(for Voice Magazine Issue 13 (Canberra 2005))
Tim Metcalf interviews Roger Bunyan and John Champagne on sustainability and permaculture in theory and practice. (Text 1248 words)
What is the definition of sustainability?
RB: Sustainability is achieved when about 90% of the goods we consume come from no more than 20 km away; about as far as one can walk in a day.
What proof do we have that we need sustainability?
RB: More than we need. It is a given that without directing our minds to sustainability we face multi-faceted global disaster. We will not be able to guarantee the health or safety of the next generation.
How long do you think it will take the government to take sufficient action?
RB: We should talk not to the peak of the pyramid, but to its base. Waiting for the government helps no-one. Individuals must take action: there is no point trying to change bureaucracy.
RB: Power stations and desalination plants have huge hidden costs, typically twice their construction cost, involved in bringing the product to the consumer. A billion dollar coal-fired plant will require 2 billion dollars for wiring. Instead we could stop using stand-by power in domestic appliances, and limit the use of air-conditioning.
JC: Desalination plants could water hydroponic genetically-modified food plants in huge sheds, but aside from the questions of energy consumption and genetic manipulation, there is a far greater psychological loss: that of our wholistic, hands-on relationship to the environment.
RB: Our essential need is for cultural, not technological change. Energy and water efficiency, for examples, are easily achieved by modest changes in awareness and lifestyle.
This is the rationale of permaculture?
Can permaculture save us?
You see a role for Information Technology in a sustainable world?
RB: Yes. A good example of this is the present installation of broadband. This will finally realise one long-awaited application of the office computer: desktop to desktop live video conferencing, saving enormous amounts of time and energy for the business world, and reducing such highly wasteful practices as flying business people around the world.
But how can we nurture highly trained specialists and build sophisticated machines like computers if we are busy in the vegetable patch? And is it not impossible for a person to be truly self-sufficient?
JC: The permaculture concept prefers that of communal sustainability. Even ancient societies had specialised members who did no agricultural or construction work.
Sustainability sounds expensive, because it requires the creation of a whole new range of computers, solar panels, electric bicycles?
RB: Energy efficient design of human spaces is much cheaper in the long run. Presently we are using more and more energy to correct the consequences of using more and more energy. This however is but a detail in the whole picture of sustainability. The main thing we need is cultural change, and that is free.
How many people actually practice permaculture in Australia?
JC: That is hard to say. Tens of thousands have attended courses, and most go home and implement some of the necessary changes. I teach people to do something more towards true sustainability each year, and I enjoy seeing how students transfer their knowledge to action.
What is being done locally to create a sustainable community?
JC: One project I am involved with is the Eco-Village on the Bega river. We are now awaiting DA approval for our design that incorporates 21 residential blocks, a community building, and an agriculture/forestry zone, all on 35 acres within easy walking distance to town.
Where do you think the resistance to Permaculture comes from?
Perhaps permaculture is seen as too far on the political left?
JC: The concept of self-empowered communities as a political theory probably takes root easily in socialist societies. The best example is Cuba after the fall of the Berlin wall. In response to the consequent loss of trade with the communist block there was a top-down implementation of self-reliant food programs, in which permaculturalists assisted in trialing roof-top chook gardens in Havana, and researching tropical climate wheat production.
Where permaculture is desperately needed it is popular, as in many UN development programs. Its ethical base also appeals strongly to very diverse groups, for example Quakers and some Baptist congregations, and Atheists who see it as scientific common sense.
In contrast to the developing world, there has been very little progress in the US.
JC: The West must get away from blind consumerism, and the absurdity of continuous growth promoted by a so-called rationalist money market. We need negative growth, but no capitalist government will institute this.
RB: I suspect an absolute disaster, one that empties the supermarkets, will be required to change our behaviour.
JC: Humans are amazing in their ability to adapt and respond. We will see that disaster, whether it is sudden or gradual, but at least some of us will survive it, hopefully the wiser.
RB: We are in gradual disaster now. For example, our farming practices having been wasting our topsoil at the rate of 1% per annum, there are now 55,000 internal drought refugees moving per annum from the west to the east of the Great Dividing Range.
Further Reading: Holmgren, D (2002) Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, Holmgren Design Services
Roger Bunyan, who was an energy efficiency consultant and has turned web consultant; and
John Champagne, who moved from landscape gardening in Melbourne to live and teach permaculture.
(Editorial note: JC insists permaculture be not capitalised).