Permaculture is continually expanding. It is building skills, experience, knowledge, tools, strategies and design thinking. As we learn from and collaborate with nature we get smarter. And we explore systems for a truly sustainable future that allow systems to regenerate. In this interview with Richard Telford, creator of the permaculture principles icons and leading publisher, discusses the future of permaculture.

Interest Changes but our Knowledge Keeps Expanding

Interest in permaculture waxes and wanes with the need for it. During the pandemic there was a really strong need for permaculture. Then it changed. Richard explained “I think people felt Permaculture wasn’t so relevant because the system was coming back together…or it appeared so. People felt, I guess, more secure and then the demand for permaculture.. waned.”

In fact, Permaculture has pioneered many things from compost toilet systems to the powerful Transition Town movement. What will the future bring?

Our Knowhow is growing

Richard continues “the future for Permaculture is brightest when the system is shaky. But I think for people who really want to live a life that’s rewarding. hands-on, connecting with nature and the Earth, and to community then there’s a lot that permaculture has to offer. But I don’t see that the majority of people are particularly interested in that. So, for those of the of us that are on that path it’s fairly steady. And I think we’ll see big fluctuations when the need arises” says Richard.

Resources for a Better Future

But you know we’ve been creating these amazing seed banks and developing these systems for a long time I’ve been doing it for years. There’s a valuable source of information and experience that can be shared with other people when it’s needed when it’s valued.

Give it a Go!

Richard has been a Jack/Jill of all trades. “I built this house and had no idea how to build a house. It was that whole thing about wanting something to happen. And being passionate and making it happen. Even though you don’t know how to do it. And [it’s about ] finding the right people to work with. We’ve got a couple of boys that were home-schooled most of their time when they were younger. And we found the only way they really learn is when they’re interested in something. And I think it’s the same with me. When I’m interested in building a house – I’ll build a house. I restored a car (the old Kombi). I did the fibre-glassing and mechanics and upholstery. And all those things because I wanted to make it happen. And same with creating the permaculture principles website and designing the icons. Any of these things. I was really driven by seeing a need. And I wanted to make that happen.

Stepping Into the Unknown

I feel like I can do anything that I’m really passionate about now. At least give it a really red hot go. So, I really want to encourage people to have a go. The best way to do it is to find somebody local and work with them…. I’ve got a number of different mentors around town. And I ask questions! We used to talk about empowering people helping them feel that they could give it a go. And then people are starting to say ‘oh you know they really need to get an expert for this’.

I think it’s important to be good at something that you can earn a living from. Get really good at something that other people will value. And for everything else – just have a go yourself. Because if you if you don’t have to pay someone else for doing it – often you’ll do a better job. And it’s money you don’t have to earn yourself. And you come out of it with skills and experience. Often, it’s very rewarding.” [Richard Telford]

Step into your better future. Learn more with us at PermacultureVisions.

Transition Design – Cameron Tonkinwise

Cameron Tonkinwise is a Professor of Design Studies at the University of Technology Sydney. He addresses transition to a more sustainable future. In this interview, Cameron knows design is powerful when collaborative and ongoing. He invites us to see that each permaculture site is part of a wider system. And imagineer our future.

Interview with Cameron Tonkinwise on Transition Design

Cameron says “Design is often seen as the Art and Science of creating mass-produced Goods. Which is definitely part of the problem. But the understanding of the way in which people and things relate, which is required to do that designing, is a very particular skill. And as I say, an art form that we now need to transition to more sustainable ways of being on the planet.

And in particular…between being able to shepherd natural beings into a productive relation with each other. Definitely there are things that can be learned from the natural world to develop the artificial.”

Transition via principles

“If we adopt the same kinds of principles as permaculture, then you begin to create very different humans, very different built environments and very different built environment and natural environment relations.

So, even though I spend all my time teaching designers to make artificial things, to make technological products, my primary purpose has been to make sure that that is not approached [simply] in terms of mass production efficiency and convenience. But thought about in a very relational way.

Is having the user design their own space a setback for permaculture?

Cameron answered “That’s an interesting provocation. Obviously, the history of design (outside of design) is normally thought of as strong-willed individuals working alone to come up with magical forms. That, then, are mass-produced and imposed upon the population, often through some kind of persuasive marketing etc.

Perth City Farm volunteers work station, always in anonymous design transition

Anonymous design

But, in fact, most of the objects that we rely on, and depend upon, in every everyday life are the product of what’s called Anonymous design. A lot of it is silent design by people who are not designers. And the designers who work well, work collaboratively. That collaboration is not only with other designers and others on the supply side. They are trying to convince other people to make available certain materials and techniques.

So, that’s a kind of collaboration. And not even a collaboration with the users. Definitely design now is a much more collaborative activity with the people who will [and this is a terrible way to put it] but I think it it it goes to the responsibility of a designer – who will suffer what it is that somebody else designs.

social permaculture elements
components of social permaculture design are set by the members and in constant transition

Co-Design for Transition

There’s a lot of emphasis on co-design these days and making sure that the the people who will have the lived experience of working with this thing, this environment, this communication, this platform that is created – have had input into it. So, it’s a very collaborative process in that way.

Designers are all the time collaborating with materials. The designer is trying to coax materials to hold in particular, reliable forms. Designers are crafts people. They spend a lot of time coming to understand different types of materials. Every material is alive in a way. So, even if you are alone making a garden you’re not alone. You are trying to coax and curate, or choreograph many different species, many different alive and inert so-called ‘inert’ systems to come into dynamic relation. And unfold over changing conditions of weather and season etc.

Designing at Different Scales

Design forces collaboration beyond the scale. For example, on thinking about shade trees as ways of beginning to respond to the coming climate in urban environments. If you’re going to coax a tree into maturity so it can provide some assistance with how we’re going to live in a heating Planet, you cannot do that alone. It’s not just between you and the tree. It’s also between you and the tree and the neighbours – what they’re doing you know the kind of flow of water across their property breezes, shading, being able to convince them to tolerate leaf drop [if it’s deciduous] all these kinds of things.

So, even when you garden, it is also a social interaction. It has a processes of collaborating upstream and downstream, and supply side and with with users and then with the materials themselves.”

Permaculture Principle to ‘Observe’

In Permaculture we build observation. This form awareness of those ‘non-verbal collaborators’ Cameron mentioned such as the landscape itself and the organisms. And then, when we use machines, we are aware that we are forcing the landscape and the plants to be mechanized or to respond to machinery.

Creative Transition Designers

Cameron continues: ‘the kind of person who becomes a designer is the kind of person who likes to solve problems. They like to be creative. And sometimes people criticize that. I don’t mind that. I quite like that we have some people out there who are happy to take on other people’s problems.

But one of the consequences is that is that the mentality is often “oh good! I’ve done that, I’ve done a project, I’ve fixed that that’s done, what’s next? Give me another problem.. here’s another problem I’m going to spend some time, okay, done, fixed! I made a solution it’s in the market people are using it” That’s it! “

Staying with the Challenge

Cameron goes further “Donna Haraway wrote a book recently about ‘Staying with the Trouble’. Designers do not like to stay with the trouble. They do not like to to suffer the consequences of their design. They do not like to as you say, ‘observe, observe, observe’ Not just before they make a move, but also after they make a move. And watch what happens as that thing is out there in the world.

Designers don’t tend to stay with a project they tend to have what I call ‘serial monogamy’. They do a project then, that one, now do another one, do another one. I think one of the things that designers need to learn is to recognize that the designing doesn’t stop once they’ve managed to come to a solution that a bunch of people have agreed to manufacture and sell. And then a bunch of other people have agreed to use. You need to stay with it.

We need to stop thinking about tree planting as a solution to climate change. [Instead], we need to think about trees maturing. It’s no good sticking a million trees in the ground if half of them die. You want to get a million trees beyond sapling. that should be the KPI for all these groups. And I think it’s the same thing with a designer.”

Bottle trees in Derby, Western Australia

Ongoing Design

A designer needs to not think ‘I managed to sell this product’ but to say “five to 10 years after people using this product, I will still be learning from them about what this thing could be. And I’m continuing to develop it’.

Now, this is in fact, the way digital designers have to think. A digital designer make something and literally watch the users – watching it in real time using it in real time and can make updates as we all hate. You wake up one morning and an app is a completely different configuration because some designer is staying with the trouble.

