A Conversation with David Holmgren

This post shares excerpts from recent email conversation between David Holmgren and Dan Palmer. The conversation grew from David’s reflections on a draft of the previous post. Making Permaculture Stronger thanks David for his long-standing commitment to critical self-reflection in permaculture, and for the renewed confidence this gives us in permaculture’s ability to adapt, grow, and thus stay relevant to an uncertain future. What follows has been abridged and edited for readability (note – it was given an additional edit on June 10, 2016). 

April 20, 2016.

Dear Dave,

I will in the next few weeks publish the attached post – if you had an inclination to check it out and give me your first impressions or feedback please do so.

My best,


April 20, 2016.


I just had a quick read through. Looks good to me.

Just one point about the quote from PP&PBS1 defining permaculture. You have made the same mistake that many have in quoting that  definition as mine when I say its not mine.2

It came directly out of the Mollison lineage and was being widely used by teachers in the 1990s.  Must be bad communication by me because lots of others do the same.

It doesn’t change your basic points and my failure to identify the parts assembly process as flawed even though I got close to it. It may be interesting to have a closer look at the text with that lens because design process was for me the big hole, if you will excuse the pun, that I felt between principles on the one hand and strategies and techniques on the other. And I didn’t go back to Alexander to look for it.

Look forward to hearing the response

David Holmgren

April 20, 2016.

Thanks so much Dave,

When you say you got close to identifying the parts-assembly approach as flawed I know what you mean! I went through a lot of your book looking for evidence that you had or hadn’t made a clear commitment one way or the other, and I could find nothing conclusive (if anything I got the impression you favoured whole-to-parts). The start of I think integrate not segregate came closest to element-assembly talk but it could still be read from either perspective.

Thanks again, will indeed keep you posted, and deeply appreciate your openness to conversation about this.

Dan Palmer

April 20, 2016.


Maybe “got close to identifying” is not a precise description of what is captured in the text. I fully understood from both [Hakai] Tane and [Howard] Odum and I articulated that understanding had to be top down (holistic).   Bottom up was recognising ourselves as small players in the system rather than masters of all the bits (Principle 4). Integrate can be understood either way but the stitching back together broken threads resulting from fragmentation is recognising the damaged whole that needs to be healed. I think the text supports that I was definitely leaning towards wholes to parts.

It might be more correct to say that I failed to articulate the simplicity of the differentiated wholes vs assembled parts distinction in applying the principles.

It is a bit similar to my failure to identify resilience as a system property that all the principles contribute to (rather than a principle in itself). It is mentioned in some principles as an outcome.3


April 20, 2016.


I totally agree as to how this distinction of the two approaches is itself not an either-or thing. Parts-to-whole assembly will always have its place and role. It just tends to dominate. I think that because it wasn’t super or over-the-top explicit in your book (whilst unquestionably strongly present but from memory spread out across chapters (something I’ll have to confirm when rereading)), readers can (consciously or unconsciously) default to the cultural norm of mechanistic interpretation. I find it surreal when permaculture authors refer approvingly to Alexanders work (i.e., to his explicit critiques of element-assembly thinking), and then a few sentences later proceed calmly with the element-assembly approach – seemingly oblivious to any contradiction. Behold the all-pervasiveness of the mechanistic meme!

My very best,

Dan Palmer

April 27, 2016.


I was pleased to see you acknowledge different ways of seeing and designing may have merit because although I agree that

  1. there is a huge cultural bias towards details to pattern understanding and designing
  2. nature works from pattern to details
  3. we need most effort into creating design processes that effectively achieve this second pathway

it is also important not to deny any utility in what we seek to critique.

At one level you could say that what we are critiquing is simply classic left brain modes of understanding articulation and design while seeking to illuminate and value, suppressed right brain modes. As with most of the design principles Small and Slow, Integrate rather than Segregate, Renewable rather than non renewable, Diversity, Edge vs field, Design from Patterns to Details is seeking to redress a gross and deep cultural imbalance.

As I pointed out in Small and Slow Solutions, the ideal balance is not necessarily equal but asymmetric with Big and Fast being in the minority compared with necessarily prevailing Small and Slow Solutions. Maybe it is the same with the two modes of understanding and design.

If my reference to right and left brain is correct, we don’t want to completely ignore the value of analytical understandings and building block approaches to creating solutions.

In our current culture at least, those who understand and design in the Alexander mode often have great difficulty in both articulating and conveying a workable method that others can follow. For example Brookman’ s limited reading of Alexander (Pattern Language) years ago led him to think, maybe some great results from the master but beyond some friendly park benches, have others managed to copy the method.

Gyn Jones talking about the genius of Peter Andrews unable to communicate how to see and think like a catchment, let alone how to design the powerful interventions that rehydrate landscapes.  Even Haikai Tane’s mastery of words and enticing emotions can fail to translate the method to others. Is the reductionist mode inherently easier to communicate and spread or is it that we have lost the means to communicate and spread the wholistic approach?

If there is, at least some value in design from details to patterns, then it maybe that some failures of permaculture may be due to a lack of rigour in even teaching how to assemble parts in ways that are likely to self organise into living systems.  In this sense, your critique on the lack of design process maybe more fundamental than the need to position permaculture on the wholistic side of the divide.  While this choice maybe a no brainer, in practice it doesn’t ensure that permaculture wont burn out as  ideological mumbo jumbo that achieves little of value.

In the Melliodora book I made an attempt to convey the design process as I understood it at the time and on tours of Melliodora since I explain how the garden shed/ chook/ barn complex was a classic example of Alexander’s organic differentiation.  But my thought now is that slow process was only possible because of the opportunities created by logical pre planning and interventionist design that had in turn followed a wholistic landscape reading and strategic decision making process of house site selection that had reductionist and wholistic aspects.

