THE PERMACULTURE PAPERS 3: childhood
AN IDEA GROWS – THE 1980S
PERMACULTURE entered its childhood in the 1980s, slowly at first but with a gaining momentum as the decade progressed.
Word that there was something new and unusual in the world seeped from its home in Stanley across Bass Strait to the Australian mainland. Here, it caught the attention and imagination of its first batch of early adopters and, as early adopters do, they turned the ideas of permaculture’s instigators into something understandable to everyone who had an ear to listed to its message. Those who had attended one of Bill’s first courses now started to teach the Permaculture Design Course themselves and, like some newborn moving into its childhood, the design system started its journey in life.
On to Pappinbarra
To get to Pappinbarra we follow the Pacific Highway north from Sydney. Reaching the mid-north coast, we turn off the highway and traverse a winding road through farming country.
It hadn’t been a rapid journey as my new friend’s old white Kombi van wasn’t the fastest nor the most comfortable vehicle on the road. It would be understatement to describe it as basic but it served as home-on-the-road for our forays up the coast. We had spun out the journey with a stayover with friends, Judy and Rupert, who were living in a geodesic dome among the tall, straight eucalypts on their rural patch about 30 minutes west of Kempsey, a large town about six or so hours drive north of Sydney. Like many others, they sought a rural life and had plans to build a mud brick house up the slope from their farm dam. But, like many others, that dream was destined not to materialise.
The route narrows after we leave the highway and loses its asphalt surface as it starts its climb into the hills. Soon, the way is through patches of forest and open fields. Up into the hills we bump until we crest a hill to see the Pappinbarra Field Studies Centre there where the road ends. Here, two old timber structures occupy the centre of a grassy clearing. Here, the feeling is bucolic and the bush is the dominant presence. A small creek flows out of the forested hills that form the backdrop to the Centre and bubbles its way through the property.
“There were all these people doing interesting things. I had to be part of it”
We show our press pass at the gate and a harassed young man directed us across the creek to a camping area. Here we parked the Kombi and stepp into a milieu that would occupy us for many years to come.
There had already been a Permaculture gathering in New Zealand and a friend of ours, Steve Ward—who would later introduce the idea of bioregionalism and bioregional organisation to Sydney—had attended. But Steve wasn’t at the Pappinbarra gathering.
Those modest, rustic timber buildings in their grassy clearing was about to host the first of the international convergences that would punctuate permaculture’s years. Absent were the people from developing countries (money would later be set aside to sponsor them) but present were one or two from the USA.
As the first of its kind the gathering was a big information exchange and inspiration factory. As in others to come, people left the Pappinbarra convergence motivated, full of ideas and the desire to do something.
Fiona Campbell, who accompanied me to Pappinbarra and who was new to permaculture, summed up the ambience at that first convergence when she said: “There were all these people doing interesting things. I had to be part of it”.
The next convergence took place in the village of Otford, just south of Sydney, and was organised by Robyn Francis and Permaculture Sydney.
Convergences were inspirational events because they brought together for a few days the far flung community of interest that is permaculture. At their peak, they would be held every second year with the international convergences taking place in different countries. Convergences became a part of the permaculture calendar and were instrumental in knitting together the geographically-dispersed body of practitioners.
Inspired, but nowhere to go
As the 70s became the 80s the question that troubled early discoverers of permaculture was this: now that we have read the two books, where do we go to learn more?
The answer was that there was nowhere to go in the years immediately after the books were published. The books and the occasional appearances of Bill Mollison were the sum total of permaculture.
But that was for the moment. Many of those asking that question were soon to become permaculture’s first wave of early adoptors. They numbered a few still influential in permaculture—Max Lindegger, co-designer of Crystal Waters Permaculture Village; Robyn Francis, now teaching permaculture at Djanbung Gardens; Terry White, now active in land management—and others who have since moved on, their names forgotten or recalled only by those with a history in the movement.
It would be premature to call permaculture a movement during the late 1970s and into the first years of the following decade. Even the concept of being a movement was one that came to be challenged at permaculture conferences. It was as if being a movement was not quite permaculture, but for want of a better term to describe the following that Permaculture would soon to gain, there was nothing. There can be no denying the reality—as the new decade opened, permaculture’s early adoptors came to constitute a movement that would grow as the design system became more widely known through courses, media coverage, word of mouth and a slowly growing library of books.
During this formative period and for some time after, Mollison was the dominant intellectual force in permaculture. He set the design system’s world view and his wisdom became the de facto philosophical basis of permaculture. It was he who offered the first courses, who fronted seminars and meetings, who travelled to spread the word. In matters permaculture, Bill’s word became law. He was the ‘authority’.
David Holmgren, in contrast, didn’t rush out and start teaching permaculture. After the formative years in Tasmania, he had his own journey to continue and set out to develop his own permaculture system on land at Hepburn, in central Victoria. Even though he made public appearances, David seemed to have cultivated so low a profile that people would ask: “What has happened to David Holmgren?”.
The importance of Maryborough
Maryborough, with its band of early permaculture mavens, was an important place in the design system’s early years. Those initial initiatives—Terry White bringing Bill Mollison to Maryborough, the publishing of Permaculture magazine—set the direction for the development of the design system.
The town remained a significant hub for the permaculture movement over its first decade, hosting two permaculture conferences, one in 1977, the other in 1978. It also hosted two of the first, ten day permaculture consultancy courses as they were called then. Given time, these would transmute into the Permaculture Design Course based on the model developed by Bill. The Permaculture Institute was established in 1979 to teach the permaculture consultancy courses.
In its early years, Permaculture had no national organisation, no means of propagating itself and no centres of activity apart from Bill’s modest home garden in Stanley, Tasmania. Yet, as early as 1981, the design system was attracting attention for it was in that year that Bill received international recognition with a Right Livelihood Award, sometimes called the ‘alternative Nobel Prize’. It seems extraordinary that this should happen so soon after the design system’s birth.
In his acceptance speech, Bill said: “All my life we’ve been at war with nature. I just pray that we lose that war. There are no winners in that war…”
After discovering permaculture in the pages of Permaculture One and Permaculture Two in the late 1970s, I didn’t do anything about it for a few years. It was always there in mind as something with potential, but the trigger to push me from idea to action was not. Having moved from Tasmania to Sydney a couple years prior, I had left permaculture’s birthplace, the state that played an all-too-brief role in its early development.
