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Brock Dolman - Founder of Occidental Arts and Ecology Center - full interview


Brock Dolman - Co-Founder of
Occidental Arts & Ecology Center

Interview by Marc Polonsky

Interview by Marc Polonsky

In 1987, Brock Dolman, then a young biologist, was in Nicaragua near the Honduran border, on a construction brigade helping to build houses and a school for the Sandinistas in the thick of the US-sponsored Contra War. A few months later on his two–year long journey through Central and South America, Brock met the woman (Carol Nieukirk) he was to be married to for 20 years.

In the spring of 1994, a mutual friend put Brock and Carol in contact with environmental/social justice activists/artists Dave Henson, Susan McGovern, and Adam Wolpert, who were in the process of assembling a community to purchase a parcel of land in Occidental that was known for its “beautiful gardens.” On the eve of Brock’s 30th birthday in August 1994, a group of seven, including Brock and Carol, purchased the land, now famously known as the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC).

Today, OAEC provides permaculture retreats; school garden and watershed restoration workshops and trainings; plant sales; and a wide variety of social justice and eco-related programs to our Sonoma County community. They also grow acres of organic produce, nourishing all who participate in their on-site programs. Though the original group of seven owners has now grown to ten in twenty years’ time, the land-owning entity (known as Sowing Circle LLC) remains a consensus-based residential community, celebrating its second complete decade of raising families and working collaboratively to help build a just and ecologically regenerative world.

Brock now co-directs OAEC’s Permaculture Program and the WATER Institute ( He is a wildlife biologist, permaculture designer, educator, and watershed restorationist. He has been the keynote presenter at numerous sustainability conferences and has lectured internationally in Costa Rica, Ecuador, U.S. Virgin Islands, Spain, Brazil, China, Zimbabwe, DR Congo, Cuba, Haiti, Canada, and widely in the United States. Having co-taught over 75 Permaculture Design Courses since 1995 in the U.S. and internationally, Brock is widely  acknowledged as one of our country’s most experienced permaculture teachers. He has also served on the Sonoma County Fish and Wildlife Commission for over a decade.

Brock has been featured in the award-winning films The 11th Hour by Leonardo DiCaprio; The Call of Life by Species Alliance; and Permaculture: A Quiet Revolution by Vanessa Shultz.

In October 2012, he gave a TEDx talk: (  


OAEC has iconic status in Sonoma County. I’m wondering how you guys view your role in the community.

We have called West County home for the past 20 years and intend to stay for the long haul. We are members of the community, not outsiders who parachute in to help and then leave. Co-founder Susan McGovern has been a teacher at Salmon Creek (formerly Harmony) School for twenty years, and OAEC helped initiate the School Garden training there. KOWS, Occidental’s low power FM radio station, has its transmitter up in a tree on our property, and OAEC holds the FCC license for the station. We live in the Dutch Bill Creek watershed, which is adjacent to the Salmon Creek watershed. For nearly a decade, we have engaged in community-based restoration efforts, such as offering the Basins of Relations trainings and raising money for watershed divide signs, often in collaboration with other watershed groups. In the larger arena of Sonoma County, OAEC has been in the thick of non-GMO initiatives, vineyard ordinances, food policy council …  We’re invested because we live here!

Do you feel the most relevant eco-activism is local and community-based?

I think it’s both local and national. On the most personal level, it’s as local as me – my individual daily acts, how I manage what I put in my body and the waste that comes out of me. Then there’s the sphere of my home – what I do in my front and backyard, and simple practical actions like using less water, changing my irrigation, eating organic, driving less.

But we also have to play on bigger scales. Getting on the city council or water board is critical to support resiliency at the local level, and at the same time somebody’s gotta go to Sacramento too. And someone has to go to D.C. Some of us have to be public actors, whether it’s in shaping policy or educational efforts, or posting DIY documents on the Web. Regardless, everyone has a personal scale of impact. If we’re gonna get on a soapbox and tell people what they should do, we have to live it first.

What do you say to those who maintain that personal choices are barely a spit in the ocean, compared to the waste and pollution of big industry?

Well, who is industry providing for?  Individuals.  They’re providing our goods and services. If we can’t even get our individual act together, how are we going to collectively regulate the industry that, say, produces electricity? If you sleep well at night just being a profligate consumer pumping out waste disproportionate to your budget, I think that’s an unconscious and irresponsible way to live.

