Saturday, January 2, 2010

David Holmgren & Bill Mollison: Permaculture


David Holmgren was born in Fremantle, Western Australia in 1955. He joined the Environmental Design School in Hobart, Tasmania in 1973, where he met Bill Mollison, who was then a lecturer at the University of Tasmania. Holmgren started writing a thesis on sustainable agriculture and, with additions from Mollison, this text became the legendary book Permaculture One, published in 1978. Holmgren has gone on to establish his own permaculture settlement at Melliodora and the larger eco-village of Fryers Forest. He works as a permaculture consultant, author and trainer.

Bruce Charles 'Bill' Mollison was born in 1928 in Stanley, Tasmania, Australia. He claims to have spent his life up to the age of 28 as “living in the bush or on the sea”, hunting or fishing. He became a scientist with the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Tasmanian Inland Fisheries Department. He began teaching at the University of Tasmania in 1968 where he met David Holmgren. He started lecturing on Permaculture in 1976 and, following Permaculture One’s publication, he resigned his position in 1979 to develop and teach practical permaculture courses full time. He received the Right Livelihood Award in 1981.


According to Holmgren, “The word permaculture was coined by Bill Mollison and myself in the mid-1970s to describe an "integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man". Mollison claims “I coined the term ‘permaculture’” for the system the two jointly developed, which he describes as “a framework for a sustainable agricultural system based on a multicrop of perennial trees, shrubs, herbs (vegetables and weeds), fungi and root systems”. The word itself is a contraction of the words ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’.

Holmgren later defines permaculture as "consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs", but he goes on to say “more precisely I see permaculture as the use of systems thinking and design principles that provide the organising frame work for the above vision”. Mollison talks of permaculture being like aikido, working with the natural systems and turning adversity into strength, unlike conventional agriculture which he likens to karate, trying to kick and punch nature.

"All my life we've been at war with nature. I just pray that we lose that war. There are no winners in that war..." Bill Mollison

The archetypal permaculture set up resembles a small holding arranged in concentric rings, or zones. The dwelling at the centre of the system is surrounded by the crops and animals requiring most attention with more self sufficient systems in the outer zones. This simple ring system is distorted by radial sectors that reflect natural conditions, such as wind, sun, fire, water and slope. Within each resulting area, the system is designed to maximise the use of natural synergies and to exploit the “stacking” of plants ie their different vertical layers, the natural foraging of animals, and the edge effects where different eco-systems meet. Each element in the design ideally provides at least two functions (eg fodder and nitrogen fixing) and each function should be provided by at least two elements for resilience. These design principles were laid out by Holmgren and Mollison in the now out of print ‘Permaculture One’ which went on to be something of a counterculture classic.

It is not clear how close the two men were or are. In “Principles & Pathways” Holmgren refers to “an intense but relatively brief working relationship with Bill Mollison” before going on to refer to “[Mollison’s] charisma, his ego, and his abrasive and confrontationalist manner” Certainly they appear to be chalk and cheese in terms of personality - in the Foreword to the same book Prof Stuart Hill contrasts Holmgren - “the modest, reflective, thorough, follow through person” - with Mollison - “the wild ideas man with the public persona”. It also appears that they see permaculture from quite different perspectives.

Mollison’s point of view appears to be an extension of his own martial arts analogy above – permaculture is a fairly fixed framework to be taught by elders to newcomers who through study and practice can pass on the system to the next generation. Indeed he is reported to have attempted to protect the word ‘permaculture’ legally as he felt the interpretation of some proponents was diluting the core framework.

When a reviewer described Mollison as “seditious” his riposte was:

I teach self-reliance, the world's most subversive practice. I teach people how to grow their own food, which is shockingly subversive. So, yes, it’s seditious. But it’s peaceful sedition.

Demonstrating his pithy humour, he went on to declare in the same interview:

I hate lawns.

Holmgren, on the other hand, appears to see permaculture as more of a philosophical mindset to be applied across all aspects of human activity. Holmgren's main theoretical inspiration has been the American ecologist Howard T. Odum and his use of ‘emergy’ (embodied energy) to design systems. In Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, Holmgren lists 12 design principles:

• Observe and interact
• Catch and store energy
• Obtain a yield
• Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
• Use and value renewable resources and services
• Produce no waste
• Design from patterns to details
• Integrate rather than segregate
• Use small and slow solutions
• Use and value diversity
• Use edges and value the marginal
• Creatively use and respond to change

But in its attempt to apply permaculture principles more widely, “Principles & Pathways” exposes the limitations of Holmgren’s experience. While the application of the principles to Australian agricultural practice is assured, much of the rest of each chapter is, in my opinion, rambling and often self-indulgent. In particular, when he ventures into the industrial field, his lack of practical experience is exposed, relying on tenuous examples or simply quoting Amory Lovins. My view is that these principles can be, and to an extent have been, applied to the wider field of sustainability, but Holmgren’s attempt falls short.

The biggest external criticism of permaculture itself is the lack of scientific assessment of its effectiveness either in terms of productivity or ecological protection. While researching this profile, I tried searching academic literature and found no meaningful results. A lack of academic interest in permaculture is of course not the fault of its originators, but it is odd. But it makes assessing the impact of Mollison and Holmgren in quantitative terms difficult.

In summary, the two men have provided an sustainable horticulutre/agricultural/self sufficiency design framework which many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people have engaged with to some extent or another. This new way of thinking (in modern cultures at least) of working with natural systems rather than against them, is clearly laudable - even if Holmgren may have over extended himself later. Permaculture principles underpin the Transition Movement which, at the time of writing, is developing into a popular movement to address the twin risks of climate change and peak oil.

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At January 20, 2011 at 3:03 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stumbled upon this while reading about permaculture. I see you posted it a year ago, but thanks for an informative/engaging blurb on these two characters and insight into their visions of permaculture. -Kim


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