in the holistic framework where there is some body of knowledge unique to managing holistically is specified in my textbook. That is mostly the key insights that made the development of holistic management possible, and some new knowledge tied to financial planning, planning of livestock infrastructure as well as the holistic planned grazing process to reverse global desertification.  

There are two basic ways of managing and that is really what we all need to understand. Reductionist management as is all management and as management has always been – all ages, cultures and humans. And the newly developed holistic way of managing that hopefully will keep being perfected and understood. Right now most permaculture practitioners are engaged in applying permaculture principles and design while engaged in the universal reductionist management. A few, but increasing in numbers, have understood and trained with the Savory Institute or are involved in the many locally led and managed holistic management hubs around the world managing holistically applying permaculture principles and design.

I hope this clarifies more than it confuses.

Thanks Allan and yes this is all super helpful. I was excited to see you mention Fritz’s The Path of Least Resistance – I have found the ideas in that book powerfully complementary with holistic management. Especially the idea of consciously clarifying then paying attention to the tension between where our lives are and how we want our lives to be. We can then use this tension to create a path of least resistance our actions then naturally flow down.

Yes, Fritz I believe captured best why so many people start something with every good intent and determination, only to shortly thereafter drop it and revert to their old ways, or simply pick little bits of the new that don’t disturb their old ways too much.  We have experienced this with thousands of people and managing holistically.

While I have you I would love to ask a little more about this topic of managing complexity in a holistic way. I understand from much of what you’ve shared that the key distinction the future of humanity depends on is that between reductionist and holistic management.

The greatest danger to humanity is our inability to manage complexity.

Yesterday I was corresponding with a deep thinker.  I made the statement that I believe the greatest danger to humanity is not fossil fuels, climate change or desertification and the massive environmental destruction being driven by global finance. The greatest danger to humanity is our inability to manage complexity.  I say that because every one of the “things” we are blaming is a direct result of our policies and management of our resources.  And that management has always been reductionist – hence the failure of many civilisations and now global threat. 

Holistic management allows us to manage complexity. 

Yes, the holistic management framework enables us in all walks of life to manage complexity.  Like any breakthrough it is in its infancy – 35 years old roughly from when thousands of us working on it got it to the point we could no longer even cause failure in theory. 

Beyond thinking holistically to managing holistically

Given that before we can manage something, we need to be able to perceive it, I was wondering what guidance you might offer about developing our ability to even see complexity, let alone manage it.  In particular, I am stuck by how we tend to see the world in a mechanistic way, as if it were a giant machine. 

Yes, this is what many recognise as our “mechanistic world view” of modern science.  I once listened to a brilliant scientist giving a talk to a major gathering in Texas. He was explaining that science was beginning to see that everything was connected, etc. all the right wording and then to emphasise and make it very clear he used analogy – and he said we are beginning to see it as though it was a giant machine with billions of interconnecting parts!

Surely managing holistically requires seeing the world not as a dead assemblage of connected parts but as a living dynamic whole – an organism as it were. Do you have any pointers for how we might shift the lens we look through from a mechanistic, reductionism paradigm to something more in tune with living evolving whole systems?

No, I have no magic or way of getting the world to think holistically, but I believe it is coming about and that it is accelerating at present this changing worldview. Right now the covid pandemic is assisting that shift in worldview.  However that is not going to be enough. 

Why I say this is because we would be arrogant to think we are the first people in the history of the world to think holistically.  I believe the mechanistic worldview is relatively recent and developed mostly with western science. There is evidence that most past people and cultures viewed their lives as far more closely tied to their environment. I hear that native American tribes saw their connection closely and tried, in view of that, to think seven generations ahead with major environmental decisions. 

I believe the San (bushmen) in my part of the world saw themselves and their environment and the animals they fed on as inseparable. So deep is their understanding as hunter gatherers that they, and I believe some nomadic people abandoned their old people to die at some point – that to me indicates a very deep understanding, that past breeding and adulthood contributing fully to the group, every person at that point was a liability to the group because it was totally dependent on its life-supporting environment.  

