David Holmgren on Making Permaculture Stronger, reading landscape, reading people, and the importance of design process (at the 14th Australasian Permaculture Convergence)

Greetings all. This week I personally revisited and then thought to share some words spoken a little over a year ago by David Holmgren at the close of the 14th Australasian Permaculture Convergence on April 9th, 2018.

Rereading these words helped remind and energise me about why I’m doing what I’m doing. So I thought I’d share them with you too. May that more of us get energised and continue to collaborate on this work of exploring and evolving our shared understandings of what permaculture design is, and could be.

After speaking to several other aspects of the convergence,1 David explained:

Another thing that for me was quite strong was the focus on social permaculture, indigenous connections, and design process at this convergence – were just strong themes that came out.

After acknowledging that he couldn’t be at all the sessions he would have liked to have been at he spoke highly of two creative endeavours: the Tropical Permaculture Handbook and the musical work of Charlie Mgee and his Formidable Vegetable Sound System.

He later said:

The last thing I wanted to mention is the disturbance of Dan Palmer’s work which I definitely appreciate, even though there’s aspects of it that I understand might not seem useful to some people. I think that going back to the design process and trying to work on that concept of the weak link in permaculture – and it’s not just permaculture of course, design process is really a mystery. Design education – trying to communicate stuff, you could say has been a global failure. And it’s a bit related to the troubles that I’ve had in the early stages of how do you teach people to read landscape. I’ve been trying for decades – it’s really complex, and just have to say that after trying to understand this process in myself of reading landscape and then how to communicate it and the struggles I’ve had with that it was going out with Dan on a property and him watching me read landscape that gave me more insight into what I was doing, that I hadn’t fully grasped before.

So this thing of actually trying to see what we are doing is very complex.

He then invited a few questions. The first was from Australian permaculture elder and social permaculture pioneer Robyn Clayfield, who asked about how important reading people and the social landscape was relative to reading the physical landscape. David replied:

Equally important to reading landscape. Because Dan and I have been working on a couple of courses now where the primary process is me teaching reading landscape and him teaching reading people. I would say that the teaching of reading people, that looks like it’s about as a designer, as a facilitator, is partially useful as an externalisation so you can actually learn to look the other way and look inside too. So yeah what I’m finding from the process is that they’re not just of equal importance but they are actually similar methods.

Another question, possibly the last, was:

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

His 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 of that 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’re 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. Including speaking to the mayhem of the previous evenings’s permaquiz, the amazing food we enjoyed, the phenomenal turnout to the preceding permaculture festival, and the amazing work of Charles Massey (author of Call of the Reed Warbler)


  1. So true about the failures of design education!
    Is this address available as audio on your podcast or elsewhere?

    1. Hey Cara – I do have the audio but haven’t shared it publicly as yet. I’m sure David would be happy for me to do so though so I’ll intend to get his sign-off and share it at some point.

  2. “We don’t really know what we are doing. And getting a closer sense of that, gives us a very powerful contribution.” This made me chuckle and smile. I think this should be the endorsement on the front page of your book Dan!

  3. Thanks for the article. Interesting to discover Formidable Vegetable Sound System. PANG, a Belgian collective also use music to inform differently about lombricomposting, dry toilets and other sustainability related topics. Check out this hilarious videos (it’s in french but you’ll get the point)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *