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Permaculture – a movement in need of a history

I’M HOUSE MINDING FOR A FRIEND. In architectural style the house is Federation, one half of a long, dark red brick duplex in Sydney’s Inner West and probably built early in the Twentieth Century. It’s not an overly-ornate house in the way that some of its more exuberant contemporaries are but, like many of them, it was built in defiance of the climate and as a result is quite cold to live in during the winter.

The good thing about the house is its garden. It’s a garden of typically modest Inner West size  – which is another way of saying small — but hosts avocado, various citrus, a longan, clusters of banana and pawpaw, beds of herbs and vegetables and three off-white, very quiet bantams. Even the footpath has been terraformed with a small orange tree and New Zealand spinach.

It was when making my way from kitchen to office — steaming cup of brewed coffee in hand to ward off winter’s chilly air — that I glanced at the titles on the bookshelf and saw a copy of an old book that I am sure I owned down in Hobart towards the end of the 1970s.

The book was the work of that productive publishing duo of the early alternative, rural resettlement movement of the 1970s, Keith and Irene Smith. These were the same people who brought us that long running and still-in-publication magazine (though for many years no longer published by Keith and Irene), Earth Garden.

It is difficult to understate that magazine’s importance to the social movement it emerged from, the movement that it reported to while, at the same time, stimulating it. Earth Garden and a little later, Grass Roots magazine (still in production too) both informed and networked the rural resettlement or back-to-the-land alternative movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, bringing its participants together into a community of readers. That’s no mean accomplishment and the role of those two periodicals in creating a sense of commonality and identity should not be underestimated.

In the days before the Internet, before universal access to email, Earth Garden and Grass Roots created networks of alternatives and new settlers much as the Whole Earth Catalog did in the USA. Out on those early intentional communities, in rural towns, farmhouses, urban share houses and in capital cities, the arrival of those quarterlies was eagerly awaited. They connected people to another reality, one they were attempting to live or one they imagined living as they wistfully flicked through the pages. Over the the dawn of the early alternative/back-to-the-land movement, Earth Garden and Grass Roots shone like an illuminating sun to inform, inspire and connect.

If media is important to starting and sustaining social movements, what was the literary context of those magazines?

Those were the days when the ideas in Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (R. Buckminster Fuller; E.P. Dutton & Co, New York. c1963, 1971) retained a resonance among the creative fringe. So did the writings of British economist, Fritz Schumacher, whose late-1960s book, Small Is Beautiful – economics as if people mattered, was still inspiring an innovative alternative technology movement and was quite influential in the ideologies and technologies of the emerging intentional communities and urban alternative share houses. Late the previous decade, Theodore Roszak had written The Making of a Counter Culture (1968), a book that analysed the social movement of that time. Two years later, Charles Reich’s The Greening of America (1970) attempted to encapsulate what at the time was a somewhat perplexing turbulence of people and ideas.

These books were available in Australia but their influence is undocumented. Certainly, Roszak and Reich’s books were read by those identifying with the New Left as they were available in Sydney at specialist booksellers such as the Third World Bookshop, which opened in 1967 and traded into the start of the following decade before morphing into the bookselling establishments of veteran Sydney leftist politico, Bob Gould.

The first attempt to document the alternative or back-to-the-land movement in this county had to await Peter Cock’s substantial 1979 work, Alternative Australia – communities of the future (Quartet Books, Melbourne). By that time, the movement has gone through its gestatory period and was settling into a set of attitudes, practices and forms applicable to alternative city and country living. The movement’s origin lay back in the latter years of the 1960s when it was an incipient trend among footloose youth unattracted to mainstream society’s offerings. While many of its participants also identified with the New Left, especially in its opposition to Australia’s participation in the war in Vietnam, it was in many ways a parallel strand of the youth movement that saw personal change, rather than political and economic change, as the route to a different future.

Earth Garden and Grass Roots certainly belong in this parallel, non-political strand of the alternative movement. What they reported were personal and small group solutions to new ways of living in city and country. All movements develop their own literature and the Earth Garden and Grass Roots quickly became the titles that would reflect this alternative movement, particularly its back-to-the-land, new ruralists segment of it, back onto itself and which would go on to build up a substantial following in the suburbs of our major centres. That they continue in print today is testament to the staying power of the ideas they wrote about. Unlike the anti-war movement of the New Left which came to an end when its main demand was met — cessation of the war in Vietnam — the social trend represented by the two magazines retained a currency that continues today and that was given impetus first by the organic gardening movement and later, to some extent, by the emerging philosophy of permaculture.

Oh, the name of that book I mentioned before – the book I discovered on the shelf  in that house in the Inner West– it was The First Earth Garden Book (ISBN 01 7005 4446)  and it was published in 1975.


History juxtaposes. Social trends overlay political events that overlay technological and economic change.

