Bill Mollison was born in 1928 in the small fishing village of Stanley, Tasmania. He left school at 15 to help run his family’s bakery. Among the jobs that followed were mill worker, seafarer, animal trapper and shark fisher. These were followed by nine years at the Wildlife Survey Section of the CSIRO (Australia’s leading science research body) and then time with the Inland Fisheries Commission. There were long stints in the wild forests and coastlines of Tasmania. In 1968 Mollison became a tutor at the University of Tasmania and later senior lecturer in Environmental Psychology.
He has written of those times: ‘There seemed to be no positive direction forward, although almost everybody could define those aspects of the global society that they rejected. These included military adventurism, the bomb, ruthless land exploitation, the arrogance of polluters and a general insensitivity to human needs.’
David Holmgren was born in 1955, growing up on the other side of the continent in Fremantle, Western Australia, with political activist parents. He spent a year hitchhiking around Australia before moving to Tasmania in 1974 to study environmental design. He was attracted to Tasmania’s natural and intellectual environment. Its Environment Design School, led by Hobart architect and educator Barry McNeil – which Holmgren said at that time was ‘the most radical experiment in tertiary education in Australia’ – attracted design students from around Australia and the world. Hobart is set at the foot of Mt Wellington. On its lower slopes was the property where the permaculture concept was born. A few kilometres in one direction is the city centre; in the other, the great wilderness of Southwest Tasmania.
Permaculture made its first public appearance in 1976 in an article by Mollison and Holmgren for Tasmania’s Organic Farmer and Gardener magazine. Soon after, Mollison was interviewed on national radio by popular presenter Terry Lane. What followed was an avalanche of interest and controversy.
A key permaculture pioneer, Max Lindegger – who went on to design the world’s first permaculture ecovillage, Crystal Waters (pictured bottom page opposite) – said it was an electrifying time. Living thousands of kilometres to the north in Queensland, he read that first article and thought ‘it was exactly the way I felt, but had been unable to put into words’. Lindegger invited Mollison to come north for a speaking tour. In 1976 Lindegger formed Permaculture Nambour.
It took another two years for this rich ferment to produce the first book, Permaculture One – a Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements by Mollison and Holmgren. In the introduction they commented: ‘The permacultural concept has caught the imagination of hundreds of people in Australia where we have given verbal descriptions and short resumés of the system. It may well have a wider impact, as the time seems ripe for such a synthesis in a world of famine, poisons, erosion and fast-depleting energy.’
Also appearing in 1978 was the first permaculture magazine – initially called, simply enough, Permaculture. Its first editor was Terry White, a resident of the Victorian town of Maryborough. Of the earlier Mollison-Lane radio interview, White says: ‘I found it galvanizing. Bill’s interview kindled my imagination in a profound way.’ So much so that White also invited Mollison to visit Maryborough for a public meeting.
‘We did this in a local context of concern about youth unemployment and land degradation – dryland salinity was a big problem,’ says White. People were receptive to Mollison because ‘he stood for something rather than against things’.
‘He came across as a doer, not a talker. He proposed that instead of waiting for government or for funding, we just go and do whatever it was that was necessary.’ Impetus from the Maryborough meeting led to another of the earliest permaculture groups in Australia, and then to the National Permaculture Association.
Mollison is renowned for his wit, provocative style and charisma. Lindegger remembers the first permaculture design course, taught by Mollison over three weeks in 1979, with 18 participants ‘invited’ from all parts of the country. The venue was an old hotel in Stanley. He says the impact on those involved was life-changing and many participants went on to become a driving force for the movement. Tens of thousands of people have since taken design and introductory courses, going on to work on projects or in their communities around the world.
In 1979, Mollison published Permaculture Two, focusing on design. In 1981, still in the early days of permaculture, he received international recognition with a Right Livelihood Award, otherwise known as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’. In his acceptance speech, he said: ‘All my life we’ve been at war with nature. I just pray that we lose that war.’
The publication of Permaculture magazine was pivotal to the spread of the design system. Like its eventual successor, the Permaculture International Journal (PIJ), it bound together a dispersed network of emerging practitioners. News of the design system was spreading and, according to White, by the mid-1980s some 10 permaculture groups in Australia had grown to around 80 worldwide. In 1987, with key input from PIJ editor, Robyn Francis, Permaculture International Ltd was incorporated to expand the distribution of the magazine and to support the growing global network.
The concept also continued to be advanced through books: in particular, Mollison’s 1988 cornucopia of ideas Permaculture – A Designers’ Manual. Along with a cut-down version, Introduction to Permaculture, it still sells well today. His autobiography, Travels in Dreams, appeared in 1996. Having lived for many years in the Australian sub-tropics of northern New South Wales, Mollison has now returned home to Tasmania to write and occasionally teach. He lives there with his wife, Lisa.
Out of his shell
While Mollison became the visionary communicator, stirrer and public voice of permaculture, Holmgren remained largely out of the public eye, quietly testing permaculture principles on his own property, Melliodora-Hepburn Permaculture Gardens, at Hepburn Springs, a couple of hours from Melbourne. In 1995 he published 10 Years of Sustainable Living at Melliodora. Other writings followed, most recently Permaculture Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Holmgren has ‘come out of his shell’, speaking and lecturing around the world. He still lives with his family on Melliodora.
Permaculture is now mainstream in Australia. It helped to inspire key breakaway – now mainstream – movements, from ethical investment to community gardening and the national Seed Savers Network. Around the world, there has been a coming together of permaculture and organic gardening groups into a strong and vibrant force for the future.
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