“RetroSuburbia” – book review


“Retrosuburbia – the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future” by David Holmgren

This is the best utopian description of a sustainable future that I have ever read. It is compelling and realistic and beautiful. David Holmgren generously shares his experiences from forty years of local livelihood and community reliance at Melliodora in Australia, about what has worked well for him and his family. The book also includes case studies of a dozen families who have also chosen this way of life. It is possible to live sustainably already today, as a counter-culture low-consumption rebellion.

It is a massive book (600 pages) with plentiful illustrations, drawings and photos to complement the prose. It is divided into three main sections: Biological field, Built environment and Behaviour, since these are the main domains of life where the current dominant culture needs retrofitting.

Example: tips on where to plant trees, depending on your local climate.

The main premise of the book is that it is possible and enjoyable to live sustainably today, even in a high-cost country like Australia. It shows that it is possible to recreate small villages out of suburban landscapes. Holmgren stresses that the best resilience comes from collaboration, not isolation. It is not a book about self-sufficient, wilderness living, but a book about working with neighbours and supporting each other.

Holmgren makes a compelling case for taking back control over the household economy. Wherever we can avoid buying a product or service on the open market, we could achieve more freedom and resilience by doing it ourselves or asking for help form our neighbours. The less money we need, the less we need to work in the money-economy and the more time we can spend with our family in valuable activities.

The chapters range from practical, hands-on tips on how to understand the soil in your place and where to plant trees, to strategic and value-based subjects like conflict resolution, decision making and ownership arrangements.

There is an accompanying website www.RetroSuburbia.com, with more info and videos. I very much like the video case studies of fifteen families who live like this already now.

My main take-aways of the book were:

  • The excellent case studies of people who already live the good life in voluntary simplicity. It is in that sense a modern version of Helen and Scott Nearing’s “The Good Life”.
  • I got very inspired to improve my carpentry skills, to be able to retrofit our next house with better insulation, rainwater capture and a composting toilet.
  • The community aspect of this resilience solution resonates with me, and the re-use of existing buildings and roads instead of building a new “eco-village” in a wilderness area. There are already enough buildings, and it is better to re-use and retrofit than to build new houses.

Holmgren chose to write this book with a very explicit Australian focus. Therefore, some details are not applicable to other locations. (Where I live, there are almost never bushfires, and the sun is going through the south, not the north.) However, I think that most of the chapters in the book are very relevant for anybody living in a high- or middle-income country.

Let’s downshift together and enjoy a resilient future.