Reading Retrosuburbia: Livelihoods of the downturn

This review is of Chapter 29, Creating Your Own Livelihood

What sort of book is David Holmgren’s Retrosuburbia? Do we read it as quasi-factual, as a book of speculative fiction or as some other literary genre?

For some with a background in the permaculture design system the book reads like a projection of existing permaculture ideas into a possible future. Not all those ideas originate within permaculture. Many have been co-opted and incorporated. That is in line with how Bill Mollison, the other inventor of permaculture, described the design system as a synthesis of ideas, knowledge and practices. But, how do those lacking a familiarity with permaculture read the work?

The difficulty of forecasting the future

David bases the retrosuburban idea on an economic decline and energy shortage that has not happened yet and, maybe, might never happen. That could be because the age of oil might come to an end thanks to it being replaced by some new energy technology rather than in a spasm of trying to cope with peak oil with its rising energy costs and shortages and the attendant economic downturn which would accompany it.

By way of a milder analogy of how change can come unexpectedly and rapidly, the paper-based systems of business and government largely came to an end thanks to the rapid development of digital technologies which gave us the computerisation of the Western world that started in the 1970s. Digitalisation was the technology which replaced paper-based systems within just a few years. Similarly, electric vehicles are anticipated to replace vehicles with internal combustion engines in the near future. Already, electrical recharge stations are appearing in cities and rural areas, laying the infrastructural support for the spread of the technology.

In thinking about Retrosuburbia it is reasonable to speculate about some new energy technology replacing oil because the book itself is speculative in its being based on energy and economic decline.

While acknowledging that economic downturns are part of the capitalist economic system, I say this about Retrosuburbia because we cannot know the future. Most literary guesses at what it might be have turned out wrong. David’s economic downturn would be a society-changing tipping point opening up a period of profound economic and social change, the consequences of which we have no idea about. It may offer little or no space for the application of retrosuburban ideas. We await the future to see whether it occurs as he writes.

Forecasting in general is right in only one respect — most predictions will be wrong…Lindsay Powell, student, Decision Making in Complexity and Uncertainty, Uni Groningen.

Events become tipping points and change history both rapidly and slowly. Were China’s occupation and weaponising of islets in the South China Sea, or the situation in the East China Sea around Taiwan to flare into armed conflict with the US, that could be a tipping point that changes our history in mere hours. Climate change is a slow tipping trend rather than a single tipping point, after which conditions will not be as they were before. David’s speculative energy decline promises a similarly slow tipping trend with potential to become a rapid tipping point when combined with a severe economic downturn or other events that Thomas Homer-Dixon, in his widely-read The Upside of Down, called the ‘synchronous failiue’ of systems.

Homer-Dixon offers a striking vision of how to confront the world of risk and uncertainty, calling for ‘resilience-enhancing’ strategies that protect food — and energy — supply networks and that can better cope with surprise…John Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs, 2007.

With economic downturn and energy shortage as its starting point, Retrosuburbia can be read as akin to a work of speculative fiction or what is known as ‘alternative history’. Both are popular literary genres used to explore ‘what if’ questions based on some imaginary event that opens a different path leading into a different history. Alternative histories ask: if this happened, how would history then unfold? David asks: if this happens, how would we best respond?

Retrosuburbia is not presented as a work of fiction. It is speculation based upon initiatives that people are already taking in response to climate change, personal and family food security, environmental degradation and community cooperation. Seen this way they may be a sign of the future in the present.

The future’s a weirder place than we thought it would be when we were little kids…Cory Doctorow, ‘For the Win’.

Responding to downturn: occupations and livelihoods

Irrespective of the type of literary genre we pigeonhole Retrosuburbia into, in this chapter David offers his thoughts about some of the occupations and opportunities he sees emerging as a retrosuburban response to economic decline and energy shortage. The chapter nicely complements others dealing with economics and the household economy.

Many of these models already exist in microcosm. They are scattered. They are financially shaky. They come and go and they are discarded and then reinvented years later. Some originate among permaculture practitioners.

Economic decline and energy shortage have been popular memes in permaculture circles for some time. I recall economics advocate, Diane Foss, making dire predictions at Australasian Permaculture Convergence 11 in Aotearoa-New Zealand, however they were apparent long before that. A difference now is that they are current outside of permaculture circles, including among people savvy about economics.

Premised on the likelihood of economic decline and energy shortage that are possibilities if not probabilities at present, David takes us into responses that people could take to develop new livelihoods.

The future in the present

Those with an eye to social change know that, here and there, we can see the future in the present. The attributes of some desired future can be seen now.

This can take the form of extremes. For those of a far-right persuasion, the quasi-authoritarian regimes of Hungary and Poland are the model for the future of social democracies. For those pursuing a future of participatory decision-making, personal freedom and social justice, the new platform co-operatives, worker co-ops, cohousing, deliberative democracy and open-source culture, and permaculture itself, are harbingers of a cooperative and collaborative future. It is within this where permaculture lies because the design system is, by its three ethics, biased towards the ideals of the social democratic system from which it emerged.

The emerging world of insecure work and income

David doesn’t specifically discuss the idea of a possible future in the present, however in writing about future livelihoods in an economically-declining and energy-scarce future he offers a list of potential areas of work. In doing this he tacitly recognises a trend already underway, including in Australia. That is the emergence of the gig economy with its casual, part-time and short-term contract work for a significant, perhaps now more than a third, of working people. That is a harbinger of the near future rapidly becoming reality in the present.

The trend is sweeping growing numbers into its expanding maw. It suits many who take up freelancing and make a go of it. But, not all are willing workers in the casualised, part-time and short-tern contract workforce. The flip side of those who succeed in this competitive environment are those who are pushed into it involuntarily as a result of downsizing, offshoring and workplace automation. The trend looks set to continue as artificial intelligence, algorithmic decision-making and automation make further inroads into working life and displace human workers. It is behind the public conversation around the idea of a Universal Basic Income or a job guarantee.

The latter would monetise much of the work presently done as voluntary labour. We already see this happening in the rise of the service economy in which people have too-little time to do those things they once did around the house or did as part of a family. That is why people now make a living in such seemingly-marginal and arcane occupations as dog walker or washer, garden maintenance and lawn mowing, food delivery, running messages for others, barista and cook in cafes that have opened to cater for the growing practice of dining out rather than cooking at home.

Many permaculture design course graduates dipped their toes into the icy waters of freelancing in permaculture’s own gig economy after completing their course. They saw teaching permaculture as a potential income stream and started to offer their own design courses. Most failed. The reason was a lack of planning and market research as well as credibility. They didn’t factor in the time and cost of accumulating teaching material and equipment. They found a competitive market and in response some set unrealistically low and unsustainable fees for their courses. Some found a mature market dominated by a handful of established educators with their own education centres and reputations. Without a track record in implementing permaculture, all they could offer was the third-person teaching of regurgitating what their teachers had taught without the insights that can only come from experience.

David accepts this future, anticipating that present economic and livelihood trends will continue. He offers no discussion of their potential impact on the practice of permaculture and livelihoods within it. That is not core to his book yet it is something that permaculture practitioners would do well to discuss.

Permaculture design course graduate, Julian Lee, is one of the people who has found success in the freelance economy as a science communicator and educator through his enterprise, the Brainchild Academy, which stimulates children’s interest in science, technology, engineering, maths and the arts. Once a small-scale market gardeners operating a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) scheme in the Hunter Valley of NSW, Julian later started Sydney Food Connect as a local iteration of the successful Brisbane Food Connect, the food hub linking city eaters to nearby rural farmers. In the photo, Julian holds one of the robotic hands that the children’s Eco Heroes Club participants made at Randwick Sustainability Hub, a local government initiative that makes use of permaculture design,

A family downshifts

The family lived in a renovated Redfern terrace. With both parents working they could afford the mortgage payments for what was once a down-market working class dwelling in what was now becoming a desirable middle class, inner urban enclave.

When one parent was made redundant and could find only casual work packaging and consigning merchandise for an international IT corporation during peak demand periods, their combined income fell below the level needed to retain their dwelling. So they sold, using some of the proceeds to invest in a two-bedroom apartment in a 1970s walk-up block in Parramatta. They still had a roof over their heads although state stamp duty on the purchase of homes meant the government took a chunk of their funds which they could have put to better use. They also had the cost of moving and of setting up their child in a new school.

Cutting expenditure was a priority. No more luxuries, though those had been few because of the need to service their mortgage. No more interstate holidays now that secure employment with its benefits, like annual leave, was gone. The family downshifted, though not voluntarily.

When the fate of the family was mentioned on social media, some who were already established and financially secure, those “hedged against the future” as David puts it in Retrosuburbia, said they could join a community garden to grow some of their food. There was a no community garden close enough where particiation would lower their weekly food expenditure, even had they the time to participate in one.

