Interview with Bill Mollison
In the1960's and 70's Bill Mollison, and later with David Holmgren, developed the concepts of permaculture, (derived from the words "permanent" "agriculture" and "culture,"). In 1978 the seminal work "Permaculture One" was written, with "Permaculture Two" to follow a year later. By 1981 the graduates of the first permaculture workshop set out to make a difference in the world. Since then, Mollison and countless acolytes have spread permaculture principles throughout the world while developing thousands of sustainable systems and creating a model for ecological design and development.
Recently declared "Ecologist of the Century" in Australia, Mollison conceives permaculture as the "conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems." and "the harmonious integration of landscape and people..." permaculture design he points out, stems from "protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour:" In short, its goals are energy and water conservation, sustainable local food production and regional self-reliance. As conceived by Mollison, permaculture is nothing less than a "sustainable earth-care system" capable of providing our food, energy, shelter, and other needs while conserving the world's resources.
On July 25, 2001 I was fortunate enough to have this conversation with Bill Mollison as he visited our New Mexico Research Farm.
Scott Vlaun: Because most of our readers don't really know much about permaculture . . .
Bill Mollison: I was going to talk about the history of permaculture. It really arose from looking at other systems, non-agricultural systems. I spent almost 30 years in wildlife survey, so I'd be watching animals in interaction with plants. I'd be sitting up night after night, watching that sort of thing and I decided that it was a pretty good system but that I could build one just as well. It was 1959. Now, that's a pretty cheeky thing to say. In fact, I thought some of it wasn't too good; it wasn't very well designed.
Vlaun: This is Nature you're talking about . . .
Mollison: Yeah, Nature, I'm talking about Nature. Really, God missed out on a few things. So in November of 1959, I made a note in my diary and that's what I call the beginning of permaculture. It said, "I think I could build a system that works better than this one I'm watching," which was a rain forest with marsupials. I didn't act on that because I still had a lot of work to do in forestry. So, a few years later a Club of Rome report came out in which they made a forecast for the future in terms of renewable resources, fossil fuels and population. It said that something's gotta give. We're on a collision course. This must have been about 1963 or 65. I called Hobart University where I was lecturing and I said "What we're teaching is irrelevant, really, no matter what it is, it's irrelevant, because it doesn't refer to near future crises. We've been teaching this stuff for 50 or 100 years . . . the same physics, the same classical studies . . . and we should all change." Everyone said, "Yeah we should." The staff said so; the students said so; and they all went back and did exactly the same thing they were doing before. It is too difficult to contemplate change if you're an academic because that's all you know. I could see that was pretty useless and by 1970, I could see, too, that the marine resources were starting to fold up. We were running out of fish stocks and we ran out of seaweed in some areas. I saw that things were indeed troubled. I saw the need for another system by 1970.
In 1972, I did that thing where you leave society. I bought five acres in the forest, made a little clearing of about an acre and a half in there and built a house and a barn and a garden and pulled out of society generally. I thought up permaculture. I broke through when I started to think that if I took all the principles of environmental science and made them into directives that tell you what to do, then we've got a way to go. Luckily, Kenneth Watts at the University of California at Davis, had just put out a little book on the principles of environmental science so Kenneth had listed all those principles and rules that people had thought they'd discovered and I took each one in turn and changed it into a directive. For example, a wooly sort of principle like "Mature ecosystems exploit immature ecosystems." It's difficult to see what that means but apparently people have said that. OK, if you're going to do that, then lets grow annuals and mulch them round young perennials. By mulching the annuals they're swallowing, the immature system, we create a perennial system. This actually works quite well. So, I would change them into directives. I did that night after night and then other insights came from that process. What I was doing really was saving energy in every form, whether it was when you build a house or when you grew a crop or when you used fertilizer and didn't have to. So I could see that you could do almost everything biologically, and you can't run out of biology. So about 1974 I started building a garden with some hundreds of plant species in it, mainly directed for human use but whatever else I could see that would be in the garden, I would feed it too. Like if I was going to have chickens, I would have a section for chickens, not for me.
Vlaun: So you wouldn't be buying off farm inputs to feed your chickens, you'd be growing whatever the chickens needed.
