How Did The Permaculture Movement Start?

Bill Mollison was a charismatic Australian with a wicked sense of humor. He would probably be banned from teaching at a university these days for his occasional lewd remark, which is just as well because he didn’t like universities and resisted the idea of permaculture being taught in any such institution.

Bill said that the idea for Permaculture came to him when he was observing marsupials browsing in Tasmania’s vibrant and rich rainforests.

“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.”

Mollison had the ability to fuse traditional knowledge with science, which he shared through storytelling, drawing from vast experience working in the natural sciences:

“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.”

One of Bill’s early students was David Holmgren, who together with Mollison expanded the scope of Permaculture and established its core ethics and principles.

In 1988 Bill Mollison produced what is still regarded as the bible of Permaculture, Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, which is an absolute treasure trove of information. It is difficult to read from front to back, but it is essential reading for any Permaculture project. I often find myself dipping into it, even before I ask Google. This book also provides the framework for all Permaculture Design Courses, the certification course for Permaculture, and so it is as relevant today as it was in the 80’s.

Bill Mollison’s Definition of Permaculture

“Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and nonmaterial needs in a sustainable way. Without permanent agriculture, there is no possibility of a stable social order.”

The first paragraph of Bill’s manual introduces us to the scope of Permaculture;

“This book is about designing sustainable human settlements, and preserving and extending natural systems. It covers aspects of designing and maintaining a cultivated ecology in any climate: the principles of design; design methods; understanding patterns in nature; climatic factors; water; soil; earthworks; techniques and strategies in the different climatic types; aquaculture; and the social, legal and economic design of human settlement (Mollison 1988).”

The word Permaculture is derived from ‘Permanent’ and ‘Agriculture’, with ‘culture’ now generalized to mean all those habits, beliefs, or activities that sustain human societies.

If this is all a little dry, Toby Hemenway helps bring it all back to earth by describing permaculture as the toolbox that helps us organize and decide when and how to use our tools. These tools may include organic gardening, natural building, renewable energy and even decision making. Permaculture is not a discipline but rather a design approach based on connecting different strategies and techniques.

It is important to understand that permaculture is not just gardening. Learning how to create a sustainable system such as an organic garden or an organic farm is useless if it exists in an unsustainable society. As you probably understood when reading Bill Mollison’s words above, permaculture is very wide in scope. By starting with ethics to then develop a set of principles, permaculture becomes a way of life that naturally builds resilience through the interconnected relationships between different elements.

Mollison, B. 1988. Permaculture: A designer’s Manual. Tagari Publications.

Hemenway, T. 2009. Gia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. Chelsea Green Publishing: Vermont.