Others who were not-so-hedged joined in with suggestions, all well-intentioned. An examination of who they were disclosed they were mainly single people, childless couples or the already-voluntary-downshifted with a child or two, and working only a few days a week. Most had a home, access to garden space and lived in lower-cost rural areas.

This is a hypothetical family, however their fate is not untypical and those social media comments and the people making them are typical of what has been offered in some situations.

To voluntarily downshift in a desirable manner and invest in lower-cost property and the technology with potential to reduce costs over time, like solar hot water, photovoltaic systems and rainwater tanks, requires planning, funds and time. Involuntary downshifting, where people have limited reserve funds, affords none of these.

This is one of the reasons that downshifting, adopting a lower-cost and more personally rewarding, lower-impact lifestyle, is sometimes dismissed as a pursuit of middle-class, affluent people not caught up in a livelihood-financial squeeze with high mortgage repayments.

The gardeners

Chris was a permaculture design course graduate living with his family in a village on the far southern edge of Sydney. Steve was another permaculture graduate in the village, one of permaculture’s early adopters who did one of Bill Mollison’s early design courses.

Garden maintenance was what Chris did for a living, though few to none were the permaculture gardens requiring maintenance. It was more cutting lawn for people too busy to do it themselves. He made a reasonable living at this. Steve relied on the minimum income he derived from publishing the village’s newspaper. Seeking to earn a little more, he started a micro-nursery in the garden of the shack he and his partner rented. That was not destined to become a financial solution.

Steve’s was one of I don’t know how many ‘edible landscapes’ nurseries I have encountered over the years. The most successful I know of are the social enterprises at Northey Street City Farm in Brisbane and at CERES in Melbourne, both of which benefited from organisational support to get going.

Participants in Randwick Sustainability Hub’s Permabee volunteer crew learn to prune olive trees under the supervision of permaculture design course graduate and horticulturist, Emma Daniell. An initiative prototyping permaculture in a local government context, the Hub was the vision of permaculture educator and designer, Fiona Campbell, who served for well over a decade as council’s sustainability educator. The experience of the Hub demonstrates a training role for local government in preparing people for economic downturn and gaining skills of use in a retrosuburban future.

Maybe it was too early

Maybe it was too early. The reason I think it failed was due to there being little demand and to permaculture being largely unknown beyond those involved in it or who encountered it on the Global Gardener TV series of the 1990s.

I am talking about the turn-of-the-century, I think it was, attempt to franchise permaculture garden design and maintenance services as Jim’s Permaculture. Jim’s was a franchise business already offering Jim’s Mowing and Jim’s Antennas.

The plan was that prospective franchisees would do a permaculture design course with a well-known Victorian permaculture educator, then offer edible landscaping design and maintenances services to the public. When it was announced there was some confusion and perhaps a little reticence among permaculture practitioners at this attempt to commercialise the design system in mainstream society. They need not have bothered. The scheme soon died.

I mention these examples because garden maintenance and services is one of the livelihood potentials David says is a possibility in a retrosuburban future. I think it has potential, however I am wary of people getting carried away with the idea at a time when others might be trying to cope with economic downturn and no longer hiring services to do what they previously lacked time for.

Veteran permaculture educator and international development worker, Jill Finnane (left), talks with sustainability educator, Fiona Campbell, in the self-watering wicking garden at Randwick Sustainability Hub. Jill was a permaculture freelancer of the 1980s and 1990s who offered design and other courses in Sydney through Action for World Development. With such organisations set up as worker coopeatives, livelihoods in a retrosuburban future could be created.


You know the delivery is here when you hear the knock at the door. Open it and you are handed a box of fruit and vegetables, herbs and bread and whatever other products you ordered. In Brisbane, this weekly fresh food delivery service is called Food Connect. In Sydney it is Ooooby — Out Of Our Own Backyards.

That is not an accurate description because much of the food Ooooby and Food Connect deliver comes from small farms, orchards and market gardens on the urban fringe and nearby countryside. They link producers in the region with the city people who eat what those producers grow.

The services are akin to the community-supported agriculture (CSA) schemes, more of which have set up in recent times. CSA works best where eaters live within easy travelling distance of the farm which grows what they want.

Sometimes called food hubs, services like Food Connect and Ooooby aggregate the production of numerous farms, package subscriber orders and deliver. In big cities it has proven a viable model. Unlike CSAs which expect subscribers to share in the bounty as well as the shortfall of farm production, food hubs accept that responsibility rather than individualising it, just as any other business accepts the consequences of production shortfalls. Food hubs create jobs in packaging, delivery, accounting, marketing and administration, which CSAs do not other than for the farmer.

