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The household solution — too small to push change?

The household solution — too small to push change?

I RECEIVED an email from Permaculture Australia recently promoting online videos of Nicole Foss and David Holmgren. So I took a look. The email made reference to their recent Sydney event that I missed, so I don’t know whether the videos fully represent what they spoke about there.

NICOLE’s VIDEO was about a purported coming economic depression and, as it was produced in 2011, what she says is much the same as the content of her talk at APC11 in Turangi, New Zealand, around that time. Her assertion is that we are in a credit-powered bubble economy marked by high levels of debt, and that bubbles burst sooner or later. She predicts a depression of 1930s scale. Maybe this will happen, however those with long memories will recall such predictions being made by others in the past. When heard repeately with nothing happening, this encourages people to disregard the possibility and so they could be taken by surprise.

As someone remarked to me, Nicole’s proposal about reducing personal debt and finding less financially vulnerable ways to obtain our necessities is a good idea irrespective of whether her prediction of global economic collapse eventuates.

Do you think Nicole Foss is right about a coming depression? Do you anticipate some kind of recession or depression in the near future? Is there any evidence that this could happen?

Post your reply in the Comments window at the end of this story.

DAVID’S VIDEO extolls a quasi-Libertarian individualised approach to the small scale, DIY, iterative implementation of permaculture. Iterative, because he says that small permaculture solutions developed in the home are replicable and can be adapted to different circumstances.

To be adopted means permaculture solutions need be networked so that others can copy and adapt them. At the present time this is somewhat problematic in permaculture. We’ll come to that later.

David Holmgren. Photo: Russ Grayson 2009.


Helena Norberg-Hodge, the author and veteran sustainability advocate, once said to me that danger lies in individualising issues by making their solution the responsibility of individuals alone, which seems to be what David is suggesting. It lets the big institutions and organisations off the hook when it is sometimes they that are the major contributor to the problem. Household responsibility for waste management, energy and water use reduction and food supply etc are what she was getting at.

Helena wasn’t suggesting people abandon their commendable household actions, however her warning suggests that David’s criticism of groups engaging with public policy may be misguided and that household solutions, by themself and in isolation, offer no larger scale solution at all.

It takes clear, frequent and effective communication and organisation to scale-up household initiatives to reduce resource use and produce food, and it is increasingly falling to organisations other than permaculture to do this. Both state and local Australian government, though mainly local government, have tried scaling up household initiatives in waste reduction and energy and water conservation with a success limited only by the duration of grants, a penchant for trialing of ideas rather than their ongoing implementation and staff understanding of the issues. Permaculture practitioners have participated in local government initiatives, sometimes running workshops as well as having longer term involvement in local government programs around household waste, food production, community food gardening, water and energy use reduction, and so assisting their scaling-up.

The thing with taking individual action in the household and with localism in general, despite its evident merits, is all too often it individualises these issues with its sole focus on the household. To their credit, some local governments are addressing commercial waste streams and energy and water use, though their number remains too few. The causes of the issues we face are often national, global and institutional and local action by itself fails to address the scale of the problem in a substantive way. I think this is what Helena was getting at.


David resorts to framing to criticise people engaged in advocacy to improve public policy by claiming it to be the “old way”. In its place he wants the “new way” of the individualised, DIY approach to permaculture.

In using a term like the “old way” I think he is reiterating Bill Mollison’s criticism of Big Environmentalism — the campaigning approach of large, national environmental lobbies against what it was they didn’t like. At his public talks, Bill would contrast this to his notion of the permaculture approach in which people create those things they want to see.

…these organisations, which are part of what has become known as the fair food movement, are where innovative solutions are presently being developed and deployed…

It is unfortunate that David’s comment sidelines those associated with permaculture as well as others who are its natural allies advocating for Local Food Acts and for other public policy initiatives through the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance and allied educational and advocacy organisations.

