Tag Archives | History

Vale Rod May

One of Australia’s ecological farming pioneers, and a close friend, passed away today. Rod May aged 63 died in intensive care after a road accident between Ballarat and his family farm at Blampied 5 days previously. Rod was a 4th generation farmer on 200 acres at the foot of Kangaroo Hills in the prime red cropping country of central Victoria. In the late 1970’s Rod returned to the farm motivated by interest in self reliance, organics and tree crops and “fell back into farming” as something to do in between starting the Central Victorian Tree Planting Co-op and getting elected to the very conservative Creswick Council.

Photo: Josie Alexandra

The Landcare movement emerged simultaneously in several regions across Australia in the late 70’s and early 80’s. One of those places was central Victoria and Rod May played a leading roll in it. In 1983 when Project Branchout received federal funding to employ people to plant trees on demonstration sites right across the Campaspe, Loddon and Avoca catchments in response to the threat of salinity, the committee fell on their feet in employing Rod and his crew from the CVTPC to manage the huge program. Rod had the same holistic vision of the committee, the ability to take risks, roll with the punches and engage with conservative farmers, and with some of the unemployed workers putting the trees in the ground. Most importantly he had dirt under his nails as both a farmer and tree planter.

Rod May, 1992. Photo: David Holmgren

Rod was not part of the first generation of organic farmers but he was one of the generation that integrated the new ecological thinking of the 1970’s including permaculture, and connected it to the emerging markets for organic produce that lead to organic certification in the late 80’s. As founding president of the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (in 1986) Rod May was at the forefront of driving the importance of links between ecological science, organics and the emerging sustainable development concept. At the same time he was converting his part of the family farm to organics, implementing large-scale plantings of shelter, fodder, timber, fruit and nut , still working for Project Branchout in their Bicentennial revegetation of the Captains Creek Catchment that included the family farm. As plantation designer I worked closely with Rod at that time and remember when he and I headed up the steep slopes of Kangaroo Hills overlooking the May family farm to get some of the shelterbelts in the ground. I had my two-year-old son Oliver to help us and that began a thirty-year bond between Oliver and Rod.

As organics grew in the 1990’s, Rod spent an increasing amount of time in meetings around the country and the world making the global linkages through the International Federation of Organic Farming Movements and doing some of the first organic certifications for farmers ranging from cranky older generation organic pioneers to coffee growers in East Timor and lake bed croppers in the semi arid zone. His keen observation skills, memory for facts, figures and protocols, his slow talking easy going manner and his enjoying a beer or, in the right circles, a joint allowed him to tackle novel situations and always learn something new.

Rod at home on the family farm, Blampied. Photo: David Holmgren

I remember when the diverse and disparate organic and biodynamic groups where having to work together with the Australian government to establish protocols for organic export trade. Alex Podolinsky, head of Demeter Biodynamics would not speak to any of the NASAA people except Rod “because he was the only real farmer”. I arrived early one day at the farm to have Rod introduce me to Alex Podolinsky, who immediately launched into an explanation of what was wrong with permaculture. After Alex left I asked what the visit was about. Rod said he thought it was an “informal biodynamic inspection.”

This understated diplomacy allowed Rod to work with the idealists and the pragmatists of the organic movement, even if his sometimes slap dash approach to getting things done in drafting a document or consigning pallets of veggies left his partners frustrated and sometimes having to pick up the pieces. Life at home with Viv and their daughters Stephanie and Carla, as well as his brothers Greg, Doug and their families on the family farm was not always smooth but as an outside observer, one of the ways in which Rod contributed to harmony was a tolerance of whatever others dished up for him. He and Viv lived fairly independent lives but their wide social circle and love of a party kept them going between their respective passions for organic farming and teaching.

I can remember Su phoning Rod’s father Maurice to find out where Rod was and the exasperated answer; somewhere in America and I don’t know when he’s back. But I also remember marvelling at Rod getting back from an trans pacific flight then the same afternoon jumping on the tractor to plough up the new veggie cropping paddock before the rains came. During those years of globe trotting Maurice provided a back stop for Rod and supported the organic methods which were adopted by brothers Greg and Doug. Like his father, Rod was a big bloke and worked like few of the baby boom generation could. Within the organic/green movement intellectuals he was as sharp as the best of us but in the spud paddock, no one I know could work day in day out like Rod. I remember when I had a chronicly bad back he told me in all seriousness that picking spuds was great for fixing a bad back. In his later years his knees began to give him trouble after all those years working across the furrows and mounds of several acres of irrigated vegetable he cranked out year after year.

