Bill Mollison

Bruce Mollison was an Australian researcher, author, scientist, teacher and biologist.

Russ Grayson
Russ Grayson

I believe that we could build systems that would function as well as this one (a natural forest) does.

Bill Mollison, 1928-2016

Best known as co-originator of the “permaculture” concept with David Holmgren, and recipient of the Right Livelihood Award in 1981, Mollison helped develop a holistic body of environmental theory and practice which is widely recognised as one of Australia’s finest and most original contributions to the global sustainability challenge.

Mollison grew up in Stanley, Tasmania. After leaving school at 15 he moved through a range of occupations before joining the CSIRO in the Wildlife Survey Section in 1954, where he developed his research experience and understanding of ecological systems.

He was later appointed to the University of Tasmania, which is where, in 1974, he met the brilliant and radical young research student, David Holmgren

The collaboration between Mollison and Holmgren resulted in the permaculture concept, culminating in the publication of their seminal work, Permaculture One in 1978, which sparked the global movement.

Permaculture defies simple definition and understanding. The term began as a fusion of “permanent” and “agriculture”. Even back in the 1970s, Mollison and Holmgren could see how destructive industrial agriculture was to natural habitats and topsoils, and how dependent it was on finite fossil fuels.

It was clear that these systems were unsustainable, a position ratified by scientific reports today which expose the alarming effects industrial agriculture has on biodiversity and climate stability. The two pioneering ecologists began to wonder what a “permanent agriculture” would look like. Thus permaculture was born.

In the broadest terms, permaculture is a design system that seeks to work with the laws of nature rather than against them. It aims to efficiently meet human needs without degrading the ecosystems we all rely on to flourish.

Put otherwise, permaculture is an attempt to design human systems and practices in ways that mimic the cycles of nature to eliminate waste, increase resilience and allow for the just and harmonious co-existence of human beings with other species.

A wide range of design principles were developed to help put these broad ideas and values into practice. This practical application and experimentation is what really defines permaculture. Before all else, participants in the movement get their hands in the soil and seek to walk the talk.

Although permaculture was initially focused on sustainable methods of organic food production, the concept soon evolved to embrace the broader design challenges of sustainable living – not just “permanent agriculture”, but “permanent culture”.

As well as transitioning away from fossil-fuel-dependent agriculture toward local organic production, permaculture implies the embrace of renewable energy systems, “simple living” lifestyles of modest consumption, as well as retrofitting the suburbs for sustainability and energy efficiency.

From a grassroots or community perspective, the transition towns and ecovillage movements acknowledge their profound debts to permaculture.

From a macroeconomic perspective, permaculture implies a degrowth transition to a steady-state economy that operates within the sustainable limits of the planet. Permaculture even has implications for what alternative forms of global development might look like.