But it’s important to not get shrill and righteous about it, like we’re eco-perfect or we have zero footprint. But we can do the best we can to not flagrantly plunder the natural system, while we do our best to change the system.

As you’ve written and observed, most people are pretty eco-illiterate. What would be the simplest, most dumb-downed version of eco-awareness you’d want everyone to have?

Probably just to remember that each of us has a personal water footprint, which is how much water it takes on a daily basis to support our needs, whether through drinking, or bathing and showering, or knowing how much water’s embedded in the electricity we use or in the food we eat. And to realize that we have a water budget because the supply is limited.

Typically, people who live in urban areas get their water from a tap that’s fed by a big pipe – connected to a big dam/reservoir somewhere. They pay a fee for the service of having water delivered to them as well as taken away. Most often they abdicate their responsibility for it to the city council or the water board that manages it. Our society does nothing to educate people around water – where it comes from and goes. So people just assume that they don't have to figure it out. They just pursue their work or their art, while all of their resources are brought to them. They often have very little relationship to the foundational elements their survival depends on. They’re disconnected from reality, as a result of society’s disconnection from nature.

What does “balancing our water budget” look like?

Well, the amount of rain that falls in your watershed or on the land you manage is your annual income. It's the allowance you get from Gaia, and some years she’s a little stingy, and we call those drought years, and some years she’s generous. So you get an income, and you have an expense, which is how much you use, and the question is whether you’re living within your means of the natural water cycle or not.

Now we’re in the middle of a drought! It’s the third year and it’s really intense. All of a sudden there’s a sense of “Oh, my tap’s connected to that once-big body of water over there with a big plug of concrete in the middle. And it’s going down! And my water bills are going up and I’m told I can’t water my grass and now I’m upset!”

Tip O’Neill said all politics are local. Well, all water politics are local too, even though we’ve plumbed and piped and dammed and channelized water all over the state, so much so that L.A.’s water politics are local all the way up to Shasta Dam and the Sierras. But every water agency is different. Camp Meeker had a really sketchy water system based on some springs and a lake until they put a well into the Russian River at Monte Rio a few years ago. Occidental’s system was even worse – the entire water supply consisted of a little pond and the water was nasty, but now the town gets its water from the Russian River as well.

All well and good, but when I turn on my tap, I’ve never known it to not produce water. When do people really feel the water shortage?

Ben Franklin said you don’t know the worth of water till the well runs dry. Unfortunately, even though we humans pride ourselves on our frontal lobes that give us the capacity of forethought, we mostly operate from our hind brains. Behaviorally, we do not track forecasts. I mean, some people do—planners, designers; that’s what they’re hired to do. But mostly we deal with the aftermath, which means you do the math afterwards and it doesn’t add up, because your water budget’s dry and because you didn’t regulate the extraction of groundwater, and were just pumping it like you thought it was an inexhaustible resource—until it was exhausted. At some point, populations have to change their behavior in a way that’s consistent with the information that’s out there. And by the way, California is the last state in the union not to regulate groundwater.

Sonoma County is famous for its wine. I’ve heard people say that water usage in the vineyards is profligate and unsustainable. What’s your position on that?

I appreciate wine. But the extraordinary expansion of the vineyard industry in Sonoma County is way out of balance. So there’s been massive habitat destruction, habitat fragmentation, alteration of land, and drainage water that delivers sediments to streams. Some of the vineyards in lowlands are prone to frost damage, which means they use creek water for frost protection and, in some instances, have temporarily dried up the creek, resulting in the death of salmon and steelhead.   

The good news is that it’s possible to create a vineyard at appropriate scales in a landscape that is exclusively rain-fed (dry farmed), doesn’t pollute the river, and is organic as well as wildlife friendly. Vineyards don’t have to be water intensive if you choose the right root stock, plant in a good way, pattern the land to harvest water, and manage your soil and your mulch. For more information, check out The California Agricultural Water Stewardship (of which I was a founding member). Another effort I’ve been involved with is the Russian River Coho Water Resources Partnership. Our website features case studies of vineyards we’ve collaborated with that promote Coho recovery and alternative water conservation.

You often talk about “regenerative” agriculture. Why do you prefer that term to “sustainable”?