Rod with PDC students. Photo: Ian Lillington

In the early 1990s we began taking our residential Permaculture Design Course participants to his farm to get a taste, literally, of a real organic farm that best illustrated permaculture principles supplying local and central markets with basic food. Rod’s seamless grasp of everything from soil ecology, tree crop potentials, organic marketing and mechanics and gadgets involved in farming, was immense. We would go out and harvest the veg that didn’t meet commercial standards and take it back to the farmhouse where Su would organise the roast lunch with Maurice helping cook the farm killed mutton.

While we promoted Captains Creek as a good example of permaculture, Rod never did. In a piece I wrote in the early 1990’s I said many ecological pioneers who chose not to describe their work as permaculture did so for one of three reasons; because of the bad examples they had seen called permaculture, because they didn’t want to alienate more conservative audiences or because they didn’t think what they were doing met the high ecological standards they associated with the permaculture concept. In Rod’s case I believe it was a mix of the three with the last being the most important.

Food Relocalisation in action. Rod delivering CSA veggie boxes to Su at the Hepburn Relocalisation Network food co-op. Photo: David Holmgren

During the 1990’s I watched the rewards and strictures of supplying central markets pushing Rod towards being a specialist broccoli producer supplying Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and even Brisbane markets in mid to late summer when it was difficult for producers in warmer districts to do so. Rod was surprised at his own success. He thought that once the market for organics became established, the big specialist vegetable growers would take over and that he would head the other way diversifying to supply local markets using methods he had seen working in Europe, Japan and the US including farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture.

Rod’s involvement in the international organic scene continued with his membership of the scientific advisory board, IFOAM and in 2005 in bringing the IFOAM international conference to Adelaide. But over time he started to organise his exit from organics politics and to encourage the next generation onto the board of NASAA including our son Oliver. Rod’s political focus shifted back to local government and in 2006 he was elected to the Hepburn Shire. Su recalls that Rod was rather slack about campaigning, but his charm, laid back style and ability to connect to the average person got him over the line.

Around the same time after some pestering by Su to produce boxes for local customers instead of all being shipped off to central markets, Rod asked her when she wanted to start. The next week Rod delivered 6 cardboard boxes full of mixed unwashed veggies to our place for pick up by the customers that Su had organised.

Over the following couple of seasons Rod turned his whole farming operation around to focus on boxes delivered to Hepburn, Castlemaine, Ballarat and Melbourne. In the same way that centralised markets reward monocultural specialisation, box schemes demand diversity from the farmer. The fact that Rod turned his relatively large production scale around to supply that diversity was testament to his skills as a farmer. Rod’s fields were rough and ready even by organic standards, full of weeds and some produce not making the grade but the productivity from limited and often erratic input of skilled labour was truly amazing.

Rod in 2005 at the IFOAM conference doing an Aussie farmer skit. Photo: David Holmgren

Apart from extra needs for catering for events and courses, we have always grown our own produce without the fuel and gadgets (Rod’s term for farm equipment) that sustained Rod’s farming operation but there were years where in disgust I thought I should give up and just buy from Rod. Whatever the season and the weather Rod just kept on delivering and at the end of the season the weedy fields full of left over veg was good to fatten the sheep after the gleaners had their share. My personal comparison with Rod led me to assert that I am probably a better ecological builder than ecological farmer but I know what the world needs more. We have enough buildings already but we need to eat each day.

On council Rod was a mover and a shaker, using his deep experience with negotiation and decision making, process and protocol to good effect but in a context very different from the parochial years on Creswick council in his youth. He championed a Climate Change and Peak Oil policy for Hepburn Shire, the second in the state and a number of other pioneering initiatives at a time when Hepburn was becoming famous for the first community owned wind farm in Australia.

