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PacificEdge | January 22, 2019

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Retroburbia: some thoughts

Retroburbia: some thoughts

This piece was written in the months before David Holmgren published his book, Retroburbia. It is not possible to review a book not yet finished, however it is possible to use it to speculate on the idea of the book itself and on what might lead to and be needed for any refitting of the suburbs.

With big cities now the home for the majority of people, those of us who have been working in those cities are looking forward to David’s new book. All we have so far is a newsletter reporting progress on the book and providing snippets.

I don’t know how David places his ideas on a timeline. Will the book take the popular science fiction form of alternative history, much like Kim Stanley Robinson does with his climate change in Washington and his alternative California series, or will it be grounded in present day reality? There, it could explore potentials based on what has so far been done.

The alternative history approach takes some fictional event as the point in time at which an alternative timeline and future develop. In David’s example that will likely be an event like a global oil shortage and price rise stemming from a peak oil scenario as the point at which an altenative furure starts. We have been there before, when the Organisation of Oil Exporting Countries in the early 1970s reduced oil exports to Western countries in retaliation for their support of Israel in the 1973 war with the Arab states. Oil rationing was introduced. David’s scenario would have to be longer lasting were it to set societies on course that brought profund economic, political, social and cultural change.

The triggers

Although the Retorsuburbia newsletter suggests David is to position peak oil as the trigger that stimulates retrofitting suburbia, it seems a less likely to be the trigger of profound change over the near future. This is because M. King Hubbert’s theory of peak oil, which seemed reasonably accurate only a couple decades ago, has been overturned in the US by exploitation of new oil resources through hydraulic fracturing — fracking. Doubts over the theory push peak oil into a more distant future by which time new renewable energy resources may have avoided it.

Other than peak oil, what are the trends or events that we can see evolving in the present that could bring about the kind of profound change necessary to David’s proposition of retrofitting suburbia? There are three with potential:

1. A large scale or regional conflict between China and the US over freedom of navigation through the South an East China Sea. With China’s annexation of reefs in the Sea, the building of artificial islands on them and basing military facilities there, and with the US deploying naval vessels and aircraft to enforce freedom of navigation, considerable potential exists for incidents to get out of hand and for a small scale skirmish to escalate into regional conflict. That could involve Japan as the US bases military assets there, and Japan has claims on some islands in the region.

Closure of navigational freedom through the Sea could affect Australia’s export and import industries, as trading routes traverse the region. Unless Russia were to intervene to support China, a regional conflict would be unlikely to produce the scale of impact necessary for David’s scenario. It remains an outlier.

2. The impacts of climate change are going to worsen even were the world to immediately cease climate-damaging practices. Commentators put at around 50 years the time that would elapse before changes would start to become visible in any substantial way.  This is due to the lag in the system, the delay in changes taking effect.

The scale of climate impacts would have to be significant and rapid to stimulate any large scale retrofit of suburbia. For government to support and make all of the legislative and regulatory changes necessary to sustain significant retrofitting at scale would probably require some kind of crisis that brings severe economic and social stress. In the absence of government support it is likely that people would go it alone.

3. Commentators are now starting to seriously discuss something already underway that could bring the scale of economic and social impact that has the potential to segue into a scanario in which retorfitting suburbia becomes a priority — the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI), decision making by algorithm, workplace robotisation and widespread automation.

The changeover to automated systems at the expense of human workers started with the introduction of industrial robots in manufacturing in the 1970s and has since spread to displace middle class workers. It seems set to continue. The potential for economy-changing impacts are obvious, ranging from housing unaffordability (already a factor in Sydney and Melbourne, though for different reasons), food insecurity and its health impacts, and for markets of all kinds.

Whatever its cause, retrofitting suburbia would benefit from the planting of food species on public land, such as the espaliered citrus trees and vegetables along this lane in at The Spot, in Randwick, NSW. Rules for foraging would be needed so as foragers do not take the produce of community groups.

