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PacificEdge | June 24, 2017

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THE PERMACULTURE PAPERS — 2: The dawn

THE PERMACULTURE PAPERS — 2: The dawn

GREY BEARD FRAMING A SUNTANNED FACE topped by a head of thinning, wispy hair, the man rises from his chair and stands at the podium.

He is silent for a moment as he looks out at the audience as if sizing them up. Then he starts to speak, projecting his gruffy but commanding voice over the tiers of seats in the lecture hall. He launches into an anecdote about the movement he started eighteen years earlier.

Co-founder of the permaculture design system, Bill Mollison, taken at the 1997 Australian Permaculture Convergence at Djanbung Gardens, Nimbin. Photo: Russ Grayson.

The scene was the University of Technology, Sydney. The time, the 1990s. But it could have been anywhere, anytime, for Bill Mollison was in his element, he was in front of an audience. Then in late middle age, Bill was the storyteller supreme, the man of a thousand tales, the speaker guaranteed to inspire and provoke at the same time.

His presentation that evening to the packed lecture theatre was about the design system of which he was one of the instigators. It was an idea then starting to find its place in the world, but its story started some years before in a place far distant.

In the beginning

Hobart. It is mid-afternoon on a mild summer’s day in 1978. I am in a friend’s living room in unremarkable Moonah, one of those modest suburbs that make up Hobart’s spread along the western bank of the Derwent River.

“Have you seen this?”, Denis asks, reaching out to offer me a large format book.

“It’s a new book I picked up in town. Looks interesting”.

“What’s it about?”, I ask.

I flick through its pages. The cover carries a colourful illustration and inside are blocks of dark text interspersed with line drawings. The authors were clearly trying to explain an idea to people who have never before encountered it. And for the ideas in this book, that is almost everyone.

Co-founder of the permaculture design system, David Holmgren, in Victoria in the mid-1990s. Photo: Russ Grayson.

The names of the two authors are unknown to us. Yet, curiously, they come from this very same city. Something interesting has been going on around us and we have been oblivious to it… but maybe not quite, for there have been stories about someone doing public talks, someone with rather unusual ideas.

“It’s about something called permaculture”, says Denis. The name means nothing to me and much the same to Denis. It is simply a word we—and the world—have never encountered before.

The next week I went out and bought my own copy of this perplexing volume. As yet, I wasn’t quite sure what Permaculture One–A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements (1978: Mollison B, Holmgren D; Transworld Publishers) was all about. I was not alone in this.

My partner of the time and I were living in Hobart and I was working in the adventure equipment industry. We associated with a different coterie than those few-and it was just a few-around the ideas in this new book. Our weekends were spent in the mountainous interior of this rugged island, scrambling up steep slopes of dark brown dolerite, skidding over its white landscapes on touring skis, trekking through cool temperate rainforest with its dripping branches and its leaches that would latch on and suck your blood, and setting up camp beside mountain lakes known to the locals as ‘tarns’. Sometimes, I would be out in those same mountains with the search and rescue unit looking for people too-long overdue.

It seemed a such a different life to that hinted at by the authors of that unusual book yet there seemed to be compatibilities and we felt a high degree of affinity with the ideas in it. One of those affinities lay immediately outside Denis’ back door. Out there, Denis Elwell and his wife Pam had made a large, organic food garden. Like others at the time, they had been inspired by the idea of growing food organically and the couple had transformed their Moonah backyard from uninteresting lawn into a diverse and edible garden. The idea of organic gardening was only then becoming popular, evidence of which appeared in the form of a wholefoods shop selling organic goods near the Elizabeth-Warwick intersection on the city edge, that opened around that time.

Another affinity with the ideas in Permaculture One was that the book spoke to one of our intentions in coming to Tasmania—to find cheap rural land. Like others from the mainland, we had been attracted to the island state to start a new life and we began something of a desultory search for land to buy, build a house and settle into that rural idyll described so picturesquely in the pages of Earth Garden magazine. Our intention was to live on the land rather than work it as farmers, much like our mainland contemporaries who moved to places like Nimbin, Maleny and the Taree hinterland. That, however was a life direction not taken.

The influence of a subculture

Within the covers of Permaculture One were ideas and concepts that, over coming years, would influence many, confuse some, motivate others and divert more than a few onto new and unanticipated trajectories in life. In today’s digital culture, Permaculture One was what we would call a ‘disruptive technology’, an idea that threatened to disrupt business as usual, to change the way we thought and did things. For those who felt the intellectual pull of permaculture’s ideas over the years following the books release, it certainly did disrupt their way of thinking about the world and its possibilities.

To understand permaculture’s origins it might help if we explore the social movement that influenced it during its formative years.

At the time of the appearance of Bill and David’s book, something of a social revolution had been going on in Australia for the previous seven years and more. Over that time the restive, creative edge of the youth demographic had been searching for a different way of living that incorporated emerging ideas on the natural environment, food, technology, lifestyle and human purpose.

Part of the mythology that accompanied that revolution was the idea that rural life was not only virtuous but offered a new and desirable path into the future, and as a consequence the ‘back to the land’ movement—it was to later become known as ‘rural resettlement’ following an academic study—was born. Earth Garden magazine, the product of a couple living on Sydney’s North Shore—both articulated this neo-rural philosophy and reported its development. The movement became an interesting blend of pre-industrial technology and sentiment, traditional rural skills such as building, food preserving and gardening juxtaposed onto the technological models of Buckminster Fuller, with his geodesic domes and whole systems design, and emerging, modern ideas around ‘spaceship Earth’ an similar notions. Unconsciously, it attempted to blend rural traditionalism and technological and ideological modernity.

Many of those who made up this amorphous, diverse social movement were the post-World War Two baby boomers, that population explosion that swelled the number of youth and gave it an unprecedented presence and influence.

Why they should go out and seek a new way of life so different to that of their often-perplexed parents has troubled academics and researchers for some time. Some say it was a reaction to the threat of the Cold War that accompanied them from childhood into adult life… many will recall how the nuclear threat hung over everything. Australian social researcher and author of popular books on Australian society, Hugh Mackay, attributes much in the mindset of this generation to the constant presence of the Cold War and its threat. Others say it was a reaction to the ordinariness of everyday life with its increasing affluence and materialism that led to the search for alternatives and deeper meaning in life.

But not all those touched by this new ideology, these new ideas, deserted city for countryside. Many stayed in the cities and explored what would later become known as ‘sustainable living’. More than a few permaculture people were in that number and, despite the design system’s later identification with rural living and farming, they created permaculture’s early school of urban thinkers.

As that convulsive, chaotic and innovative decade of the 1970s drew to a close, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren’s book promised to crystallise that amorphous set of uncoordinated practices and to combine them with their own ideas into a coherent system for living in city and country.

In the pre-permaculture years, the back to the land movement was part of the constructive cohort pursuing ‘alternative lifestyles’ (to differentiate them from the spiritually inclined who set up ashrams and organisations to explore mainly Eastern philosophical and spiritual thinking, and the other explorers of self who became known as ‘hippies’, though even by then the term was becoming dated) were exploring renewable technologies such as solar and wind energy, and were trialing new forms of building, a popular type being mudbrick because it made affordable housing possible. These were the years around the 1973 oil crisis when the Middle Eastern oil-producing states, organised as OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) shut off the oil supply to the West because of its support of Israel during the Yom Kippur war of the same year.

It was the oil crisis that launched the first wave of research into renewble energy as the West learned the hard way that the supply of its economic lifeblood, a thick, black, viscous liquid, was highly vulnerable. But by the end of the decade the oil taps were again fully open and oil was once again cheap. Who, then, needed to bother with renewable energy? It would remain in the social background until the end of the century.

All of this was in the future when the ‘alternatives’ started to develop as a social trend as the 1960s morphed into the new decade. Developing into a self-conscious social movement, it would flower to fulness over the coming decade. Thanks to it, many discovered organic gardening, owner-building, recycling and environmentalism among other things, and perhaps those spiritually inclined even found themselves and realised their true nature. And thanks to the alternatives, the best of their ideas and the innovative thinkers among then flowed into the emerging permaculture movement.

As that convulsive, chaotic and innovative decade of the 1970s drew to a close, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren’s book promised to crystallise that amorphous set of uncoordinated practices and to combine with them their own ideas into a coherent system for living in city and country. If the alternative, the ‘back to the land’ movement did anything, it was to feed permaculture’s early adopters.

Residents outside their owner-built house at Tuntable Falls, one of Australia’s first intentional communities started in the early 1970s. Settlements like this appeared all over the county and attracted what must have numbered thousands, perhaps more, to the idea of a more communal, cooperative way of living. Some of the early intentional communities continue to exist.

Permaculture One-where to now?

Organic growing and the appearance of intentional communities in the US had first come to my attention through the pages of the American magazine, Mother Earth News and through Stewart Brand’s compendium of tools and ideas, the Whole Earth Catalog. Mother Earth was available in Australia if you knew where to look for it, and the stories it carried sparked ideas in the imagination of many who read it. So did the Whole Earth Catalog, which was a series of publications under the same or similar names. Add to these publications Earth Garden magazine and you had the start of an alternative literature that supplemented books that appeared around the time, such as Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for spaceship Earth. It seemed all-so-visionary and promising, like a new world lying in wait if only we could somehow invoke it. For that band of youthful adventurers out there in the backblocks and back here in the cities who wanted to bring this new society into being, Permaculture One, it seemed, would have a lot of appeal.

The book had much to do with food, though less about cooking it and more about the bigger picture of how we obtain it. So it was that there developed an early nexus between farming systems, organic gardening and permaculture. This has persisted and at times has come to dominate popular perceptions of what the permaculture design system actually is. The gardening focus can be partly understood as stemming from food growing as an easy place to start practicing permaculture, but it has somewhat stymied the development of permaculture’s ‘invisible systems’ such as an alternative economics and its potential contribution to urban planning. This, in later years, may offer an explanation of why community economics evolved as an initiative in its own right rather than maintaining the close connection with permaculture that it started with.

A book, however, does not make a revolution by itself and for those who bought Permaculture One there seemed nowhere to go with the ideas unless you had land beyond the city fringe.

As a recipe for a new way of living, that first permaculture book hinted at a broader philosophy that was not yet in a completely coherent state. That it was more a work in progress became clear with the publication of Permaculture Two–Practical Design for Town and Country in Permanent Agriculture (Tagari Publications, Tasmania), around a year later.

The books took ideas from many areas—farming systems, traditonal agriculture, building design and construction, water supply, ecology, anthropology, ethnobotany, technology and more—and synthesised them into something seemingly complete and achievable. A few of the ideas on technologies I had recently become familiar with, having discovered the work of Fritz Schumacher in his book, Small is Beautiful, and on hearing his colleague from the Intermediate Technology Development Group i the UK, George McRobie, speak at the college of advanced education in Hobart.  Permaculture One and Two though, ware an integration, a systematisation of diverse ideas. It was no accident that Bill and David described permaculture as a synthesis.

Interesting stuff, I thought, as I flicked through the pages of that first of the permaculture books that warm summer afternoon in Denis’ living room. When I went out and bought my own copy, I was still unsure what to make of it and I had no inkling of the part that permaculture would come to play in my life, nor the byways, side trips and places it would take me.

Sitting, listening

The man sits, listening with increasing excitement. There’s a voice on the radio… a gruffy but commanding voice.

The listener lives in an industrial town in rural Victoria and he’s more than a little intrigued. There’s common sense being spoken and there is something compelling about that voice and what it says. He feels compelled to listen because the voice seems to articulate what he feels but what he can’t quite put into words. What that man is saying comes across as both revelation and motivation.

The place: Maryborough, Victoria.

The year: 1978.

The program: Terry Lane on ABC radio.

Terry White was an early adopted of permaculture.

The interview Terry White listens to that fateful day was with someone he has never heard of. His name, Terry discovers, is Bill Mollison. And the book under discussion? It will go on to become the foundation of something new, something called the permaculture design system.

“I found it galvanising,” says Terry. “Bill’s interview kindled my imagination in a profound way”.

The impact of that interview was so profound, Terry says, that he and his associates invite Bill to visit Maryborough for a public meeting.

“We did this in a local context of concern about youth unemployment and land degradation. This provided a responsive setting for the discussion of permanent culture (perma-culture) and an emphasis on positive, practical, whole-system solutions.”

A town ready for new ideas

In an attempt to address these issues, Maryborough had started two employment cooperatives, one making clothing and the other making bicycle trailers. An alternative technology foundation was planning a technology demonstration centre and there was considerable concern over dryland salinity, which was attributed to the removal of trees and the subsequent rise in saline groundwater in the area.

“SALT, which became Project Branchout, received $850,000 of government funding to employ local people to revegetate. They planted 300,000 trees through 33 municipalities,” explained Terry.

“It was the largest project of its type in Australia at the time. It was inspired by Rooseveldt’s Conservation Corps of the ‘thirties, which provided cultural stimulation, collected local histories, local music”.

A burst of innovative thinking

The initiatives then underway in Maryborough were allied to ideas around local self-reliance and local development then current among the innovative fringe of the seventies and early eightees. Those ideas supported notions like local economy, local employment and viable towns and cities. They came as part of a burst of innovative thinking born of the social change of the late 1960s and its maturation over the following decade.

Good ideas give birth to positive spin-offs and those around local self-reliance fed into the idea of LEIs—local employment initiatives or local economic initiatives. Melbourne man, Geoff Lacey, issued a thin little book on the subject in 1983 (Lacey G; Community Self Reliance; Pax Christi, Carlton, Australia. ISBN 0 9592551 1 7) that neatly and concisely explored and summarised the idea. Around the same time, the federal government started to publish a free magazine, Work Matters, which reported new economy ideas and innovative livelihood development and which remained in publication for several years.

What is interesting is how this intellectual territory—local economy, low and intermediate technology solutions and renewable energy—is today being revisited by the Transition Towns movement. It’s as if the intellectual ferment and experimentation with appropriate technology (originally called ‘intermediate technology’ on account of it being situated between traditional and high technology), organic growing and alternative ways of living was a trial run for models that would gain currency decades later. Is it the case of ideas whose time has finally come?

In Maryborough at that time there was more than a little social ferment, it seems. “There were animated conversations about issues”, Terry says, which produced “good ideas for a local employment column in the local newspaper”.

The Maryborough public meeting organised by Terry was well attended and resulted in the formation of one of the first permaculture groups in Australia, the National Permaculture Association.

Not the first appearance

Terry Lane’s interview with Bill Mollison brought the emerging idea of permaculture before its first mass audience. It was not, however, its first public appearance.

“Permaculture made its first appearance on the world stage in 1976 in an article in Tasmania’s Organic Farmer and Gardener magazine which was pubished by the Tasmanian Organic Gardening and Farming Society”, said Steve Payne, now editor of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s magazine, Organic Gardener, and past editor of Permaculture International Journal.

“The article was titled A Permaculture System for Southern Australian Conditions—Part One. It was written by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren”.

Sad to report is the demise of the Tasmanian Organic Gardening and Farming Society. ABC radio’s Bush Telegraph program reported it this way in June 2009: “The pioneers of organic food production in this country were considered dangerous radicals not so long ago.

“Back in 1972 a group of passionate supporters of organic farming based in Tasmania, formed a group called the Organic Gardening and Farming Society of Tasmania.

“After 37 years the group has decided to disband and held its final meeting last weekend”.

The innovators

From the highway it appears as a flat-topped bluff projecting into Bass Strait from pale yellow beaches scalloped by sea and wind.

Take the walking track that climbs The Nut and look back to see the town of Stanley arrayed below. Immediately you notice that this is a small town that clings to a narrow isthmus joining the mainland of north west Tasmania to this imposing block of rock.

Look around further and notice that the near-vertical sides of The Nut fall into the frequently stormy waters of Bass Strait. Look around a little closer as I did one summer day and you might notice the glossy black glint of a deadly Tasmanian tiger snake absorbing the morning’s warmth on a rock.

With its old buildings it is a picturesque town and it is easy to see why Stanley has become a stopover on the tourist trail. Once known for its commercial fishing, it hardly seems the sort of place to give birth to someone notable. But that is just what it did when, in 1928, Bill Mollison was born here.

Mollison left school at 15 to help run his family’s bakery. Among the jobs that followed were mill worker, forester, seaman, animal trapper and shark fisherman.

Bill Mollison at Permaculture Convergence, Nimbin, NSW, 1997. Photo: Russ Grayson.

Describe by Steve Payne as a ‘rough brew’ for someone who would become an environmentalist, those jobs led him to nine years at the Wildlife Survey Section of the CSIRO (Australia’s leading science research body) and then time with the Inland Fisheries Commission of Tasmania.

“In this intellectual hothouse I met Bill Mollison, whose life and ideas epitomised a creative bridge between nature and civilisation and between tradition and modernity,”

“What the two latter jobs provided were long stints in the forests and on the coasts of Tasmania where he closely monitored the life of those ecosystems”, write Steve in a jointly-authored article he and I produced for New Internationalist magazine.

In 1968, Mollison became a tutor at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, and, later, senior lecturer in Environmental Psychology. It was in that role that he met a student at the Tasmanian College of Advanced Education, David Holmgren, and the seeds of permaculture were sown.

David Holmgren was born in 1955, growing up on the other side of the Australian continent in Fremantle, Western Australia. His parents were political activists and this may have contributed to his enquiring mindset.

“After matriculating from John Curtin Senior High School in 1972 he spent a year hitchhiking around Australia before moving to Tasmania in 1974 to study environmental design, where he gravitated towards landscape design, ecology and agriculture”, wrote Steve.

David Holmgren, 2009.

David was attracted to the natural and intellectual environment of Tasmania and was lured by Tasmania’s School of Environmental Design which was led by architect and educator, Barry McNeil. This, David says, was “the most radical experiment in tertiary education in Australia.

“In this intellectual hothouse I met Bill Mollison, whose life and ideas epitomised a creative bridge between nature and civilisation and between tradition and modernity,” David wrote.

Tasmania

Today, Tasmania is an island isolated physically,  though not intellectually, and permaculture is perhaps one of its major intellectual products.

“It’s a place where modernity and nature collide, both destructively and creatively.”

Located in the cool temperate zone around 42 degrees south latitude and separated from the Australian mainland by the 200km width of Bass Strait, the island is a roughly triangular land mass with a mountainous, uplifted core known as the Central Plateau. The physical isolation of Tasmania in these windy and frequently wild, oceanic latitudes has engendered a sense of difference to the mainland best summed up by Tasmanian writer, Christopher Koch:

“Tugging at its moorings under the giant clouds of the Roaring Forties, Tasmania is different: we are no longer in Australia. All the colours have the glassy intensity of a cold climate: the greens greener, the dark blue of the numberless hills and mountains appearing almost black… “. (Return to Hobart Town in Crossing the Gap; 1987; Koch C: Vintage Books, Sydney. Koch wrote the classic political novel, The Year of Living Dangerously [1978] and the fictional Highways To a War [1985]).

That might explain the island state’s uniqueness but it does not answer why Tasmania was the location of an innovative idea like permaculture. David Holmgren hints at it this way: “It’s a place where modernity and nature collide, both destructively and creatively.”

Perhaps David was referring to the early environmental battles over Lake Pedder and the Franklin River, battles that later gained iconic status in the history of Australian environmentalism and that opened an entirely new arena for community-based political intervention. But, equally, he might have had in mind the state government’s policy of hydro-electrification that attracted energy-hungry heavy industry to the state from the 1950s onwards.

A state of notables

Let’s put the emergence of permaculture into its Tasmanian context. Why a state, the population of which today barely reaches 400,000 should throw up so many luminaries remains a bit of a mystery. Well before Mollison and Holmgren, Tasmania gave the world the popular 1930s film actor, Errol Flynn. It was also the birthplace of Australian prime minister, Joseph Lyons.

Tasmania is homeland to a seemingly disporportionate number of war correspondents such as Neil Davis whose coverage of the Vietnam war was documented in Tim Bowden’s book, One Crowded Hour–Neil Davis, Combat Cameraman (1987; Collins ISBN 0002174960); David Brill whose story is documented in John Little’s 2003 biography, The Man Who saw Too Much (Hodder; ISBN-10: 0733614655); and Harry Burton, the Australian television news cameraman killed in Nothern Iraq by a suicide bomber.

Others populate Tasmania’s annals of the noted. The late wilderness photographer, Peter Dombrovskis migrated to Tasmania where he was influenced by conservationist and photographer, Olegas Truchanas, an earlier immigrant from Europe. Dombrovskis’ images played a significant role in the campaign save the Franklin River and in revealing the rugged beauty of the state’s wilderness areas to the Australian public. For those who could not be there to see those often remote places, his images brought their grandeur and colour into their lives in the form of books and posters. Those same wild rivers had earlier taken Olegas’ life on one of his solo journeys of exploration.

Another immigrant came from the NSW town of Oberon. Dr Bob Brown started his political career in the Tasmanian Parliament as a Greens politician before moving to the Senate in Canberra.

With such antecedents, it is perhaps not surpirising that someone as unorthodox as Bill Mollison has his origin in the state and that David Holmgren was attracted to study there.

Significant in other ways

Let’s explore this intruiging influence of Tasmania to better gain insight into the creators of permaculture and the influences that led them to it.

Once described by David Holmgren as being “… on the far edge of the industrial world”, Tasmania is significant in other ways.

The Tasmanian Organic Farming and Gardening Society was founded in 1972 and was probably the first organic gardening and agriculture society in Australia. It was in the pages of its newsletter that permaculture was first described.

Australia’s influential wilderness conservation movement originated in the state and conducted the unsuccessful campaign to save Lake Pedder in the South-West wilderness, the successful campaign to save the Franklin River from hydro-electric development and led the fight to save the state’s old growth forests. From Tasmania the Wilderness Society, a product of those struggles, spread nationally.

During the early-1970s, public sentiment for an alternative politics to that offered by the major parties saw the formation of Australia and the world’s first ‘green’ political party, the United Tasmania Group (UTG). Formed in 1972, the UTG was inspired by New Zealand’s Values Party which had a policy platform that included environmental issues. Values Party support peaked at six per cent in 1978 [Christine Dann, Green Party of Aetearoa/New Zealand, from her PhD thesis From Earth’s Last Islands. The global origins of Green Politics; Lincoln University, NZ, 1999).

The loss of Lake Pedder motivated the UTG to contest the 1972 state election in which it won 3.9 percent of the overall vote and almost seven percent of the vote in the Hobart urban electorates of Denison and Franklin. The UTG went on to contest the 1972 federal House of Representatives election, winning four percent of the vote in its constituencies.

The Values Party and the UTG were the first forays into electoral politics anywhere in the world by the nascent green movement.

The island state might have given birth and been home to a notable bunch of people and might have had a formative role in the organics and green political movements in Australia, but just how much this fed the emerging permaculture concept is uncertain. However, the UTG formed the innovative element of the state political milieu at the time. In his home on the lower slopes of Hobart’s Mt Wellington, Bill Mollison was surely aware of it and the environment movement’s gathering strength.

“an upwelling of intellectual and creative action at the edge of civilisation.”

Really, it was hard to be unaware. As someone influenced by the ideas on technology, economics and environment that came out of the social movements of the early 1970s, by the ideas of the British economist, EF Schumacher and the writings of Buckminster Fuller who developed the concept of ‘whole systems design’, I was probably typical of my cohort in being attracted to these edgy notions that seemed to offer so much by way of solutions to the vague search for alternatives that had been going on for the best part of a decade or more. I believe I can safely say that those ideas and the emergence of the UTG came as a breath of fresh air to many of us in Tasmania at the time, like the sharp winter wind that blows over Hobart from the sub-Antarctic.

As well as UTG, David acknowledges that the Australian organic farming movement sprouted first in Tasmania as part of “an upwelling of intellectual and creative action at the edge of civilisation.” That upwelling was not a Tasmanian property alone. During the seventies it was found in most Australian cities and in some rural centres as well as overseas. If anything, the decade was one of exploration for new ideas and solutions for a world widely perceived to be going awry, thanks in part to the 1973 oil crisis.

Bill was a founding member of the Tasmanian Organic Gardening and Farming Society, the first of its kind in the country. It was the same organisation from which Peter Cundall emerged. Decades later, Cundall would host ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) television’s Gardening Australia, a program that was to give permaculture a fair share of air time and that would help popularise it in the new century. Peter was to become a vociferous opponent of the proposal to build a pulp mill on the banks of northern Tasmania’s Tamar River.

While these developments might not have been a direct trigger in the birth of permaculture, they formed the intellectual, social and political matrix from which it emerged and in which it found its first adherents. In this sense, and like other social movements, permaculture grew out of the social, economic and political context of its time.

A world ready

According to David Holmgren, it wasn’t just Maryborough that was ready for the permaculture message by the end of the seventies.

“At the time there was an upheaval in new, positive environmental solutions as a response to a sense of crisis, especially the energy crisis”, he said.

“Before that”, says permaculture early adopter-now-educator, Robyn Francis, “Bill Mollison spent 1976 and 1977 overseas, collecting ideas that would find a place in the still-developing permaculture idea”.

While in Maryborough, Bill was invited to visit the sewage settling ponds and the town tip. His suggestions for the productive use of wastes from the two sites were taken seriously by the council, and the noted irrigation designer, Ken Yoemans, was brought in to consult on the reuse of treated sewage water. Bill’s plan for the productive use of sewage waste was published in the first edition of the National Permaculture Association’s quarterly journal, Permaculture, which was published by Terry White in the summer of 1978.

Time can erase memory, and although it seldom rates a mention today, the significance of Permaculture magazine to the movement should not be underestimated. The magazine went on to play an important part in spreading knowledge of the permaculture design system during its formative years and was the direct forerunner of the Permaculture International Journal.

Approachability the key to acceptance

Bill’s visit to Maryborough was successful, Terry said, because he could relate to local people.

“He stood for something rather than against things. He created a ‘positive space’ for addressing local issues and their permaculture solutions. Bill had positive, practical solutions to problems… to real problems.

“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. This approach people found empowering… it released energy. Bill trusted others to carry the permaculture message.

“Permaculture might have been a bit fringe but it was hands-on. The population of Maryborough at that time was conservative, not hippy or radical. Conservative people can be turned around if the solutions are pragmatic and fit local needs.”

Northwards the message spreads

Bill Mollison with wife, Lisa, at the 2009 permaculture convergence in Sydney. Photo: Russ Grayson

Nambour is far from Maryborough in both distance and climate. Yet, here in this town in the hinterland of Queensland’s subtropical Sunshine Coast, there was a mind ready for the permaculture message just as there had been in Maryborough.

The mind was that of a Swiss man, and within it Mollison’s ideas sparked a line of thinking that would culminate in a new type of settlement in the Australian landscape. It would be well over a decade, however, before Max Lindegger set up Australia’s first ecovillage at Crystal Waters.

It was an electrifying time, said Max, even though he lived thousands of kilometres from Tasmania. In a 2007 interview for Steve Payne’s and my article in New Internationalist magazine, Max said that permaculture “was exactly the way I felt but had been unable to put into words”.

“This was a common sentiment of people then and even now”, said Steve. It suggested that the social change over the previous decade had prepared people for life-changing new ideas and that, for some, the alternative movement fulfilled that need. Others, though, had to wait until the publication of Permaculture One for that life-changing influence to tip them into change.

Just as Terry had invited Bill to speak in Maryborough, Max invited him to come north for a speaking tour. In 1979, Max formed what may have been the second permaculture organisation to come into existence, Permaculture Nambour.

Max Lindegger, an early adopter of permaculture from Nambour. Photo: Russ Grayson.

Inspired individuals have been important to the development of permaculture, as Terry and Max show. Somehow, they were at the right place at the right time to hear the right message. Somehow, their life experiences and present situations made them susceptible to innovative ideas. Somehow, they had the right abilities to act on those messages. They possessed the imagination that is such a key resource in permaculture.

From the publication of Permaculture One and that iconic radio interview with Terry Lane, permaculture had started to spread. It spread slowly but with a quickening tempo as the years went on. To use the term devised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, The Tipping Point (2000; Abacus books, UK. ISBN 0 349 11346 7), the idea had ‘stickiness’. That is, it had the property of being the right idea at the right time encountered by the right people and in a form that stimulated their imaginations.

At first slowly but with a quickening tempo, news of permaculture started to spread, bypassing many but adhering to the minds of the curious and innovative few. By the opening years of the 1980s, those attracted to the idea had started to get together. Slowly, but with a quickening tempo, a network of would-be permaculture practitioners started to coalesce. The network would become the dominant form of permaculture structure.

Army of field workers

That Tasmania is a place in which nature and modernity collide, as David Holmgren suggests, can be seen where the suburbs of Hobart collides with the tall eucalypt forest that clothes Mt Wellington’s lower slopes.

The sight of nature is never far away in Tasmania and the mountain, with its precipituous dolerite cliffs known as the Organ Pipes, is snow capped when it catches the moist, cold, south-westerly winds of winter known of the Roaring Forties. It’s massive hulk dominates the town, a presence both physical and psychological, and it makes this city of 200,000 one of the most physically beautiful urban centres in the country.

To many of us who experienced the ferment of the late 1960s, there seemed to be no positive direction forward, although almost everybody could define those aspects of the global society that they rejected.

From the summit, a few kilometres in one direction is the city centre; to the east, beyond the wide brown Derwent, farmland and forest cover undulating country until it reaches the sea; in the other direction lies the great, cool temperate wilderness of South West Tasmania, a vast area of jagged mountain and button grass plain devoid of permanent inhabitants. And beyond that in these latitudes lies the misty vastness of the Southern Ocean, a seaway of stormy reputation among mariners that rings the world. Small a city it might be, it is these things that give Hobart its dramatic and invigorating character.

What conversations went on there on those lower slopes between David Holmgren and Bill Mollison in Bill’s living room there on Strickland Avenue below the olive green of the euclaypt forest? Whatever ideas were turned over there in that formative dialogue , in what at one point became known as the ‘Republic of Strickland Avenue,’  would form the backbone of the permaculture concept.

In describing the origin of permaculture, Bill writes of those times: “To many of us who experienced the ferment of the late 1960s, there seemed to be no positive direction forward, although almost everybody could define those aspects of the global society that they rejected.

“From 1972 to 1974 I spent time, latterly with David Holmgren, in developing an interdisciplinary earth science—permaculture—with a potential for positivistic, integrated and global outreach.”

Bill also told another creation story, but whether apocryphal or factual I don’t know.

It went like tnis: It was set perhaps in the late-1960s or early the following decade—just where it sits within his diverse career remains unclear.

Irrespective of when it happened, Bill went into the Tasmanian bush and built a small cabin. That done, he planted a vegetable garden. Then, sitting back one day presumably reflecting on his work, it occurred to Bill that what he had done would do little to make the world a better place. So, as he told it to so many of those eager listeners, he locked the door and walked out, back into society.

The moral of Bill’s story was that you have to live within society to change it. Change is something you cannot do as a recluse. What is needed is action in society and that means living in the world, not in isolation on a backblock retreat in the hills. It means living in a deliberate manner and creating new ways of doing things, ways that will provide all that people need to live without overwhelming the natural systems we all depend upon.

More recently, Bill has said that by the late 1970s, and following the Club of Rome’s report, Limits of Growth, there was increasing concern about the world running out of resources.

“But no one had any long-term ideas and it was obvious to me what had to be done,” he said. “That was to build an army of permaculture field workers to go out and teach the ideas of sustainable food production.”

That army never quite eventuated the way Bill describes it and the first coterie of educators trained by Bill was more a squad in number than an army. By the 1980s, however, their number was more a that of a platoon.

Redefing permaculture

First ideas are intuitive ideas. They may also be good ideas but they are rarely ready to roll out. So it was with the first expression of the permaculture design system.

Rather than an approach to ‘permanent agriculture’ as first envisoned, Bill and David realised that a more comprehensive description was needed. So it was that permaculture became reinterpreted as ‘permanent culture’. This acknowledged the fact that the different elements that make up a culture are linked in an interactive social and economic matrix and a systems thinking approach such as permaculture does not allow the separation of any single one, such as agriculture, from its context.

The focus was now on the more comprehensive process of designing human habitation that catered for people and the social infrastructure that supported them, as well as for natural systems.

In 2004, David Holmgren expanded on permaculture’s origins and affiliations: “Permaculture is a design system for sustainable living and landuse. It came out of awareness about the limits of resources, especially the energy crisis of the 1970s.

“The work started between myself and Bill Mollison when I was a student in environmental design in Tasmania. Since then, permaculture has spread around the world as a grassroots movement of activists and designers, teachers, land managers—both gardeners and farmers.

“It’s also connected to a very broad church of alternatives in sustainable building, alternative currency, ideas, ecovillages—many diverse areas” (June 8, 1994: Energy Bulletin, Global Public Media, USA; online interview with Adam Fenderson).

Bill explained that permaculture was not new in its elements but was new as a synthesis of those elements, such as farming, building design, community economics and local economies, landuse design and all the rest that make up the design system. It is a way of thinking, he asserted, an approach to design that brings the separate elements into interaction as a cooperative, mutually supportive system.

A way of thinking

This—permaculture as a way of thinking—is a critical concept and in part explains why permaculture has persisted as a diversified practice rather than as a unitary movement.

Rather than propound a theory, a political or other type of programme as would a centralised movement, permaculture encourages its participants to take the approach of applying its ethics and principles to the diverse range of activities they are involved in. Permaculture, as a way of thinking, as an approach, offers a design system for decentralised application where its adherents live and work.

Permaculture had much in common with systems thinking, an approach that became systematised and popularised durung the 1990s. Systems thinking treats problems and their potential solutions within the larger social, economic, environmental or other contexts in which they are embedded so as to produce a more effective solution rather than a superficial and short lived quick fix. The nexus between permaculture and systems thinking is further reinforced by the systems ecology work of Howard Odum that David Holmgren introduced into the design system.

Bringing it together—synthesis

What is it that gives permaculture uniqueness when it is made up of ideas gleaned from many bodies of knowledge?

This is a question that hasn’t come up much over the years but is one that should be asked. I think it  important to establish a point of difference for the design system and its approach so that people get to understand it better.

The two originators were quick to answer this question. Sure, permaculture absorbed into itself ideas and practices taken from different fields, but what gave it its claim to credibility was that the design system synthesised these into a coherent, interrelated approach to building sustsinsble systems. Unlike disciplines such as architecture, landscape design and agriculture that often work in their separate intellectual and practical silos, permaculture seeks to make cobstructive, productive connections between its components. Thus, architecture is combined with landscape design so as to improve the internal climate of buildings and increase urban biomass, agriculture is combined with economic and business practices to develop the product required by innovative new markets, such as linking city fringe farming to urban, community supported agriculture enterprises (CSA).

To paraphrase science fiction author Neal Stephenson, permaculture evolved because ” …he or she put together disperate ideas into a coherent vision that could be used as a road map… ” (Neal Stephenson Rewrites History; Wired magazine, September 2003).

A road map leading from present to future, but that also reaches back into the past to harvest good ideas, is a fitting metaphor for the permaculture deign system. And for many that is what permaculture became—a road map through the vortices of a confusing world—a way of thinking and a path of action.

As the 1970s came to an end, the roadmap would take its early adoptors in new life directions, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. At its destination lay a socially and environmentally sustainable society, that being the vision, and on the highway between destination and starting point lay a sometimes bewildering network of roadways. Diverse and convoluted some might be, the important thing was that they all took the traveller in the same direction.

The 1970s had seen permaculture’s gestation and birth. Following the publication of Permaculture One and Permaculture Two, the slowly expanding group of early adoptors remained small in number but their role would be to put Bill and David’s ideas into action, to refine them in the light of experience and to spread the word through training courses and publications.

New decade heralds change

The period from the publication of the first permaculture book in 1978 until around 1983 can be regarded as the movement’s formative years. This was the time when permaculture was first described, when readers were inspired by Bill and David’s books and talks to become the first of the early adopters. It was a time when the design system was immature, when there was much to explore. It was a time when permaculture had to establish an identity and to differentiate itself from other social trends.

At the time, Bill sought to differentiate permaculture from concurrent social movements by portraying it as an applied practice, as a means of taking action. It was more than protest and focusing on what was wrong, he said. Permaculture concentrated on what was right and on how that could be expanded.

This differentiation figured strongly in permaculture’s early period.

“It’s a grassroots, international movement of practitioners, designers and organisations—networks”

Bill and permaculture’s early adopters painted the system as a ‘positive’ philosophy, as desirably different from the ‘negativism’ of protest. Bill made it clear sometimes that he was referring to the environment movement and in doing so was describing the difference between campaign-based organisations and a social movement. Permaculture might be this, but the criticism of protest was a little unfair at times because it did not acknowledge the achievements of the campaigning approach or recognise that it arose as a reaction to the initiatives of others when trying some other approach might be too little too late. It also led to a noticeable absence of permaculture from the big environmental issues of the day.

The differentiation has persisted in permaculture folklore. The design system continues to be promoted as a means of doing positive things rather than as simply trying to stop something happening. At the same time, many permaculturists recognise the need to confront what they see as wrongdoing and to participate in actions to stop it. This, perhaps, has led to the distinction being heard less these days and perhaps signifies that the world has changed sufficiently that, rather than a simple black/white, positive/negative differentiation between permaculture practice and campaigning, the two approaches occupy different positions on a continuum.

Binding a network

The publication of the first edition of Permaculture magazine was one of the most important events in the history of the design system. Like its eventual successor, the magazine would bind together a geographically dispersed network of emerging permaculture practitioners.

That publication, like the courses that started to be offered after the first coterie of Bill’s students returned home enthused, built permaculture’s following. David Holmgren believes permaculture’s popularity to be at least partly due to its comprehensive nature as “ …a design system for sustainable living and landuse that’s concerned both with the consumption and production side, and that’s based on universal ethics and design principles which can be applied in any context.

“It’s a grassroots, international movement of practitioners, designers and organisations—networks”, he concluded.

With the turn of the decade, news of the permaculture design system was spreading. According to Terry White, the ten permaculture groups in Australia in 1978 would grow to around 80 worldwide, all within seven years. Permaculture, it seemed, was the right idea for the times and news of it was carried in the pages of Permaculture magazine.

By the early 1980s the national structure of latter day permaculture practice was visible in microcosm—a network of local associations formal and informal, adhering to the ethics of the design system and at the time linked by the communication services of Permaculture (Permaculture International Journal by mid-decade) magazine and by personal contact, the formal entry to which was through a permaculture design course.

As the new decade opened, Permaculture lay quietly below the surface of mainstream society. That was about to change.

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