Mollison: Right. Which is much easier to do than you think. And I kept collecting cases, too. My grandmother had chickens and she feed them with a handful of wheat every day and had a little shed that she'd close some of them up in and got the eggs. She got two dozen eggs every day without fail. One day, I said to her, "How many chickens do you have, Grandma?" She said, "I don't know, about 25 I reckon." She didn't know. So, I set out one evening with a notebook and made notes of all the chickens I could see. By the end of the evening, I knew she had a lot more than 25 chickens. They never came in for that handful of grain, that was all. So, I set chicken traps, big wire cages with funnels in them, with lots of wheat in the funnel and I caught 68 chickens. I wondered . . . these chickens aren't eating one handful of wheat, that's not going to do it. She had them running in amongst two plants: one was called Coprosma, it's a New Zealand shiny leaf creeping plant immune to sea winds and things, and it has crop after crop of berries during the year; it's always got green berries or ripe berries or new berries or something. Each berry has two seeds that you could easily mistake for two grains of wheat. So it's a continual wheat producer as far as chickens are concerned; they think it's wheat and they eat it. So even one Coprosma bush was feeding dozens more chickens than my grandmother. And the other plant she had planted because of the sea winds was in the Solanum family. It's got huge thorns. It's called African Box Thorn. It's a Lycium. It's a frightfully thorny thing. But in cool climates it doesn't spread; you put it in and there it grows; it grows to about 15 feet across and 15 feet high. It's a dome, and it stops there forever. We've had hedges of it for more than 200 years in northern Tasmania. It always has flowers, green berries, and ripe berries and the chickens love it. It's in the Solanacae so there's like millions of little tomatoes falling all the time. When a chook (chicken) is going to lay eggs and rear chicks she walks in underneath the box thorns, makes a nest, lays her eggs and sits under the box thorns because nothing, no hawks, no dogs, nothing can get her in there. Then come the chicks and they don't leave that shelter because the berries are the perfect size for little chickens. They eat them until they're quite well fledged, and out they come in the open air and then hawks get one or two of them. If they're in trouble, they run into the box thorns, so it's ideal food and shelter.
So, she had these two plants and none other, and yet, they fed 85 chickens within 50 yards of her chicken house, so I could say you didn't have to buy wheat to grow chickens. And her eggs were very good eggs. I later discovered there's some New Zealanders who grew their chickens on three species of Coprosma. I never saw the other species. That's all they ever feed them.
Vlaun: So one plant could provide food and shelter for chickens. What would the chickens provide for the environment there?
Mollison: Plenty of manure. All the time manure. So you get a very high phosphate reading in the soils nearby. The chickens are also going to give you eggs and feathers and all the usual products. I think there's almost nothing you can't do that with.
Vlaun: So by watching these natural systems first, and then these systems that were kind of naturalized, you developed your ideas for your own farm?
Mollison: A lot. And first of all, I saw that Nature never has a single system. It never just grows pines or just grows anything really. So, Nature structures a system, an overstory, intermediate stories, and understories and then dives below the ground into tubers. So when you have to construct a system you have a huge range of levels that you can construct providing you pay attention to the light needs of some plants. Now, it's critical in the tropics to have high shade. If you don't have it, you get very little production because about 9:30 in the morning it's too hot and your plants wilt, so photosynthesis ceases. But about 4:30 in the evening the leaves come up again and they all start photosynthesizing and you get a little bit at the end of each day where the plants grow but none other, so that's why the tropics have never been renowned for production and they don't feed the world from the tropics because plants growing there don't get much of a chance to actually put their energy into growth. They're what they call light-saturated, too much light. They deal with it and just fold up, so you've got to put a high shade over it and so the tropics have a lot of umbrella-shaped trees. Put those up and plants will synthesize all day long so you can double production underneath shade trees. In Massachusetts, or Maine where you are, you can't put shading over your gardens because you don't have enough light. You have very good light, by the way, because you have a lot of indirect light bouncing off clouds or coming through fog. That's the best for growing plants, so the further north you go up to 60° north, 70 in some cases, the more production you get, because you get 18 hour days up there at 60° north and beautiful warm days but not a lot of sun. So you can grow the 100 pound cabbage up there. Up to Alaska, you can grow 40-pound potato and 100-pound cabbage. (laughs) It's not fairies, like they say it is at Findhorn. Findhorn puts it all down to fairies and devas and prayer and things while using pig shit for fertilizer, but it is indirect light, endless light, 18-hour days of growth, and ground up glacial soil. You can't beat that for ground situations. So if you want to grow record spuds, build your gardens in Alaska. If you want to grow year round, have another garden about 15° degrees off the Equator and move there as soon as winter comes.
Vlaun: I like that idea.
Mollison: Yeah. It's a lot cheaper than staying at 60° north and trying to keep warm. The fare to a more amiable climate is cheaper than your oil for heating your house.
Vlaun: But not if we have one of those Finnish stoves, right? (From a previous conversation about wood fired masonry heaters.)
Mollison: Not many people have them. The Finns have them. The Russians have them. But the American people are secure in the fact that they can burn oil 'til the cows come home. They don't bother with them.
Vlaun: Maybe as the price of fossil fuels goes higher, there will be more incentive to come up with better solutions. Even in New Mexico, most people don't take advantage of the sun to heat their homes.
Mollison: This is ghastly! But you've put me off my track. In 1974, I built gardens that I thought were pretty good and I independently evolved deep mulching systems, I say independently, because about 7 seven years after that, about 1982, an American came by and said, "Oh you're using Ruth Stout's method" and I'd never heard of Ruth Stout and it was many years before I actually got her book, closer to the 90s.
Vlaun: That was one of the first garden books I ever read back in the 70s . . ."the No Work Garden Book."
Mollison: Ah, great.
Vlaun: . . . her book and the Nearings' "Living the Good Life" They were the two people I read back then.
Mollison: I remember reading a book rather like the Nearings'. It was made in England . . . I've forgotten the guy who did it . . . and I thought it was a lesson in rotten hard work for very little result. It was sort of like a ground-down peasant primer. (laughs heartily) Just what I didn't want. I grew up like that, I grew up on farms on which you worked 18-hour days, hard work, and I thought, there's got to a better way. I ignored this in Scott Nearing and John Seymour. He wrote a book, in which you're trying to do everything. He called it practical self-sufficiency. (John Seymour's books "The Forgotten Arts" and "Forgotten Household Crafts" have recently been republished in one volume by DK Publishing as "The Forgotten Arts and Crafts.")
First of all, I think that's a terrible concept: self-sufficiency. You make your own cheese; you skin your own pig; you make your own gloves from the pig's ears, you know, it's a shocking idea. We are absolutely interdependent. I want somebody else to be making my boots while I feed them, you know. And somebody else again to make my fishing rod, car, bike. Self-sufficiency is a stupid idea. You can go a long way to feeding yourself or perhaps all the way, but beyond that, it's pretty stupid really. You have to have something to make money: photography, writing books. Me, I write books. That's my income. But I can easily feed myself.
Vlaun:I think that was Scott Nearing's point too. He would work four hours a day on feeding himself and providing his shelter and heat, but then he would work four hours each day writing, lecturing, and teaching, and then four hours a day reading, playing music, things like that.
Mollison: Nice, nice.
Vlaun: It's kind of hard to do, but . . .
Mollison: Like you would forget sometimes (laughs) . . . but theoretically. I didn't read him a lot but I know he built a lot of stone walls and things and that is hard to do.
Vlaun: He and his wife Helen built stone house.
Mollison: Yeah. There's another hard thing to do. You only ever do one of those in your life. I've built big stone walls and things and when you finish one, you've finished them forever, you know. I never want to do that again.