The coming livelihood descent future

While not denying David’s energy descent futures, I speculate that it could well be automation that moves a sizeable portion of society to a future of increasing personal and community self-reliance. Let’s call it a ‘livelihood descent future’.

This is not something that could happen in the future. It is happening now. It is linked to substantial changes taking place in Australian working life that affects more than 30 percent of working people.

The 1970s brought workplace automation in the form of industrial robotics. That has continued to replace the industrial working class from what were secure manufacturing jobs at the same time that many of those jobs were exported to China, which was emerging as an economic power.

Then it was the turn of the banks, with autotellers — the ‘hole in the wall’ that, like making some offering to a deity that spews forth mana, dispenses cash on offering a plastic card. More recently we have seen automated terminals replacing human checkout operators in supermarkets, in airports and transport nodes.

Goodbye bus drivers. An autonomous, driverless bus on display at Circular Quay, Sydney. Automation powered by artificial intelligence replacing human workers could bring on a livelihood descent future that might, unless it descends into chaos and providing governments respond intelligently, stimulate a retrofitting not only of suburbia but of economic and personal life.

The working days of anyone doing routine work, most people working in an office, process workers, legal researchers, truck/bus/taxi drivers and many others really are numbered. The Committee for the Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) put it this way in their 2015 paper:

“More than five million jobs, almost 40 per cent of Australian jobs that exist today, have a moderate to high likelihood of disappearing in the next 10 to 15 years due to technological advancements.

“This research shows that in some parts of rural and regional Australia in particular there is a high likelihood of job losses being over 60 per cent,”

The figure is in line with those of other technologically advanced countries. Some technology commentators put the figure higher while others say between 15 and 30 percent is a more realistic figure as we approach 2030. Even at its lowest guesstimate the number of people displaced is significant, though whether significant enough to stimulate some kind of retrofitting of suburbia is questionable. As well as jobs lost to automated systems jobs will be shared in what has been called a ‘neuropoly’ based on cooperation between human workers and AI. What there is a reasonable degree of agreement on is that the number of new livelihoods created by workplace automation will be less than the number replaced.

This automation of economic and personal life and changes to working life have given rise to a new social structure that replaces the old working/middle/upper class that we have lived with since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Now, we have that 30 or more percent of working people comprising the ‘precariat‘, so-called because of their precarious financial circumstances. They are the part-time, the casual, the fixed-term workers. Some, like students and many freelancers, prefer the life while the great many are there involuntarily. Then there is the ‘salariat‘, those on a salary who enjoy some degree of continuity in their working life and who, unlike the precariat, have holidays, sick leave and other workplace benefits. There is also the underclass living in deep poverty, many of whom are homeless (an increasing number in Australia and the USA) as well as a small class of people in financial, engineering, science and other roles that are well paid and crucial to maintaining the emerging system.

AI is moving into non-routine work such as law and education, and into farming too…

This new model of social stratification has seen the continuing shrinkage of the middle class. That was the aspirational class with the discretionary spending power crucial to the consumer economy and to the home ownership that has been necessary to practicing permaculture at the domestic level. Now, as their numbers decline, many middle class, fulltime working people find it difficult to make financial ends meet. This is partly attributable to real value of salaries and wages not having increased over recent decades.

Just as mechanisation gave was to automation, now we see automation being enhanced by artificial intelligence systems which are themselves enhanced by machine learning software. Robots are machines designed to do tasks while AI is the software behind them. Any work involving routine and repetitious tasks can be automated and shortly will be, however AI is moving into non-routine work such as law and education, and into farming too. That promises to shrink even further the small number of people working in farming. Farmers and farm workers would be in that 60 percent of rural and regional job losses due to technology estimated in the CEDA report.

Even were a universal basic income to be introduced to maintain economic activity and personal wellbeing, it is unlikely to offer the spending power of fulltime paid employment or the opportunity to buy house and land.