So thinking holistically doesn’t cut it.  Essential as it is to shift society to a holistic worldview, that will not save humanity any more than it saved any past civilization thinking more holistically.  To save civilization and humanity we have actually to change how we make decisions in our day to day management and lives, and particularly where we operate at scale though institutions and policies.  Only by managing holistically and thus managing complexity can we address all that ails us including global desertification and climate change.

The challenge with making holistic management stick

Thanks again Allan I’m so appreciating your perspective on these matters. One thing I’m wondering regards the thousands of people trained in holistic management who you’ve mentioned soon revert back to reductionistic management. Are you noticing the proportion of folk for whom it sticks and doesn’t shift over the years? Have you been finding better ways of introducing it that increase the stick rate? Or maybe those for whom it sticks arrive at the training with a different attitude or perspective? This is obviously a crucially important matter and I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on how we might increase the odds given we are at the eleventh hour.

There are many factors playing on what you call the stick rate and I really have no answers, but continue to observe and try to learn.  Earlier it all seemed so simple – as I discovered what we call the new insights that made holistic management possible (all outlined in our textbook) the early ranchers mainly who sought my help were open about it. They came because they were going broke doing all the “right” things advocated by range scientists, researchers and agricultural economists. They had nothing to lose and were desperate. 

Then as literally thousands came to me for training the main appeal was that I could, and did, guarantee doubling their stocking rate while improving the land.  However by the time I was operating in North America and not only in Africa and South America, I knew that any focus on just the land or animals led to serious unintended consequences, but ranchers did not want to hear about social and economic considerations. 

I then went through a period of refusing to allow anyone to attend one of my grazing management workshops, unless they first attended a holistic financial planning workshop.  That led to increased successes, and to people thanking me for forcing them to get financial and social factors right first before building fences or increasing cattle. However, despite a published independent study showing early adopters averaged far greater profits (300% greater), the stick rate consistently remained low. 

A major factor in this I learned from Prof. Everett Rogers, who wrote the book “Diffusion of Innovations” and who served on a thinktank with me. Rogers describes how when people learn something new they generally give it a new name and twist of their own (ego at play). As a result, within a few months of me starting to train thousands of ranchers and academics in the US, there were about 13 new “grazing systems” being promoted.  Tragically these many people dropped the entire punchline and reason for success – All management being in a holistic context and using the Holistic Planned Grazing process. 

Even as I write, I am observing exchanges around the world now saying how we have to mimic the natural movement of herds of large animals in the past.  All of this comes from the Holistic Management framework and my TED Talk  – however, such thinking, combined with the reductionist management of those promoting it, will lead to endless unintended consequences because they are making no attempt to manage the complexity or understand the planning process with livestock that enables any practitioner to guarantee good results.

So, in summary, after decades I have no idea how to increase the stick rate or to stop distortion causing confusion and delay in healing our environment, economies, communities and more. 

Incidentally this problem is not unique to the concept of Holistic Management, it is universal.  Andre Voisin’s work I noted being totally distorted by academics and farmers, so much so in the US that my wife and I had his book reprinted so people could return to the original work. Also with the brilliant writing of Aldo Leopold in his “Game Management” and his focus on the importance of habitat to any species, I see professional academic wildlife managers advising policies of governments and the large environmental organization today such that some 30 National Parks around where I live are our most shocking examples of habitat destruction and biodiversity loss – far more dangerous than the poaching taking place. 

The paradigm shifts required to manage complexity

Another question I have is whether you are aware of initiatives to make managing holistically more accessible to everybody. I often come across people that hear your name and start sharing their (typically uninformed) opinions about the grazing side of holistic management. I am passionate about communicating to everyone, be they vegans, anti-livestock activists, or whomever, that the underlying decision making framework is powerfully useful in any context whatsoever and is not inherently tied to holistic grazing. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about this.