In Self Regulate and Accept Feedback I described different modes of “power” in the  world but I think there  may have been little traction with those ideas because of the phobia about power. If I had used the word “design” instead, then maybe that would have struck a cord. Whether my lineage from Top Down Thinking & Design to Bottom up Thinking & Top Down Design and on into the new mode Top Down Thinking and Bottom up Design is useful in this context is something I would like to further discuss.

Through another frame, our critique could be highlighting the importance of the feminine and pointing to the problems of the masculine modes of thinking, design and action. I have no problem with the idea that the masculine need to be guided by feminine wisdom, but saying masculine ways have no place would obviously be going too far.



May 2, 2016

Thanks again Dave,

I totally get the point re not denying any utility in what we seek to critique. All attempts/approaches/theories etc etc are true but partial in that they all capture something of use but that they can all be improved.

At some level what making permaculture stronger is about for me is striving to be aware of one’s options when designing and choosing consciously rather than defaulting unconsciously to the culturally dominant approach. From there it only makes sense to seek clarity about the most appropriate/useful ways in which different approaches/views etc can relate to each other as complementary aspects of a larger process.

As regards the challenge of conveying Alexander’s approach in way others can apply, Alexander himself acknowledged the failure of the pattern language project to help others design wholistically and well in his terms. As he put it:

When I first wrote the pattern language… I assumed that people would soon start using it to make more beautiful buildings. It seemed to me that what my colleagues and I wrote together was common sense, and would follow from the directness and strength of the patterns.

But I was wrong. Oddly, many buildings were designed by people using the pattern language which were not coherent. Rather, they incorporated patterns, but within overall building forms which were typical of the architectural fashions of that time (1970s). This gave the buildings, often, a funky, ungainly look…

…it was vital, at that time [when A Pattern Language was being written] to focus on the objective nature of the patterns required for comfort (and life) in human surroundings and to find ways of making this content visible and usable. The task of doing this was so urgent, and so massive, that my collaborators and I spent six or seven years, merely accumulating material to undertake this task – and in so doing neglected the equally important task of finding publicly accessible ways in which the actual geometric form of buildings could be unfolded, successfully, from the patterns (Alexander, 2002, p. 458)

In other words he realised that he needed to give people a process in which the patterns could play their part properly (rather than becoming blocks in yet another game of element-assembly). Hence his magnum opus The Nature of Order (that not a permaculturalist I know has read). Maybe it is the mystical flavours that seem to accompany wholism that put folk off, ironically even when Alexander is detailing practical processes for building buildings based in his own documented experience!

I think because reductionism resonates so seamlessly with the dominant worldview it has become easier to grasp. But I believe that genuinely wholistic design (that accommodates reductionism as a tool where needed) is possible to convey and make more common.

My very best,

Dan Palmer


Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., Silverstein, M., Jacobson, M., Fiksdahl-King, I., & Angel, S. (1977). A Pattern Language. Oxford University Press.
Alexander, C. (2002). The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book Two: The Process of Creating Life (Vol. 2). The Center for Environmental Structure.
Holmgren, D. (2002). Permaculture: Patterns and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Melliodora.


  1. Permaculture: Patterns and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, David Holmgren, 2002
  2. “A more current definition of permaculture used by many teachers, which reflects the expansion of focus implicit in Permaculture One, is “Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs.”

    People, their buildings and the ways they organise themselves are central to permaculture— the permaculture vision of permanent (sustainable) agriculture has evolved to one of permanent (sustainable) culture.

    For many people, myself included, the above definitions of permaculture are so global in scope that their usefulness is reduced. More precisely, I see permaculture as the use of systems thinking and design principles that provide the organising framework for implementing the above vision. It draws together the diverse ideas, skills and ways of living which need to be rediscovered and developed in order to empower us to move from being dependent consumers to becoming responsible and productive citizens.

    In this more limited, but important sense, permaculture is not the landscape, or even the skills of organic gardening, sustainable farming, energy efficient building or eco-village development as such. But it can be used to design, establish, manage and improve these and all other efforts made by individuals, households and communities towards a sustainable future” (David Holmgren, 2002, p. xix)

  3. See essay in teaching kit on Resilience and Reciprocity.


  1. Agree completely with the problem of process in Permaculture as seen through the lens of “A Pattern Language”. However, what has been overlooked is that Alexander provides exactly the processes needed for design and building, but in the companion book “The Timeless Way of Building”. This second work, published two years later but as “Volume 1” is a part of a two volume whole. Unfortunately, people skip ahead to “A Pattern Language” and then try and use patterns without a thorough understanding of what they are and the methods and processes used to design and build with them.

  2. Thank you for the post.

    Perhaps the internship method adopted by David and Su at Melliodora is a good template for teaching permaculture in a more holistic way as it allows for a “slow and steady” education, compared with the classic 2 week intensive PDC. Could it be that the “whole” of a students learning/understanding is differentiated slowly through practical application, observation over time and osmosis at dinner table conversations compared with the adding of educational elements (chapters/days/topics) rapidly at a conventional PDC? It would be good to see more opportunities for structured internships towards a deeper permaculture education.

    Thanks you for sharing your rich conversation.


    1. Completely agree Matt. In my experience most permaculture course and workshops are designed by choosing a bunch of modules or sessions, squishing them together, and hoping for the best. While there can be no substitute for slow, long, and fully adapted/adaptive to a particular learner, Adam Grubb and I have been most encouraged by the results of our attempts to design an intensive PDC using the whole-to-parts differentiation approach. Aside from everything else when the texture/configuration of the course results from the same sort of process the course is about, it gives the whole thing a lovely integrity in the sense of an integrated-ness between the medium and the message.

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