But product designers don’t do that. Fashion designers don’t do that. Even architect, spatial designers don’t tend to do that. Very few Architects, other than wanting to preserve their design exactly as is, are prepared to come back and help it modify and learn. As Stuart Brand once said, in his book ‘How Buildings Learn’ They don’t stay with their [design].

So, I think this idea that you are observing in order to see the processes unfold over time, to work out how you can then design with that flow – that is something that designers really need to learn. Most people think of design as having a frustratingly short time frame – that it it tends to be ‘what is the problem? rush to market, problem done and then don’t think about the disposal of that product in one year or 10 years. And it’s very rare for anybody to explicitly design anything deliberately to last more than a decade.

Shell etchings by patients at the old Derby Leprosarium

How do you design something to make sure it lasts a decade?

You can’t just do that by ruggedizing it and making it into a great big military thing. Because nobody’s going to use it. If I told you to make a coffee cup that’s going to be used every single day for possibly a 100 years, you can’t just make it this great big military beast. It has to be beautiful to use. That’s how you get people to use it. That means you have to design something that people are going to care for and hold. So the solution to this problem is something incredibly delicate. [That’s] the complete opposite. Something that really requires a whole system of care.

Long-Term Thinking

Transition design works on culture change. But also change over time. So, it’s not just one thing does the change. The designed changes “begin to connect up and over time. The culture shifts”. It has the potential to evolving from an “inherited, toxic ecosystem into something that could be more the basis of permaculture. It’s a series of interventions. It’s not like you can just go in one summer and there it’s all fixed from now on it’s ‘Perma’,

Design for long-term change via multiple interventional acts over decades .

Cameron Tonkinwise

Evolution of Positive Interventions

In Permaculture, we design and work for positive interventions in the landscape and in the community. To create a truly sustainable culture that the future generations would be more comfortable,

Cameron adds “I think this tension between sustainability is a permanent state and a sort of more meta understanding that sustainability. [It] is a set of relations that will be dynamic in their manifestation at [the] everyday level. That they are permanent at a meta level.

But, the actual experience is of continuing change. Sustainability is more about something being able to change so that all the entities in that system have some autonomy about the direction of change. Rather than this idea that that ‘we are suffering change’ and that we either ‘respond or die’…. ‘You just have to go with the markets – change!’…or…’You can’t predict the future!’… ‘be flexible be adaptable – you have to suffer change’… ‘change is inevitable!’ these are slogans in workplaces.

Sustainability Seeks Positive Interventions

It’s not that sustainability wants no change. It just wants versions of change that suggest ‘I can participate, make some decision, contribute to’. It’s a collective decision making or I have some autonomy with regard to how the change happens. And sustainability is the meta-framework that allows that ongoing change. Rather than being slammed by some catastrophic change which will destroy the ecosystem or a whole species or or life on a planet.”

Termite mounds at Litchfield National Park NT

Flexible, Organic, Permanence

Cameron Tonkinwise illustrates “Transition design is trying to empower people to have a vision for the future. [It’s] trying to make it again fashionable, or at least tolerable to fantasize that things could be better. And you’re allowed to,for as long as you can, convince other people ‘it would be better if we live that way’. Because that’s exactly what we’re told you can’t do right now, like ‘you can’t predict the future who knows could be fantastic could be terrible, just hang in there’. Nobody’s doing this kind of imagining anymore. If they do, they don’t great resources for doing it.

We have quite a crowded space of ideas they all just look like dystopian films or, you know, Black Mirror On television or or they tend to just look like some little agrarian fantasy from 19th century Europe and so we we just don’t have good ways of imagining what John Thackara  once called social fictions rather than science fictions.”

Contestant at 2023 SWAG Sydney Wearable Art Eco-Warrior

Learn to Dream Again

In order to achieve transition, Cameron urges us “to recover the capacity to imagine. And dream. Identify the preferable. It is much more interesting to imagine that we could design something. Not because it’s problematic now. But, because we just imagine what would be preferable. We imagine that there are other things that could be more desirable. And if you have that attractor, that kind of future attractor, that you’re trying to get towards, it’s continuous change.

It’s not going to be a one-off solution that’s going to get us there. It’s not a one-off transition. And as you work with people collaboratively on that vision and how to kind of get towards it the vision itself might modify as you go it becomes… It changes over time. You don’t have a fixed thing that you’re trying to get to.