Dan, we know the problem.  Partly this is our fault but was unavoidable.  There are two counter-intuitive and major paradigm shifts for all of humanity involved in learning for the first time in history how we might manage complexity. Not only that, but most scientists and society do not even know that the greatest danger to humanity is not fossil fuels, livestock, global finance driving environmental destruction, etc.  It is our inability to manage the social, cultural, environmental and economic complexity that is the single cause of almost all that ails and threatens us.

First, there was our discovery that it is simply not possible to reverse thousands of years of man-made desertification using all the tools known to humankind and scientists advising world leaders. We are a tool-using species and have always really only had two tools with which to manage our environment – technology in all its ramifications, and fire.  As I explained in the now famous TED Talk, we have no option but to do the unthinkable and use livestock properly managed (meaning with the Holistic Planned Grazing process) to reverse global desertification playing a major role in climate change.

Secondly, there is the paradigm-shifting insight that from our emergence as humans, managing to improve our lives as we do, has always been reductionist using a genetically embedded simple decision-making framework. This human underlying decision-making framework is recognisable in all tool-using species and in us from earliest cave dwellers to the most sophisticated team of interdisciplinary scientists today. 

Increasingly the world is coming to accept that we live in a holistic and not a mechanistic world. And that daily we live in a web of social, cultural, environmental and economic complexity that is beyond human comprehension. Stripped to the core, all humans make decisions to meet our needs, desires or address problems. And to manage our environment at large we have only technology and fire, or the idea of resting our environment to allow recovery.  When, in such complexity, the context or reason for our actions becomes meeting our needs, desires or addressing problems it can only be called reductionist.

So, in summary you are correct, it is a pity that because of all the issues involved in society accepting new insights, and the fact that all human endeavours on any scale have to be through organizations/institutions themselves complex soft systems in Systems Science jargon the profound importance of the development of the Holistic Management framework is being clouded and obscured. Some of this I spoke about recently in the U.K. at their Groundswell gathering of farmers.

The individual leadership to inspire and the institutional scale of holistic management we need for meaningful change

Now I understand that for a long time but especially in recent years you have been looking at institutional stupidity and what it would mean to manage holistically when it comes to policy development and national and international governance.

While the youtube presentation you shared above lays out what it would mean for a whole country to have and manage toward a national holistic context, I’d be curious to hear any of your latest insights or reflections on this subject, and whether you are aware of any promising efforts or experiments in managing holistically at this kind of scale?

Let’s see how I can respond with least repetition – perhaps if I use a bulleted summary as I strip this down to the simplest logic and common sense, that we know institutions are incapable of:  