We cannot predict the future but we can extrapolate present trends, although doing so is done in the knowledge that some new development — an economic depression, some new technology, an unanticipated and sudden detrimental impact of our changing climate — has the potential to generate entirely unanticipated outcomes. Just think back to how the start of the computerisation of the economy in the 1970s led to the transformation of society and economic and personal life, all in a mater of decades.

The livelihood descent future I speak of is a mash-up of the continuing casualisation and part-timing of working life blended with some degree of livelihood loss through the introduction of automated systems. Despite doubts over its likelihood, there remains a possibility that it may accompany an energy descent future David postulates. Its worse case scenario is of profound restructuring of economic and social life. Its best case scenario is some lesser degree of this. Dealing with it positively will require retrofitting of personal, cultural and economic life to more of a communitarian model of housing, food production and distribution and interpersonal trading. Cashless social credit systems, also known as community exchange systems such as time banking and LETS (Local Exchange and Trading Systems) could come of age in such scenarios.

BrisLETS’ Alison Bird with the one-day LETS currency issued to enable peer-to-peer transactions during the 2017 New Economics Network Australia conference in Brisbane.

What role for permaculture?

If permaculture is to play any significant part in reponding to a trend or event that stimulates a retrofit of suburbia, doing so will require making the design system more accessible than at present and scaling-up its approach.

A limitation to be overcome could be brought by severe economic decline that reduces the participant pool for permaculture design and other courses. The existing approach to formal permaculture education, which relies on the ability and willingness to pay, would become less viable.

Lower incomes translates into fewer permaculture design course students which implies less opportunity for permaculture educators. The ongoing claim that permaculture design courses are too expensive already raises the question of affordability and incomes. The claim usually disregards the reality of the costs involved in offering design courses, and part of it comes from people who could afford a course but do not see the return on investment being great enough. Some of the criticism comes from people who do not have the disposable income that would enable them to do a design course.

The other possibility is that permaculture education could evolve to become something available only to the salariat and the few among the precariat determined enough to finance their training. In such a circumstance it is likely permaculture design will go online to a far greater extent than it is today and that free courses will be offered. This is already starting to happen. They would likely be an extension of the present-day free courses known as MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses.

There is also the question of access to land and accommodation. Economic decline implies an inability to buy land and housing and a declining housing market. Where would it be that people practice their permaculture and how would declining land ownership affect their land tenure? It is likely that, were this scenario to eventuate, the wealthy would buy up land and property as prices fall, squeezing even more people from the housing market and locking up land so as to derive rent from its use.

If permaculture is to have a role in this theoretical future, there is also the quesion how we derive learning from the multiplicity of local permaculture and related works. One problem with many local initiatives is that they are of little value to the larger permaculture movement not because they have no value in themselves but because they are invisible. They are invisible because unless local initiaitves are networked into the larger social movement, local stays local. Making those links is a role for the connectors in permaculture, the bloggers, journalists, photographers. Those are few.

Perhaps David will use the examples that exist in progressive rural enclaves, such as the Castlemaine/Hepburn/Daylesford, Nimbin and Maleny areas as examples of suburban retrofitting. These are worth exploring because in these areas we find a level of cultural affinity and local identification and outlook, to some extent anyway. Those regions could serve as advanced prototypes for constructing a retroburbia. Permaculture and other socially progressive initiatives exist within big cities too, but because of the scale of the cities they are diffused, less visible and less accessible beyond their immediate region.

Some in permaculture eschew politics, however that is too naive a view to take in our present situation…

When I worked in urban food systems both within, and as a consultant to, local government, and with community organisations at both the project planning and implementation levels, I saw both opportunities and barriers inherent to changing urban landuse. This has to do with the role permaculture plays in society.

