Bill Mollison: Permaculture Activist

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LEFT and CENTER: Permaculture activist Bill Mollison during his interview. RIGHT: Mollison in the field explaining permaculture techniques.
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Diagram depicts how chickens, buildings, and forests might be designed to work together as a productive self-regulating system.

Our recent interview with biointensive gardener John Jeavons– the California
horticulturist who produces surprisingly high yields of
vegetables on small parcels of land at his experimental
mini-farm — outlined a frighteningly bleak future for
agriculture and for food production in this country.
Jeavons revealed, in that article, his belief that the
earth is rapidly becoming a desert and losing its fragile
layer of topsoil at an alarming rate … while product
yields continue to fall despite the ever-increasing input
of energy that agribusiness methods demand.


And although this critical problem now occupies researchers
and ecologists all over the world, it seems — at
least up to this point — that only a few people
(Jeavons among them) have been able to present feasible
solutions to our current self-destructive system of
commercial agriculture. Therefore, everyone here at MOTHER
EARTH NEWS was excited to learn about permaculture activist Dr. Bill Mollison. He’s an Australian
environmental scientist who has coined the term
“permaculture” to refer to his concept of a
self-sustaining, consciously designed ecosystem. Mollison
envisions regional systems containing integrated,
self-perpetuating plant and animal species … assemblies
that will literally operate themselves on the principles of
stable diversity, energy efficiency, low maintenance, and
high yield.


Unlike many other theorists and soothsayers, though,
Mollison has an armory of facts and evidence to support his
futuristic vision. In fact, the former university lecturer
now lives in a metaindustrial village called Tagari —
in the northwest corner of Tasmania — where he and
his colleagues are busily setting up and demonstrating
functional models of their ideas. Besides providing
inspiration for the hundreds of permaculture associations
that are springing up all over Australia, Tagari residents
have also formed their own seed company and the
Permaculture Institute … which is responsible for an
international consultation service. The community is also
training a team of designers, who are available — on
a consulting and teaching basis — to individuals,
public agencies, and disadvantaged groups. In short, Bill
Mollison lives what he talks about … and perhaps that’s
what makes the Australian’s arguments so convincing.

MOTHER
EARTH NEWS
had an opportunity to meet Bill Mollison recently,
when he visited our western North Carolina neighborhood on
one leg of his current world tour (which is being
cosponsored by the International Tree Crops Institute, the
Farallones Institute, the New Alchemy Institute, the
National Center for Appropriate Technology, and the World
Future Society). After the public lecture and workshop,
MOTHER
EARTH NEWS
staffers Larry Hollar and Jeanne Malmgren spent
several hours with the dynamic man, to delve more deeply
into the philosophy and techniques of permaculture. The
following transcript was edited from that encounter.


Whether you’re an organic gardener, an ecologist, or
someone who’s just plain concerned about the uncertain
future of commercial agriculture, you’re sure to find
Mollison’s insights fascinating … simply because
permaculture does seem to represent a viable way out of the
crisis in food production and supply that we’re now facing.

PLOWBOY: Bill, it seems ironic that
— being a native of a small, isolated island —
you’re designing ecosystems that have worldwide
applications. You must have had years of agricultural
training while preparing for such a monumental task.

MOLLISON: Actually, I haven’t had a great
deal of institutional horticultural education at all …
but I suppose my background has helped prepare me for my
current involvement with land systems.

I’m a sixth-generation Tasmanian, you see, so the peculiar
sort of dual marine/bush orientation — common to
natives of that land — is in my blood. Tasmania is
largely an agricultural state, but it also contains a good
bit of heavily forested territory. About half the island
isn’t even yet fully explored, and I spent a lot
of my childhood trudging the uncharted areas.

I grew up very independently, and without much formal
training. My father died when I was 14, so I left school to
help run our family bakery. As a result, I escaped having
to spend a lot of hours in a classroom … and I think
such a lack of traditional education is almost
essential for anybody who does anything creative. Later in
life — at about age 37 — I did go to
the University of Tasmania and complete a degree … but
I did so mostly to develop a bit of mental discipline. I
also taught there, for some ten years, as a lecturer in
Environmental Psychology.

My real education, however, has come from the
variety of jobs I’ve held. For most of my life I’ve been
either a fisherman or a fur trapper. I also — at
different times — ran a market garden and a dairy.

I’ve been involved in wildlife and marine research, too.
For several years, I worked with the Wildlife Survey
Division of the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research
Organization, or CSIRO. We tackled Australia’s large-scale
pest problems, such as the locust plagues and the rabbit
scourge. Following that job, I dabbled in fisheries
research for several years … mainly concerning the
estuaries between sea and fresh water, although I did a lot
of inland lake work as well. And then — at various
times — I’ve gone into the forest to become a true
bushman … felling and milling trees, locating new forest
stands, and seeking new trails through the wilderness.

PLOWBOY: And did all your contact with the
wilds have any effect on your perceptions of our modern
agricultural system?

MOLLISON: Oh yes! Everything I did, either
in research or in fieldwork, indicated that there was
something fundamentally wrong with modern farming methods.
For instance, every problem I found in commercial
agribusiness was actually caused by the industry
itself. Usually — when a farmer called in the CSIRO
for a consultation — the results of our investigation
pointed the finger straight at the grower him- or herself!

As I saw the same situation occur time and time again, I
gradually came to the conclusion that most contemporary
crop-raisers must be doing things the wrong way. So my last
few years with the CSIRO were spent in the forest,
observing the plant and animal species on location …
and there I learned that everything in nature is
self -controlled and self -balancing.

You know, a lot of modern thought suggests that the planet
— as a living organism — seeks to protect
itself by rejecting any species that causes it harm. For
instance, if cattle damage part of the earth, the harmed
region will respond by growing thorn bushes and poisonous
plants, thus rejecting the animals. Well, I think we
— the members of the human race — are
perilously close to being rejected by the earth in that
same way … and quite rightly so, since we’ve created
some terrible damage.

PLOWBOY: How did you consolidate such
early observations into your theory of permaculture?

MOLLISON: Well, I guess the germ of the
idea had been lurking in my subconscious mind for along
time. For instance, I remember writing in a diary,
many years ago, that we should be able to
construct environments. But the theory didn’t come
to full consciousness until around 1969. I was thinking
about the whole business of energy and of my opposition
— as a conservationist — to strip mining,
deforestation, and other forms of earth exploitation …
and I concluded that it was time to devise a better way.

Actually, I guess it was rather a brave step to say, “Let’s
apply the principles of environmental science to
our production systems.” Up to that point, those principles
had been taught as revealed knowledge … that
is, a person would go into the forest, find relationships
among the species, and formulate a principle or a law based
on such observations. Then the individual had to
showoff the “new” principle, so he or
she would say, “Look, everybody, this is how it works.”

But noone, at that time, ever thought of taking
such a relationship and consciously applying it,
making it part of a design. The idea was a real mind twist,
something that caused an almost physical change within my
brain.

PLOWBOY: How were your new ideas received
by traditional agriculturists?

MOLLISON: Well, I can only say that there
was a stunned silence at first, since the concepts were
seen as being terribly radical. The ideas were
intuitively accepted very quickly, though, by
nonprofessorial people. And many of the enthusiastic
responses came from women. In fact, 70 to 80% of the
letters I now receive come from women … they seem to
see immediately that we’ve got something here. On the other
hand, scientists — male or female —
don’t see, mainly because they’re used to teaching a
passive and nonreactive system. Such individuals don’t
teach reactivity, and they don’t practice activity.
Everything is on the blackboard, and nothing is in the
garden.

PLOWBOY: Let’s see if we can define the
whole idea of permaculture. Exactly what is your theory all
about?

MOLLISON: The word “permaculture” refers
to an integrated, self-sustaining system of perennial
agriculture … which involves a large diversity of plant
and animal species. A permaculture is really a completely
self-contained agricultural ecosystem that is designed to
minimize maintenance input and maximize product yield. In a
permaculture, little wheels or cycles of energy are set up
… and the system virtually keeps itself going!
Essentially, it’s a living clockwork that should never run
down … at least as long as the sun shines and the earth
revolves.