Leaving too, it seemed, was the shared image of a new society that had formed the glue of the alternative movement. It continued, of course, and towns like Nimbin and Maleny still attracted the restless and the searchers in life. But soon, as locals would later say, a new type started to arrive on Cullen Street, Nimbin, and the town began to change. A resident permaculture practitioner told me of this new presence on the streets, saying that mental health workers in the cities recommended their patients move to Nimbin’s ‘more caring’ social environment. The change was later noted by a friend who lived in the nearby enclave of Mountaintop just before his family moved elsewhere in the region, having become disappointed with the town.
This new decade was profoundly different to the innovative 1970s. It brought with it a markedly different ambience. The search for alternatives that has preoccupied the creative mind for the previous ten years waned on a global glut of cheap oil as memory of the 1973 oil crisis rapidly receded. Renewable energy systems would wait a full 20 years before they would once again be considered as an alternative.
…contradictorily, it was also a period that brought significant gains for the environment movement…
In retrospect, the eightees and the opening years of the nineties can be seen as time when mainstream values reasserted themselves, consolidated by economies that grew and grew and unleashed a flood of cheap consumer goods. Yet, contradictorily, it was also a period that brought significant gains for the environment movement in the form of saving Tasmania’s Franklin River from hydroelectric development and Cape York’s Daintree rainforests from clear cutting, plus a plethora of minor victories.
Perhaps this signified that the cohort of the 1970s was maturing and entering mainstream working life and bringing their values, formed a decade earlier and as far back of the late 1960s, with them. This was the time in which the environment movement itself slid noisely into the social mainstream and became institutionalised. The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and the Wilderness Society, at the time Australia’s two major conservation organisations, can be seen as coming of age in this decade. Greenpeace, too, started to rise in prominence as did Friends of the Earth, though they would never achieve the level of prominence and influence as did the ACF.
Big campaigns required a level of organisational structure that was well beyond the informal arrangements many of the environment groups had started with. Formal and often specialist roles started to be established and the organisations began their journey towards professionalisation that we see today. This has taken them far into the social mainstream and normalised their key messages such that they are accepted wisdom for many. It has also led, commentators say, to a more limited role for members.
The decade of the eightees, then, can be seen as a time of contradictory social trends, and the growth of permaculture as it entered its childhood was part of that contradiction. The reasons for growth are obscure. Maybe permaculture had started to attract people from the alternative movement who found in it a structured way to approach positive change. Maybe people became disenchanted with society’s money-making focus during the decade of ‘greed is good’, to cite the statement from the movie. Such disenchantment has always fed alternative strands of thought and action.
Woman with a good idea
Permaculture re-entered my life one weekday in 1984. I was doing news and current affairs at a Sydney radio station and, one afternoon, I was preparing material for the drivetime programme. This was a busy time for the team as we went to air at 3pm. Everything had to be on the program’s running sheet before that and tapes edited and ready to go… scheduling completed… music selected… the news teletype monitored as it spat out the planet’s notable events on an seemingly endless stream of paper.
Interruptions were viewed as a bit of a nuisance, but it was the bad habit of the gnomes in the newsroom to send anyone they considered strange or who had unusual ideas — ie. ideas that they could not understand — down the passageway to find me. It was here, as I sat in front of an editing machine, that a woman with a good idea knocked at the door.
She was living in a rented house in Petersham, she explained, to where she had moved from her property near Taree. Here in Sydney, she was trying to stimulate interest in something new, something called a permaculture association. She asked me if I had heard of permaculture and I replied that, yes, I had come across it in Tasmania and had read the two books.
Over the following months Robyn Francis and I recorded material about permaculture for broadcast and I visited her rented house, out the back of which she had made a small food garden that included a banana tree growing in a plastic garbage can.
Permaculture Sydney was about to be born, again.
Robyn, with her ideas and energy, was what permaculture needed to give it a presence in Sydney. She was one of permaculture’s early adoptors, one of that first wave of people to emerge from the early permaculture design courses. It was their mission, had they known it, to take the design system from its innovators and small band of very early adopters to that second band of early adoptors, their students. This is what was about to happen in Sydney.
Thanks to the freak chance of those newsroom mavens sending her down the hall to track me down in the editing suite, I became one of that second wave of permaculture design students. In 1985, with Fiona Campbell, I did Robyn’s first ever Permaculture Design Course.
It turned out that this was not the first iteration of Permaculture Sydney. An entity using that name had earlier existed but had not achieved prominence. I understand that one or two of its members had a hand in setting up one of the country’s early multiple occucancy intentional communities-Penrose Rural Co-op, a couple hours drive south of the city on the Southern Highlands.
Permaculture Sydney grew under Robyn’s leadership and acquired a shopfront and residence at 113 Enmore Road, later the premises of Alfalfa House Food Co-op. This was the Permaculture Epicentre and it became the location of parties, workshops and a garden construction project that turned a negected and very small backyard into a food producing ecoystem. Here we produced the Permaculture Sydney newsletter and the International Permaculture Journal, as the PIJ was known in those days.
I had met up with Robyn in Melbourne on her visit to bring back what Terry White had called Permaculture magazine because Terry wanted to move on to new projects. We stayed with a Melbourne associate of Robyn’s by the name, I think, of Lecki Ord, and visited Terry to ‘collect’ the publication. Later, we went to a fledgling environmental project that went by the name of CERES, then just a small cluster of buildings on an old landfill site in Brunswick East.
As if to illustrate the importance of motivated individuals in making permaculture happen, Permaculture Sydney went into a slow decline when Robyn left to travel and teach permaculture overseas and when she moved to the NSW North Coast soon after her return. Phillip Booth was one of those who was arond the Epicentre while Robyn was traveling. He later moved to Byron Bay and it was well after his return to Sydney, when he was working as a project evaluator associated with UNSW, that I encountered him. That was when Fiona Campbell, then a Sustainability Education Officer with Randwick City Council, hired him to evaluate her new Living Smart and orher courses. Phillip’s specialty was evaluating sustaiability and similar courses.