Anyhow, I was looking for a different way. I thought: There are easier ways to get what you want. What you have to do is obey the natural law, but Permaculture turned very rapidly into a system of design so that everything you put in had a multiple purpose and was in the right place to carry out its job. It's a peculiar thing to say that you put the tree there to give shade; every tree gives shade; so that's not a unique characteristic of this tree you put there, to give shade, but if it also gives you something like oranges or dates as well, that's good, and also has an excess of oranges to feed your pig . . . then it's doing three things. And I always say that everything you place should do at least three things. If you put a window in, there should be at least three good reasons why you put it in that place because a window converts light into heat and it should be where you want that heat and where you don't want it is on your west wall. An amazing number of people put a window in their west wall and suffer from extra heat. In Davis, in California, you're not allowed to do that. It's forbidden in your design. They'll scratch it out. You can't build a house like that. You can't build houses so stupid. It's going to use gallons and gallons of oil to cool them. So, no west windows and no unshaded west walls and no unshaded parking areas. That's all part of the law now. But in the center of Sydney and elsewhere there are many more laws just to stop you from being so stupid that you're gonna cost the earth. Because the supply of people present on the earth, all of us, with the energy base that you have in America, you'd need 25 Earths and we don't have 'em. So, without those 25 Earths, you gotta design systems which cost a lot less in terms of oil and gas than America does. And you've got the wrong president, too . . .
Vlaun: Well, we don't want to talk about that.
Mollison: So I evolved a system in which your house is designed to your landscape, your water supply was designed into your house and landscape, every farm supplies it's own water; every house supplies it own water; there is no reticulated water.
Vlaun: Really? Even in the cities?
Mollison:There is some in the cities for sure. But we realize we shouldn't have done it. We should have supplied every house with its own water tank off its own roof because when they did reticulating water here and in Australia they used asbestos cement pipes, thousands of miles of them. Everywhere you dig up water pipes of asbestos cement, and they're all giving up the fibers now, have been for a long time.
Vlaun: So do you think your ideas of permaculture can apply to all different scales, from the industrial agriculturist to the home gardener?
Mollison: Any scale. I had a lot of fun in Sweden sitting in little flats with architects working at how we were going to eat in this flat and we were able to do it and also to have fish occasionally. We had worm drawers ( for composting) in our kitchen where we grew our worms by using our kitchen scraps and spitting into them occasionally and whatever else . . . and then we had little boxes on wheels which we put out to small verandas in the daytime to grow our potatoes in . . . we couldn't leave them out at night; they would have frozen. (laughs)The funny thing that struck me there is that my friends wanted to patent everything. They wanted to patent the worm thing. They wanted to patent the potato thing and I said, "Oh that's ridiculous. You want to give it away and teach it so that every Swede is happy in their room." We used the fish tank, high on the rear wall, to condense any moisture out of the air down into the tank so we weren't rotting away in the wintertime. We had a lot of very good systems running.
Anyhow, on the big scale, we have farms much bigger than Texas in Australia, so we go very big, and we do thousands of them a year. Somebody said to me, "Would you design Greece?" or "Would you design Connecticut?" and I would say, "Sure, that's an easy job. That's smaller than designing one of these farms." So, it goes from the tiny one room flat in Stockholm to the unthinkably large, a 4 million acre cattle station in Northern Territory.
Vlaun: So what would you say are the underlying principles that would be the same in that room in Sweden . . .
Mollison: . . . they're all the same. The principles have to be all the same. That's the point.
Vlaun: . . . and what would those principles be?
Mollison: Well, that everything you place has to have multiple functions, everything you place has to be to save energy. There's a whole set of good design principles. Another is that every important function is carried out in many ways.
Vlaun: So not only is each element performing many functions, but each function is coming from many things.
Mollison: Right. Where you are in Maine in winter, you probably want a big thick, probably down, blanket over your bed and it you want a plump wife, so she's cuddly in the winter underneath and you want a mass heater so it goes on quietly all night putting out low heat levels, and you probably want the same percentage of your south wall glass as your latitude. What's your latitude?
Mollison:So you want 45% of your south wall in glass and then you want a solid floor inside so the sun is doing its maximum to heat your house too, so you're gonna get your house heated. If all that fails, you do what you the Yugoslavs do: lift your house one floor up and stack all your cattle in underneath every night and all your hay. And if that doesn't do it, you gotta do what Southern Russians do: you flatten your roof and stick a huge haystack up on your roof so that the heat of composting is being driven from your roof into your room while your cattle drive heat up underneath. In the end you're gonna end up pretty warm with your wife and your blanket and your mass heater and your cattle under the floor and your haystack beating down from on top, you're gonna be OK. And no one can turn that off. There's no one thing that's gonna make you shiver.