This is unfortunate because these organisations, which are part of what has become known as the fair food movement, are where innovative solutions are presently being developed and deployed. In attracting thousands to its inaugral Fair Food Week last year (and again in October this year), the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance exposed probably a greater number and a greater diversity of people to its messages than have attended national permaculture convergences. Alienating these people can only alienate permaculture.

Are larger, campaigning organisations and the small-scale approaches of permaculture mutually exclusive?

Do they offer opportunity to people to take action according to their experience and skills and represent end points on a continuum rather than two differecnt, irreconcilable sides of some divide? Where does your experience and skills best place you in taking constructive action on some issue?

Post your response in the Comments window at the end of this story.


David also says that people acting in their own homes and gardens escape government attempts to stop them doing whatever it is that they are doing.

Sure, people can disregard laws and often get away with it, and there is sometimes validity in this approach of ignoring government and getting on with something positive. However he is wrong in claiming that government cannot stop people doing whatever it is they are doing in their homes and gardens. Government can and does intervene — witness the case of Waverley Council in Sydney acting against householders building children’s cubby houses without a development permit, and demanding that a woman who had made a footpath garden remove it even though council had since adopted a policy allowing footpath gardens.

At the household level individuals are largely powerless to change government behaviour. They can ignore it, but if government takes action householders might find they have no organisations with a capacity to support them…

A few people might escape government notice, but they will likely be too few to scale to the level needed to push policy change. Yet, in his video, David alludes to building up a lobbying capacity through individual action.

Good public policy can define and legitimate what you can do at the DIY level of the household as well as on public land. Bad public policy can leave the DIY approach vulnerable. No public policy allows citizen initiatives to fall victim to the whims and ideologies of local government councillors, staff and vexatious, complaining members of the public.

At the household level individuals are largely powerless to change government behaviour. They can ignore it, but if government takes action householders might find they have no organisations with a capacity to support them. To do that you need organisation and advocacy skills and the organisations where those things reside.

We have seen advocacy organisations in action in the changes GetUp has brought to institutional behaviour. We saw it when in 2014 the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network, the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, Permaculture Australia and Canberra Organic Growers all defended community gardens and farmers’ markets against the industry body, Ausveg.

This is why permaculture practitioners need to act at both the individual level and to join and otherwise support those organisations seeking to reform or introduce better public policy.


When working in local government I learned that good public policy can be enabling, and this is a belief that has been reinforced through my work in advocacy around food systems.

Engaging with the public policy agenda has worked for the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network which, in earlier years, sought to have community food gardening recognised as a valid urban landuse. That it succeeded is attested to by local government adoption of policy on community gardens, financial and support in-kind to new gardens through that policy and the establishment of staff roles around community gardening, as well as related initiatives, such as providing free access to premises for food co-ops and community supported agriculture schemes in some council areas.

The Network achieved this through being an advocate for and educator about the practice and by encouraging local government to adopt enabling policy. This is why local government seeks advice from the Network. The Network’s advocacy wasn’t accomplished through a confrontational approach, rather it was the result of talking to government people and of eduation and negotiation, otherwise known as advocacy.


The trouble with much action at the local level of the type that David talks of is that, too often, local stays local. To benefit others, local action needs be embedded in wider networks with active information flows so that good ideas spread — David’s adoption and adaptation. Otherwise, localism is a philosophy with limitations.

Linked with this is my earlier mention of how networking useful information is something of a challenge for permaculture. It wasn’t a problem in the pre-Internet days of the print magazine, Permaculture International Journal, because it — and the US Permaculture Activist magazine and, later, Joy Finch’s Green Harvest magazine out of Castlemaine, Victoria — were about all there was in terms of widely distributed publications linking people who were geographically distributed.

…permaculture offers small scale tactical solutions; advocacy groups acting on public policy offer the big picture strategic solution…

Those were simpler times. Now, we have multiple communication channels and this has fragmented the permaculture network. What we have are permaculture networks, not a single entity anymore such as existed in the practice’s early days in the form of the Permaculture Institute or, later, Permaculture International Ltd.