It wasn’t only the loss of Robyn’s drive that led to the slow demise of Permaculture Sydney. Max Lindegger would periodically turn up at the Permaculture Epicentre to promote his project to create a new version of intentional community which he called an ‘ecovillage’. Promote it he did, perhaps a little too well for his message fell onto the ears of Epicentre resident, Denise Sawyer, and those of Frances Lang and her partner, Jeff Michaels. Frances and Jeff were then living in Balmain and were members of Permaculture Sydney. When the three packed their bags and followed Max north to become founding members of the new ecovillage, Permaculture Sydney was the loser. At some time around this period, Fiona Campbell, too, left town to take up work in Albury where she designed irrigation systems for broadacre farmers.
Frances, a horticulturist, and Jeff went on to establish Green Harvest, their mail order garden supply company. From small beginnings in their garage at Crystal Waters, the business grew to such an extent that they had to eventually move it to premises in Maleny where it was more accessible to the couriers who delivered the orders from all over Australia.
On returning from her overseas adventures in permaculture, Robyn Francis, too, left for the north, eventually moving to Lismore. In 1994 she would move again—she had found her place in the green fields on the edge of Nimbin and there set about the long and sometimes trying work of establishing her Djanbung Gardens permaculture education centre.
Why not count business in our successes?
Green Harvest, which is still in business, is a frequently overlooked permaculture success story. And this brings me to a peculiarity I find with permaculture.
Much prominence is given to the numbers that permaculture associations attract and to their successes. This is as it should be. But there is seldom any similar championing of those small businesses and social enterprises inspired by permaculture ideas and started by permaculture people.
This is not as it should be. And why is this? It is because Bill and David were aware that relying on grant funds and donations offered only a limited future to permaculture projects, if it offered any long term future at all. They said that permaculture work should be self-supporting and produce a yield. While the yield they talked about would necessarily include the product, it would also have to include the financial means to keep producing that product. And that implies either a for-profit social business or a not-for-profit social enterprise.
Some successful permaculture businesses are conspicuous. Robyn Francis’ permaculture education and consulting takes her all over the world. So does the work of Geoff Lawton at the Permaculture Research Institute and that of other permaculture educators, not forgetting those newer to permaculture such as Darren Doherty with his broadacre land management work that utilises permaculture ideas and creatively combines them with others. And then there’s Holmgren Design Services.
What is seldom acknowledged are other permaculture-inspired small businesses such as Green Harvest, Sydney Organic Gardens, August Investments and others. It is time to count their success, too. I believe the reason why they are less conspicuous is because they devote less effort to self-promotion.
Always blunt, sometimes confrontational but always straight to the point, Bill Mollison could perplex people as much as he could inspire them. His manner of delivery at his courses was designed to shake students from their established beliefs and attitudes. He would confront them with facts and figures about how bad things were getting then lift them out of the gloom of despair by describing how they could take action. This resulted in the belief that things could be put right with the application of a little permaculture design.
When Mollison stood up to talk in public, everyone listened. He was the unofficial and unelected leader, an attribute that fell to him naturally as permaculture’s early, sole authority. His was a
leadership that could have been shared by David Holmgren at the time had he been interested. He wasn’t. But he would be.
Mollison became known as the permaculture ‘guru’. When used by permaculturists the word was applied lightly, even jokingly. Yet when it came from those outside the movement the term carried a more serious intonation. Mollison rejected the notion. It was said that, at talks, he would pick his nose to convince the audience that he was anything but a guru.
Birth, decline, rebirth
That was how it went with Permaculture Sydney through the 80s. Version 1 of the organisation closely followed the emergence of the design system, probably some time very early in the decade. Permaculture Sydney version 2 was the creation of Robyn Francis when she moved to the city.
The pattern would be repeated, with version 3 appearing in the 1990s and version 4 having to wait a decade or more before appearing as the rebranding of a previous attempt at a metropolitan permaculture entity in 2011.
This evolution is typical of community associations. They grow, reach a peak, then wane. Sometimes they disappear completely… sometimes, like Permaculture Sydney, the name is resumed by new people and the entity is recreated in new form.
If we are to understand this dynamic, then we must digress and cross into the territory of ideas diffusion theory.
How ideas travel
The diffusion of new ideas and innovations into society is an orderly process.
It starts with the publication of a book or the promulgation of an idea by its originator, the innovator. For permaculture, those innovators were Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.
Soon, a small group of early adoptors gathers around the originator. Their role, though it is seldom so blatantly stated, is to develop quick-prototypes of the innovator’s ideas and refine them into workable models. This is a ‘proof of technology’ phase. Early adoptors build models of the idea and get it to work, and in so doing they make changes to the original concept to make it workable, scalable and replicable.
The early adoptors spread the word about the innovation; they start publications and websites and offer courses and convince the later adoptors that the innovation is useful and is of value.
Permaculture’s first bunch of early adopters include Max Lindegger, Terry White and Robyn Francis in their number. They and others of that first cohort did their PDC with Bill Mollison then went on to teach their own courses. Returning to where they lived, they started to offer their own courses. This group includes Rosemary Morrow and the Fantons, who established the Seed Savers Network during their time at Tuntable Falls community then continued to develop it after moving to Byron Bay. Their students, a second wave of early adopters, included Fiona Campbell and myself when we enrolled in Robyn Francis’ first ever permaculture design course.
If the the early adopters are successful in stimulating interest, and if the idea looks like it might be viable, it has a good chance of flowing on into early mass adoption. This involves a larger number of possibly more cautious people who prefer to wait to see whether the innovation is practicable before adopting it. This is why access to working models at demonstration centres is so important to the acceptance of something new. It is the beginning of the mainstreaming process that, with some innovations, may foster the development of commercial models and markets.
It can be argued that permaculture has now entered the early mass adoption phase, though there is also the argument that it is in a phase of later early adoption. The change from one phase to another can take time and the change may happen in some places well before others. This appears to be the case with permaculture.