I like to call permaculture a “humane technology,” because
it’s of human dimensions. By that, I mean that it deals in
a very basic way with simple, living elements … so it’s
available to every man and woman. Permaculture doesn’t
involve some sort of complicated technology, as does even
an electricity-producing windplant. Instead, it’s a
bio-technology … which people can intuitively
handle
.

After all, permaculture deals with living systems … and
since man himself is a living organism, he can readily
comprehend it. It’s a concept that can be very easily
transplanted or given away to anybody, too. In that sense,
it can never be patented — because it’s so readily
available — nor should the idea be patented.

PLOWBOY: How, specifically, is
permaculture different from conventional modern
agricultural techniques?

MOLLISON: I can say in a word how it’s
different: It’s consciously designed … and
that alone makes it something brand-new. There’s no real
design in modern agriculture, you see … there doesn’t
seem to be any evidence of planning or thought in it at
all!

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

Here in the United States, all the established agricultural
systems — such as the wheat fields of Kansas, the
corn fields of North Carolina, and the orchards of
California — are aberrant systems … and they’re
perishing as I speak. California, in fact, is rapidly
turning into a desert. Modern agriculture, you see, can be
summed up in only one statement: It destroys its own basis.
It has already destroyed 50% of the world’s soil … and,
of the remaining 50%, about 30% will be disappearing in
very short order. The problem with today’s agricultural
techniques is that–by ignoring the possibility of any
design input — they fail to deal with interrelated
functions.

One of the great principles of natural systems is that
diversity and stability are directly linked. And if you’re
going to create a stable system — that is, one that
will survive — you must provide for some diversity
within it. Now creating diversity doesn’t mean
simply putting a lot of different plants in your garden.
That’s a diversity of species, yes … but it doesn’t
make your garden necessarily a stable one. What
does create stability is a diversity in the
relationships between species.

And that is the basis of permaculture: to see how many
interacting relationships one can build into an
agricultural setup.

PLOWBOY: Besides providing a high number
of such functional connections, what are some of the other
goals of a permaculture design?

MOLLISON: As I mentioned before, the
system should be self-supporting … that is, it
shouldn’t require the addition of any external energies to
operate. It should also be self-steering, requiring a
minimum of input from the designer after the design has
been implemented. Finally, it should enrich the people in
it, and they should enrich it. In short, a permaculture
should be nothing less than a Garden of Eden. Now that may
sound like a pie-in-the-sky goal, but I really believe it
to be an achievable objective for the whole world … and
the only things needed to reach it are human energy and
intellect!

Obviously, though, we’d just about have to reverse our
present mind set to bring about such changes. In fact, I
think a revolution in thinking would be the proper
word to use … in the same sense as Masanobu Fukuoka
uses it in his book, The One-Straw Revolution.
It’s a move toward good stewardship of the earth
and toward a sane society. Our present society,
you see, is insane, and the stewardship we
practice is horrific … in fact, we don’t actually
care for our earth at all, but exploit our
nonrenewable resources and waste our renewable ones!

Permaculture, however, represents an educational process
that can lead us away from irresponsible thinking.
Anyone who works with a permaculture goes through a
learning experience that is complex and interdisciplinary … the very things that traditional education is
not. In essence, it’s an intellectual exercise.
Instead of wearing out our bodies in the garden, we use our
minds. For that reason, permaculture appeals to people who
normally wouldn’t be interested in the hard physical labor
of gardening — especially double-dig gardening with
compost — since the real labor of developing a
permaculture is not in doing it, but in thinking
about what one is going to do. One’s major energy, then, is
devoted to the initial designing of the system, not to the
maintenance of it.

There are two books that point the way toward this new kind
of thinking … and they are, in my opinion, the only
texts that should be issued to student agricultural
designers: Fukuoka’s book, which I’ve already mentioned,
and a new volume — just published by Viking Press
— called Entropy: A New World View by Jeremy
Rifkin. 

