Permaculture: A Quiet Revolution
— An Interview with Bill Mollison
By Scott London
Bill Mollison calls himself a field biologist and itinerant teacher. But it would be more accurate to describe him as an instigator. When he published Permaculture One in 1978, he launched an international land-use movement many regard as subversive, even revolutionary.
Permaculture — from permanent and agriculture — is an integrated design philosophy that encompasses gardening, architecture, horticulture, ecology, even money management and community design. The basic approach is to create sustainable systems that provide for their own needs and recycle their waste.
Mollison developed permaculture after spending decades in the rainforests and deserts of Australia studying ecosystems. He observed that plants naturally group themselves in mutually beneficial communities. He used this idea to develop a different approach to agriculture and community design, one that seeks to place the right elements together so they sustain and support each other.
Today his ideas have spread and taken root in almost every country on the globe. Permaculture is now being practiced in the rainforests of South America, in the Kalahari desert, in the arctic north of Scandinavia, and in communities all over North America. In New Mexico, for example, farmers have used permaculture to transform hard-packed dirt lots into lush gardens and tree orchards without using any heavy machinery. In Davis, California, one community uses bath and laundry water to flush toilets and irrigate gardens. In Toronto, a team of architects has created a design for an urban infill house that doesn't tap into city water or sewage infrastructure and that costs only a few hundred dollars a year to operate.
While Mollison is still unknown to most Americans, he is a national icon down under. He has been named Australia’s "Man of the Year" and in 1981 he received the prestigious Right Livelihood Award, also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize, for his work developing and promoting permaculture.
I sat down with him to discuss his innovative design philosophy. We met over the course of two afternoons in Santa Barbara in conjunction with an intensive two-week course he teaches each year in Ojai. A short, round man with a white beard and a big smile, he is one of the most affable and good-natured people I’ve met. An inveterate raconteur, he seems to have a story — or a bad joke — for every occasion. His comments are often rounded out by a hearty and infectious laugh.
Scott London: A reviewer once described your teachings as "seditious."
Bill Mollison: Yes, it was very perceptive. I teach self-reliance, the world's most subversive practice. I teach people how to grow their own food, which is shockingly subversive. So, yes, it’s seditious. But it’s peaceful sedition.
London: When did you begin teaching permaculture?
Mollison: In the early 1970s, it dawned on me that no one had ever applied design to agriculture. When I realized it, the hairs went up on the back of my neck. It was so strange. We’d had agriculture for 7,000 years, and we’d been losing for 7,000 years everything was turning into desert. So I wondered, can we build systems that obey ecological principles? We know what they are, we just never apply them. Ecologists never apply good ecology to their gardens. Architects never understand the transmission of heat in buildings. And physicists live in houses with demented energy systems. It’s curious that we never apply what we know to how we actually live.
London: It tells us something about our current environmental problems.
Mollison: It does. I remember the Club of Rome report in 1967 which said that the deterioration of the environment was inevitable due to population growth and overconsumption of resources. After reading that, I thought, "People are so stupid and so destructive we can do nothing for them." So I withdrew from society. I thought I would leave and just sit on a hill and watch it collapse.
The ethics are simple: care of the earth, care of people, and reinvestment in those ends.
It took me about three weeks before I realized that I had to get back and fight. [Laughs] You know, you have to get out in order to want to get back in.
London: Is that when the idea of permaculture was born?
Mollison: It actually goes back to 1959. I was in the Tasmanian rain forest studying the interaction between browsing marsupials and forest regeneration. We weren’t having a lot of success regenerating forests with a big marsupial population. So I created a simple system with 23 woody plant species, of which only four were dominant, and only two real browsing marsupials. It was a very flexible system based on the interactions of components, not types of species. It occurred to me one evening that we could build systems that worked better than that one.
That was a remarkable revelation. Ever so often in your life perhaps once a decade you have a revelation. If you are an aborigine, that defines your age. You only have a revelation once every age, no matter what your chronological age. If you’re lucky, you have three good revelations in a lifetime.
Because I was an educator, I realized that if I didn’t teach it, it wouldn’t go anywhere. So I started to develop design instructions based on passive knowledge and I wrote a book about it called Permaculture One. To my horror, everybody was interested in it. [Laughs] I got thousands of letters saying, "You’ve articulated something that I’ve had in my mind for years," and "You’ve put something into my hands which I can use."
London: Permaculture is based on scientific principles and research. But it seems to me that it also draws on traditional and indigenous folk wisdom.
Mollison: Well, if I go to an old Greek lady sitting in a vineyard and ask, "Why have you planted roses among your grapes?" she will say to me, "Because the rose is the doctor of the grape. If you don’t plant roses, the grapes get ill." That doesn’t do me a lot of good. But if I can find out that the rose exudes a certain root chemical that is taken up by the grape root which in turn repels the white fly (which is the scientific way of saying the same thing), then I have something very useful.
Traditional knowledge is always of that nature. I know a Filipino man who always plants a chili and four beans in the same hole as the banana root. I asked him, "Why do you plant a chili with the banana?" And he said, "Don’t you know that you must always plant these things together." Well, I worked out that the beans fix the nitrogen and the chili prevents beetles from attacking the banana root. And that works very well.
London: You have introduced permaculture in places that still rely on traditional farming practices. Have they been receptive to your ideas?
Mollison: I have a terribly tricky way of approaching indigenous tribal people. For example, I’ll go to the Central Desert, where everyone is half-starved, and say, "I wonder if I can help you." And I’ll lie and say, "I don’t know how to do this?" And they say, "Oh, come on, we’ll make it work." By the time it’s done, they have done it themselves.