After Viv died tragically in the Samoan tsunami in 2009 Rod poured himself into local council, and as mayor contributed to the growth of the local food culture as central to the tourist economy of the region. In 2011 he managed to get funding for an Energy Descent Action Plan for Hepburn shire but Rod’s vision and the consultancy that I delivered in response were too radical even for our progressive environmentally aware community.

On the home front Rod began to focus on the future with development of Viv’s Lang Road property and a vision for the farm into the future. After leaving council Rod threw himself into a farm redevelopment plan at the same time as he was active in the Greens, supporting his daughter Steph’s candidacy, and even stood for the Greens in the seat of Ripon.

He did try to engage me in a farm planning process but with my focus on teaching and writing, Rod couldn’t wait and in typical style he whipped up cabins, an autonomous power system, new fencing, a farm processing shed and other infrastructure necessary following the formal division of the farm between the three brothers following Maurice’s death. It was only around this time that I discovered my good mate had originally trained as a diesel mechanic and that his ability with machines was more than rudimentary but like everything else if a vehicle or machine was working, Rod’s energy was focused elsewhere. If machinery failed, like sheep getting into the crops, Rod could just cut his loses and move on.

Rod was also a motorbike rider, what a friend and local doctor called “a temporary citizen”. Just another one of the risks he took along with the weather, the crops, the politics and at times the law. But I know that while Rod had incredible energy he was not manic and not ever what I would call reckless.

When his luck ran out on the way home from Ballarat after getting a tool for current building projects, the wonders of modern intensive care gave the hope of a rebuild and another chance for my old mate Rod to at least pass on his incredible knowledge of the farm and life to the next generation. But that process was already well underway. After decades of working with and teaching volunteers, interns and community members the in and outs of farming, Rod had been working with his daughters on the farm future. Stephanie and her partner Oggy along with his bother Serge have been working to keep Captains Creek organics humming.

Hopefully the farm customers and especially all of us who knew Rod can support the May family to build on the vision and the legacy after the great man had to cut his loses and move on

To Rod’s family, daughters, Steph + Carla, and his brothers, Greg and Doug, we send our love and deepest condolence.

– David Holmgren, Hepburn, 30 May 2017

You can read the obituary Jason Alexandra and I wrote for Rod in The Age here.

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A History from the Future

We are thrilled to be sharing with you an excerpt from David Holmgren’s A History from the Future – a prelude to his upcoming book RetroSuburbia.


A HISTORY FROM THE FUTURE: a prosperous way down

future-scenarios-logoLong time central Victorian resident and co-originator of the globally influential permaculture concept, David Holmgren draws on his Future Scenarios work to paint a picture of how simple household and community level strategies can build resilience to the hard emerging realities of economic contraction, peak oil and climate change.

Holmgren has spent decades modelling how low impact resilient ways of living and land use provide a happier and healthier alternative to dependent consumerism. In this story, based on an original presentation from the Local Lives Global Matters conference in Castlemaine 2015, he shows how these informed lifestyle choices and biological solutions become the basis for surfing the downslope of the emerging energy descent future.


A LOCAL STORY FROM 2086

Prelude: The World at Energy Peak 2000-2015

At the turn of the 21st century the evidence for energy descent driven by peak oil and climate change was already strong. The quasi religious belief in continuous economic growth had a strong hold on collective psychology in central Victoria as much as anywhere in the world. The global financial system began to unravel in 2008 at the same time that global production of conventional oil peaked. For a minority it was increasingly obvious that the policies put in place ensured that the collapse was even more severe when it did come. It was like the powers that be had pushed the accelerator hard to the floor in one of those supercharged sports cars of the time, to attempt to jump across the widening chasm that humanity was facing.

The collapse of global financial growth unfolded differently in different places but here the story had many upsides that were partly due to luck and partly a result of visionaries and innovators who helped create a better future. These are the bare bones of how we got from what a few people still consider was the golden age to what we call the Earth Steward culture.

Photo Erica Zabowski

Choose from a vast array of nothing, or perhaps a different path. Photo Erica Zabowski

First Energy Descent Crisis 2017-2026

In 2017 the Australian property bubble burst. For our communities, this marked the start of the First Energy Descent Crisis (of the 21st century). Ballarat Bank was the first financial institution to fail and a government forced take over by the Commonwealth Bank saw the Community Bank network hived off as local lending co-ops backed by local government hoping to restart economic activity in regional towns that were increasingly on their own as State and Federal governments focused on dealing with hardship and social unrest in the cities.