Now, the Permaculture Research Institute has its own network, Permaculture Australia, PIP magazine and Milkwood Permaculture their own networks. Then there are the people connected to the Permaculture Australia New Zealand, Permaculture Sydney, Permaculture Victoria, Permaculture Tasmania, Permaculture Wellington and Permaculture Auckland social media, among others. There’s crossover between these of course — people frequently participate in multiple networks — however it’s my guestimate that Permaculture Australia New Zealand carries the greatest volume of traffic although much of this is reposted information rather original stories by those posting. Thus, in distributing the models of the DIY permaculture approach and building up the practitioner numbers that David alludes to, these social media are critical.

My statement about reposting rather than creating new online content raises the question of why permaculture as a social movement has so few people developing new ideas and discussing them online. The movement is dominated by a few educators, commentators, popularisers and thinkers — these people are both the ‘mavens’ and the ‘connectors’ of Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point model — yet it is full of creative people. With some exceptions, there is little discussion about its fundemantals and of adapting them to a world in rapid change. The movement seems to lack a reflective quality.

What are some new ideas that permaculture practitioners have developed in the past 20 years?

Post your reply in the Comments window at the end of this story.

There were hopes that the remake of Permaculture Australia’s website and creation of its Facebook page would see similar development in permaculture to that of the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network’s online media. That this hasn’t happened is unfortunate and probably has to do with member’s time poverty or, perhaps, other priorities or — I hope not — disinterest in conversing and sharing ideas with other permaculture practitioners.


Rather than ally myself to either of David’s “old way” advocacy or “new way” individualised, go-it-alone permaculture, I prefer to make use of Bill Mollison’s saying of years ago: you work with those who want to learn and you work where it counts. I think these are among Bill’s more important permaculture principles because they suggest who we might work with, and on what.

Working where it counts, to me, is to take individual action while also taking larger-scale action in cooperation with others. For me, the latter is participating in an advocacy organisation seeking better public policy, something criticised by David in his video. Having worked in both government and the community sector, I see the necessity of scaling-up individual action through collective action to reform and improve public policy which, for me, is a tool for change.

David Holmgren with Bill Mollison. Photo: Russ Grayson 2009.


Today, permaculture and allied movements are both local and global when they go online. This is because, to misquote Marshall McLuhan, the message is a subset of the medium, and that medium is global.

When repurposing the Murdock University School of Behavioural Psychology’s Living Smart course for urban east coast participants, we placed great emphasis on the community component although the course is largely based on individual initiatives in domestic sustainability. It’s like a permaculture introductory course only more detailed, more applied in its content thanks to its goal setting component, scientific in its basis and structured and taught according to contemporary sustainability education and behaviour-change knowledge. I think our focus on mutual assistance at the community level is what David was getting at when he mentions building a DIY approach that scales into a lobbying capacity through building up numbers.

What this suggests is what I believe to be an effective approach to urban sustainability — you need to act both individually in the household and on the public policy agandas that define what it is that you can do at the household level. In doing this, we must recognise that the high cost of buying a home or apartment in Sydney and other cities is now beyond the reach of many younger poeple, and that renting places limitations on changes people can make to a property to reduce resource use and produce food and energy. Acting individually is motivating, especially when your experience is shared with others. Acting on public policy is a collective initiative that legitimates individual action and enables it to go further.

This is why I believe David’s “old way” and “new way” framework to be divisive of community-based sustainable development. The world isn’t that simple anymore, if it ever was. Rather than separate ways, individual household-based initiatives and advocacy for better public policy are different positions on a continuum, both applicable and both equally valid.

Look at it this way: permaculture offers small scale tactical solutions; advocacy groups acting on public policy offer the big picture strategic solution in which the tactical is embedded.

The videos are available at
Photos: Russ Grayson

Comments (6)

  • Angelo Eliades
    July 30, 2014 at 12:33 pm

    Hi Russ, there’s truth to both sides of the equation, I believe David is proposing Bill Mollison’s position here, that if you sit there waiting for government, policy makers, academia and other big organisations, you’ll be waiting forever and it will be too late. History has proven him correct here on the subjects of climate change, soil erosion, etc. He’s 100% right that if people ‘wait for the experts’ to solve the issues, they will be engaging in learned helplessness, and all will be lost. The western world’s ‘cult of expertism’ has resulted in a mass populace that is uninetersted and indifferent, dependent, de-skilled and can’t do much for itself at all.