  • We have never doubted we are causing global desertification, and now almost all scientists are agreed – we are causing climate change.
  • This can only mean that our management and policies dictating management are the cause of climate change. There can be no other conclusion.
  • We can no more adapt to climate change than the proverbial slowly boiled frog. So policies change or civilization globally fails with all businesses and human endeavour.
  • If we are to address this grave danger remember it cannot be done by us as individuals.
  • We can only act at large scale though organizations – called institutions when formed for religious or professional purposes.
  • Agriculture is not crop production – it is the production of food and fibre from the world’s land and waters – forestry, fisheries, wildlife food, livestock, wild plants and crop production.
  • Almost all of Earth’s land and oceans are now involved in agriculture – with roughly 6% of the surface growing crops. (20% of the land surface growing crops). Thus about 95% of the Earth’s surface is non-cropland agriculture feeding humans mainly from animal life.
  • Agriculture globally is totally dependent on four processes, through which our ecosystem functions – water cycle, mineral/ nutrient cycle, biological dynamics (life with stability and provided by diversity) and solar energy flow to all life through life.
  • Agriculture is destroying soil, soil life, ocean life, rangelands, savannas, tropical forests – biodiversity, without which civilization cannot continue, is decreasing even in national parks, insect populations falling, continental shelves silting, and all while chemical and electro-magnetic pollution increase and reach every part of the world accumulating in biological food chains and humans.
  • While our mismanagement of coal, oil and gas is extremely dangerous it is theoretically possible to replace fossil resources with benign energy sources using technology.
  • Many minds, including institutional minds, are focussing on alternative energy sources because humanity believes in technology providing solutions.
  • Agriculture is doing even more damage to our life-supporting environment than fossil fuels, ensuring continued desertification and climate change even if fossil fuel use stopped entirely tomorrow.
  • Agriculture is humanity’s Achilles Heel being ignored by institutions – universities, environmental organizations, governments and international agencies including COP – climate gatherings of which 25 have resulted in confusion and inaction.
  • Common sense tells any individual (scientist or lay person) that agriculture should be based on the biological sciences, including ecology, but institutional minds are basing mainstream agriculture on marketing of technology and chemistry.
  • We are tool-using animals – and for all of history have only really had two tools – technology in some form or fire – other than those we have the concept of resting the environment to allow recovery of biodiversity. So, understandably institutions only advocate the use of technology in some form, fire or conservation as the environmental solution to  every problem or policy.  
  • Remember in my TED Talk on desertification I explained why it is simply not possible to address desertification, and thus climate change, using only technology, fire or conservation (allowing biodiversity to recover under protection). Not a single scientist in any field or university has shown where that is wrong in over sixty years.

Those are some of the key reminders and all I believe are factual. They are points I have made many times in many words over half a century almost. And they have never been refuted to my knowledge, only ridiculed, rejected and opposed by academics and institutional scientists on the basis of “ proof by authority” not on basis of science or logic.

Now to your question as to whether there are any examples, or experiments, at managing at scale holistically?  First, you cannot experiment with managing holistically. This is because you are dealing with the unavoidable complexity of human organizations and nature. 

Think of it this way:  WWII was won by Allied leaders with clear goals, good decision-making, superb planning and the most up to date science, while directing research to where most needed. Today, global desertification, mega-fires and climate change feeding on one another are a more profound danger than all wars ever fought. 

Holistic Management is a way for humans to use the holistic framework to make better decisions using a holistic context to guide actions, a simple planning process using livestock to reverse desertification, the most up to date science, and an ability to direct research to where most urgently required (using the holistic framework in the research orientation mode).   While this, like WWII, can never be subjected to experimental protocols or design it does not make it anecdotal (as academics say managing holistically is) and we can  of course monitor results.  And there is a mass of data steadily increasing where people are monitoring results.

No, there is no example of managing at large scale because that is only possible through institutions and no individuals can bring that about. Let me just take your Permaculture concept as an example.

You have a great concept based on the biological sciences and you have many well established principles and designs and practices. Why are you not doing this at scale anywhere in the world after so many years?  Because that can never come about until the public (including Permaculturalists) insists that institutions change and begin developing policy holistically.  

Regenerative, Organic, Biodynamic, Sustainable agriculture are all in the same boat – they have good biologically-based foundations generally, but none of them are, or can be, practiced at scale until institutions are obliged by public demand to develop policies in national and international holistic contexts. And  as almost everyone, thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic, can now see how even a tiny invisible virus can do more to the global economy in a month than a world war does in years, maybe – just maybe the youth of today will demand policy development become holistic.

Six years ago in London I gave the keynote at the Savory Institute gathering and appealed to all groups in agriculture to not go on for another century arguing the merits and validity of “their solution or practice” but to unite and simply insist on policies being developed holistically.  Not a single scientist in the world can argue for policies to be reductionist, nor can anyone in any political party, branch of agriculture, university, environmental organization or even the global drivers of finance destroying our life-supporting environment.  This is one thing the world could unite about – the need for policy to be holistic in a holistic world needing to address future pandemics if nothing else.   Once the first policy changes in one nation watch the dominoes fall!  

This is one thing the world could unite about – the need for policy to be holistic in a holistic world needing to address future pandemics if nothing else.

