Oct. 11, 2016
Bill Mollison obituary
Story by Ian Lillington is a permaculture author and teacher. First appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald 8 October 2016. Photos by Russ Grayson.
An incorrigible optimist, Mollison wanted to restore the Garden of Eden
Bruce Charles Mollison, agrarian rebel, creative practitioner, teacher, writer, ecologist and co-originator of permaculture, has died aged 88 in Hobart.
Known as Bill, he was a man of discerning gruffness, with a love for story-telling and massive charisma. As a global gardener, he was innovative, far-sighted and practical, and at the same time dedicated to the problems at hand for as long as was necessary for a solution to be found.
Mollison – the "father of permaculture" – leaves behind a worldwide movement of remarkable resilience. Permaculture books are printed in many languages, taught and practised in almost every country of the world and found on websites in at least 110 languages.
Growing up in Stanley, Tasmania Bill left school at 15 to help run the family bakery and in coming years worked as a shark fisherman and seaman, forester, mill worker, trapper, tractor driver and naturalist.
He joined the CSIRO (Wildlife Survey Section) in 1954 and gained extensive research knowledge. After 10 years he left to study bio-geography at Hobart University.
Mollison became a lecturer at Hobart in 1968, developing the relatively new discipline of environmental psychology. His calls for a more inter-disciplinary approach were ignored or rejected, so he resigned to allow pursue his studies in combining psychology with the natural world.
This work in the Tasmanian forests and the university gave him the foundation for what became his life's passion – permaculture: the idea that we could consciously design sustainable systems which enabled human beings to live within their means and for all wildlife to flourish alongside humans.
Permaculture has been described as an operating system that inspires people to build abundant and resilient lifestyles, through applied design.
During the campaign against the dam on the Franklin River in the 1970s, while he was still a lecturer in Hobart, Mollison met his later co-author David Holmgren, an environmental design student. They started to discuss why the agriculture of indigenous people had survived the centuries and why modern agriculture was only good for a relatively short time.
Furthermore, he learned what could be learned from the aboriginal people and how their concepts could be brought into harmony with new technologies and new scientific findings.
In 1974, in Hobart, he and David Holmgren began to develop the permaculture concept, leading to the publication of Permaculture One in 1978.
Mollison made permaculture into a global movement.
He travelled the world in the 1980s and '90s, teaching thousands of students and contributing articles, curricula, reports and recommendations for farm projects, urban clusters and local government bodies.
Mollison and Holmgren began to experiment, to design and to write. With the help of Andrew Jeeves they drew on the ideas of Masanobu Fukuoka (The One-Straw Revolution, 1975) and took on the "keyline" concept from Ken Yeomans (Water for Every Farm, 1954) and F.H.King's observations of the highly productive agricultural concepts of Asia (Farmers of Forty Centuries – Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan, 1911). Out of these, they created a design concept for permanence in human activities with landscapes, water-systems and forestry, which they called "permaculture".
Originally intended as a contraction of permanent agriculture, Mollison quickly realised it was a system for permanent culture, as without a productive landscape, a healthy ecology and a circular economy, no culture would survive. Permaculture began as both a positive concept – open to new information – and a practice that could integrate the knowledge about sustainable, ecological techniques from all parts of the world.
An incorrigible optimist, Mollison wanted to restore the Garden of Eden – for everyone, "not for our children, but for us, now!"
Permaculture has no dogma; rather it is a series of basic principles which are applicable to everything. From the 1980s it appealed to architects, engineers, farmers and community organisers and by the 1990s was being taught in more than half the countries of the world and translated into dozens of languages.
Mollison had started a movement where permaculture was integrated into supposedly unrelated subject areas – an early example of what was later to be called "joined up thinking". Now permaculture serves people who are working in sustainable agriculture, reforestation, bio-architecture, environmental education and regional economics – and those who simply seek a holistic life.
In 1981, Mollison received the Right Livelihood Award (sometimes called the "Alternative Nobel Prize"), and the one he was most proud of, the Vavilov Medal. He was also the first foreigner invited and admitted to the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
In his autobiography, Mollison wrote: "The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10 per cent of us do this, there is enough for everyone.
"Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter."
In 1989, he featured in an hour-long documentary, In Grave Danger of Falling Food and the series The Global Gardener, and wrote more books, the best-known being The Permaculture Designers' Manual in 1988 and the autobiography, Travels in Dreams, in 1996.
After establishing a sub-tropical paradise at Tyalgum, northern NSW, and continuing to travel and teach into his 80s, Bill spent his final years continuing the creation of productive landscapes on seven hectares at Sisters Creek, near his childhood home in Tasmania. He was eloquent about the need for peaceful "warriors" – as he called them – to challenge the stupidity of ill-governance on a global scale.
His own fears about being ineffectual were misguided: "Nobody takes any notice of me and even my friends continually criticise me." In reality he engendered a massive global respect which will endure and grow as others develop his foundation thinking.
Bill spent his final years in Sisters Creek. The final words must go to him in true classical tone: "If you hear that I am dead tell them they lie."
He is survived by his wife, Lisa Mollison, and by six children.
Story by Ian Lillington is a permaculture author and teacher. Photos by Russ Grayson.
First appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald 8 October 2016.
Bill Mollison wanted everyone to plant a tree when he passed. If you do, please spread the hashtag to accompany any photos #PlantedforBill on social media.
Join us in the Permaculture Interpretive Garden on Saturday 15 October while we remember Bill by planting out the Zone 5, bird habitat area.
WHEN: Saturday 15 October
WHERE: Permaculture Interpretive Garden at the
Randwick Community Centre, 27 Munda Street Randwick