In one case, the council I worked for organised a public planning series spanning three evening meetings. The intent was to gather ideas and discuss council and community initiatives in an inner urban area in Sydney close to the CBD. It was the opportunity for permaculture people to have a say, however other than the single permaculture-trained person who turned up as an observer rather than as a participant for the first session, permaculture was completely missing. As well as an opportunity lost, this suggested permaculture people and their associations were not up to the task of influencing local development and that interest in doing so was not there. Were this to happen in any scenario to be suggested by David, other than in those cultural enclaves where permaculture has a strong presence, the design system might have little role in retrofitting the suburbs.

There is no non-political permaculture because permaculture is about change, and change is political.

What could also sideline permaculture is the fact it no longer has the monopoly on its ideas. Many ideas that once formed part of the permaculture design system are now also the property of other organisations and professions. As these are often better organised than permaculture associations, have effective representative bodies and engage in advocacy, they would be more likely to be listened to by political decision makers. Permaculture ideas might be implemented, but not by permaculture-educated people. This diffusion of one-time permaculture ideas has been going on for a couple decades.

If David’s book does take an alternative futures form then he can sidestep these present day circumstances and postulate a different future, possibly of energy scarcity and high energy costs and how that would impinge on not only urban food security but on urban design and livelihoods.

What has become apparent to me in any change scenario is the necessity for what we call in permaculture the ‘invisible systems’. I don’t mean just group dynamics and decision making structures that figure prominently in ‘social’ permaculture, but a broader definition of social permaculture that includes invisible systems like economics, livelihoods and advocacy. Advocacy suggests politics though that need not be politics as usual, as in party politics. Some in permaculture eschew politics, however that is too naive a view to take in our present situation and it would also be so in whatever David positions as the trigger to suburban retrofitting. There is no non-political permaculture because permaculture is about change, and change is political.

“My book, RetroSuburbia: a downshifter’s guide to a resilient future (Melliodora Publishing, in press) supports householders to become more self reliant and resilient in the face of multiple challenges from what I call “energy descent futures”‘… David Holmgren.

Discussion of economic life lacking

Unfortunately, there is little by way of discussion of this emerging world of economic life within the permaculture movement. There are some voices, however they are too few to give permaculture a place in the growing conversation. Perhaps one of the stronger voices is that of ACT farmer, food sovereignty and new economics advocate, Michael Croft. Michael worked with the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance in its early phase, represented Australia with the global small farmer network, La Via Campesina  and at UN conferences.

I find the locus of discussion around this possible future, other than among futurists and economic and technology journalists, to be among members of organisations like the New Economics Network Australia (and here).The irony is that much of the conversation there is akin to that around the economics initiatives we find in permaculture during the 1980s when the design system was strong on economics, gave birth to Earthbank and played a major role in stimulating the spread of LETS. This is an example of the diffusion of one-time permaculture ideas and their becoming the focus of other, often more prominent and higher profile organisations.

For permaculture to play a practical role in such a society as that which I describe, it will have to reinvigorate its early roots in economics and extend that to what is called the ’new economics’. That includes much that is old but that remains viable, such as community land trusts, cooperative housing, consumer co-ops (eg. food co-ops) and industrial co-ops such as those processing farm produce. These already exist and could be built upon were they to become a core element in the permaculture design system, as did home gardening. That is mildly revolutionary in the midst of a consumer society, however unless we are to have a permaculture of partially-self-sufficient island households they will need to be socialised.

A retroburbia would presumably include repair rather than discard. The photo shows a workshop leader teaching upholstery of old furniture at the Festival Of Forgotten Skills at Randwick Community Centre.

Permaculture has evolved with a strong focus on urban homesteading. This is good as it increases household water conservation, energy efficiency and food security — though less so community food security unless a surplus for exchange is produced.

The reality in our cities is that a combination of time poverty and high real state costs makes owning a detached home with a garden, in which to practice urban homesteading, increasingly unrealistic. As has been pointed out in myriad economics articles, home ownership is increasingly beyond the financial capacity of many young people. Where they do manage to get into the housing market they are saddled with a mortgage for the next three or more decades, plus for many, paying off their tertiary education debt. This limits improvements they can make to household energy and water efficiency and to engage in urban homesteading.