Ideas diffusion is a way of understanding how innovations move into societies. I believe that students of the PDC would benefit from an understanding of it brcause it places the evolotion of an idea on a timeline and offers a description of the different stages of development. This would allow permaculture practitioners and sustainablity educators to adapt their work to the phase they are passing through. An understanding would also avoid the frustration that comes when good ideas are rejected because people are not yet ready for them.
Add to this understanding the ‘readiness for change’ categories developed first by Protrashka in the health field (stages include: uninterested in change; preparing for change by finding information; on the verge of change; having made change and seeking further learning and support) and more recently repurposed by Bob Doppelt for sustainability education, and you have a model from which interventions and targeted education programs can be developed. It is by the adoption of such work coming from outside of permaculture rather than reiterating accepted internal knowledge and techniques that the design system will evolve.
It was Everett Rodgers who described the ideas diffusion model, but what happens has also been explained by English author and organisational educator, Charles Handy. His Sigmoid Curve describes the lifecycle of the innovation as it is accepted and takes off, following an ascending curve as it is adopted by a greater number of people. Then it peaks and starts to descend the curve into decline.
According to Handy, the curve plots the lifecycle of ideas, products and organisations. If these are to endure, he says, then a new phase must be launched as the curve starts its decline. All going well, a new ascent is then started. Waiting until it moves too far down the curve of decline can be to wait too long.
A characteristic of entities that endure, that leave the Sigmoid Curve at the right time and head towards renewal, is that their new phase may be under a new leadership, one with fresh ideas and with a fresh interpretation of the work of the innovator that is adapted to contemporary conditions.
Setting the scene for growth–the first courses
Permaculture in its first decade… small bands of people meeting in each other’s homes and occasionally blossoming into community associations, while down on Tasmania’s Bass Srait coast Bill Mollison was educating those who would start to spread the design system nationally.
Education has high profile in permaculture. It’s not uncommon to hear permaculturists at a convergence or other gathering ask the question, “Who did you do your PDC with?”. The answer suggests that there are ‘lineages’ within the design system based upon PDC teacher. It can be something like a meeting of martial artists discussing the lineage of their style as passed down by their master. It’s probably going too far to say these are tribes but I have observed that the permaculture teacher and their networks sometimes becomes a major determinant of the particular networks within permaculrure that students affiliate with.
One of the effects of being part of a permaculture lineage passed on through teachers is that a partial appreciation of the history of the design system is perpetuated. I have observed this and listened as permaculture graduates have described a version of permaculture history that is notable for who and what is missing from the story.
Training in permaculture
With Tasmania the birthplace of permaculture it was only fitting that the first design courses were offered there.
But first, a word about education in permaculture. The Permaculture Design Course-the PDC-is accepted as the basic training necessary to teach permaculture or to practice it in any quasi-professional way. This has evolved as accepted practice although the arrangment has no legal basis. It became consolidated as practice in the 1980s largely because the number of permaculture educators was small and because the design system was still new.
There existed a set of brief notes on the content of the course altbough I am unsure whether these were drawn up by individual educators or whether they were produced by the Permaculture Institute that Bill Mollison set up. The early idea of franchising teachers of the design system was superceded by the acceptance of the PDC structure.
The original 72 hours duration of the PDC was based on a lecture style of delivery.Over the years it has been extended by teachers as the time was found too short if experiential learning was to be included. Permaculture teachers with an educational background found the lecture style to be educationally unsound because it didn’t cater to different learning styles. The PDC Fiona Campbell and I developed, for example, was 110 hours in duration.
A heirarchy of permaculture education has evolved. This starts with short courses, the duration and content of which is quite variable, as is the quality of teaching. Short or introductory courses provide a limited knowledge of the design system and over the years have been valuable for stimulating further involvement in permaculture.
The enthusiastic student’s next step is to find a PDC that meets their needs. Until recentlty, the Permaculture Institute maintained a register of teachers who signed on to its curriculum that followed the chapters of Bill Mollison’s book, Permaculture-A Desigeners Manual, published by Tagari in 1988. The Institute issued certificates awarded to people completing its PDC. In 2010, this ceased because the costs of maintaining the register exceeded the perceived benefits, however before the Instutute ended the system a number of educators had deviated from it to develop their own PDC structure although their courses retained the core teachings. That would happen in the following decade and it would not be without controversy. Today, there remains a constructive dialogue around whether there is only one ‘classical’ PDC, that prescribed by the Institute, or whether the PDC is a more flexible entity sharing as-yet-undefined core content over all iterations. This is is similar to tensions that have developed in other community-based organisations when people trybto take them in new directions and ‘traditional or ‘conservative’ versus ‘progressive’ strands of thought emerge.
For those wanting more in their permaculture education, there was a diploma level in which students focused on a core area of application.
It’s sometimes been controversial too, but the development of a nationally accredited series of certificate courses and the diploma is now reality. Accredited Permaculture Training-APT-was accepted by the national vocational training authorities several years ago. This did not supercede the PDC as some feared. Obtaining a PDC during the three or four years it takes to do the TAFE-equivalent APT is a necessity.
You can imagine those first courses at the dawn of the permaculture design system. The fortunate few who chance had acted upon to stimulate their interest making their way from the mainland, then along Tasmamia’s Bass Strait coast to the village of Stanley.
There, in the garden of the Mollison household they would be regaled with stories of Bill’s life, his observations of natural systems, the damaging trends then visible and ideas for a new beginning that kept the best of the old and discarded the rest.
These people gathered around Bill in that village below The Nut were permaculture’s first coterie of practitioners. Some would go home to teach their own courses and put into action a string of effects that, within a decade, would create a network of practitioners that had spread to distant countries. This was permaculture’s start in the world and it was a seed that would take root, grow into a strong tree and then speciate into new ecological niches.
Bill offered the first Permaculture Design Course at his home in Stanley, Tasmania, in 1979, around one year after the second of the books on permaculture had beem published and two years after Permaculture One had interested and puzzled me in my friend’s home in Hobart. According to Max Lindegger (now working with the Global Ecovillage Movement), the course was attended by 18 people, including himself. After that, the demand for training grew.
The agents trained in the course will be fully franchised when they submit ten designs for Tagari’s approval.
Other courses followed at Tagari community in Tasmania. One was reported in SE Queensland Permaculture’s Permaculture: A newsletter of the subtropics.