And the other thing is that every important function is achieved by many methods and everything is placed for many reasons . . . and if you've done it right, you come out of it well.
Vlaun: So while your haystack on the roof is making compost for you, it's heating your house . . . .
Mollison:The nice thing about it . . . you see it also over Turkey and up the Caspian . . . you put it up there when it's still a bit wet and it's going to feed your cattle and goats . . . they can't get up there up and eat it. It's still actually working; it's more becoming silage than hay, so it's very warm and the center can be as high as 60°C and then, as you feed it down and the winter starts to wear off, it gets cooler and cooler until in the end, it's not heating you at all and it's springtime. Not a lot left there then. You chuck the last bit down, and then you can start drying things up there for the summer and hanging out your clothes and things. A haystack is a beautiful thing. In England, they fill a garage up with bales of hay, pump the contents of their septic tank over it, diluted; it goes up to about 63°C and they run coils of pipe along the walls and in the ceiling and then run all the hot water from them into the house to heat the house. I think it's 17 cubic meters of compost will heat an English house for the entire winter, so they do that, and the French do too. The French chip up everything, little logs and prunings and put it in a bloody big pile. In the middle of that they have a hot water tank and they draw that off all winter into your radiators and into your showers and baths. Then at the end of winter, they take the compost away and put it where the soil is poor. They do it as a fire prevention system. All the stuff that would burn in the summer, they've composted by the end of winter. Yeah. So, it's just thinking, "How many ways can you heat something?" Well, in Iceland, they make a beautiful cheese out of evaporated whey and they do it by floating great big trays out on the hot water coming out of volcanoes, tip the whey in and just let it evaporate. The heat's for nothing. They make a beautiful sweet cheese like that. So, there's all sorts of ways. Up at Pyramid Lake there's really lovely hot springs. They can be too hot, sometimes you have to shuffle back a bit sometimes. There's thousands of things you can do with that heat.
Vlaun: For somebody with a small suburban garden, how many different species of plants do you think would be appropriate to grow?
Mollison: Oh, I would say that 30 would pull you up. You'd be eating more sorts of vegetables than most people at 30. Fact is, in my gardens any day, I could pick 40 plants to take inside, so I grow more than most people. But I could go into some of my gardens, subtropical ones, and I'll bring that up to 400. But never in any one day do I collect 400 of anything. I just get a basket and fill it with whatever is there; it might be only 20 things. But I'll grow 400 edible things. But where you are, in Maine or in Massachusetts, you'd do very well to have 30 sorts of vegetables to bring inside.
Vlaun: What about other plants that you'd grow for other purposes, like feeding chickens or plants you would grow to attract beneficial insects, that would raise the amount of species you'd grow.
Mollison: You don't need too many species to feed your chickens, or for your bees, or for your hummingbirds or whatever. The more things you take care of, the more plants you've got. If you've also got free-range pigs feeding themselves, you've gotta have a lot of drops from your trees and you've gotta have big nuts falling everywhere. And you've gotta have a lot of sugars for the winter, so you've gotta have striped maples all through your understory, for your deer to see the winter out and stay fat. So it depends on who else you're looking after. If you're looking after fish, you've gotta have another set of plants. In Hawaii, we run sweet potatoes right around the edges of the apartment, but it's always trying to run out across the pond, but it's always kept to head-height of the carp, as far as a carp can stick his head out of the water (laughs) and it's trimmed right around, but it's always growing, it's always optimistic that it's gonna run across the pond. Tradescantia, Wandering Jew, is another marvelous plant for ducks and fish, to put on the edges of the ponds. We grow a lot of prawns in Hawaii, and you could grow them in your glass house up in Maine, freshwater prawns, and they eat single-celled algae, so we don't know how to cultivate those, so we just simply float about 20 ducks to a quarter acre and they do the job of growing the algae. The duck manure is almost immediately colonized by algae and that's what the prawns eat, the algae. So 25 ducks per quarter acre,100 per acre, and you can produce $60,000 worth of prawns per quarter acre twice a year. Think of that. And that's just duck shit. Duck's shit is the basic fuel for that system. Now, what are you going to feed your ducks. Very few ducks enjoy eating much grass. They love Tradescantia and sweet potato but they love snails too, so you can put in lots of water lilies in clumps here and there and in between them you put a lot of horseradish. Snails love living in water lilies but they come out and eat horseradish. And also, if you put a lot of nasturtium in, you get a lot of snails, so if you're going to grow ducks you gotta grow horseradish, nasturtium, Tradescantia, water lilies and Agapanthus (African lily). You'll get plenty of ducks which means you'll have plenty of algae in the water and you can grow prawns, and the prawns haven't cost you a penny. They're just a second offshoot of your ducks feeding and enjoying themselves. So the system fuels itself.