“Home ownership in Australia is becoming more exclusive. The ratio of the price of the average home to Australians’ average income was at an all-time high in the late 1990s. Young people are buying homes at the lowest rates ever, and changes in work patterns are reducing many households’ ability to retain their homes” (Badcock, Blair and Andrew Beer. Home Truths: Property Ownership and Housing Wealth in Australia. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2000, p150-152.).

“Home ownership in Australia decreased to 67% in 2011, the lowest level in over 50 years”.

Unless strategies for renters and share-households is explored further than it has been, the cost of home and land ownership could turn permaculture as urban homesteading into something practiced by mainly a permaculture land-owning class.

What we need is a model of urban permaculture that acknowledges the preference for apartment living. This necessitates not a homesteading but a communitarian approach to design. It would focus less on food production and more on how to obtain affordable food through co-ops, CSAs and buying groups. It would develop a strong strand on housing co-ops for access to affordable housing and housing security. Worker co-ops, including the platform co-ops presently being developed as a response to the financial insecurity of casualised and part time work, would figure strongly.

Design system practitioners put much effort into food systems though far too little into the food advocacy side, preferring to focus on food production at a small scale. This is useful as far as personal and household food security go, but does little to influence food policy which affects the opportunities open to permaculturists, urban food producers and smaller, family-based farming. That has slipped away from permaculture, with practical models such as those of the Open Food Network, 3000 Acres and more stealing the social attention. These are often structured as social enterprise. Permaculture organises mostly at the community association level, mainly because those are volunteer-managed enterprises. The use of commercial exchange to achieve social/environmental/economic goals in the form of social enterprise has seldom appeared as a permaculture solution.

In summary, increasing installation of AI and robotics has the potential to financially disadvantage people and reduce opportunities presently open to them. If its continues to evolve along its present path it will also affect the prospects of permaculture practitioners. In such circumstances it could produce either an impoverished, economically polarised society or drive a move to cooperative models of working, living and consuming even while energy descent is still being talked about.

Permaculture’s ability to build alternative models useful in a retrofitted suburbia without government support or permission will depend very much on the capacity of its organisations and on individuals in the design system.

The necessity of economics

David Holmgren: “Effective and ethical means of monetary exchange are another essential part of the puzzle that is beyond the scope of this essay.”

I really hope those “effective and ethical means of monetary exchange” will be considered in David’s book because they could well be a parallel means of exchange in an income/energy descent future. Rebuilding urban infrastructure cannot exist all by itself as some technical task within the built environment.

The primary role of cities is exchange — exchange of goods and services, of ideas, of learning, of opportunity and more. This applies as much to the type of retrofitted suburbia David imagines as to the city of the present time. Exchange is critical to repurposing urban infrastructure in any energy descent future. Economic exchange in its various cash and cashless forms and would power a retrobubia and would be the means by which people obtained goods and services unobtainable through the formal economy.

New economic exchange models are not something we have to invent. They already exist, some in microcosm, some more widely distributed. They go by names such as LETS and Time Banking (both forms of social credit or community exchange systems) as well as cryptocurrencies and, in the recent past, as issued LETS currency. Their existence situates them well as advanced prototypes that could be improved for deployment in a livelihoods/energy descent future.

As well as exchange we need include other existing forms of economic and social organisation. Co-ops have a long and continuing history in Australia and elsewhere, with Spain’s Mondrogon co-ops being the best known worker co-operatives, one that specialised in industrial manufacturung. Here in Australia, farmer and food processing co-ops continue to operate. To these we can add housing co-ops and consumer co-ops such as the food co-ops many of us are familiar with, however the model can be applied to other forms of consumer needs that we have no opportunity to produce for ourselves.