1975. A year that juxtaposed all of those trends. Only a few years before Australia had pulled out of Vietnam, leaving the gathering quagmire to the Americans. This was a pleasingly chaotic decade, a time of change, and in its own way that book of the Smiths’ was a vector for that change, carrying news of it in the form of a how-to manual of personal experience to a youth hungry for better ways of doing things.

1978. A few years pass and the second edition of the Smith’s book is published. Put yourself in Hobart at that time. A small city of around 200,000 sprawling along the banks of the Derwent estuary, overshadowed by a high, rocky mountain and looking out to Storm Bay and the open seas of the turbulent Southern Ocean, you can see why David Holmgren once described Hobart as sitting on the edge of industrial civilisation.

Back to the present. Only a couple weeks ago I had a conversation with Terry White, one of the permaculture design system’s early adopters. It was an illuminating conversation that cleared some ambiguity about what happened when, back in those closing years of the 1970s. Terry described how, in the year that the second edition of Keith and Irene’s book was published, two minds met in a living room below that mountain that overshadows the city — Mt Wellington.

The outcome of those meetings spilled out of that living room on Wellington’s lower slopes to assume book form. And therein lies the coincidence — a book compiling writings published by the Smiths over previous years meets a book bearing news of a new idea.

They had much in common.

A design context

Today, we know that new idea, that product of those two minds in the living room on the lower slopes of Mt Wellington, as permaculture. What permaculture did was to put those earlier ideas represented by the Smith’s book into the context of a design system. Oh, that book developed from the ideas of those two innovators was called Permaculture One.

Terry White also figures among the coincidences of 1978. I knew it before, but I became truly aware of it while writing for ABC Organic Gardener editor, Steve Payne (one-time editor of Permaculture International Journal). We were working collaboratively on material for an upcoming edition of New Internationalist magazine, a special edition on permaculture. It was while producing this that I spoke with Terry.

Terry is not nationally prominent in the permaculture of today but he was instrumental in getting the design system to its present situation, and how he did this anchors us in 1978. In that year, while living in the rural Victorian city of Maryborough, he heard a radio interview with someone by the name of Bill Mollison. He liked what he heard… there was more than a resonance with his own work… and he invited Bill to come to Maryborough. This Bill did. Out of that meeting and the first permaculture course came another of those publishing coincidences of that year. It was called Permaculture and it was a glossy, authoritative quarterly magazine, and its editor was Terry White. And just as Earth Garden and Grass Roots fed an alternative rural resettlement movement with news and information, creating a sense of participation in a network national in scale, so Permaculture quarterly came to do.

As the cliché goes, the rest is history. Almost ten years after creating a published presence for the permaculture design system Terry handed Permaculture over to Robyn Francis who, in turn and under the name Permaculture International Journal handed it on to Steve Payne.

The reason I write this is because permaculture is a movement approaching its thirtieth birthday — and it may be a social movement losing its memory. Thirty years since 1978 and Permaculture One. Thirty years is time enough for a history of permaculture to be written but that task remains unfulfilled. The need for it is seldom mentioned. All we have is Bill Mollison’s own story as documented in Travels in Dreams and, valuable though that is, it is not the history of the broader movement, the stories of those that were there at its birth. We do have a few brief memoirs of people in permaculture scattered across websites and we will have a proposed book of permaculture biographies in a couple years, but I suspect these together will still not make up a cogent history of the movement.

On reflection, writing the history of a decentralised movement carries with it the danger of omission, the accidental leaving out of people whose stories should properly be included. It also carries the risk of selectivity, as do all media products, because the people who would originate such a project will define its content and direction.

But none of this is a valid argument for not trying. I have this nagging belief that a movement without a history lacks some critical sense of self and is the lesser for it. A documented history brings self-concept, a sense of evolution and some insight into how the movement has accommodated the changes emerging from within itself and those impinging from the wider world. A friend recently asked me, when we were discussing permaculture and the information available about it, whether it was only we journalists – he was referring to the two of us – that have this need to document things. I answered that was probably the case. Somehow, fate has landed us with an interest in stringing words and images together to reflect on things and tell their story.

The road from 1978 to 2008 has been long but, seemingly, has been rapidly travelled. Now, thirty years after that meeting of minds on the lower slopes of Mt Wellington, it really is time to look back as a means to understand the road ahead.

Comments (1)

  • liz kruger
    November 5, 2015 at 1:56 pm

    Hi there

    I saved this link for later reference and now looked at it again… I’m busy trying to construct a brief history of the South African permaculture movement, no doubt incomplete as it is part of a broader phd thesis. been trying to reconstruct some of the movement history from wherever i can glean it – struggling to locate IPC proceedings and papers… anyhow just wanted to let you know. if you mail me I can send you the thesis when it is done. many thanks lizzie kruger

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