A question asked of David Holmgren during his closing address to the 14th Australasian Permaculture Convergence

On April 9, 2018, during his closing address to the (magnificent) 14th Australasian Permaculture Convergence, David Holmgren said he’d be happy to take a couple of “burning questions” that anyone wanted him to address to this group. One of the questions asked was:

What is the most important question you think permaculture should be asking itself over the next few years?

Here is David’s answer:

Well in that most general sense, in the sense of what is universal – what should permaculture collectively be asking – I think it is a deeper and hopefully more shared understanding of design process. Not in the sense of a narrowing down, or agreement but a deeper exploration because that’s what we say we’re doing all the time, everywhere, in relation to everything, and it’s not the outcomes and the sources it’s what is the actual process we are using – or is that a complete mystery and it doesn’t matter?

So just reflecting on that, exploring that I think is really important because otherwise a lot of the contributions we talk about, whether it’s within regenerative agriculture, or community development, or small-scale, is once those things become adopted in society, the label permaculture falls away. Whether it’s rainwater harvesting, or sheet mulching, or whatever. Those become adopted. What do we get left with? We get left with going back out to the fringe and finding the next interesting thing, and a baggage of things that didn’t work. That society didn’t adopt.

So, the core thing that the whole society is having trouble with is design process. The design professions are in as bad a situation, you could say worse, than permaculture. We don’t really know what we are doing, and getting a closer sense of that gives us a very powerful contribution


  1. It’s great to see this conversation flourishing at the international level. It seems like different communities and industries all over the world are approaching the same issue when it comes to making decisions, creating functional and beautiful structures and spaces, sharing dialogue and changing systems.

    I have been seeing a common thread across most disciplines of the story of interconnection of “wholes” and their iterative evolution of form through adaptive growth and release. The concept is so much older than the more modern view of separation between people, between humans and nature, or even between matter and space. It may seem superfluous to talk in such philosophical terms, but the difference between the story of separation and the story of inter-Being is clearly at the core of the systems we are talking about, whether it’s design, ecology, politics, economy or the nature of the self. Surely I’m preaching to the choir here, but I’m building towards a point.

    Most recently I came to realize the similarity between Christopher Alexander’s Nature of Order, Socratic Dialogue, Buddhist Dialectical teaching and Marx’s Dialectical Materialism. They all view the world through the lens of interconnected processes which are constantly evolving. Marx describes the processes through three stages: Thesis is the existing order and processes which maintain it, Antithesis is the negation of the existing order and the processes that force change, and Synthesis is the resulting order of the balance of those forces over time and the “negation of the negation”. So a chair is not a static object, but a balanced and evolving result of the order of particles existing against the forces of time and gravity which degrade the initial conditions. The point is that systems do not just change in a vacuum, but evolve through the processes which shape them, and always from a state of existing conditions to another.

    Socrates, the Buddha, and many other named and unnamed people recognized this pattern thousands of years ago. Whole societies grew out of the recognition of the natural processes which generate systems through unfolding patterns. Socrates and the Buddha both used a system of dialogue that focuses on listening to others’ abstract perspectives and claims about the world and then responding by demonstrating their negation. They realized, like Alexander demonstrates, that our notions of systems and how they work are often abstractions that only serve to disconnect us from the real world, and thereby reinforce the story of separation. It is only through the story of interdependence and holistic connectedness that we can truly understand, on a deep intuitive level, the influential balance between self and other, subject and object or matter and space. I think many stories across history tell us that humans are their most human selves when they recognize the dance between individual and environment as a coherent whole.

    Luckily, it appears that the core belief in the connected Being-ness of all things has not only survived the 20th century, but it is rapidly spreading around the world. Many Americans seem to feel like they are taking a breath of fresh air as they learn about natural systems and old/new ways of holistic management in its various forms. I don’t want to start a war in the comments here by getting political, but I think the various historical and present “communist” movements by people to gain control of their own communities were, at their heart, based on permaculture ideals of earth care, people care and fair/sustainable reinvestment of surplus value. They were reactions to the forces and conditions of a predatory global market system.

    Recently, I’ve seen wealthy New York City hedge funders talk about the segment of billionaires who want to contribute to community resilience and regeneration, and help shift the market economy to more of a gift economy with human values at the center! Yet, few of these Americans realize that this conversation has been happening in developing countries for over a century, and that America waged war to stop that conversation and that new type of economy from evolving and spreading here into the heart of global capitalism. Our citizens have been persuaded to view those people and countries that have been externalized and exploited for our way of life as the enemy, as communists and terrorists. If those words raise the hairs on the back of the neck, please realize that we should not be afraid to talk about a democratic economic system for acquiring the things we need and desire. Please understand that no one has the answers for how that system will look and function, except that it will likely take many different local forms.

    I bring this up because I hear this conversation happening in so many communities, but if I bring up the fact that there’s an existing, century-long body of knowledge, experience and hardship that people around the world have been through under the generalized label of “communism”, everyone automatically rejects that that’s what we’re talking about. Usually the reaction is the rapid citing of atrocities that were actually the result of many forces and conditions clashing between different systems, least of which were the people trying to cooperatively organize and build their own communities without exploitation by exterior organizations. Now, America is becoming familiar with the feeling of worker exploitation and inequality, and similar ideas for change are bubbling to the surface. This is what Marx called class consciousness, which is the growing awareness of the 99%.

    Despite my rhetoric, I’m actually not a communist; I just believe that people should have a voice and power over their own lives. Isn’t that what’s at the core of permaculture? Community self sufficiency was the norm for thousands of years because local economies were based on unique cultures and trust, and sustainability meant preventing too much runaway growth. Holmgren’s concept of energy descent is the only realistic way for regular people to empower themselves to meet their needs and wants in the face of a great reduction in the flow of energy through global society. I think he’s right that Permaculture will cease to be a named concept as communities transition to a leaner localized economy because their diverse practices will just become the normal way of life (maybe that’s not exactly what he meant?).

    In conclusion, can we let go of divisive generalizing labels which trigger old fears, and welcome the experience and wisdom of all who have engaged in the great experiment to rebalance power at the community level? I think we have to recognize that designing from an intuitive place in our hearts and minds to build beautiful, functional, regenerative communities and landscapes is at its core an antithesis to designing and building from market conditions. Breaking those chains is an ongoing process which extends through all disciplines and aspects of our society and communities. Getting to that place where we can actually talk about the creative process inside the black box of “design process” requires nothing less than a radical shift in the stories that define our worldview from one of separation to the story of inter-Being… or whatever you want to call it.

    1. Thanks muchly for this thought-provoking contribution Trevor – I’m not sure about all your points and comparisons but I love and second your closing statement!: “Getting to that place where we can actually talk about the creative process inside the black box of “design process” requires nothing less than a radical shift in the stories that define our worldview from one of separation to the story of inter-Being… or whatever you want to call it” damned straight!

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