PLOWBOY: In your own second book,
Permaculture Two, you introduced two ways of
looking at the land that were based on Fukuoka’s principles
of nonviolent cultivation and natural farming. What are
those contrasting views, and how do they relate to your
work?

MOLLISON: The underlying philosophy of
permaculture is the same as Fukuoka’s: working
with the land, not against it. It’s essentially a
matter of using the principles of Aikido, the
Oriental defense art, on the landscape … allowing one
to turn adversity into strength and use that energy
positively. You’re right, there are two very
distinct ways of looking at the land. One is to ask, “What
can I demand this land to do?” That viewpoint — which
is the prevailing philosophy of commercial agriculture
— can lead only to the use of force on the fragile
soil. A permaculturist asks instead, “What does this land
have to give me?” Anyone who asks that question will
naturally work in harmony with the earth to produce a
sustained ecology. That’s what we try to do in
permaculture: We adopt a design or strategy that rolls with
the strengths and weaknesses of the land, to ultimately
make the system stronger. And achieving that goal will
naturally strengthen us, too, since our survival depends on
the health of the earth.

What practitioners of permaculture do, then, is cooperate
with the earth and avoid the use of force. In accordance
with Fukuoka’s “do nothing” system of farming, we use no
machinery … no digging or slashing machines, which
would only disturb the earth and create an imbalance by the
introduction of force. And this is the point that I must
make time and again: If you use energy in any way
non productively, then you are causing a chaotic
condition, either in your garden or in your society.
Permaculture involves a thought process in which you design
systems to harmonize with nature, not to oppose
it.

PLOWBOY: Let’s talk some more about the
role of design in a permacultural system. Just how
important is it?

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

PLOWBOY: What are some of the design
criteria used in the formation of a permaculture? I mean,
exactly how do you go about planning one of these
microcosms?

MOLLISON: First of all, you take stock of
all the external factors that must be worked with —
such as climate, topography, soil, and water supply —
and then choose plant and animal species that are highly
suited to that particular set of factors. And this is the
point at which permaculture must radically differ from
commercial agriculture. If you want to — particularly
here in the Americas — you can sit down and design a
very productive piece of swampland containing people,
ducks, invertebrates, and so forth … because swamps are
naturally productive areas, and such a system will produce
a vast number of useful things. But modern agribusiness
experts would advise draining the swamp and making it into
a cattle fodder system! That’s far too wasteful … in effect, it turns a natural area of high productivity
into an artificial place of extremely low
productivity.

When you’re developing the spatial design for a
permaculture, you literally start at your own doorstep and
work out from there … all the way to the horizon! The
ground plan — starting from the center, where the
dwelling and other principal buildings are located —
involves concentric zones, with each species placed so as
to maximize its usefulness in the ecosystem. The
arrangement should be based on the principle of greatest
accessibility: The species that need your attention or
control most often — for watering or harvest, for
example — are best located closest to the dwelling
site … while plants and animals that need little or no
attention are likely to be on the periphery of the
system. Zone placement, then, governs the energies that are
generated within the system, so that the whole
“structure” operates on the least amount of labor possible.

Sector placement, on the other hand, governs the
energies entering the system from the outside: both
disruptive forces like fire or flood … and beneficial
ones like sunlight and wind. Such factors can be either
screened out or filtered into the system, according to the
design. The aim is to channel external forces in such a way
that they’ll efficiently serve the needs of an evolved
permaculture.

Now a fascinating concept comes into play here, called the
“edge effect.” Ecologists have long recognized that the
area of intersection of two systems is a highly complex
— and extremely productive — region where
species from both systems can coexist comfortably
… along with other species that are peculiar to the
“edge” itself. Gross photosynthetic production is higher at
the interface, and this richness of plant and animal life
is very valuable to us as permaculture designers. So
— when we plan the zones and sectors — we try
to allow for a maximum area of interface between land and
water, tree and lawn, open country and dense vegetation.

That’s the basic plan. Then — having set up the
zones, sectors, and interfaces — the designer tries
to make the highest possible number of functional
connections among the species he or she has to work with.
Each plant or animal should — in itself — serve
a number of functions, and it should also interact
with other species in a variety of ways.