Transition design solves the problem at hand in a way that also continues system change, seeds system change, connects to something somebody else is doing somewhere else, creates a platform that could enable change to begin. So, every problem is also an opportunity for getting out of the ‘business as usual’ and finding something different.

Designers have to be system observers and instead of just seeing a problem and thinking ‘oh great I’ve got something to do for the next six months. Let’s go solve that thing’ They’re thinking, okay I’m solving that, but I’m also mindful of this other polycrisis.”

Give Yourself Skills, Peace and Joy

Give yourself a break over the new year. And develop some living skills to reduce costs and increase your wellbeing. These skills build a regenerative culture that is rich in social connections and well being.

A chicken fairy god mother
Be a green fairy god-mother.

10 Fundamental Permaculture Living Skills

  1. Live with principles
  2. Get clean energy
  3. Cut the waste
  4. Use resources well
  5. Build biodiversity
  6. Breathe cleaner air
  7. Save water
  8. Creatively Make-do
  9. Invest in Social justice
  10. Start positive

1. Apply Permaculture Principles

Apply Permaculture Principles to Everyday Life. Multiple functions for each element in the design is a key principle. “If I can’t get at least 3 reasons for having something, I’m not having it.” says Permaculture Elder Judith Collins. And then, integrate the elements, so that nothing sits alone in the system. Everything connects and contributes to the other things. For example, the bushes shade the paths. These paths are shaped to direct water. The water nurtures the garden. The garden attracts birds and insects. This give us joy. Then, we share joy and food with others.

This also applies to skills. These skills have many uses beyond the home. They can be applied in the workplace and for the good on your community.

2. Get Smarter Energy promotes electricification for better future universal energy systems

Change to better energy sources such as solar systems. Saul Griffith explains how electrifying our energy network builds better future energy systems for all.

Permaculture Elder, Judith Collins EarthKeepers, Buxton, NSW

3. Cut the Waste – Stop Buying Stuff! And Grow

Judith Collins of EarthKeepers challenges us to know where our food comes. And if you really need to buy something, check out local makers and support the markets rather than so called ‘super-markets’. And farmer Gerard Lawry at EagleRiseFarm points out “There is no co-incidence that the supermarkets present their fresh foods to look like market stalls”.

4. Use Resources Well

Now that you have decided what to waste cut, look to see what other waste materials from the home can be converted. Identify and reduce your waste by conducting a home audit.

If you don’t have much space, you can use Bokashi to convert your food scraps, if you have a balcony, then you have room for a worm farm. If you have a garden, there is room for worms, compost and chickens. Grow food in wicking pots or rain gardens.

Utilise things more by saving the seed from the foods you eat. Get creative by repurposing stuff that you can no longer use. Mend, redesign your clothes. Then when they are finally no longer useful, compost them.

5. Build biodiversity

Design your life to blend with the surrounding wildlife. Build awareness of the natural world. Stop to smell the roses or Boronia. Find the unique perfumes of native plants. Create space in your domain for wildlife.

6. Cut the Chemicals – Breathe Less Toxins

Stop polluting your home. Cut out chemicals by using low toxic cleaners. You can easily make your own cleaning fluids. In fact, vinegar and sodium bicarbonate will clean nearly everything. Another permaculture principle is to start small so you can feel successful. You can do this right now, in your home. Try sprouts, food and herbs, and making your own vinegar. For outside the home, try minimal disturbance techniques to handle weeds. Get to know how nature works and work with her.

strawberry guava

7. Save Water

Saving water is vital because clean water is a valuable resource during dry periods. Plants and animals depend on clean rain water. So do the river systems. We can contribute to the healthy rivers by building carbon in the soil, planting trees and supporting insect life. A basic start would be to create birdbaths. Next, install rain gardens. Catch and store rainwater in a tank or direct it to a pool. Something that takes a bit more research but is radical and resourceful is to install a compost toilet and an outdoor shower.

redirect path water to reduce erosion

8. Get Creative and Make-Do

There are various types of waste. And this includes having too much stuff because stuff demands requires storage and maintenance. Other forms include wasted opportunities.