The crisis was world wide, so dramatically reduced global Greenhouse Gas Emissions and the peak of global oil (what they called Total Liquids at the time) the same year was very much in line with the 1972 Limits To Growth report default scenario showing industrial output peaking about that time. More recent studies suggest that net energy available to support humanity peaked closer to the turn of the millennium but it’s all a moot point because it seems that economic growth had been a net drain on human welfare for decades before that.

As capital investment in oil fell off a cliff, and production from existing fields declined at nearly 10% there was a second oil price shock, a US currency collapse and a short war between the USA and China in 2022. Australia got punished in the trade embargo imposed by China. The economic crisis in China had already caused nearly 100 million of the recently urbanised workers to return to the villages, and reimposition of a command economy to continue the shift to renewable energy and revitalise agriculture. Consequently China was able to cope without Australian coal and gas and there was so much scrap steel in the world that the iron ore exports had come to a standstill.

While oil and food remained costly (at least relative to falling wages) most manufactured goods were dirt-cheap. Solar panels from China (somehow getting around the trade embargo) accelerated the trend for retail customers going off grid which, combined with collapse of commercial demand for electricity, led to a “Death Spiral” in the power grid with rising prices and increasing blackouts (and surges due to excess wind and solar inputs).

A newly elected Federal Labor government renationalised the power grid, along with price controls, rationing an Australia ID card allowing rationed access to subsidised supermarkets that had been experiencing shortages of fresh fruit, vegetables and dairy.

In Victoria, a Liberal government implemented policies to encourage people to be more self-reliant. Permaculture education was adopted as a framework for integrating aspects of self-reliance including home food production, owner building, water harvesting and waste management.

Rationing of fuel led to hitch-hiking, ride sharing and in rural areas a rush to convert vehicles to wood gas. Bicycles became the default personal transport around town in Castlemanine but in Daylesford and Hepburn, electric bikes and vehicles powered by the Hepburn Wind charging stations installed for tourists before the property bubble burst maintained mobility for locals.

Kanagawa Chuo Kotsu Charcoal Bus

Charcoal powered public transport from Japan. Photo: ‘Lover of Romance’

Conversion of vehicles to wood gas by a range of bush mechanics and ex-hot rodders had mixed success. The market value of higher powered larger vehicles and trucks rose as a result of the first wave of conversions. The Castlemaine Obtainium Engineering Institute was established to test and improve local designs and prototypes. One of the motivations was a competitive spirit with the electric car networks centred in Daylesford and Ballarat.

Use of Bitcoin (a virtual currency), local currencies, precious metals and barter all increased to support exchange in the rapidly growing informal and grey economies. Bitcoin then failed in mysterious circumstances after being targeted for funding terrorism.

The Internet began functioning again after major breakdowns during the conflict between the US and China. But Facebook and Amazon were bankrupt, cyberspace was littered with defunct and unmaintained sites and Internet marketing was plagued by cyber crime and draconian government regulations. Local computer networks using wireless technology, as well as a revival of two-way radio, started building back to basics communication pathways.


A History from the Future eBookletTo read the full story, purchase the eBook here or get the download for FREE when you sign up to our mailing list for updates to David Holmgren’s upcoming book RetroSuburbia, due for release in March 2017.

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Vale Vries Gravestein

Vries Gravestein speaking in a panel discussion APC9 March 2008 Sydney (with Bill Mollison and John Archer)

Vries Gravestein speaking in a panel discussion APC9 March 2008 Sydney (with Bill Mollison and John Archer)

As I have been working alone in the garden over these last few days I have been thinking about Vries Gravestein as an elder of the Australian permaculture movement at the same time that the nation is reflecting on the passing of another big man, Gough Whitlam. While comparisons between the two might be trite, in my garden solitude the emotions about the passing of influential elders did blend.

Most of the permaculture practitioners, activists and teachers I met in the first decade of the permaculture movement were my own (baby boomer) peers with our shared experience of affluence and social stability (in the shadow of nuclear and environmental threats). Vries was one of the first who was from Bill Mollison’s generation raised in the deprivations of the Depression and WWII. Along with that valuable experience to inform and influence younger students, Vries’ solid background in agricultural education and organics maintained the agriculture side of permaculture that sometimes can get lost in the broad church of permaculture.