You want PC principles at scale – change policy otherwise it will happen a century too late. Want to save elephants or whales in the wild –want to stop mass emigration to Europe – want to stop drug violence in America – want to stop wasting a Billion dollars a year in the US on noxious weed policy – want to minimize future pandemics – want to save civilization by addressing global desertification, mega-fires and climate change at its root cause? 

If any of such concerns mean anything to you and if you have any desire for future generations to enjoy a better and more secure future than the increasingly violent and chaotic world we live in today, then address the management that almost all scientists now agree is the cause of climate change. Something I remind you that only institutions can do, but cannot do until the public insists. There has been not a single case in history of any institution leading when paradigm-shifting insights are involved. That only individuals can lead and keep talking about and spreading the word till it happens.

Holistic management and regenerative agriculture and business

I was also wondering what you make on the rapidly growing currency of the word “regenerative”. Do you see any value in the widespread shift from the language of “sustainable” to the language of “regenerative”? How do you see the relation between the word “regenerative” and the word “holistic”? While I’m sure much of it is about using a different name without necessarily upgrading the underlying thinking, I have been encouraged by the depth of Carol Sanford’s work on what she calls regenerative or living systems thinking. Are you aware of Carol’s work and if so I’d be curious as to what you make of it?

While I cannot be sure, I believe the concept of regenerative agriculture arose through discussions that led Bob Rodale to coin the name. About the same time Bill Mollison was developing Permaculture, Wes Jackson was developing perennial grains, Fukuoka was promoting his work, Bob Rodale was focussed on organic crop production and of course we had the great minds whose shoulders we were standing on – Albert Howard amongst them.

I was on the outside of this being an ecologist passionate about wildlife and deeply concerned with the military and political consequences of the desertification problem.  Roger Brown produced a documentary film of me on the site of the ruins of the Chacoan civilization talking about sustainable civilization that I saw as the bigger issue – because throughout history we had been able to sustain people with agriculture but had to abandon the cities to much violence to do so.

And I had given a keynote talk to a large conventional agriculture group in which I called for an entirely new agriculture – because so many civilizations had failed under organic / grass fed, etc (in fact under everything people were calling sustainable agriculture)– and now we were facing global failure of civilization under mainstream agriculture.  Bob Rodale and I struck a chord and stayed with one another engaging in deep discussion. It was then that I heard the name regenerative from Bob who coined that term. I loved that and have used it since where appropriate.   As Bob so well put it that day, the new agriculture had to be regenerating soils, soil life, families, communities, towns and economies.  It had to go beyond anything we know today if we were to save civilization as we know it.

As Bob so well put it that day, the new agriculture had to be regenerating soils, soil life, families, communities, towns and economies.

Unfortunately I believe we are seeing people dumbing it down and simply changing names in far too many instances. In a White Paper on Regenerative Agriculture, published by Rodale Institute written some time after Bob’s death I see the holistic nature and intention has gone and it talks more of regenerating soil. Wonderful, and needed, as that is I am afraid that is not going to regenerate the ocean life, the national parks dying around me, nor the vast desertifying teak forests around me.

I can only hope as I die shortly, someone will remember that no agriculture can be truly regenerative unless it is an agriculture covering all of our Earth’s surface that is managed holistically – above politics, institutional egos, competing practices so that it is regenerating economies, communities, towns and cities and addressing climate change.

 You ask about Carol Sandford’s regenerative business teachings. I am impressed by her work and particularly her 7 principles of a regenerative business.  Clearly anyone following such practices would have an exceptional team of creative, entrepreneurial, people and the business functioning exceptionally well as she has apparently done for major clients like Dupont, Google and others. Now, rather than me tell you, ask yourself what you think?  Could that truly be regenerative? Remember as you answer this, that without agriculture we cannot have a church, university, town, army, politician, government or ANY business. How regenerative is agriculture answers your question about any of the businesses following those exceptionally good seven principles.  I am afraid, no business is on a solid foundation until institutions through which we manage agriculture at scale are developing policies using the holistic framework (or better when developed). 