PLOWBOY: Why is the principle of
multifunction so essential?

MOLLISON: Because it’s part of the
system’s array of checks and balances. A single species can
operate in an almost infinite number of ways, you see, and
its yield is directly controlled by the designer’s
discovery of all the ways in which it can function. His or
her imagination, then, can literally take the lid right off
what are commonly presumed to be the maximum possible yield
figures for any particular species.

Here’s an example I like to use: I call it my chicken
model. Take four separate elements: a hen coop, a
greenhouse, a pond, and a small forest. Now you can have
these on your farm … and place them wherever you like,
in no particular relationship to each other. In that
situation each one functions individually, and they all
consume energy. But if you make the forest a forage range
for the chickens by putting the coop in or near that forest
… if you attach the greenhouse to the front of the
chickens’ shelter … and if you set the pond in front of
the greenhouse — as illustrated in Permaculture
Two
— well, then you’ve got a nice system of
interrelating functions, the familiar checks and balances.

Just look at all the ways you produce energy in this
system: the chickens’ body heat, the direct sunlight that
reflects off the pond and hits the greenhouse, the
radiation of the trees at the rear, the decomposition of
chicken manure, and on and on. If you sit down and sketch
this system out, you’ll find that it’s fantastically
complex — with thousands of functional interactions
— and will run itself. Operating on its own
energy, the system automatically switches on and off. As
the sun gets high in the sky, the greenhouse absorbs more
heat … so the chickens get hot and go out, thus
removing the source of animal heat. While they’re outside,
the birds forage in the forest and leave their manure to
enrich the soil. After dark, of course, they’ll go back
inside to keep warm … taking their body heat with them.

Look at each chicken by itself and the variety of functions
it’s performing in this one simple model: In the coop the
hen operates as a radiator, an egg producer, and a manurial
system. In the forest the bird acts as a self-forager, a
tree-disease controller, a fireproofer, a fertilizer
producer, and a rake. One can use chickens to do
quantities of useful work … in fact, I don’t
know what you can’t do with chickens, once you get
started!

PLOWBOY: The idea, then, is to design an
ecosystem carefully … and once it’s established, let it
function almost entirely on its own?

MOLLISON: Exactly. The ideal, of course,
would be a system that requires no maintenance,
which is a really difficult possibility to accept. You
know, when the explorers and missionaries first landed on
this continent, they were shocked to find the natives
sitting indolently under trees … but the idea that you
have to work to live is a strange one to aboriginal people.

PLOWBOY: But what about such concerns as
pest control?

MOLLISON: Well, most of that problem is
solved by the very design of the system. Broadly speaking,
the diversity that is so important in permaculture is its
own most effective pest control. The greatest cause of
pests in monocultural cropping is the fact that farmers set
out a whole field of corn or soybeans, alone and
unprotected from the plant’s natural predators.

But the functional diversity of a permacultural ecosystem
insures the operation of certain controls, since the
designer turns the naturally antagonistic and competitive
relationships among plants and animals to advantage. A
complex system — with a great variety of species
— is simply less susceptible to pest infestations
than is a single-crop system.

In our Tagari gardens, we use several different species to
deal with potential pest problems. Ducks, for example, are
effective against snails and slugs. In some areas of
Australia we have so many grasshoppers that people can’t
garden without the pest-destroying help of guinea fowl … so they have to site their plots within a guinea fowl
range. I also make straw and rock piles for lizards …
since the reptiles will eat some grubs that birds won’t
touch.

Another predator that I encourage in my garden is the tree
frog … it will devour both cabbage moth larvae and pear
slugs. To attract the frogs, I simply make little ponds out
of shallow pits lined with plastic and hollowed-out tires.
I dig the ponds wherever I need them — near the pear
or apple trees and among the cabbages — then dump in
a couple of gallons of tree-frog tadpoles.

We’ve also found that mulch is effective against such
insects as cutworms. And, since most good mulches contain
many different kinds of fungi, the material provides a sort
of “battleground” in which harmful organisms simply eat
each other up. I think one has to play around with all
sorts of natural controls, as we’ve done … and will
eventually hit upon the ones that work best in a specific
area.