His passionate belief that permaculture could contribute to transformation of not only our human settlements but also Australia’s  dryland cropping and pastoral landscapes was evident in his vision and organisation of APC4 in Albury back in 1990.  One element in that vision was managing to get John Kerin, the then federal minister for agriculture in the Keating labour government, to open the event.

It was through co-teaching a PDC in the Bega Valley with Hugh Gravestein in 1991 that I started to get a sense of permaculture  becoming embedded in the life of Australian families rather than just the mad passion of cranky individualist ecological pioneers. One of the tragedies of recent decades is that the passion of parents can lead to wholesale rejection in the next generation. The Gravestein family shows how creating a sustainable culture is a multi-generation process.

Vries Gravestein speaking to a bioregional permaculture gathering Bega NSW August 2011

Vries Gravestein speaking to a bioregional permaculture gathering Bega NSW August 2011

Beyond the family I have met and worked with so many of Vries’ students, most notably John Champagne who has played such a critical role in embedding permaculture in this bio-regional community and in maintaining the bonds of the national permaculture family.

With the passing of elders we often find ourselves needing to, not only reflect but to record for posterity, something of their life and times. At this time, it is particularly gratifying for me  to be able to simply re-read Vries’s story as one of the many permaculture pioneers recorded by another of his students,  Dr Caroline Smith in Permaculture Pioneers; stories from the new frontier. I think I can represent the permaculture community in acknowledging Vries Gravestein’s enduring legacy through his many students who continue to develop and spread the permaculture message.

David Holmgren

Co-originator of the Permaculture concept

(This message was read out by John Champagne at the funeral of  Vries Gravestein held in Pambula NSW on October Friday 24th. Reproduced here with the permission.)

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Organic Gardener features Permaculture

DSC01095Holmgren Design here at Melliodora recently received the latest issue (Jan/Feb 2014) of ABC’s Organic Gardener magazine. As usual it has lots of interesting articles and columns including a piece by Peter Cundall’s on growing corn. Perhaps the highlight though is the issue’s feature,  “the power of permaculture”.

Simon Webster looks at the history and visions of the permaculture concept from its birth in Tasmania in 1970s to the future. As well as David Holmgren, Geoff Lawton and Penny Pyett are featured in the article. It’s a comprehensive read for everyone, especially for those interested in permaculture but too afraid to ask what it is. Accompanying pieces; one by Jacqueline Forster on Milkwood,  Nicola Chatham’s design example, and Justin Russell’s piece on chooks, makes this edition blooming marvelous indeed. Steve Payne and his editorial team have done a great job.

Make sure you have a look at the Jan/Feb 2014 Organic Gardener magazine (probably in your local library but definitely in the newsagent’s). Here’s a teaser for you, the first few paragraphs from Simon Webster’s piece , “Permaculture: the full package”.

When Bill Mollison, and environmental psychology lecturer, and David Homgren, a student of environmental design, started collaborating at the University of Tasmania in the early 1970s, they had very different ideas about what would become of their partnership.

Working amid a surge of interest in environmentalism, against a backdrop of energy crises and the publication of  ‘The Limits to Growth’ (a report by the Club of Rome think-tank, forecasting societal and economic collapse due to dwindling resources),  the mentor and student put their heads together to design a system for sustainable  agriculture.

The result was the book ‘Permaculture One: Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements’ (Transworld publishers, 1978), which laid out strategies for producing food in both small and large spaces, combining plants and animals in multi-faceted relationships to provide food for humans while at the same time helping the environment.

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Bill Gammage to talk in Daylesford

resized_9781742377483_224_297_FitSquareBill Gammage, the veteran historian and author of the ground breaking book, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, will give a talk at the Daylesford Town Hall on Friday Nov 29. Bill Gammage is adjunct professor in the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University.

In this multi-award winning book, Bill refutes the common notion that pre-1788 Aboriginal people had no system of land management, on the contrary he shows that the people who lived here then had developed, over many generations, a complex, elaborate system of management to ensure the survival of their culture.