The new manifestation of the co-op model are the platform co-ops we see starting-up. These differ from the like of Uber and AirBnB, which are bog-standard business corporations based on online platforms — ‘platform capitalism’ as it is called. Platform co-operatives are a response to the casualisation and parttime restructuring of working life in technologically advanced countries. They add the co-operative model of worker ownership to digital platforms so as to share available, shorter term work and better working conditions. Platform co-ops would surely be a model applicable to life in David’s postulated retroburbia.

The phases of environmental politics

“In the second environmental wave in the late 80s and early 90s, agriculture and food were sidelined by the focus on buildings, transport and technology”, writed David in a Retroburbia newsletter.

In his Feeding Retroburbia David doesn’t say what events, trends or ideas made up the “second environmental wave of the 80s”, or the first wave.

My experience of the first wave was that emerging in the early seventies from the counterculture of the time. Counterculture is a sweeping term and I prefer the term ‘alternative’ culture because the movement sought to set up parallel systems of living, food production (it stimulated the organic food and renewable energy movements as well as home gardening) and politics.

The movement, and it was numerous in Australia with researcher Peter Cock (Alternative Australia; 1973, Quartet Books) putting participation at around 50,000 in the seventies, was influenced by economic thinker, Fritz Schumacher, with his ‘Buddhist economics’ and polymath, Buckminster Fuller, who wrote the influential book, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth . Alternative culture attempted to put their ideas into action.

This was the time when magazines that are still-running made their start, such as Earth Garden and Grass Roots in Australia and Mother Earth News in the US. The social ferment stimulated by the social movement of the period gave birth to something else too. We call it permaculture.

The second wave David mentions had a strong strand focusing on energy efficiency in building design, transportation and renewable energy. These were stimulated by the oil crises of the 1970s.

I see a third wave that grew out of those first two waves. It arose in response to proposed industrial developments of Australia’s wild places. Focused mainly on preserving the natural environment such as wilderness, big environmental organisations like the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Wilderness Society, Greenpeace and, to a lesser scale, Friends of the Earth led what became a politicised and influential social movement that campaigned on issues such as Lake Pedder, the Franklin River and the rainforests of Far North Queensland’s Daintree region. We should also name trade union leader, Jack Munday’s Green Bans that protected Sydney’s urban bushland and the built environment during the 1970s as part of this third wave. Environmentalism became a truly mass movement that in the 1990s developed political clout at both state and federal levels.

Food systems were not on the agenda at that time other than the increasing demand for organic food and the associated development of the organics industry. The popularity of home food production, now stimulated by the permaculture design movement and originally stimulated through alternative culture in the 1970s, continued.

Food as an access, environmental and social issue had to await the new century. Yet, as the 1991 census showed, home food production was a continuing Australian tradition. The census disclosed Australian backyards as productive places, with a significant volume and variety of foods being produced. That was a finding repeated in the new century with publication of a home food productivity report by the Australia Institute and the book, Harvesting the Suburbs, by Western Australian researcher, Andrea Gaynor.

We live on the long tail of that last environmental blossoming. Many of its demands have been institutionalised, such as environmental planning and impact assessment, the organics industry and its national certification standards, air quality legislation, the reduction of emissions of ozone-depleting chemicals, the phasing out of toxic chemicals, the adoption of renewable energy systems and much more. This gave rise to today’s environmental industries which I watched grow as editor of an environmental business journal in the nineties.

Permaculture, too, is a part of this wave of environmental thought and action. It made personal and community-based action available to many who wanted some degree of control over their lives. It accompanied the advocacy and the campaigning by other organisations that are necessary to stop damaging projects, for stopping what damages society and environment is a necessary accompaniment of creating the elements of the future we want to see.

Perhaps David’s book will explore these waves of environmental thought and action further.

Repair, a necessary component of retroburbia.

The farm, and basic human needs

David Holmgren writes: “ …the claim that the 3% of the population employed in agriculture supply all the food for the rest is a misleading interpretation of the food supply system.”

“In the 30 years to 2011 the number of farmers in Australia declined by 40 percent”… ABC Radio National 

It would be good to learn David’s reasoning on why this figure is misleading. I suspect it ignores the volume of domestic food production identified in the 1991 census.