I remember going back to a school we started in Zimbabwe. It’s green and surrounded by food. The temperature in the classroom is controlled. I asked them, "Who did this?" They said, "We did!" When people do it for themselves, they are proud of it.
London: For some people particularly indigenous tribes the notion that you can grow your own food is revolutionary.
Mollison: When you grow up in a world where you have a very minor effect on the land, you don’t think of creating resources for yourself. What falls on the ground you eat. And your numbers are governed by what falls on the ground. Permaculture allows you to think differently because you can grow everything that you need very easily.
For example, the bushmen of the Kalahari have a native bean called the morama bean. It is a perennial that grows underground and spreads out when it rains. They used to go out and collect it. But after they were pushed off their lands to make room for game and natural parks the morama bean was hard to find. I asked them, "Why don’t you plant them here?" They said, "Do you think we could?" So we planted the bean in their gardens. Up to that point, they never actually thought of planting something. It stunned them that they could actually do that.
The same thing happened with the mongongo tree which grows on the top of sand dunes. They had never actually moved the tree from one dune to another. But I went and cut a branch off the mother tree and stuck it in the sand. The thing started to sprout leaves and produce mongongo nuts. Now they grow the trees wherever they want.
London: You once described modern technological agriculture as a form of "witchcraft."
Mollison: Well, it is a sort of witchcraft. Today we have more soil scientists than at any other time in history. If you plot the rise of soil scientists against the loss of soil, you see that the more of them you have, the more soil you lose.
I remember seeing soldiers returning from the War in 1947. They had these little steel canisters with a snap-off top. When they snapped the tops off, they sprayed DDT all over the room so you never saw any more flies or mosquitoes or cats. [Laughs] After the war, they started to use those chemicals in agriculture. The gases used by the Nazis were now developed for agriculture. Tanks were made into plows. Part of the reason for the huge surge in artificial fertilizer was that the industry was geared up to produce nitrates for explosives. Then they suddenly discovered you could put it on your crops and get great results.
London: So the green revolution was a kind of war against the land, in a manner of speaking.
Mollison: That’s right. Governments still support this kind of agriculture to the tune of about $40 billion each year. None of that goes to supporting alternative systems like organic or soil-creating agriculture. Even China is adopting modern chemical agriculture now.
London: I remember the late economist Robert Theobald saying to me that if China decides to go the way of the West, the environmental ballgame is over.
Mollison: I overheard two "Eurocrats" in Vienna talking about the environment. One said, "How long do you think we’ve got?" The other said, "Ten years." And the first one said, "You’re an optimist." So I said to them, "If China begins to develop motor vehicles, we’ve got two years."
London: What kind of overconsumption bothers you the most?
Mollison: I hate lawns. Subconsciously I think we all hate them because we’re their slaves. Imagine the millions of people who get on their lawn-mowers and ride around in circles every Saturday and Sunday.
They have all these new subdivisions in Australia which are between one and five acres. You see people coming home from work on Friday, getting on their little ride-on mowers, and mowing all weekend. On Monday morning you can drive through these areas and see all these mowers halfway across the five acres, waiting for the next Friday. Like idiots, we spend all our spare time driving these crazy machines, cutting grass which is only going to grow back again next week.
London: Permaculture teaches us how to use the minimum amount of energy needed to get a job done.
Mollison: That’s right. Every house should be over-producing its energy and selling to the grid. We have built entire villages that do that — where one or two buildings hold the solar panels for all sixty homes and sell the surplus to the grid. In seven years, you can pay off all your expenses and run free. They use this same idea in Denmark. Every village there has a windmill that can fuel up to 800 homes.
London: The same principle probably applies to human energy as well. I noticed that you discourage digging in gardens because it requires energy that can be better used for other things.
Mollison: Well, some people like digging. It’s a bit like having an exercise bike in your bedroom. But I prefer to leave it to the worms. They do a great job. I’ve created fantastic soil just from mulching.
London: Does permaculture apply to those of us who live in cities?
Mollison: Yes, there is a whole section in the manual about urban permaculture. When I first went to New York, I helped start a little herb-farm in the South Bronx. The land was very cheap there because there was no power, no water, no police, and there were tons of drugs. This little farm grew to supply eight percent of New York’s herbs. There are now 1,100 city farms in New York.
London: Short of starting a farm, what can we do to make our cities more sustainable?
Mollison: Catch the water off your roof. Grow your own food. Make your own energy. It’s insanely easy to do all that. It takes you less time to grow your food than to walk down to the supermarket to buy it. Ask any good organic gardener who mulches how much time he spends on his garden and he’ll say, "Oh, a few minutes every week." By the time you have taken your car and driven to the supermarket, taken your foraging-trolley and collected your wild greens, and driven back home again, you’ve spent a good hour or two plus you’ve spent a lot of money.
London: Even though permaculture is based on scientific principles, it seems to have a very strong philosophical or ethical dimension.
Mollison: There is an ethical dimension because I think science without ethics is sociopathology. To say, "I’ll apply what I know regardless of the outcome" is to take absolutely no responsibility for your actions. I don’t want to be associated with that sort of science.
London: What do you think you’ve started?
Mollison: Well, it’s a revolution. But it’s the sort of revolution that no one will notice. It might get a little shadier. Buildings might function better. You might have less money to earn because your food is all around you and you don’t have any energy costs. Giant amounts of money might be freed up in society so that we can provide for ourselves better.
So it’s a revolution. But permaculture is anti-political. There is no room for politicians or administrators or priests. And there are no laws either. The only ethics we obey are: care of the earth, care of people, and reinvestment in those ends.
This interview was adapted from the public radio series "Insight & Outlook." It appeared in the Summer 2005 issue of Green Living magazine. It's also available in a Chinese translation by Huck Lin.