The Permaculture and Energy Crisis Link

Green Lifestyle

The Green Lifestyle Hall of Fame winner last year, David Holmgren, explains how permaculture was born from the energy crisis.


David Holmgren is one of the co-originators of Permaculture. He was awarded the Green Lifestyle Hall of Fame in 2014, joining previous years winners, Bob Brown and Olivia Newton-John.

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The term 'permaculture' was first coined in Australia, and the practice is only 40 years old, but somehow it feels like it’s been around much longer.

Perhaps that is just the point. Permaculture is a going back to natural design systems already present within nature and re-establishing or further enhancing them for the health of the environment and living creatures.

But despite its deep benefits, and the degree to which it has spread around the world as a grassroots movement, history shows that permaculture comes into vogue as recession looms, and has slower periods of interest during more stable economic periods.

Permaculture was founded in 1978 when David Holmgren and Bill Mollison co-wrote and published Permaculture One – A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements. The work looks at the redesign of agriculture using ecological principles and was ignited by the energy crisis during that period.

“The origin point for the first big wave of environmentalism was really the limits to growth report from the Club of Rome in 1972, which is the beginnings of the modern concept of sustainability', even though that term didn’t appear until much later,” Mr Holmgren told Green Lifestyle. “And of course a year after that report came out there was the first oil shock, followed by another in '79 to bracket that initial wave.”

The publishing of Permaculture One catapulted the practice into popular culture, resulting in a series of design courses facilitated by Bill Mollison in the early '80s.

Throughout that time there was huge growth in all aspects of environmentalism, including an increase in owner/builders, intentional communities, and organic agriculture.

“Permaculture was a bringing together of all these different aspects and integrating them,” Mr Holmgren says. “It also introduced a few new or novel aspects, by highlighting design as the most important practice and ecological models for redesigning agriculture and society.”

Holmgren and Mollison were approached by several mainstream publishers who wanted to publish Permaculture One after a series of radio interviews the pair gave in 1977.

“You could say a lot of that was timing,” Mr Holmgren says. “If Permaculture One was published in 1984 or '85 it would have been a dead nothing from the media.”

“The other aspect of course was Bill Mollison’s charisma. He was probably the most popular university lecturer in Hobart, but he was also a scandalous figure - a rat-bag and a difficult person, but he had that ego and charisma to be a real performer. And he was also a genius.”

Holmgren says that as a 23 year-old, he was skeptical of the very ideas he upheld, and was more interested in proving them and getting his hands dirty than becoming “an environmental rock star.”

“I come from a family of radical political activists,” Holmgren says. “My parents generation were galvanised by Utopian socialism in the 1930s and '40s, and then in the '50s, about the time that I was born, they lost faith thanks to Stalin, but still had a continued commitment to social justice.

“I grew up in the Vietnam years and was highly schooled in wariness about ideologies and
mass-movements, so I thought permaculture as an eco-ideology could similarly have its downsides. But you look back historically and wonder how that could ever be a problem.”

Last year David Holmgren was initiated into the Green Lifestyle Hall of Fame. As a key figure in the environmental movement, he is inspirational in providing ways to restructure our thinking so we are no longer depending on dwindling resources but instead create resilience and political strength in our own lives.

For more info on permaculture, visit: www.holmgren.com.au