R.I.P. Bill Mollison, Father of Permaculture

Bruce Charles ‘Bill’ Mollison b. May 4th 1928, Stanley, Tasmania, Australia;  d. September 24th  2016 in Sisters Beach, Tasmania.

Permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison died last Saturday age 88. This blog has been frequently critical of the permaculture movement he founded, and it seems appropriate to share a few thoughts on the man and consider his legacy.

In a brief tribute, David Holmgren comments:

Bill’s brilliance was in gathering together the ecological insights, principles, strategies and techniques that could be applied to create the world we do want rather than fighting against the world we reject.

I think it was this practical can-do attitude, and a disaffection with a protest movement that just seemed to say “down with everything” without any alternative plan to offer,  which attracted me and many others to permaculture in the first place. I first heard about it in about 1984 while still at college, and completed my first design course a few years later while living in Shropshire. It was my first introduction to many things that have held my interest since then, including gardening and horticulture, tree planting and forestry, building and use of natural resources, community and energy… the eclectic nature of permaculture and the sense that it offered a one-stop solution to everything was also I think part of its appeal and seduction- but perhaps also one of its failings.

Of the two permaculture founders, Mollison was by far the more charismatic than his rather dour counterpart, David Holmgren; but in contrast to common perceptions, Mollison was the more rational of the two, taking an irreverent anti-woo stance unfortunately largely ignored by most of the movement that sprouted from his ideas. In his 1996 autobiography Travels in Dreams he makes the memorable comment:

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-18-36-01As I have often been accused of lacking that set of credulity, mystification, modern myth and hogwash that passes today for New Age Spirituality, I cheerfully plead guilty. Unqualified belief, of any breed, dis-empowers any individuals by restricting their information.
Thus, permaculture is not biodynamics, nor does it deal in fairies, devas, elves, after-life, apparitions or phenomena not verifiable by every person from their own experience, or making their own experiments. we permaculture teachers seek to empower any person by practical model-making and applied work, or data based on verifiable investigations. This scepticism of mine extends to religious and political party ideologies.


Unfortunately, it was this very open-endedness and accessibility that diluted the permaculture effect almost to irrelevance. Permaculture was funky but it was never possible to define what it actually was: typically, advocates like to answer “a system of design based on nature” but this turns out to mean virtually anything- although definitely NOT GMOs or fracking. Like the many communes spawned by notions of using natural systems as a model for human systems, permaculture failed to be discerning when it came to adopting new members or new ideas, letting in anything from the biodynamics beloved by David Holmgren to homeopathy and alternative medicine.

Far from being a “system of design” based on Mollison’s famous “key planning tools”, permaculture has really always been a social and political movement, a version of agararian socialism, marching hand-in-hand with Organics, self-sufficiency, and other versions of the back-to-the- land movements of the ’60s and ’70s. Mollison himself is frequently quoted as saying “Permaculture is revolution disguised as Organic gardening”.

Even the original idea of forests being so much more productive (in terms of biodiversity and  biomass) than arable farming, giving rise to the multi-storied perennial forest garden system, is only partly valid as a guiding principle: Mollison himself knew perfectly well growing vegetables under trees was never going to work in temperate regions, which have always been characterized by annual crops and over-wintering storage followed by a “hungry gap” in the early summer.

Today, even the most ardent permaculture enthusiasts produce most of their food in conventional straight rows in raised beds. Much of what has become known as classic permaculture techniques, including swales, pig-tractors and mulching had already been widely promoted by self-sufficiency guru John Seymour.

I met the man once, at the 2005 International Permaculture Convention in Croatia, and enjoyed chatting with him over breakfast there. He was however by then sadly in decline, his petulant behaviour of kicking over chairs on stage while giving and address, to make some point about going against convention, was met with dismay and tuts of approbation. Always the maverick, he was booed at the end of the conference during a discussion on the ethics of using air transport to travel to the next one, when he argued that flying was good for the environment since “everyone knows the real problem is global cooling.”


Bill Mollison in 2005 at the International Permaculture Convergence, Croatia

It is understandable that experiencing the early, rapid impact of broadscale industrial farming provoked a back-lash. Close up, the transformation of large areas of forest into agricultural fields must have been shocking, to the point of wondering where it would ever stop. Reading through this early interview from 1980 provides some interesting insights into how permaculture arose as an attempt to find a less invasive approach, and also where it went wrong:

-his claims that there is no design of any kind involved in modern agriculture seems wide of the mark. Everything from tractors and herbicides to seed selection and breeding choices necessarily involves design. Mollison gives instead a caricature of the process, research and enormous complexity and international cooperation involved.

The Chinese, for instance, have recently “modernized” their farming methods — that is, they went from hand tilling and fertilizing with natural manures to machine and flame weeding and fertilizing with artificials — and they increased their energy input by 800% in the process. Now they’ve gone beyond that and are heading toward an increase of 1,000%! And all that extra expenditure of energy produced an initial yield growth of only 15% … a figure that’s now declining rapidly. In fact, it now looks as though productivity might even fall below its original level!

History has proved this wrong: despite serious issues with aquifer depletion, China increased its grain production by 2/3rds since then. This may not continue, but projections generally fail to allow for technological innovations- such as genetic engineering and precision agriculture- which can overcome difficulties. Certainly, inputs by way of fossil fuels have increased dramatically. Is this not a good thing, to turn mineral resources into food? They may not be inexhaustible, but ultimately alternatives can be found. Fertilizer use accounts for only a small percentage of global natural gas usage, and world supplies are currently higher than ever.

Predicting doom for US agriculture also, Mollison goes onto make the bold claim that

The problem with today’s agricultural techniques is that—by ignoring the possibility of any design input — they fail to deal with interrelated functions.

