Simply put, “permaculture” is the creating and designing of sustainable, environmentally-friendly architectural and agricultural systems. Many of the agricultural systems in place today are harmful to the environment, which may result in a tremendous backlash to be felt by future generations. This is what Bill is fighting against – by using permaculture as an effective alternative.
It all began for Bill Mollison when he was born in Stanley, a small fishing village in the island state of Tasmania, Australia. Little is known of his early history, except that he took an early interest in nature and spent much of his spare time exploring it. Growing up in a rural environment, Bill also learned a lot about hard work and practicality, and learned many skills. His parents ran a bakery, and when he was fifteen years old, his father passed away, resulting in his decision to leave school to help run the family business.
When Bill was interviewed about his childhood years, this is what he had to say:
“I'm a sixth-generation Tasmanian, you see, so the peculiar sort of dual marine/bush orientation — common to natives of that land — is in my blood. Tasmania is largely an agricultural state, but it also contains a good bit of heavily forested territory. About half the island isn't even yet fully explored, and I spent a lot of my childhood trudging the uncharted areas.”
Because Bill had to leave school at a young age, he could not enter college like most people his age. Instead, he spent his young-adult years working several jobs as a shark fisherman, forester, mill-worker, snarer, trapper, tractor driver and naturalist. In spite of not being able to finish formal education, Bill nevertheless appreciated his situation, as he was able to go beyond the confines of the classroom and have a more “hands-on” approach to learning what life has to offer.
As he recalled in an interview:
“I grew up very independently, and without much formal training. My father died when I was young, so I left school to help run our family bakery. As a result, I escaped having to spend a lot of hours in a classroom... and I think such a lack of traditional education is almost essential for anybody who does anything creative. My real education, however, has come from the variety of jobs I've held.”
Bill worked many different jobs for five years until, in 1954, he joined the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s (CSIRO) Wildlife Survey Section. He worked as a biologist, journeying through various regions of Australia and doing field work on various species, including forest-regeneration issues with marsupials. The next five years saw little development in forest-regeneration, so Bill had to find a way to resolve the issue. The result was permaculture.
Bill recalled the beginnings of his greatest work in an interview:
“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.”
Bill’s experiments worked, and he realized that, after all these years, there was a better, un-tapped way to handle forest-regeneration right under our noses. Aware that no one was seriously promoting the method, Bill took a leap of faith and taught it to others himself, all while gathering more information and doing more research.
In 1963, Bill left his work with CSIRO and spent a year as a curator for the Tasmanian Museum. One year later, he worked with the Inland Fisheries Commission to survey the animals of inland waters and estuaries, doing research on the water conditions of all of Tasmania’s inland water places.
In 1966, at age thirty-eight, Bill decided to return to school and complete his studies, and so he enrolled at the University of Tasmania to study bio-geography. Bill supported himself by taking on various jobs, including being a security bouncer, cattle herder, shark fisherman and part-time teacher at an all-girls school. Using the experience he gained from his many years of working in nature, Bill excelled in his studies, so much that he became a faculty member of the University of Tasmania following his graduation.
Being a teacher gave Bill plenty of time to do more research and improve the concept of permaculture. During his ten years as a teacher at the University of Tasmania, Bill not only excelled in his profession, but also contributed to the institution by researching and publishing [independently] a three-volume dissertation on the Tasmanian aborigines.
For many years, Bill studied permaculture and how it can be an effective alternative to modern methods of agriculture. The more he researched, the more he realized that the world was missing out on a wonderful concept, and so he decided to share it. In 1974, Bill collaborated with fellow permaculture researcher David Holmgren to write and publish the latter’s thesis, which became “Permaculture One.”
What followed was something that Bill did not quite expect. Not long after releasing “Permaculture One,” Bill received positive reactions from people who read the book; some even told him the concept was proof that what they had in mind for many years was, after all, correct. When Bill was interviewed about the beginning of the permaculture concept, he recalled:
“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.'”
The success of “Permaculture One” was followed by the release of Bill’s and David’s second book, “Permaculture Two,” which was also well-received by the public. One of the main reasons for the permaculture concept’s success was that it offered a system that is completely sustainable, environmentally-friendly and economically-suitable.
Bill defined the permaculture concept in an interview many years later:
“The word 'permaculture' refers to an integrated, self-sustaining system of perennial agriculture... which involves a large diversity of plant and animal species. A permaculture is really a completely self-contained agricultural ecosystem that is designed to minimize maintenance input and maximize product yield. In a permaculture, little wheels or cycles of energy are set up... and the system virtually keeps itself going! Essentially, it's a living clockwork that should never run down... at least as long as the sun shines and the earth revolves.”
From then on, all was well [mostly] for Bill. When he finished his work as a Professor at the University of Tasmania in 1978, Bill dedicated his life and career to spreading the concept of permaculture – not just in Australia, but around the world. The following year, in 1979, Bill helped establish the Permaculture Institute to help create a formal method of teaching the system. Through the next few decades, Bill spent his time teaching thousands of students, speaking at numerous events and conferences, and writing/contributing many articles and reports about permaculture. His dedication has earned him the moniker, “The Father of Permaculture.”
In 1981, Bill was awarded the “Right Livelihood Award,” a prestigious honor that is often called the “Alternative Nobel Prize,” to recognize his significance in the popularization and development of permaculture. Bill won the award with Patrick van Rensburg, an educationalist from South Africa.
Today, Bill is just as passionate and determined to promote permaculture as he was over thirty years ago. At “eighty-four years young,” as he jokingly describes himself, Bill still actively participates in spreading the idea of permaculture by teaching at the Permaculture Institute. He also still loves to sit down and talk with his students and recall his adventures from his younger years.
Throughout his many years of working to promote permaculture, Bill has truly made a tremendous mark in the fields of agriculture, architecture, and environmental preservation/protection. Because of Bill’s efforts, this generation and the generations to come will continue to enjoy the benefits of sustainable and eco-friendly architecture and agriculture.
“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.”
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- The Permaculture Project
- Network Earth
- Inland Fisheries Commission
- Tasmania Museum
Awards and Achievements
- 1981: Received the “Right Livelihood Award” (along with Patrick van Rensburg)
- 2010: Finalist for the “Senior Australian of the Year” Award
- “Introduction to Permaculture”
- “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual”
- “The Permaculture Book of Ferment and Human Nutrition”
- “Permaculture Two: Practical Design for Town and Country in Permanent Agriculture”
- “The Permaculture Way: Practical Steps to Create a Self-Sustaining World”
- “Permaculture One (co-authored with David Holmgren): A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements” (based on Holmgren’s thesis)