RetroSuburbia: resilience to pandemics and other threats

COVID-19, an invisible agent that barely qualifies as a lifeform, is bringing to a grinding halt the most powerful civilization the world has ever seen.

In three months COVID19 may have led to 10 to 20 times greater reduction in greenhouse gas emissions than science, technology, and public policy have collectively achieved in over three decades.

The pandemic provides a unique opportunity to leverage positive changes that decades of sustainability discourse have failed to achieve. While the many opportunities for change at the public policy level may have to wait until the current crisis subsides, the bottom-up household and community level changes need to be enacted now. These changes will benefit people as they grapple with how they protect their physical and mental health, kick-start their household economy and build resilience to ongoing change.

A home-based lifestyle of self-reliance, and minimal and slow travel does not provide protection against getting a virus as infectious as COVID-19, but it can provide a base that is stimulating and healthy, rather than a place of detention. Behaviours such as self-provision, buying in bulk and minimal travel not only reduce ecological footprints and stimulate household and community economies, they also “flatten the curve” of infection, thus giving the health system the best chance of responding to those in need and reducing the numbers of people desperately dependent on government aid and assistance.

The psychological health-giving property of these behaviours may be more important in these times than the actual level of self-sufficiency achieved in the household economy. A veggie garden, chooks and fruit trees supplying a larder of home preserves and bulk-purchased food gives a sense of security lacking for most people dependent on 24/7 supermarkets crowded with scared shoppers. A vibrant and busy household economy, where young and old can contribute, provides focus and meaning rather than boredom and pent up frustrations. An ability to connect with nature, animals and neighbours provides balance to the 24/7 news cycle and social media.

Over 40 years ago, Bill Mollison and I developed permaculture. The publication of Limits to Growth (1972) and the economic hiccups of the 1970s energy crises ensured a national and global interest.

In the subsequent decades, the neo-liberal revolution introduced a host of “reforms” that exposed national economies to global competition, got rid of critical storages (at all scales from national stockpiles to household cupboards), and used debt to drive up consumption, real estate and share prices to outrageous levels. It promised every convenience and control of nature’s vicissitudes – for the global middle and upper classes at least. The resource and pollution limits to growth were treated as new opportunities that the market would solve.

After the turn of the millennium, symptoms of the limits to growth crisis began to intensify, most notably in the early stages of the climate emergency, but also in the peaking of conventional oil, the war on terror, novel diseases and bubble economics.

After the Global Financial Crisis, the $24 trillion dollars created by central banks generated the ‘everything bubble’. It also funded destructive resource extraction, such as the shale oil boom and unconventional gas fracking, renewing faith that technology could always triumph over scarcity. While the accelerating climate emergency highlights the madness of such follies, the same faith in technology has seen renewable technology evangelists spruik a seamless transition to 100% renewables without any challenge or change to hypermobility and convenience for all. While this pandemic will pass, or just become a recurring part of the disease burden of humanity, the arcane magic of central banks is unlikely to work so well to revive consumer capitalism after this crisis.

Keynesian printing of money is back in full force in the face of massive market failure to deal with pandemic risk. However the emerging “energy descent” context that I articulated nearly two decades ago is very different from the energy ascent heyday of Keynesian economics in the mid-20th century. If there is a role for money printing it should be to create a Universal Basic Income to allow everyone to survive the crisis while flattening the curve of impact on the whole society. The Morrison government’s massive stimulus might be an opportunity for people to restart the economy by choosing what they want to support, rather than the government assuming that a consumer economy dominated by corporations is what Australians need.

While public policies might help or hinder the bottom-up rebuild of household and community self- and collective-reliance, the speed of the global pandemic’s impact is jolting people into action faster than the collapse of faith in endlessly rising house and share prices, superannuation payments and “fiat” currencies based on money printing. Being home, off work and school, brings people face to face with opportunities to kickstart or revive their household economy.

Nearly two decades ago I began to shift my strategic focus to articulating opportunities for in-situ adaption and retrofitting of households in suburban and regional areas of Australia. This culminated in the publication of our bestselling (11,000 copies sold) manual RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future in February 2018. RetroSuburbia promotes creative retrofits to the built, biological and, most importantly, behavioural fields that make up our household non-monetary economies.

As a response to the current crisis, we have decided to release RetroSuburbia as an online book. As a further sign of how strongly we feel the need to spread the message widely while people are searching for solutions, we have made the decision to release it on a “pay what you feel” basis. We trust this will help kickstart the change we need in the world: re-localised communities, stronger neighbourhood connections, and resilient, capable households. Further, we hope that this will enable us to power up our support for the diverse permaculture and kindred networks replicating, retrofitting and repurposing the most creative bottom-up responses to the limits to growth dilemma.

RetroSuburbia articulates the potential for responding to the COVID-19 crisis with creative in-situ adaption, growing and diversifying our household and neighbourhood non-monetary economies. In turn, this will lead to increased wellbeing and resilience, and reduced hypermobility and overconsumption – and give us a critical tool in the urgent task of decarbonising our economy. For many suburbanites, RetroSuburbia is a lived reality. Researchers and policy makers must now play catch-up in understanding the larger-scale potential for this to be a major force in restructuring our political economy.


David Holmgren
MSSI Associate and Australian environmental designer, ecological educator, writer and co-originator of the permaculture concept.