PLOWBOY: Isn’t there a tremendous
financial outlay required to set up a permaculture, with
such a diversity of species?

MOLLISON: Well yes, the initial cost can
be steep if you’re the only person involved … and at
one point I was. Originally, I spent about eight or nine
hundred dollars, in species purchases alone, to set up a
half-acre! But — once I was done — that piece
of land didn’t cost another cent in equipment or
maintenance. So there’s a rapidly decreasing financial
input involved.

The best way to establish a permaculture, though, is to
share the expense among a number of people. If you have
some sort of association, you can obtain the necessary
species at a low cost to each individual … and can also
share whatever species you already have with one another.
For example, I now find that one of my friends will already
have specimens of any of six or seven hundred
plant and animal types I might need.

PLOWBOY: Let’s talk about houses and
buildings … what sorts of structures would fit into an
evolved permaculture?

MOLLISON: Any buildings that are part of
an ecosystem should agree with that system’s overall
principle of minimal energy usage. To that end, there are
basically two choices: One either makes adjustments to
existing structures, or constructs new dwellings.

The “reactive house” concept is one pattern that can be
employed to retrofit older dwellings. The aim of such a
design is to reduce — or even eliminate — the
need to use external energy for climate control. In this
sort of housing, outside windbreak plantings protect the
structure from cold winds … external walls are covered
with insulating vine crops … a solar-collecting
greenhouse is attached to the sunny side of the building … all walls and ceilings are well insulated… and so
forth.

There are also lots of exciting things being done with
underground and earth dwellings. Furthermore — after
I finish my tour of the United States — I’m going to
visit a West German named Rudolf Doernach, who “grew” his
own house: a unique biostructure composed of an
igloo-shaped steel-and-timber frame that’s grown over with
leafy evergreen vines. The building is heated with compost
… and it keeps the occupants quite warm, even in the
cold European winters! “Plant houses” like Doernach’s
— which literally spring up out of the ground —
not only make useful human dwellings but can also provide
warm livestock shelters.

PLOWBOY: Bill, so far you’ve referred to
permaculture only as a rurally oriented concept.
What relevance — if any — do your ideas have to
the millions of people who live in crowded nonagricultural
environments?

MOLLISON: I’ve done quite a lot of design
work in inner city areas, believe it or not … most
often with unemployment coops and community groups. Our
cities are really in a crisis situation, because they were
set up to exist only as dependents of physically distant
food-producing ecologies, and simply can’t survive on their
own. So we’ll have to do a fast job of designing in urban
areas if we’re going to save the cities.

Actually, though, I find that — more and more —
inner cities are becoming surprisingly active agricultural
areas. Earlier in this trip, I worked in the Los Angeles
suburbs of Lynwood and Watts … and what I saw there
foreshadows what will be happening all over the world in
ten years. Those people are more likely to make an effort
to do something about their circumstances, because
they have an immediate need … the edge of the sword is
closer to them. Many inner city residents can’t afford
petrol or food today — a situation that will
become all too common in other areas quite soon — so
they’re forced to grow their own supplies now. As
a result, there are actually more gardens per capita in
Lynwood and Watts than in any other part of Los Angeles.
It’s strange … the Third World exists within
the frontiers of the Western world, as well as without.

Anyway, I think we can reform the cities. I’d like to have
a chance to work on great, tall skyscrapers … they’re
nothing more than huge, unused greenhouses that could
produce a tremendous amount of energy on their
own. It would be possible to grow a lot of useful crops in
such buildings … and in urban park areas that
are now used only for ornamentals. All sorts of
cluster-title and land-owning co-op systems could be
devised to allow more and more city dwellers to produce
their own food.

PLOWBOY: In Permaculture Two you
stated that the only sane response to the insanity of our
postindustrial age is “to gather together a few friends and
commence to build the alternative, on a philosophy of
individual responsibility for community survival.” Is this
the motivation behind the community you’ve formed in
Tasmania?