He suggests that time spent maintaining the landscape was a cultural obligation of great import. There’s an exhibition of works by colonial artist Thomas Clark at the Hamilton Art Gallery, a room full of 1850-60’s views of the western district ……wide open spaces, clear of stumps. Clark and other artists of the day had no agenda to paint anything other than what they saw. Where are the trees, now so plentiful?

Gammage uses written accounts by explorers and historians, and early landscape views (sketches, paintings, etc) to explain how Aborigines created an ideal landscape for obtaining the variety of food items they needed in their diet, and kept the countryside clear of dense vegetation (and thus dangerous fires).

The indigenous Australians were more efficient than Europeans, Bill asserts, in getting food, shelter and other needs from the land, mostly by the use of fire and manipulation of the life-cycles of food plants.

Once the fire-based land management systems was removed with the arrival of Europeans, the continent became overgrown and thus more fire prone (made worse, as well, by the climate changing to a much drier one). With The Biggest Estate on Earth, Bill  has updated the history of Australia, and our way of seeing our land.  If his conclusions will be debated, they speak directly to contemporary concerns with land and land care. The central premise of The Biggest Estate on Earth is that before white settlement, the continent had been looked after by  mindful and meticulous caretakers.

The talk is organised by the Hepburn Relocalisation Network. Do not miss this rare opportunity.

Entry $10/$8 pre booked  $15/$12 at the door

More on our events page.

Here is Bill Gammage talking about the book.

Review on the Wheeler Centre website.

(The recording of his talk, introduced by HRN’s Su Dennett is available here.)

 

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Melliodora videocast: a Permaculture classic by J. Russell Smith

tumblr_lpxhdn3tkW1qee2jbIn its first instalment for the regular Permaculture Classics videocast series from Melliodora, David Holmgren talks about  J.Russell Smith’s Tree Crops: a permanent agriculture.

You may not have realised, but this 1929 classic book was a major influence on the development of the Permaculture concept in the 1970’s. It is a very hard to find a copy of this book, but  it is worth your effort. Or there are a number of websites from which you can download the entire book.


Brought to you from the MelliodoraHepburn ‘Tube channel.

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David on Permaculture Podcast with Scott Mann

Recently David was interviewd by Scott Mann for the Permaculture Podcast. Scott covered some of the subjects David is rarely asked these days including, “how did David come up with Permaculture in the first place?” David also was asked to elaborate on his work over the years through each of three waves of environmentalism he identifies: the limits of resources in the 1970s, the limits of what we can put into the environment during the 1980s and 90s, and the convergence of these two ideas over the last decade or so.

You can listen to the podcast at David Holmgren on Permaculture: an interview on the Permaculture Podcast.

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The Reverse of Globalisation

In a recent interview with The Nation and On The Earth Productions, David traces the permaculture movement from its emergence following the 1972 publication of The Limits to Growth to now and underscoring the potential for us to adapt to an ‘energy descent future’.

View an abridged version of the interview here.

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Using principles to surf the energy descent future

Aphorisms for Permaculture activists, APC10

In the final plenary of APC10, David Holmgren drew on lessons from over three decades of permaculture thinking and activism to distill pointers for using ethics and design principles to surf the energy descent future (without being dumped by king waves). An upbeat presentation that enscapsulated how the next generation of permaculture activists can confidently and creatively face the cascading crises that are unfolding all around the world. PDFs of the presentation and text are downloadable below.

Download presentation PDF (8.35 MB)

Download text PDF (82 KB)


Permaculture Ethics & Design Principles DVD

Permaculture Ethics & Design Principles DVD

In this presentation, David Holmgren explains permaculture ethics and design principles as thinking tools for creatively responding to the energy descent future on a limited planet.

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Treehugger interview in Buenos Aires

Extracted from the original Treehugger interview by Paula Alvarado in Buenos Aires, October 2007.

“Many of the mainstream approaches to how we might make things more energetically efficient and ecologically friendly, although well intentioned, are a waste of time”, says David Holmgren. From a permaculture point of view, that is.

This is because this set of principles called permaculture have a more radical point of view to green. But don’t be scared just yet: we’re not asking that you leave all behind to live in an eco-village in the middle of the country.

Continue Reading →

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