“Seventeen people from most corners of Australia gathered for a 2-week course in Permaculture Design at the Tagari Community in Stanley on the north-west coast of Tasmania.
“Bill Mollison lectured about the two Permaculture books and shared his experiences.
“The course is coordinated by Earl Saxon who gave a generalised talk on ecological principles. Bill encouraged the participants to become expert in design but to link up with other people, eg. unemployed groups and trained implementers.
“The emphasis is on sharing with the existing alternative movement for labour and expertise. Paying jobs would come from governments, councils and other institutions and some private urban and farm properties.
“Design aims to maximise energy gains on site. Emphasis is on efficient use of all features (multiuse wherever possible). Design is suited to different needs. Costs vary depending on client abilities to pay—‘cheap’ or ‘in kind’ for the alternative movement—normal landscape fees for institutions, etc, eg. $300 for average urban situations. The amount saved is far in excess of this even in the first few months of living on site.
“The agents trained in the course will be fully franchised when they submit ten designs for Tagari’s approval.
“Designers in Queensland from Brisbane River north are Max Lindegger and Bill Peak at Nambour and Cooroy. From Brisbane River south into NSW to the Bellingen River are John Palmer and Bob Roe from Tomewin and Uki”.
An addendum adds: “One of the 1980 Permaculture design workshops, lectured by Bill Mollison, was held in the Coolangatta region from 27th April to 3rd May, at Tomewin”.
The item speaks of the hopes of the nascent permaculture movement:
- that permaculture would operate as a franchise; the notion of franchising “agents trained in the course” never came to pass; some have said that franchising would have avoided later conflict over the attempt to trademark common terms in permaculture and the registration of permaculture teachers
- the references to “alternatives” hints at the commonality that early permaculture practitioners percieved with the alternative movement and indicates the relevance of that social movement to permaculture’s early development as many early permaculturists came from that movement; it recognises the alternative movement as a constructive thing rather than as some permacultirists of the 90s framed it when they asserted that permaculture had to dissasociate itself from its ‘hippy’ image
- the reference to unemployed groups shows that the design system’s originators saw disadvantaged groups as potential beneficiaries and that permaculture would have social as well as an ecological dividends.
As to the designers mentioned, with the exception of Max Lindegger they were lost to permaculture after its formative years. It revisits the sometimes-heard question (though heard less these days) about why so many of the design system’s early adopters have moved on from permaculture.
The idea that paying jobs would come from government and rural and urban landholders would take years before it even started to gain some veracity. Even today, with a few notable exceptions, local government is not an employer of individuals with permaculture qualifications, those working in it and making use of permaculture ideas having gained their employment through other qualifications. As far as is known, the first local government to include the PDC as a preferred qualification was Randwick City Council, when Fiona Campbell (council’s sustainability educator) specified it for preferred suppliers in architecture, landscape architecture and associated educational work.
Some paid work has come through rural landuse design and home garden design and construction, however permaculture has yet to find a firm niche in its own right in the world of work. The training offered by tne Colemens, in rural Victoria, to potential franchisees of the Jim’s Mowing enterprise in an attempt to establish Jim’s Permaculture didn’t result in a new segment for the business.
Those offering the Accredited Permaculture training through Permaculture International, which owns the training, hope that this will boost the income earning prospect of the design system with the qualification becoming attractive to local government and other employers.
Interestingly, SE Queensland Permaculture, the association that published the newsletter from which the above information has been quoted and which appears to have been distributed shortly after 1980, established a seed bank and seed exchange in the Tweed region.
“The Hindmarsh City Farm project was as early attempt to make use of the then-new idea of permaculture to stimulate a community development and an urban food development project”.
Another early adoptor and graduate of the early Permaculture design courses was Colin Ball from South Australia. He wrote that: “I attended a permacutlure design course taught by Bill Mollison in 1982.
“After that, I was pretty active in Adelaide for about six years and then moved to the Clare Valley to establish ourselves and get our ‘house in order’”.
Colin was a founding member of the Permaculture Association of South Australia, one of the country’s longest running permaculture organisations.
He contined: “In the 1980’s I was a community activist and development worker in the Town of Hindmarsh, Adelaide, and instigator of the Urban Permaculture Consultants (UPC, the ‘Urban Trouble Makers’).
“I was also a founding member of Hindmarsh City Farm and co-authoured Sustainable Urban Renewal: Urban Permaculture in Bowden, Brompton and Ridleyton. (Ball; 1985) with the UPC.
“I have been an owner-builder, homesteader and a youth worker and am currently working on relocalisation projects in the Clare Valley, and on writing history.
“The Hindmarsh City Farm project was as early attempt to make use of the then-new idea of permaculture to stimulate a community development and an urban food development project”.
Australia’s first community garden had been established in Nunuwading, Melbourne in 1977, making Hindmarsh one of the first of its type and, with the permaculture influence, probably the first of that particular type.
There had been permaculture people involved in the Nunuwading Community Garden during its early years, but their methods must have caused a little consternation. Years later, a man involved in the garden at the time publicly criticised permaculture people for laying unsightly old carpet on the ground. He was referring to a common technique for smothering weeds, but he came away with a highly critical appreciation of the design system.
Based on the 72-hour duration of the university semester, Bill presented the Permaculture Design Course as an entertaining storyteller. Storytelling was a skill he excelled at and through which he blended fact and anecdote. Somehow, he distilled a lifetime’s learning into a continuous verbal download that was as enthralling as it was exhausting for those trying to take it in.
Others tried to copy his style but none equalled it. The verbal presentation of information, hour after hour, can become stultifying if the teacher does not have the skills of the storyteller. Few do. Curiously, this lecture style remained the model for teaching permaculture until new teachers arrived on the scene in the 1990s and offered a quiety-stated critique of it as less than educationally sound. Mollison could do it, but when others tried the result was not nearly as entertaining or enlightening.
The result was the offering of courses structured around other learning styles. Robin Clayfield and Skye, her partner of the time now living in Brazil, developed a self-structuring, participatory course at their Crystal Waters teaching centre. In Sydney, Fiona Campbell and I developed a part-time, practice-based and urban-oriented course at Randwick Community Centre. In New Zealand in the late-1990s, Robina McCurdy offered a year-long permaculture and organics training course through Planet Organic.
This, at least, brought variety to permaculture education and catered to different learning styles. Yet, students continue to report that even newer teachers continue to offer the chalk-and-talk teaching style, perhaps assuming their students to be empty vessels into which they pour their knowledge. It’s likely that those using this approach are merely mimicing the way they were taught. Even so, the world and teaching has changed considerably since the early days of permaculture, and lecturing university or TAFE teacher style is simply out of date. Students today, often ecucated and working in interactive environments, expect better.
Ready to surface
For the first couple years of the new decade permaculture was quiet. There were things going on under the surface where those-in-the-know gathered-the first design courses had created the first batch of practitioners, Permaculture One and Two were still in print and Permaculture magazine was the design system’s voice in the world. This, though, was all below the perceptual horizon of the wider society.
It would not stay that way for long.
Here and there a critical word
Hippies—they were a bit of a target for Bill. At public talks during the 1980s and into the following decade, he would frequent criticise them, accusing them of indolence and other transgressions.
His comments were something of an anochranism, though, for hippydom had by this time been large
relegated to the annals of social history and why he should mention then at all was a bit of a mystery. My guess is thst he needed a group to compare those involved in permaculture with, just as he would go on to do make the distinction between permaculture and the environment movement.
If you assume that the authentic hippies were self-indulgent layabouts, then there is some basis to separating them from what was called the alternative movement of the 1970s with its interest in creating new ways of living, of affordable building and appropriate technologies, new economic systems and the like. The division, however, could be far from clear cut.
In his attitude to the mainstream environment movement, it seemed Bill was trying to create the perception that permaculture was a solutions-oriented and practice-based social movement whereas the environment movement was focused solely on campaigning. Thus began the permaculture critique of campaigning, although the reality was that many in permaculture supported the aims of those campaigning organisations and participated in their campaigns.
Bill’s message was not unlike that of the late left-wing Sydney bookshop proprieter, Bob Gould. Gould had been a leader of the anti-Vietnam war movement in the late 1960s and was a leading Sydney figure in the New Left. In the years of its rise to influence, like other leftists of the time Bob viewed the environment movement as essentially a middle class phenomena. This was a criticism which, in Marxist circles, carried connotations of undesirability. Despite this, so many of the youth that Gould had led turned to the environment movement just as permaculturists participated in the campaigns of the environmental organisations that Bill critised.
The argument about whether education and demonstrating alternatives leads to social change, or whether more concerted political action is required has surfaced in permaculture from time to time. For Mollison, the social revolution was to be a quiet one of aggregation through attraction, of gaining supporters by demonstrating the common sense and desirability of the permaculture way. Permaculture systems were to be made so attractive and bountiful that it would be difficult not to adopt them and doing this would lead to social change of the right kind. So went the theory.
Twenty years after this discussion in permaculture circles, the Transition movement in the UK had to respond to explain its reasons for taking a non-campaigning line on social change. In an analogous situation to that of permaculture in the 1980s, Transition movement leader, Rob Hopkins, issued an explanation in response to the accusation that it was doing nothing to support the campaign in response to the UK government’s funding cuts and the impact they were having on civil society.
Jeff Michaels, who with partner Francis Lang left Sydney to move to Crystal Waters ecovillage soon after it was opening in the 1980s. The couple started the successful Green Harvest mail order horticultural supplies business.
By the late-eighties people had invested money in courses and were gaining experience in applying permaculture, mainly in home gardens but increasingly in community initiatives as the work of community-based permaculture associations.
The associations proved a valuable tool in the spread of permaculture and brought people together for learning, socialising and action. Their growth continued well into the 1990s and did not start to decline until late in the decade.
By that time, a number of the early-established associations had ceased or were in a weakened state. The reason why this happened remains unknown. Some say that modern work and home life do not permit participation in community associations as they once did because of time poverty, and that new models of voluntary activity have reduced the need for community associations. An alternative explanation of the decline of Permcaulture associations may be that the design system’s growth crested at that time.
In popularising the design system the role of community-based associations should not be underestimated, yet sometimes they generated a sense of territoriality, the belief that a particular organisation had ‘rights’ to a particular area.
“There are no territories in Permaculture”, Bill Mollison once said in reference to teaching. He might as well have said the same about community associations. When Permaculture North established itself on Sydney’s northside, the reaction of some in Permaculture Sydney, was why did they not join Permaculture Sydney and strengthen it?
Something analogous happened years later when Permaculture 2000 was started in the Ryde area by graduates of the Permaculture Design Course then offered by Ryde TAFE. Their small numbers proved unsustainable and they joined Permaculture North.
The most extreme incidence of territoriality I have come across occurred in the late-1990s when a Rotary Club in Western Sydney organised an address by Bill Mollison. This proved so successful that it was repeated for the next three or so years.
To my surprise, I received a call from the organiser who was upset about a woman, reportedly from a new permaculture association based in north-western Sydney-Permaculture Hills to Hawkesbury. This woman, she said, had been disruptive at Bill’s talk. The inference seemed to be that the woman felt some ownership of permaculture in the region and was resentful of the organiser in taking the initiative to invite Bill to speak.
Investment of the ethical kind
When Bill haraigned his UK audience about their money, he was motivated by the experience of August Investments, Australia’s first ethical investment start-up.
Set up in 1984 by ethical investment pioneer Damien Lynch—he prefers the term ‘social investment’—August Investments placed investor’s funds into companies that had a beneficial or neutral environmental and social impact. August was the first company to put potential investments through positive and negative-impact filter to assess their social and environmental effects. This weeded out the armament manufacturers, miners and tobacco hawkers.
Damien was inspired by permaculture and later went on to assist in starting Australian Ethical Investments, a Canberra-based company that now trades on the stock market and offers ethical superannuation investment. In the 1990s, he set up EcoForest Ltd, a company accepting investment funds in sustainable timber production. EcoForest had a mixed-species plantation of eucalypt and rainforest timbers in the northern Hunter Valley of NSW but in late-2004 experienced difficulty in attracting investment and went into voluntary receivership.
Not long after August Investments made its start, a Blue Mountains lawyer, Hal Gingis, started Southern Cross Capital Exchange, an organisation that put those with funds into contact with ethical enterprises seeking capital. Southern Cross was forced to close with the introduction of new financial legislation.
In Sydney, the biodynamic Demeter bakery business started by people influenced by the ideas of Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner, gained the attention of those with an interest in ethical investment by raising start-up funds from supporters. Rather than observe the award system set up by the industrial courts to determine the pay levels of its workforce, the bakery was said to negotiate individual pay directly with workers in an approach that presaged the individual working contracts later proposed by the right-wing Howard government.
The allegation about the bakery’s novel wage fixing arrangement is derived from discussions I was privy to at the time with someone who worked there. The bakery is long gone so it is not possible to get their version of the arrangement, however I report it here because, if true as told to me, it raises questions and may contradict permaculture’s second ethic of care of people and its third ethic of fair shares.
It was claimed that bakery management asked would-be workers how much they needed to live and to pay them that amount. That is, staff set their own wages. This might have been a novel idea, however what was not discussed was the potential for workers to undervalue their time and to ask for less so they could have the opportunity of working at the bakery. Working at the bakery was attractive to some seeking more meaningful work, but undiscussed was the potential for workers to bargain themselves down to a low income were competition to develop for places in the workforce… in effect, a race to tne bottom.
The industrial relations and moral arguments around the practice were not addressed by those who supported the bakery and bought its products. The model raised questions of the ‘fair trade’ kind associated with fairness of economic return to producers in developing countries but gives it an Australian focus. This was unfortunate because no matter how good the business, its products or motivation, the potential for exploitation is something that could work against innovative businesses and the social investment industry. The bakery later went out of business.
A difficult path
“The Earthbank Society was an initiative of Bill Mollison, founder of the permaculture movement”
Ethical investments was never an easy path to walk. There were claims of lower than average returns on investment and many socially and environmentally aware people, the natural clientele for ethical investment, lacked the financial reserves to invest. Servicing small investments cost a disproportionate amount, a fact that led some ethical organisations to seek only larger deposits from people with greater wealth.
Even when those with a green outlook had adequate funds they proved reluctant to support ethical investment. According to Damien, people with an environmental and social conscience can be reluctant to move away from conventional investment even though the uses investment funds might make of their capital could compromise their environmental ethics. Damien said there was a free-floating suspicion of business and investment among the green-minded that worked against the ethical funds.
Damien had graduated from one of the early permaculture design courses, as did northern NSW resident Robert Rosen, and both did much to popularise social investment. They were involved in Earthbank, an early permaculture initiative set up by the Permaculture Institute to stimulate the sector.
“The Earthbank Society was an initiative of Bill Mollison, founder of the permaculture movement”, explained Robert.
“In 1982 an Alternate Economic Summit, initiated by Mollison, was held in Tasmania. Although only a dozen or so people attended, two major initiatives emerged out of that conference. Oone was the Maleny Credit Union which Jill Jordan took on the task of helping set up. The other was the Earthbank Society.
“A year earlier after attending a permaculture design conference run by Bill Mollison, Damien Lynch had set August Investment Pty Ltd, Australia’s first ethical investment company. Damien went on to establish August Investment Management Ltd (now Australian Ethical Investment Management Ltd), the first ethical investment funds manager in Australia.
“Earthbank was set up by architect and permaculture designer, Geoff Young, and provided the financial and economic philosophy to go hand in hand with permaculture’s permanent agricultural systems. Its original objectives were:
- to increase awareness of the steps required to create a sustainable economic future
- to assist in the economic revitalisation of local communities
- to promote the concepts of social, ethical and community based investment
- to provide assistance and support to financial organizations which adopt social, ethical and environmental investment criteria.
“In practice, much of its work was devoted to the last two of its objectives. Geoff Young helped bring ethical investment to the attention of the media in Australia with early major stories featuring Earthbank and ethical investment appearing in the financial press, radio and TV.
“He produced the Earthbank Ethical Investment Guide. Geoff also contributed a regularly to the International Permaculture Quarterly (Terry White’s Permaculture magazine) on a wide variety issues associated with community economics and ethical investment”.
The Association closed in 1987.
Robert reported that in 1986, Geoff Young convened the successful, and first, National Earthbank Conference in Sydney and later that year he moved from to Queensland to help set up Crystal Waters, the rural village development based on permaculture principles.
Working from the NSW North Coast, Robert took over from Geoff as secretary of the Society.
“In late 1986 the Earthbank Society prepared the feasibility study for the Bellingen District Loan Fund Ltd, a community based socially and environmentally responsible loan fund which was established in the following year”, he explained.
In 1987 the Earthbank Society started receiving an increasing number of enquiries from prospective ethical investors and was regularly fielding media enquiries that had been stimulated by the establishment of the first two ethical managed funds in Australia in 1986-87.
“In 1987, a second very successful Earthbank Conference was held in Sydney, with Roger Pritchard from the United States, an authority on community-based economics and investment as its keynote speaker. Also in that year Earthbank Society of WA was formed.
“Coinciding with growing community awareness in environmental issues, interest in ethical investment increased dramatically in late 1988 and the Earthbank Society began began receiving enquiries not only from the media and interested investors but also from investment advisers, fund managers, banks, insurance companies and stock brokers. After one radio interview on Carolyn Jones’ In Search for Meaning on the ABC, the Society received over 250 letters.
“In 1986 Simply Living magazine ran an article on ethical investment which elicited more letters from readers than any other article since the magazine had started. Following the article, the editor, Verna Simpson, and Geoff Young appeared on Ray Martin’s Midday Show and talked about ethical investment. As a result, Simply Living received 500 more letters asking for information about this new form of investment”.
Simply Living was a glossy magazine produced in Sydney that blended stories on the emerging green movement with lifestyle reporting. In a way it mainstreamed those green causes. It made its own contribution to popularising them and the green movement of that time. In many ways it presaged the ‘green’ magazines that appeared with the new century when what passes for ‘green lifestyles’ had achieved a more solid foundation. Simply Living seems to have been largely forgotten now though it deserves recognition for taking what were in some cases still fringe green ideas to a mainstream audience.
Robert said that early in 1989 Edwin Macpherson, an experienced investment consultant, contacted him about what could be done to help ethical investment really get off the ground in Australia. The outcome was to set up an Australia-wide network of specialist ethical investment planners in the form of Money Matters Financial Group Pty Ltd, a licensed security dealer specialising in socially and environmentally responsible investment. Money Matters started operations in February 1989.
“One of the other major impediments to the growth of ethical investment in Australia was seen as a lack of people’s confidence in the security and returns that ethical investments can give as well as a lack of trust in the investment industry generally”.
Like Damien Lynch’s Ecoforest Pty Ltd 20 years later, it seems that Money Matters was still a little ahead of its time and it eventually went out of business. Maleny Credit Union, however, contunues as a unique financial institution.
Tucked away behind its garden of palms and ferns on Maleny’s main street, the credit union offers loans for approved and ethical investment as well as a deposits service. The credit union has prided itself on making loans available to people considered uncreditworthy by conventional institutions. In the 1990s, a permaculture credit union opened its doors in the USA.
Most ethical financial services have been small businesses, however the community-based LETS (Local Employment Trading System or Local Energy Transfer System) that emerged in the 1990s was community based. LETS was an idea that found a ready market and took off and the West Australian government even publishing a manual to assist local LETSystems get started. Blue Mountain LETS successfully negotiated with the Department of Social Security so that LETS credits would not be counted as income for beneficiaries.
Introduced into Australia by a Canadian who sometimes worked from an office at Randwick Community Centre in Sydney where Sydney LETS, which failed to get started, and Permaculture Sydney was based, the system fostered trading between individuals who agreed on the exchange rates for transactions. Credits and debits were recorded on a computer database. No direct exchange between transactors was necessary as in bartering. Participants provided and obtained goods and services as needed, without the exchange of currency. North LETS, operating in Northern NSW, issued its own banknote-like currency in the mid-1990s.
Alternative financial structures formed part of most permaculture design courses. At the Randwick Community Centre courses, Sue Doust took students back to the community economic systems of the 1930s and on to more recent examples in the USA. It was inclusion in courses that stimulated the interest within permaculture in community trading and banking systems, yet, although there was a great deal of interest, community economics remained a minor part of permaculture application. This may have somethng to do with the probability that most students were interested primarily in horticulture.
Permaculture could rightly claim early ‘ownership’ of the idea of ethical investment and LETS for it was often permaculture people who started LETS systems in its early days, before LETS built up its own momentum and went independent in the late-1980s and 1990s.
These economic initiatives of people inspired by permaculture demonstrate that in its early phase the design system had a breadth of focus and a seriousness that later gave way to a focus on gardening. This itself was a product of the design system’s success, when television gardening programs picked up on that partucular and popular aspect of its practice. As observers of the media, and as those who have worked within it know, when this happens the element docused on gets blown out of proportion.
When the economic focus is considered along with the earlier social focus of pemaculture’s early adopters, you get the idea that the design system was once envisioned somewhat differently than it turned out.
Rewriting the past
“We’ve got to get away from the hippy image”, the man told the meeting. “We’ve got to be more mainstream”.
This was a familiar assertion to those who had been around permaculture for a few years. When the speaker restated them to the 1997 Permaculture Convergence in Nimbin he was parroting earlier concerns about the public image of the design system.
The perception that permaculture still occupied the social fringe led, in the late-1980s, to some new to permaculture to urge what would have amounted to a rewriting of the early history of the movement to distance it from its earlier appeal to the alternative subculture. They believed permaculture carried the stigma of a ‘hippy’ – ‘hippy farming, – and that this image reflected poorly on the design system and put people off.
There was a little truth to the allegation. The design system’s early association with the alternative movement would take time to start to fade from memory, however it’s another thing to write the critical nexus of permaculture and the alternative movement out of existence. Permaculture is a product of that movement as much as that movement was a product of the social churn that characterised the 1970s.
It has proven an amazingly durable perception. It could still be heard, thought with decreasing frequency, well into the 1990s. But by that time, the only places hippies were likely to be found were as stuffed specimens in museums of social history. Such utterings came mainly from younger people coming into permaculture and reflected the biases of those making the claim. Mollison, too, had criticised ‘hippies’ but had described permaculture as a positive practice at odds with the popular image of that subculture.
To deny permaculture’s past is to deny the social context of its formative years. Like all movements, permaculture was a product of its times, and its formative times were the late-1970s in all their social flux and difference.
The journal moves north
Robyn has travelled down separately and I met up with her in Melbourne. The year was 1986 and Terry White was about to hand over production of Permaculture magazine. Terry had kept Permaculture in publication despite starting it when the design system was in its infancy and when practitioners were few.
The publication was brought back to Sydney where it was renamed the International Permaculture Journal (later renamed the Permaculture International Journal). It was put together by a small volunteer crew in the backroom of the Permaculture Sydney EpiCentre at 113 Enmore Road. The centre had been opened by Bill Mollison on a Saturday afternoon not long before. There, we laboriously typed, cut and pasted the editions together. Those were the days before desktop publishing software.
A legal entity was established to publish the magazine—Permaculture International Limited. The journal stayed in Sydney until Robyn returned from an overseas teaching assignment. It then went with her to the NSW north coast where it remained, the editorship passing from Robyn to Steve Payne (now editor of the ABC Organic Gardening magazine) who saw the PIJ through to its final edition in the year 2000.
A decade of growth
That permaculture was a presence at some level in Australia is attested to by a passing mention in a statement that introduces Byron Bay on the Lonely Planet website: “The [town’s] focus changed from primary production to ecotourism, permaculture, alternative medicine, bush tucker farming, music and the arts. Surfing culture flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, while the Aquarius Festival in Nimbin in 1973 put the area on the map as a mecca for hippies”.
Permaculture in the 1980s grew from a nascent design system towards the maturity it would achieve in later years. This was the decade when the system went public, when it left its Tasmanian homeland to infect first Australia, then the world.
In the big picture permaculture was still largely unknown. But in Australia, attention from the mainstream media was propelling it into the public awareness. There, it would bloom in the coming decade.