MOLLISON: Indeed it is. I think that total
personal self-sufficiency is an extraordinarily stupid
approach to existence. We all need one another — as
individuals and as groups — to set up functional
interconnections. Human beings, you see, need what a garden
needs: a lot of diversity in functional relationships.

What we’re working toward at Tagari is a system of
regionalism — based on our individual self-reliance
without the defended boundaries so common
nowadays. Our group is rather small, but we maintain
multilocation activities: We’re operating in deserts, in
tropical rain forests, in cool temperate areas, in the sea,
and in the cities. We believe that all the
elements of life on earth are interconnected. Not only is
no man an island, you see, but no species is an
island.

PLOWBOY: How big is your community?

MOLLISON: At the site where I live with my
family and friends, there are only eight of us. But we have
alliances with several other similar groups, bringing the
total number of Tagari members to about 30. And then we
have alliances with many hundreds of other groups in
Australia … publishing and distribution alliances,
training and design alliances, genetic species alliances,
and seed collection alliances. Through just this sort of
system of linking connections, we foresee the emergence of
what might amount to an alternative nation … which will
be global. But, of course, we can’t let any one
of the units get too big, or it might become oppressive. If
that should happen, we’d have to drop it from the network … and it would be unable to survive alone, without those
vital interrelationships.

PLOWBOY: Do you think there’s an optimum
number of members, then, for the ideal community?

MOLLISON: That’s an interesting question,
and the answer depends on what the function of a particular
community is. I would suggest that we begin in tiny groups
of five or six … but then these little units would
later need to coalesce into groups of 30 or so and make a
settlement. Finally, you’d need to form a larger tribe of
about 200, to insure enough genetic diversity for the
survival of the race.

So what I’m doing while I’m traveling on this tour is
setting up connections. I hope to leave a string of new
permaculture groups behind me as I go. The associations are
actually self-forming — all I do is introduce the
ideas and get them started — and self-run: There’s no
central secretariat or anything like that. What we want is
not a bureaucracy, but an interconnected system of
functional links … such as seed exchanges and
reciprocal resource distributions. The associations can
operate very efficiently on their own. In fact, I don’t
even know what most of them are doing … which is fine,
as long as they’re out there putting things right.

PLOWBOY: Is Tagari open to new members?

MOLLISON: Oh, sure. We’ll accept up to 30
members at each location within the community … but we
plan to stop expansion altogether at a total size limit of
about 200 people. So it is open — for a finite period
— at several locations. We take in some seasonal
workers, as well. And we do have lots of interesting work
going on. Actually, functions are split within the
community: Some of us work in publishing the permaculture
books, others work in information dispersal, and I work
— along with several others — in design and
networking. In addition, a number of us are involved in
setting up alternate forms of property ownership. We now
have quite an active land bank system, through which we
acquire farms, houses, and other buildings and then parcel
out stewardship of the properties.

PLOWBOY: And you’re also educating
permaculture designers?

MOLLISON: Yes, and they’re trained to
design to the very limit of their intellect, to apply the
principles of functional connections to their plans. In
that sense they’re a new breed, totally different from
traditional landscape architects or agricultural designers.
We plan to train them initially in Australia and then send
them out to teach regional courses to other people …
thus we’ll be setting up an expanding pyramid of functional
design knowledge.

And it appears we’re already making inroads into
traditional thinking patterns … 60,000 copies of our
books have been sold in Australia, and there are
permaculture associations popping up in every state of that
nation. The idea is also beginning to enter the
establishment, it seems, through the formal educational
system. One agricultural university and one technical
college now offer courses in permaculture. A lot of
“respectable” scientific associations are linking up with
us, too … they’re giving themselves fancy names like
“Agro-Silviculture Institutes,” but they’re all actually
edging into permaculture.

PLOWBOY: It’s great to know that some
minds are already being changed by the idea of permaculture
… but how can your group convince those who may not
have realized the value of your concept? That is, how do
you expect people to convert the prevalent belief in
high-energy, single-yield agriculture to an awareness of
low-energy, diverse-yield permaculture?

