Naughty Man: Obituary of Bill Mollison, founder of Permaculture

13 Oct

Bill Mollison

Graham Burnett remembers a true radical and outstanding teacher

It was sad this morning to wake and hear of Mollison’s death, but what a life! What an achievement! What legacies! – James Taylor, Permaculture teacher and Chair of the Permaculture Association (Britain)

The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter – Bill Mollison

PERMACULTURE is a design philosophy that dovetails with the ethic of eliminating unnecessary work from our lives. Its core principles exhort us to use the minimum of effort for maximum effect; to reframe life’s challenges and problems as opportunities and solutions; and to always work with, rather than against, natural patterns. Permaculture also encourages us to spend more time in the garden than in the office, and to think carefully about relative placement in order to create food and energy production systems that are as self-reliant and low maintenance as possible. With this in mind I’m sure that many regular followers of the Idler will be sorry to learn of the recent passing of Bruce Charles “Bill” Mollison – storyteller, visionary and co-founder of the Permaculture concept.

Born 1928 in Stanley, Tasmania, Bill’s early life was colourful and varied; his livelihoods including running the family bakery, shark fisherman, seaman, forester, mill-worker, trapper, tractor-driver, part-time teacher and naturalist. During the 1950s he retreated “in disgust” from society, spending time living in and studying the rainforests of Tasmania for a national research organisation. Here he noted the complex interactions intrinsic to these ecosystems, gathering insights and planting the seeds of what was to become his life’s work.

Mollison returned to college studies in 1966, and upon receiving his degree in Biogeography was appointed to the University of Tasmania. Here in 1974 he met a student named David Holmgren, and together they developed and refined the beginnings of the Permaculture concept. This led to the publication of the manifesto “Permaculture One”, and the foundation of The Permaculture Institute in 1978, their ideas influencing hundreds of thousands students worldwide. Mollison quit his university post at the age of 50 in order to devote his time and energy to spreading the radical notion that we can consciously design sustainable systems which enabling human beings to live within their means and allow all wildlife to flourish with us.

As a prolific teacher, Bill travelled the world, teaching thousands of students, and contributed to many articles, curricula, reports, and recommendations for farm and urban projects and local government bodies. In 1981, he received the Right Livelihood Award (sometimes called the “Alternative Nobel Prize”) for his work in environmental design. Mollison also came to the UK in the early 80s, visiting city farms and early permaculture projects, teaching courses and endorsing the newly formed Permaculture Association of Britain. His charismatic style drew large audiences and led to a flurry of new projects and programmes.

As is often the nature of ground breaking pioneers, Bill didn’t always make himself popular. Usually this was due to his disruptive attitude towards authority and the status quo; he was forthright about the need to non-violently fight back against the stupidity of poor government policy on a global scale: “First feel fear, then get angry. Then go with your life into the fight…” Other aspects of his charismatic and often larger-than-life persona could be more problematic. Despite being inspirational and encyclopedic in scope, his magnum opus Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual is notorious for not fully crediting its sources, and, like its author, often plays fast and loose with facts and statistics (during a TV documentary Mollison once made the overly optimistic claim that “one fifth of a families annual food requirements” could be met from a few containers and pots on an average sized apartment block balcony…) He could also be abrasive and dismissive towards potential natural allies – “Western Liberals”, feminists and vegetarians in particular taking the brunt of his critical barbs. Yet even at his most caustic there would always be a mischievous twinkle in his eye, with comments more often than not intended as complacency-bursting provocations rather than edicts or judgements.

Unfortunately, like so many before who have wittingly or otherwise achieved “guru” status, Mollison’s words and ideas have sometimes fallen victim to the curse of rigid interpretation by a portion of his acolytes. I’ve often grimaced when the Designer’s Manual is referred to as The Bible, and there are those who are happy to use “What Would Bill Say?” as a stick with which to beat vegans and vegetarians for instance (somehow overlooking the fact that on page 28 Mollison himself acknowledges the “efficiency of a home grown ‘vegetarian’ diet, provided it is not dependent upon imported produce such as excessive amounts of soya, and that ‘wastes’ are returned to the soil”). There are also those who argue that the Permaculture Design Course should still follow by rote the 72 hour curriculum devised by Mollison in the late 1980s, never deviating from his ideas and lesson plans wherever in the world it is taught. For a philosophy which is all about flexibility, creative thinking and locally appropriate solutions this feels particularly ironic. It’s a bit like having bought a computer with Windows 1.0 installed on it back in 1985, and insisting on forever sticking with this outmoded proprietary software, despite now living in a world where there is a whole choice of Open Source and often far more nimble operating systems such as Ubuntu, Debian, Linux Mint and Raspberry Pi.

The Open Source analogy seems particularly apt when thinking about Permaculture. Just as Linus Torvald developed the Linux computer operating system in the early 1990s with a free and modifiable source code at its core, permaculture too is a set of non-ownable ideas and principles that Mollison and Holmgren set loose on the world. Diverse successors such as Rosemary Morrow, Rob Hopkins, Ethan Roland, Pandora Thomas and many, many others have since built upon, adapted and iterated these concepts in manifestations as varied as personal development practice, the Transition Towns movement and even liberatory economic and social justice systems. In recent years the Permaculture Design Course itself has “forked” Linux-style, responding to an emergent diversity of needs and demands. Variants now focus on People and Permaculture, ‘Practiculture’, Urban Permaculture, Permaculture for Children and even Permaculture and Yoga… Indeed I’m typing this very article on a solar powered laptop during a break from teaching a vegan-tailored permaculture course in the USA, the existence of which I’m sure Mollison, who never took himself too seriously, would have found simultaneously irksome and pleasing…

Bill Mollison retired from active teaching during the late 1990s, although he continued to travel, speak and promote the permaculture model into his eighties. After experiencing failing health in more recent years he returned to his Tasmanian homeland to spend his final days with his family at Sisters Creek on the Bass Strait coast. The world will be an emptier place without this self-styled “Naughty Man”.

“Sitting at our back doorsteps, all we need to live a good life lies about us. Sun, wind, people, buildings, stones, sea, birds and plants surround us. Cooperation with all these things brings harmony, opposition to them brings disaster and chaos.”

– Bruce Charles “Bill” Mollison, 4/5/1928 – 24/9/2016

NB. Bill’s final wish was that he wanted everyone to plant a tree when he passed. If you decide to do that, please spread this hashtag to accompany any photos of you or your friends planting your tree.”

Graham Burnett is a permaculture activist and teacher, and the author of ‘Permaculture A Beginners Guide’ and ‘The Vegan Book of Permaculture’. His website is here.

Special thanks to Maddy Harland at Permaculture Magazine  Graham Bell.