    It’s a phenomenon of group psychology that big groups often dilute down radical initiatives, seek conformity or operate from an agreed lowest common denominator, which can stifle innovation and individual creativity. Having the need to obtain agreement amongst many individuals, they are often slow to respond, and when they lack real leadership they can be aimless, when hijacked by self-serving individuals, they become ineffectual. How many new ideas come from individuals? History would tell us the majority. How many new ideas come out of committees? In big organisations, and I’ve worked in plenty, there’s a running joke about the types of ideas that come out of committees. When you add political idealism, (corporate) lobby group influence, hidden agendas, the need for large budgets, and the need to be seen to be ‘getting results’ into the mix, you can understand Bill and David’s position.

    There are two sides to the coin though. When big groups are driven by visionary leadership, participants are focussed on the same outcomes, and where recognition of each individual’s contribution takes place, a large group can achieve a synergy which combines the skills, abilities and talents of each member to create an effective and powerful organisation which can achieve significant results. You can pick them from their achievements and real world outcomes.

    That said, small scale individual efforts that don’t reach out past the subculture which they originate from only have the effect of preaching to the converted, and achieve very little reach into the mainstream, which is where the majority of people are, and where both the behavioural change and change in perspective needs to take place. On the other hand, individual efforts are the source of new ideas, of pioneering efforts that push the boundaries, and the source of inspiration to other individuals. Individuals are usually more responsive than groups, their creativity is unhindered by the lack of imagination or courage of others.

    The reality is that humans are social creatures and function in communities, and communities are comprised of individuals who contribute in various ways. Some individuals come up with the new ideas, some bring people together, some do the planning, some get things started, and some see things through to the end.

    Ultimately, people need to be making individual efforts, working together, and forming their own organisations or groups. They can then collaborate, inspire or exert influence BOTH as individuals and groups on the ‘official organisations’ and directly on their own communities. These approaches are not mutually exclusive, and without individual effort nothing is done.

    We can intellectualise and categorise, a typical western reductionist thinking approach where we split things down again and again into meaningless definitions, or we can take a holistic view and look at how the efforts of individuals, communities, collectives, organisations and governments can all link up to achieve common goals.

    So, what does that mean for most people? Well, if you’re not part of some organisation that is involved with formulating or influencing policy on a broad scale, then that’s not a show stopper, you can still make a huge difference, get out there as an individual or as a collective of individuals and DIY, do it yourself, it all counts. Or you can be like me and do both! 🙂

  • Ian Cleland
    July 30, 2014 at 9:51 pm

    I agree with “I believe to be an effective approach to urban sustainability — you need to act both individually in the household and on the public policy agendas that define what it is that you can do at the household level”

    With that is one of the reasons for pursuing the outcome of designing and building low impact zero carbon urban development that create vibrant, resilient, healthy and sustainable urban communities.

    I have always been about demonstrating what can be done and as you have quoted Bill Mollison’s saying of years ago: you work with those who want to learn and you work where it counts.

    Like me it is finding the people who what to learn and engage in the process of change which not just one way of achieving your outcomes but has in it the built in flexibility to change as circumstances require. As it seems we so often have boxed ourselves in consequences that have no flexibility.

    After all nature has been doing it for millions of years. So let us take of leaf out of natures book rather than keep reinventing what has already been done for us.

  • Ania Zamecznik
    July 30, 2014 at 10:40 pm

    The other issue with each man for himself is that it leads to a small group carrying the majority. To add to the debate – How many people do you know who having enthusiastically completed the course then go on to do nothing, possibly for lack of ongoing mentoring and support, possibly through lack of resources or other skills, possibly becuse of weaknesses in the networks – How do we bring these people back into the Permaculture Community?