Simple steps to cut waste are to seal out drafts. Mend things like leaking taps or frayed clothes. Learn to use basic tools, how to sew, tie knots and make do.

Above all, walk, cycle and use public transport. These simple steps keep us fit and reject the the fossil fuel industry. Plan to make your next car an electric car.

cockatoo dropping a macadamia nut
cockatoo enjoying a macadamia nut

9. Invest time and effort in others

Invest in a Circular economy by spending your money on products and services that are created locally. This builds social justice. Social justice is a vital part of reducing the pressures on our planet. Without social justice, we get more pollution, more harmful chemical use and more frequent environmental destruction through wars.

Be generous and kind. Fix stuff before you give it to charity. And be generous. Better still, fix things for others. Repair cafes are wonderful ways to link skilled retirees with young people in need. Better still, show a young person how to do stuff. Or help a local family that needs a hand. Have an informal meeting with neighbours and find out what your community needs and has the passion to do.

10. Start Positive, Act Now

Knowing how and where to start is a skill in itself. Stuart Hill recommends we do one thing before we go to bed that will move us closer to our goals. Starting small is one way to achieve this. He encourages us to take action by refreshing our mindset. This enables us to make bigger changes. If it requires us to lie boldly to ourselves about what we can achieve, then do it.

SPECIAL POST – Why Onion Makes Us Cry

Juliana Mitry, tells a folk tale about why the onion makes us cry. Juliana owns Balinese Spice Magic in Wollongong and hand-crafts Tempeh.

In this short video, Jules relates the Balinese story of why we cry when we cut onions and how soft and sweet it is. Juliana grew up in the Mountains in Bali, with an amazing array of homegrown food and spices.

A tale of social justice, the Balinese way.

You know why you’re always sad every time you grind onion? My mom told me it’s because onion and garlic used to be sisters. Can I tell you a story? yeah! There used to be sisters called Bawang. and Kasuna. Bawang is the onion and Kasuna is garlic. Onion is the older sister. So, she used to do all the work and Kasuno is the white sister. She’s done nothing but pamper herself. “

One day the mother went to the market so the mother said ‘Okay, you two girls, you have to do work today. If you do a good job, I’ll give you a treat. I’ll buy you some cakes and new stuff from the markets. And mum says to Onion, what do you want? and she says ‘that’s fine mummy, as long as you get home, I’m fine. and the second sister said ‘I need new clothes and I need everything new. So, the mother went.’

So, the big sister basically did everything. Starting from getting the putty out to the yard and then pounding it to get the seeds out. And then dry it in the sun and and pounding to get this just the husk off the rice. She basically done everything cleaned the house and then went to the river [this is cutting the story short].

Garlic delays, Onion works straight away

Every time she (onion) asks a sister to help the sister says “okay! you do that part I’ll do the other part”… “you do that part I’ll do the other parts”. It is always all the same answers. So, Bawang, being such a nice girl she thinks “I’ll do it because it’s just easier than waiting for Kasuna to do it”.

“Then the mother came home and there’s still you know like a one part that of the onion left behind. It was putting the rubbish out. But then Kasuna says I’ll make sure that I do that because you’ve done everything. I haven’t done anything. I’ll do that!” So, onion agrees “okay I’ll leave you that. And she went to the river, washed the clothes and everything’s been dirty because she’s doing all the work herself.

Picking banana leaves for cooking wraps

When garlic hears her mum coming she sits herself in all this husk (the rubbish) and started crying. She was pretending that she did all the work and that the big sister never did anything. “

The sad thing was that poor onion got beaten and kicked out of the house. This is why you feel her sadness. But it a positive story because it’s has good karma, like in like most of Asian stories. The stories always support what is right. The Karma is because onion’s done good and she fell asleep under a tree, a magical bird calls her. ‘wake up, wake up little one, why are you sleeping here? Onion said ‘life took a really bad turn for me and nothing I do is right! “

learning to glaze old windows save a lot of money and provides opportunities to be creative.

The bird says ‘because you look so sad, I’ll give you a treat like you can ask for you whatever you want’. Onion says ‘I just want a home’. The bird asks her to sing for me? The bird blesses her and brings her to the grandmother.

Check out the variety of talks from the Permaculture Community on our Youtube channel.