Again, while all agriculture has challenges, there is no sign that yields generally will fall or that solutions to problems will not be found. Permaculture failed to account for innovations such as the dramatic spread of no-till methods across the grain-belt, going a long way to solving the problems will soil loss Mollison was so concerned about, but without losing productivity.

On the other hand, extravagant claims are made for the productivity of Fukuoka’s “natural farming” without any evidence being provided- nor did Fukuoka provide any evidence to support claims for high yields, as far as I can find:

Look at Fukuoka: That man, at 74, controls 12 acres at a higher productivity than any other farmer on earth … and he does it all on foot, with no machines whatsoever! And even his design could be improved upon. The point is that, by applying any sort of temporal and spatial pattern, one can literally achieve wonders in the product yields of a system.

There are many problems with Mollison’s design principles:

too much edge can also have downsides, as you provide more access to pests, and can be very hard to manage beyond a certain scale;

adding in multiple functions always involves trade-offs: asking plants to be both food crops and shelter can give you the worst of both worlds;

using biological solutions in a world of high populations can lead to very serious depletions, since they are not “renewable” if extracted beyond the rate of replacement: most of temperate forests, not to mention many whale species, were already over-exploited long before the industrial era.

Like Organics, Permaculture has chosen the path of land sharing, with the aim of combining everything on the same piece of land: maximum food production, maximum biodiversity, maximum eco-system services. While land-sharing certainly has a place, the  continued success of agricultural intensification, and the likely acceleration of marginal land abandonment suggests that land sparing, allowing large areas to be returned to nature and forests as agriculture becomes more productive elsewhere, is proving to be far more significant.

At the end of the day, we can say that nature is not there to provide food and sustenance for humans, and is unlikely therefore to be a good model for our farm systems. Nature should not be mimicked so much as improved on.

The permaculture movement will continue long after the death of this well-loved and popular founding figure, but there are no indications it contains many useful solutions to the challenge of increasing food production for 10 billion humans the planet will need to support in a few short decades.

Permaculture has provided a useful and inspiring introduction to landscaping and gardening to large numbers of people, and has added to the self-sufficiency movement by having a broader remit to encourage people to think much more widely about trees and forestry, water, soil, biodiversity. However, Mollison’s success which lead to the broad appeal of his movement was more that of an accomplished magician, and permaculture a system of smoke-and-mirrors with the design principles concealing the lack of emperor’s attire.



4 thoughts on “R.I.P. Bill Mollison, Father of Permaculture

  1. Christina LaPerle

    Nice article Graham.

  2. Permaculture is lifting millions of people out of poverty and at the same time restoring ecosystems. John D. Liu has made a beautifull documentary about it that people can watch on YouTube.

    “It’s possible to rehabilitate large-scale damaged ecosystems.” Environmental film maker John D. Liu documents large-scale ecosystem restoration projects in China, Africa, South America and the Middle East, highlighting the enormous benefits for people and planet of undertaking these efforts globally.

    Green Gold – Documentary by John D. Liu

    • Liu is just a film maker, with no scientific credentials or publications; he seems to be mainly good at self-promotion. He is a collaborator for the book Spiritual Ecology which is just a New Age screed- pure ideology.
      It is hard to see why the projects documented in the film can be described as “permaculture”: there is no specific set of practices which can be identified as being distinctively “permaculture” which just seems to piggy-back on everyone elses work.
      For example, the Loess project in China was driven by the World Bank, and depended on banning grazing, which, not surprisingly, has a number of knock-on effects on the farmer’s livelihoods. Surprisingly, though Liu is at pains to explain how the grazing patterns are traditional systems which are “thousands of years old”, but makes no mention of what happens to the farmers who can no longer graze: it is as if they just don’t really matter.
      In fact, the bans on garzing were difficult to enforce in some areas, enforced with draconian fines at times, which many farmers still risked as this was still preferable to the alternative of keeping stock in expensive sheds and fenced enclosures. Many farmers were hired by the project, but there were greatly differential benefits to different groups, with the majority- who were laborers- gaining little economic benefit. The complete ban was often counter-productive, leading to a marked increase in wildfires. The claims that something called “permaculture” was responsible for bringing millions of people out of poverty is completely unsubstantiated: in fact, here as elsewhere, the previously subsistent farmers came out of poverty largely through the tired-and-tested method of leaving the land and heading for the city: hardley the romantic Garden of Eden image Liu likes to portray:

      As in many other rural areas of China, the project villages have been under the influence of industrialization, urbanization, and globalization. Many people have moved out of their villages and settled down in towns and cities as migrant workers. Ecological
      migration seems to make more people leave rural areas, facilitating regional urbanization. Industrial agriculture businesses seem to be emerging actors in local agricultural development.

      (Guo 2016 Dilemmas of Ecological Modernization in China Centre for Development and Environment, University of Oslo)

      Ofcourse, Geoff Lawton styles himself as a permaculture” tutor; his projects are very interesting, but seem to be based mainly on use of drip irrigation, and were heavily dependent on numbers of international volunteers to maintain them. Not all were maintained, after which they quickly returned to desert.

      I am not saying these projects are not beneficial, but they are not “permaculture” per se, just development projects. Ofcourse, with outside funding and other inputs you can relieve the pressure on the land- there is nothing magical about this, but adoption after the end of the fuding cycle is a real issue in all development work. My colleague from Bangor university who conducted fieldwork in Ethiopia this summer reported that the principle agroforestry option is plating eucalyptus as a cash crop, for firewood, which brings its own problems; rapidly rising populations mean there is very little land spare for anything else. There are no easy solutions to development, certainly not “something-called-permaculture”.

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