It is a common figure widely quoted by both economists and fair food advocates and is linked to farm productivity coming through farm mechanisation (and soon automation) and large-scale monocropping. Soon, the farm robots in development in Australia (and here) could eventually see that three percent reduced further.

Retroburbia, a move to retrofit suburbia so that it provides Abrahaham Maslow’s basic human needs of food, clean water, shelter, climate-appropriate clothing and personal security, would necessarily entail a scaling-up of urban food production in home and community gardens as well as commercial scale market gardens, orchards and poultry farms. In an energy or livelihood descent future, commercial farming could require the use of monetary or non-monetary exchange to obtain the food and to provide an economically viable livelihood for farmers.

Scaling-up food production in the inner suburbs would have less potential than repurposing suburban backyards and urban open space for food production because of the limited availability of open space and shading. This is where economic initiatives like the hybrid community supported agriculture enterprises we already find in our cities, food co-operatives and small businesses find their place. It is here, in the inner suburbs, where we find sufficient density of population to support those specialist services.

Whether inner or outer suburbs, the conversion of public open space for food production needs to consider the other, equally valid roles for open space such as active and passive recreation, mental health and revegetation for environmental services.

The non-monetary economy

David Holmgren: “The household and community non-monetary economies also boom as they have done whenever the monetary economies are no longer lubricated by credit.”

We see the truth of David’s assertion about non-monetary economics booming in the present economic crisis in Greece and Spain, where LETS-like, cashless trading systems were started at the community level as employment and the cash and credit supply dried up. We also see government interest from time to time, such as the government of Western Australia that some years ago producing a LETS manual, and more recently the stimulation of a Time Dollar model in NSW.

It is these methods of exchange that would underpin a retrofit of suburbia. They can be improved while they are at the small scale so that, should circumstances such as livelihood/energy descent eventuate, they can be scaled-up and replicated.

Fabric for clothing being grown in a liquid solution in the makers lab at the Brisbane library. How would retroburbia make use of scientific and lab-based solutions to produce our needs?

About the name

As I write it occurs to me that the name of David’s book, Retroburbia, may not be the most appropriate. That is because it could be taken to suggest a return to past models of the suburbs when David is suggesting retro as ‘retrofitting’ suburbia.

What is needed is less a retroburbia and more a neoburbia (neoburbia: new suburbia), a repurposed suburbia. A suburbia that offers new life opportunities amid the impacts of a changing climate, of energy and livelihood descent. To do this it will need to draw less on the past and more on the present, particularly online communications systems and the reinvention of cooperative models of working, producing, organising and consuming.

It might take another look at Fritz Schumacher’s Buddhist economics and the appropriate technology of his influential sixties book, Small is Beautiful — Economics As If People Mattered. That could be reinvented to include digital technologies and technologies with potential for decentralised and small scale production like CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) technology such as additive manufacturing (3D printing), laser cutting and so on. There would be far more to a neo-or-retro-burbia than growing vegetables and living in multigenerational houses.

The improvement of existing co-operative models like housing co-ops, worker co-ops, community growing co-ops, food co-ops, consumer co-ops, energy co-ops (and here) and community land trusts for affordable urban housing and to retain land for farming would be part of any retroburbia model that includes an element of social and environmental justice. Their products might be in-part exchanged through community currency, perhaps operating within a blockchain software environment, or any of the community exchange systems we already have, scaled-up.

A neoburbia would also need to operate at the psychological level. The tired and expired model of hairshirt simple living would be better replaced by the ‘frugal hedonism’ of Adam Grubb and  Annie Raser-Rowland’s book of the same name. The book outlines how to enjoy a life of decluttered ‘enough’ rather than some quasi-Buddhist make-do and do-without lifestyle.

These things I see as being less about a retroburbia and more about a neoburbia.


Feature photo shows Kim Rose.






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