The idea of just sustaining something has a bit of a static sense to it. We want to sustain the cycles upon which life is dependent—the hydrologic cycle, the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the procreation of cancer-free humans. But we don’t want to just sustain them where they’re currently at because soils, water quality, species diversity and so on have all been on the decline. So regenerative means that we have to be involved in processes that yield both goods and services. We’re typically focused on the goods: board feet of timber, pounds of carrots, pounds of beef on the range. But can we also provide environmental services of enhancing water quality instead of degrading it, increasing biodiversity instead of diminishing it, improving social justice instead of exploiting human labor…?

Within a couple of centuries, we have desecrated the soil, brought nearly all the salmon to extinction, clear-cut the vast majority of old big trees, and siphoned off all the natural capital that nature built up over millennia. People often say “Get big government off my back!” because they feel a sense of ownership over their “private creeks.”  But water and wildlife are public trust resources. Salmon is a public trust resource. A better slogan might be “Keep your private dirt out of our public creek!” Regulating erosion control and sediment isn’t taking away your private right; it’s protecting our common resource. We live in the “United” States, after all!

I guess private vs. public rights can be a thorny issue.

Oh yeah. People are obsessed with their property rights, but they miss the fact that they also have property responsibilities. We all have “birthrights,” but what about birth responsibilities? Our society has this rights fixation. Our Constitution has a Bill of Rights, but no Bill of Responsibilities. So where are they? In a sense, the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act are part of the Bill of Responsibilities.

You coined the term “basins of relations.” Where did that come from?

I’m an endangered species vertebrate biologist, and it became clear to me that in order to support diversity of life, the local water cycle has to be intact, both in quality and quantity. Unfortunately, most human land uses—urban, rural, suburban—derange the hydrologic function, destroy water quality, and decrease the carrying capacity for life. I think it’s important for designers to think like a watershed, from the ridge line to the river mouth, from summit to sea. Within this container called a watershed, or basin, we have a feedback loop, and we have to rethink land use within this system. If you look at extinction rates and groundwater pollution, it’s obvious we’re not doing a very good job. So “basin of relations” – this idea of all the relationships you share in your watershed – is an organizing concept, a way for humans to view their community through a topographical framework.

And it rhymes too, which is an added bonus. I’m interested in memes that stick. Like, with water, “slow it, spread it, sink it.”

As opposed to “pave it, pipe it, pollute it”?

Right. Those alliterations are sticky, and hopefully so are rhymes. Hopefully “basin of relations” is a sticky meme for thinking of ourselves as a watershed and organizing accordingly. Honoring the relations we share within our basins.

Do you have much hope for the future of the planet?

The planet doesn’t need saving. Gaia is fine. It’s gonna change, and there will be fewer species. I don’t think homo sapiens are going away, but we are definitely on a track to have a set of conditions on this planet that will support fewer humans. The only thing up for grabs is the slope of that curve.  An astute society would set limits on consumption and population to make it less steep. 

What often sets the limit on the carrying capacity for life in a system is the accumulation of waste/pollution and an organism’s inability to thrive amidst its own waste byproducts. It is often observed that in a petri dish, before the food runs out, the waste product of the culture starts fouling the petri dish and limiting the ability for that colony of bacteria to keep producing. So their own waste product kills them off before their food runs out, and that’s exactly what climate change is doing to us on the Planetary Petri Dish. It is estimated that in North America we probably have three to four hundred years’ worth of oil and coal and gas if we strip out all of the tar sands and remove the mountaintops and frack everything. But we don’t have four hundred years of atmosphere to sequester the CO2. We don’t have four hundred years of ocean to sequester CO2 without turning the oceans into an acid bath. They’re already 30% more acidic now than they were at the start of the industrial revolution and planetary temperatures are steadily increasing. I think people have to reckon with the fact that we actually need to go cold turkey on fossil fuels. I’m not saying I think that’s even possible; I’m just saying that in the absence of that, dire consequences are inevitable.

Do you believe in the Gaia hypothesis, that the earth is a single living sentient organism?

Yup. When James Lovelock first put that book out in the early 80s, it rang pretty true to my sense of things. Another synonym for Gaia should be Planet Water. This isn’t planet Earth. The planet is covered by 70% water. As far as we can tell, in the known universe, life occurs only here. And that’s because this is Planet Water. Life is endemic to Planet Water – no water, no life. So we have to re-design all human settlement patterns to be conducive to the continuity of life.

Marc Polonsky is a freelance writer/editor: