Permaculture is a set of design principles using patterns observed in natural ecosystems to develop regenerative agriculture. Originally a contraction of ‘permanent agriculture’, it later stood for ‘permanent culture’ and is one of the great design ideas of Australia.

Rather than describe the principles of Permaculture, which can be easily traced starting here, we want to use the origins and history of permaculture to illustrate two themes that are important to us at Plus.One: whole systems thinking and design education.

Permaculture is a child of the late sixties when the nascent hippie movement spawned alternative lifestyles. Their Bible was the Whole Earth Catalogue (the internet of its day), with the earth seen from space on the front cover to indicate the idea of holistic systems. Permaculture was a perfect response to those times: a revolutionary idea and clarion call to study ecological systems in order to create a balanced agriculture, for improved human and ecological welfare.

The idea came to widespread public notice in Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements, written by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, published in 1978. The two authors had quite different life paths to their meeting in Tasmania in 1974, and their joining together to research and write the book.

Bill Mollison was born in 1928, left school at 15 to help run the family bakery. Later he worked as a shark fishermen, seaman, forester, millworker, trapper and tractor driver, as well as a naturalist, that last helped him gain work with the CSIRO in 1954. Later he worked at the Tasmanian Museum and the Inland fisheries Commission. In 1966, he started at the University of Tasmania, gaining a degree in Bio-geography. He lectured there and developed the unit of Environmental Psychology.

David Holmgren, born in 1955 and raised in Western Australia, moved to Tasmania in 1974 to study landscape design at the Tasmanian College of Advanced Education TCAE, that had a brilliantly radical school of Environmental Design led by the enigmatic Barry McNeill (subject of a future Plus.One). The school was academically diverse, and drew upon a range of non-traditional design thinking, which is how Bill Mollison was invited to lecture there.

Holmgren and Mollison formed a strong academic working research relationship for three years, sharing a house and garden, collecting plant species and putting ideas into practice. They drew from diverse thinkers including P A Yeomans ‘Keyline water systems’ (see our Plus.One story here), Howard Odum’s ecological systems theories and particularly the work of an inspirational Japanese farmer, Masanonbu Fukuoka, who had invented ‘natural’ or ‘no-till’ farming.

Holmgren’s final thesis for his environmental design studies was edited and expanded by Mollison to become the seminal first book, published in 1978. In the acknowledgements they credit a number of people who helped disseminate and test the ideas, including producers at the ABC.

Another was Col James, a social activist architectural lecturer who initiated the Autonomous House at Sydney University (the gardens of which were early experiments in ‘companion planting’ by student Michael White, who later became Bali’s finest garden designer under the name Made Wijaya, but that’s a story for later time).

After the book was published, and the early promotion, Mollison and Holmgren essentially went their separate ways: we'll look Mollison's later work this week and Holmgren’s next.After the book was published, and the early promotion, Mollison and Holmgren essentially went their separate ways: we'll look Mollison's later work this week and Holmgren’s next.Immediately following the publication of the book, Mollison founded the first Permaculture Institute in 1979 to “teach the practical design of sustainable soil, water, plant, and legal and economic systems to students worldwide”. He initiated a Permaculture Design Course, the PDC, which took the local ecosystem as the starting point for study, and the ideas quickly evolved to a much wider philosophy beyond land management to cover most aspects of human life.

Mollison had two great attributes. Firstly, he was teaching systems, not solutions. He looked to understand natural systems, and then how to apply that knowledge to better manage the local conditions. In this way he was expanding the lessons from UTAS and the TCAE: teach thinking, not facts; creativity, not rote learning.

Secondly Mollison was a great proselytizer. An enthusiast with an abundant energy: in the 30+ years he actively taught the PDC, there were over 300,000 graduates, who then practiced and crucially taught throughout the world. He adored the idea of train the trainer, and for that reason has often been called the ‘founder’ or ‘father of permaculture’.

By 1988 Mollison had developed his ideas into Permaculture: A Designer's Manual. Sadly, the book has never been revised or re-issued and copies now retail for between $400 and $1,000, completely at odds with the low cost spreading of ideas (which we will return to next week with David Holmgren).

Later Mollison's attempted to copyright the word ‘permaculture’. The books asserted that the contents and the word were copyright, although no law existed to protect names, ideas, concept systems, or methods, only to protect the expression or description of an idea, not the idea itself.  In 2000 the US Permaculture Institute sought a ‘Service Mark’, a form of trademark, in an attempt to control how Permaculture was taught and who could teach it in relation to the PDC. The application failed as did further applications in Australia for trademarks in 2001 and 2009 which were later withdrawn.

In 1981 Mollison was awarded a ‘Right Livelihood Award’, sometimes described as the ‘alternative Nobel prize’, one of only 2 Australians to be so honoured (the other being Tony Rinaudo, an agronomist who worked extensively in Africa, employing some principles of Permaculture). Mollison died in 2016 at the age of 88, having spent the last half of his life putting into action what he had seen in the first.

After the book was published, and the early promotion, Mollison and Holmgren essentially went their separate ways: we'll look Mollison's later work this week and Holmgren’s next.

As to our twin themes: whole systems thinking and design education. Perhaps it is best analysed this way: given the recent public awareness of climate change marking a focus on ‘whole system’s design’ and given the need for open-ended research by interdisciplinary teams to achieve those ideas, are we encouraging an environment for another ‘Permaculture’?

The current direction of our federal governments would suggest a resounding NO. There is climate denial, a hatred of universities and the ABC, and the dumbing down of any education innovation (vale the CAE). Mollison, James and McNeill wouldn’t be employed by our ‘business-based’ Universities, and Holmgren would search in vain for a course that would promote his undergraduate research, (let alone a student-built Autonomous House).

We should be grateful that the great ideas that formed Permaculture flourished at this time, but we should look to ways in which we might recapture the spirit of this. It could time for those in charge, often in their sixties, to go back to the principles of the sixties.

plus 1 / / +one is a collective of designers and artists promoting both Sustainability and Australian design. We don’t support social media in any form, rather you can contact +one at [email protected].