Hope for the future

Allan thanks again for the candor and depth of your comments on all these important points – I’m feeling excited to start sharing our interchange with permaculturalists and many others I know will deeply appreciate your insights. 

The final question I have for now is about what, in these harrowing times, gives you most hope, or excites you the most. Where do you see the most potential for positive cultural transformation in the coming decade or so?

I recently read a survey that stated that a higher percentage of young people of today want to live truly meaningful lives than with previous generations. That gives me hope is something like climate change or the present coronavirus pandemic fires them up to look at concepts such as we are talking of, known, but ridiculed and blocked by institutional paradigm paralysis, for over half a century.

This pandemic is yet one more example of reductionist policy development leading to unintended consequences.  Many brilliant medical minds reducing the global cultural, economic and environmental complexity to “how do we control this virus” and developing policy. And the policies doing more economic damage than even major wars.  There are more such pandemics to come, and we are being overwhelmed by desertification and climate change.  In every case policies will be developed by narrowly trained specialists in the context of the problem and as this continues the unintended consequences will be ever escalating desertification, megafires, pandemics, violence and social breakdown. All of this, as we knew forty years ago, so easy to begin addressing sensibly using all available science by simply developing all policies in a holistic context – national in the case of nations, and a global holistic context in other cases.

This though cannot happen unless the youth of today insist on institutional change.


If you’re interested in learning more about holistic management in a farming context, visit the Savory Institute, Holistic Management International, Inside-Outside Management, and Regrarians. For applications of Holistic Management focused more on decision making in general, visit All Points Design or Dan’s own Holistic Decision Making.

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Permaculture design pathways – the latest adventures of Simon Marshall (e47)

In this episode I catch up with Simon Marshall after our prior conversation about where he wanted to take his permaculture design practice back in Episodes 37 and 38. It is quite amazing how much of what he was aspiring toward then has manifested itself in the meantime, and along the way we discuss:

  • The complexities of permaculture process and project facilitation when many stakeholders are involved
  • The challenge of breaking the centre of gravity of design projects out of an arrest disorder paradigm towards regenerating life
  • The idea of mental energies at the vital, automatic, sensitive and conscious levels (ah la Carol Sanford)
  • Using inner aims to become conscious and transform process outcomes
  • Much else!

I also reflect a little on the wild times we’re in at the start and share a project update at the end. To summarise the update:

  • Allan Savory will be our next guest, followed in the subsequent episode by a review of Scott and Sam from Porvenir design‘s holistic context
  • Several interviews with David Holmgren sharing his permaculture design process journey are the plan after that which will feed right into Phase Two’s conversation about regenerating permaculture by going back to its originating impulse
  • I’m in discussions with David Holmgren about the taking our course on Advanced Permaculture Design Process online
  • The first MPS book creation process is gathering momentum
  • I share some flavours of the recent poll results
  • The regular gathering of project supporters is going strong as we all depend our design process literacy in theory and practice together. Learn more on the project patreon page.

Javan Bernakevitch interviews Dan Palmer (E46)

In this episode my good friend Javan Kerby Bernakevitch from All Points Design in Canada interviews me about the various projects I am and have been part of, including permablitz, Very Edible Gardens, Holistic Decision Making, Living Design Process, and of course this one – Making Permaculture Stronger. Initially recorded for Javan’s youtube channel, thanks Javan for permission to share it here too.

Bringing Education back to Life with Emma Morris (e45)

This episode is a conversation with Emma Morris from Aotearoa New Zealand who fills us in on the last several chapters of her learning journey around regenerative education practices. It’s a great chat and I can’t wait to hear how the learning centre project Emma is involved in unfolds from here.

You can find an introductory overview of the project here, and sign up for the project newsletter here.

The Learning Framework Emma and colleagues have arrived at.
Close-up of the middle section
Another awesome project graphic I found – love it!