Providing they remain affordable, food hubs would be a business opportunity in an economic downturn, especially for people without space, time or skills to grow some of their own food. They are a solution for the denser, inner urban regions of big cities where there is little growing space. Their support for regional farmers and the creation of paid work would create opportunity in a retrosuburban future.

Caring: a viable occupation in a retrosuburban future?

Caring for an ageing population in circumstances of economic downturn, when government support might be waning, is another of the livelihood opportunities David mentions in this chapter of Retrosuburbia.

I learned about being a carer when looking after aged and ill relatives. Caring for heathy, ageing people might call for few skills other than patience, ensuring they are stimulated physically and mentally and monitoring their health. I learned it is a different story caring for people both aged and ill. That can be a psychologically draining and physically exhausting experience. The carer needs to be healthy and strong. A knowledge of first aid and psychology is very useful.

Caring for aged and ill people is really the work of trained and skilled people. It is not an appropriate livelihood for the untrained in a retrosuburban future of economic downturn and fewer resources.

Validating the advocate

It was encouraging to find advocacy among David’s retrosuburban livelihoods because advocacy, networking and working in local and state government policy is one of the ways I have enacted my own permaculture.

Working in advocacy legitimises working with politics. The two are inseparable. Politics is all-too-often eschewed in permaculture, especially mainstream party politics. When you look at the state of politics, that attitude is easy to understand. But avoidance of politics in whatever form it takes comes at a cost. The cost is that it sets people up as recipients of the initiatives of others, potentially as victims. It surrenders your power to engage and influence and is a straight road to helplessness. We have to work for the future we want to see, even when that means engaging with institutions and people we would rather avoid.

Advocacy is one of the “invisible systems”, as Bill Mollison called them. They are the non-physical work we do in permaculture, such as setting up and managing organisations, educating, negotiating, working on policy, media work and more. It is the invisible systems that make visible systems like building, gardening, farming and teaching possible.

My attitude to policy when I worked in food and landuse in local government was that it is what enables people to start socially-beneficial projects. Without a policy it remains up to individuals in government to say whether some initiative can go ahead. That can be arbitary. A policy puts intent, staff time and a budget behind initiatives that communities might start or individuals would do in their own homes.

When I put this to visiting social enterprise educator, Ernosto Sirrolli, he said I should cease thinking of my role as a government one. Instead, he said, I was a civic entrepreneur. I didn’t start projects myself, he said, I used policy, funds and support to enable others to start their community-based social enterprise.

I think that a valid role for advocates, networkers and policy writers in some future or present retrosuburban context.

Obtaining a yield

What David’s list of possible retrosuburban futures highlight is how some of the entreprenerially-minded within permaculture can try to obtain a yield on their investment in a permaculture design course.

Entrepreneurship is no stranger to permaculture. Over the years, practitioners have attempted to earn a yield, as Bill Mollison put it, from their investment of energy, time and course fees so as to create a modest living. That has been hard. Permaculture-inspired startups often met the the reality of being a good idea at the wrong time, of demand being too low and knowledge of permaculture not sufficiently widespread among the public to support them. Many were too early.

Economically, politically, technologically and ecologically, the world is a turbid place. There is much confusion and uncertainty, which suggests that the future may well have little resemblance to the present. For someone my age, that is all-too-familiar. I grew up in the age of paper, typewriters, telephones that carried only voice and that were hard-wired into a wall, and the Cold War. Now, the world is almost completely changed. That is not a lament for many of the changes have been good. I hope that if any of the challenges David foresees come about, retrosuburban ideas play a big part in whatever social transformations accompany them.

The specifics about livelihood found this chapter would be a real preoccupation in the event of severe economic downturn combined with an energy crisis or, worse, the type of synchronous failure which Thomas Homer-Dixon writes about. It is one of those topics that could be discussed by permaculture practitioners, were there some online discussion channel to facilitate it.

The Upside of Down, 2006; Thomas Homer-Dixon, Random House Canada. ISBN 978–0–676–97722–6.

For the Win; 2010, Cory Doctorow; Tor Teen USA. 978–0–7653–2216–6.

Other articles in Reading Retrosuburbia

Reading Retrosuburbia: Security in Hard Times

Reading Retrosuburbia: Financial planning and security–0/reading-retrosuburbia-financial-planning-and-security-4783ebcea587



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Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.