MOLLISON: I believe the key word here is
commitment. Self -government is the first thing
each individual has got to learn. Each person must make up
his or her own mind and make a commitment …
only then is he or she ready to go out and
convince others. Just before E.F. Schumacher died, he said
that our duty is to get our own house in order, and I
certainly couldn’t put it any better than that. We all have
to start within ourselves and get our own houses in order … and then we’ll be ready to become missionaries
for order.

But if your house is in chaos and your doorstep is weedy … well, then you can’t be a very good missionary, can
you? In fact, man shouldn’t leave this planet if he’s going
to leave it in disorder, because he’ll only carry his chaos
along with him … and he’ll become the garbage strewer
of the universe.

PLOWBOY: OK. Assuming that our race is
able to get its house in order, and we’re ready to go out
and make the changeover to permanent agriculture … what
should be our first course of action?

MOLLISON: I think our main
responsibility is to set up a replacement for modern
agriculture before it collapses, instead of
waiting for its self-destruction. And the system will
certainly destroy itself … it’s only a matter of time.
In fact, the end of commercial agribusiness is foreshadowed
in today’s news stories. While I was in Los Angeles, I read
that agricultural “experts” foresee in the near future a
single crop — it will probably be the soybean —
from which all other foods will be derived. We’ll only need
that one crop, they say. What a disaster! If that happens,
the powers that be will probably level all the mountains
and fill in all the rivers, just to set up the artificial
monoculture … and we won’t have any diversity to build
on.

So I propose that we begin to build counter-systems, based
on what little diversity is still left, now! We
need to start — as quickly as possible —
gathering genetic resources and stacking them into the
right assemblies. We need to have some diverse systems
already functioning when conventional agriculture
collapses, so that we won’t be destroyed. Because if we’re
caught unaware, modern “agribiz” will be the end of a lot
else besides itself … it’ll take most of the earth’s
soils with it. However, if we start now, we’ll be
ahead of the sublime blaze-out that’s sure to
come.

We must also reorder our thinking, including our notions as
to which technologies are the “right” ones to use. We need
a simpler, biologically oriented technology. For every
machine you might invent, I could name a living thing that
would perform its function just as well. For instance, we
can pump water in or out of the ground with certain plants,
and we can completely control the climate of living spaces
with animals and plants … and biological
technology doesn’t rip the earth to pieces as it works.

PLOWBOY: What do you think the future
would be like without the biotechnology of
permaculture?

MOLLISON: There is no future without it… at least not for life systems. Our current highly
developed technology is leading us toward an
inorganic future … and man — a creature
of flesh and blood — wouldn’t survive long in such a
world.

At this point, most people are still irresponsible …
and seem to be dangerously shortsighted when it comes to
their ability to perceive the immutable barriers that we’re
bound to hit sooner or later. It’s like that classic film
short Godzilla vs. Bambi, you know. Humankind is
flitting about carelessly — like the innocent Bambi
— consuming enormous amounts of energy with no
thought for the future. But Godzilla — those
inescapable laws of nature — is breathing down
Bambi’s neck … the shadow of a giant foot, of the great
paw that will soon come down, hovers over him.

I think, though, that people will wake up as the
world goes deeper and deeper into disorder … as our
nonrenewable resources begin to disappear and Western
agribusiness begins to falter. Then they’ll be clamoring
for someone to help put their world back in order … and
that role could, perhaps, be partly filled by permaculture
designers! Therefore, I foresee a few decades of high
demand for good designers … a period that will
last until the society regains its stability and becomes
self-sustaining.

PLOWBOY: You think it’s possible, then, to
reverse the damage we’ve already done? Do we still have the
potential to extricate ourselves?

MOLLISON: Obviously so, since we’ve
survived this far. We’ve got good genes! I mean, we
must have descended from a long line of right
thinkers, or we wouldn’t be sitting here. That’s been the
course of human history, you know: You think right or
you’re dead. So I believe we have the inherited
capacity to think right, behave properly, and
design a viable future for ourselves … we’ve just got
to start drawing upon our marvelous inheritance.