Many people will not have heard of the Australian environmentalist, Bill Mollison who brought the concept of ‘Permaculture’ to the world. He died on 24th September 2016 after an amazing lifetime and career. His work in promoting the ideas behind Permaculture may have been on the periphery to mainstream western culture, but his efforts have been hugely influential to current environmental and sustainability thinking on a truly global scale. He is perhaps unique in offering tangible solutions towards a sustainable form of societal existence.
As Graham Bell wrote in his obituary to Mollison, before the age of 26 Mollison had experienced life as, “…shark fisherman and seaman (bringing vessels from post-war disposals to southern ports), forester, mill-worker, trapper, snarer, tractor driver and naturalist.” After a spell of biological surveying in the Tasmanian rainforests in the mid 1950’s, Mollison, with his extraordinary insight into the workings of the natural world, started to formulate his early ideas for living within the natural capacity of the planet’s eco-systems. By the mid-1970’s and through his research work at the University of Tasmania, Mollison launched his ideas for Permaculture. A series of books started (culminating in the publication of The Permaculture Designer’s Manual in 1988) and the ideas were disseminated around the world with grassroots Permaculture movements springing up in nearly every country around the world.
Much of the early ideas were around sustainable living systems in marginal climatic zones where growing food and obtaining drinking water were challenges. Ideas about the importance of tree planting, forest gardening and doing away with petrochemicals and pesticides in the production of food were central. But Permaculture was more than just a more environmentally benign way of growing food. It was about sustainable systems for human culture as whole. It inspired the work of Rob Hopkins and the Transition Town Movement as well as the that of Bio-Regional’s One Planet Living.
On a personal level, for me as an architectural student at the beginning of the 1990’s, I was naturally drawn to Mollison’s work as it was a set of design ideas for sustainable living. After so much ‘looking under the hood’ of what was going on out there in the environment, I was consoled at least by Permaculture’s potentials. It really did seem like a template for a sustainable society. If only the ideas could be understood by political leaders of the time. A quarter of a century on and political leaders at least now seem to realise there is a need to be more sustainable but they are still head in the sand when it come to their unquestioning adherence to growth based economics which, if you think about it, is at complete odd’s with a steady state system of co-existence on a finite planet.