  • Russ Grayson
    July 30, 2014 at 11:57 pm

    This conversation has been brought over from the Permaculture Australia-New Zealand Facebook:

    ADRIAN BAXT-DENT wrote 30.07.14:
    I agree with most of that. Where David seems to be saying that protest and political action is not useful, Bill said that such things are not useful WITHOUT BEING ABLE to supply their own food: if you rely on the system you are protesting against for food, you can’t win.

    I do disagree where you say “It lets the big institutions and organisations off the hook when it is sometimes they that are the major contributor to the problem” because these institutions and organisations only exist because people use their products and services. Personal change can include avoiding or boycotting the outputs of such organisations.

    Yes, I remember now Bill saying something about the value — the necessity if I correctly recall what he said — of revolutionaries growing their own food. I assume Bill is saying that change agents, let’s call them, need to practice what they campaign for. I agree with this, which is why I said in my story that household sustainability initiatives are motivating and worthwhile but need to be practiced by a critical mass of people to create new political, economic and market demands and to be contexted in broader networks so that they can be adopted and adapted to other circumstances.

    This being done, the influence of personal change on institutions that you mention can happen. What makes it apparent and propels that change, however, are advocacy organisations compiling the evidence for change and packaging it to target decision makers and the public. This is what we discovered when we started the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance. There were all these people doing their own thing around food as individuals, community organisations, farmers and small businesses but without an organisation to bring together what it is they want they risked remaining small, localised but worthwhile initiatives. That they wanted this type of advocacy became evident when they supported initiatives started by the Alliance.

    An analogy is Permaculture Australia. Participants at APC10 — practicing individuals acting locally — saw the need to scale-up permaculture when they said they wanted an organisation — Permaculture Australia — to publicly advocate for permaculture, to offer a permaculture perspective on issues. That this hasn’t happened, with the exception of producing a media release on the Ausveg attack on community gardens and farmers’ markets, only speaks of the limited capacity of the organisation.

    My gut feelings are to agree with David about protest being of limited value. But, then, we see the successes of Big Environmentalism from the late eighties and into the succeeding decade and their influence on elections. In contemporary times there are the successes of northern NSW communities in combating fracking in their regions. I think reality is a little more nuanced that the simple ‘protest bad’, ‘permaculture good’ duality.

    I fail to see how you can not rely on established systems for food while you work to reform or replace them. The new grows out of the old and I don’t know how change agents can do their work while completely producing their needs themselves. If you look at those pioneering new models of food access like the Open Food Network and the plethora of initiatives around food systems, few if any would produce their own needs themselves. What’s important, I think, is for people to ask themselves where the priority is for using their knowledge and skills with the limited time available for them to do that in — in a garden or doing the work they are best equipped to do (both would be good, but unrealistic to expect, perhaps).

    The notion of a household-level focus letting government and big institutions off the hook comes from Helena Norberg-Hodge and follows a conversation I had with her in Byron Bay some years ago. Helena has a lot of experience not only in international development and appropriate technology but also in her pioneering role in the local food movement, which is why I afford her a lot of credibility. She saw that the focus and responsibility for sustainability change was being put on individuals and was ignoring the big organisations that benefited from resource waste. Put another way that would appeal to the political Left, the responsibility and costs of change were being socialised while the profits derived from the things they sought to reform were privatised.

    Thanks for your comments Adrian. Good to talk thorough these things.

  • Jill
    August 3, 2014 at 6:21 am

    I agree with David all the way, the Permaculture/ Environmental/Sustainable train has become to complicated and too profitable for large organisations.

    I will keep it simple and work with what I can, the best I can

  • James Robertson
    December 3, 2014 at 2:21 am

    I’m definitely in the “all of the above” category like you Russ.

    Individuals do need to reconnect with the issues that directly affect them, including food, water & energy.

    But as you said, the big problems remain that: big problems. These must be simultaneously tackled at higher scales, including local, state and federal governments.

    Keep up the good thinking and writing.


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