Now I have a friend in Japan; his name is Takao Furuno and he only uses ducks on his farm. He doesn't buy any fertilizer, any insecticides or any herbicides and he grows rice. He gets about 7000 pounds of rice an acre for a year. He plows with ducks; he fertilizes with ducks; he weeds with ducks; and he controls all pests with ducks so he's getting totally organic rice, totally produced by his ducks. We've just published a book he's written called The Power of Duck. The power of duck on his small farm is total. You don't need anything else for anything. It'll plow; it'll fertilize; it'll take all the weeds you don't want out, and it's just a duck. And then what you have leftover, as well as 7000 pounds of rice in an acre, you've got 2000 ducks. Some of the restaurants located around farms that are using his system sell 500 ducks per day. Got a lot in the freezer, of course. It's resulted in a second tremendous surge in duck sales in restaurants, you know, and restaurants set up purely to cook ducks in all possible ways. So, we've just published Furuno's book and you know, just as much as permaculture books are example after example after example of how you can save energy and get great benefits, Furuno's book is very important as it takes a rice crop, which is always subject to huge amounts of pesticides, and tells you how to grow it with no fertilizer and no pesticides.
Vlaun: Are people starting to follow his model in Japan?
Mollison: So far, I'd say about 15 to 20,000 farmers have adopted it wholly and sometimes whole areas of farms, In South Korea, probably 4-5000 acres of the rice farming district is in the Furuno system. He's taught it in China; Vietnam has adopted it very fast; Indonesia, and he's been to Tanzania in Africa where they grow the African varieties of rice. So he's spreading his system as fast as he can go. All the winter when nothing is happening in his field, he packs his wife and five kids and off he goes, teaching, into China or Vietnam or Indonesia or Korea or anywhere . . . anywhere there are rice farmers he'll come and teach you at his own expense. I met him in Vietnam. I was up there teaching permaculture; he was teaching rice growing, and he said, "You're my brother. We both just travel to teach when we're not actually on the farm, when it's wintertime at home, we go and teach other farmers," which is exactly what both of us do. I did it for 25 years; he's only been going about 8 or 10. But he will be going for 30 years because he's a young man and very keen on his system.
Vlaun: Sounds like that one system could save a huge amount of fossil fuels and petroleum based fertilizers.
Mollison: Vast. All that I'm telling you about the duck makes all the people with investments in fertilizers shiver in their shoes because you don't need any of that shit. The shit you want is duck shit.
Vlaun: On his farm, does he have to have a lot more labor to harvest, or does he still run machinery to harvest?
Mollison: Japan, and to some extent, Italy, are the centers of tiny machines. Little machines that have something like a plastic chair in the front of them that you sit on and tiny little control levers and 5 hp engines, and they march across the patty fields with little wire fingers picking up individual seedlings and planting the rice. Behind you are all these perfect rows of rice being planted through the mud. They're tiny little machines. And then later in the year, his wife comes with another little machine that will stop every six or seven rows and take the bags off the machine and then she'll gather them all up.
Vlaun: So these are very small efficient machines but still running on fossil fuels.
Mollison: Yes, tiny little machines. But you could do it all by hand because his rice crop is one and a half acres. His farm is seven acres. His income is about $136,000 a year. And he supplies 100 homes with all their meat, eggs, chickens, ducks, vegetables, 30 or 40 sorts of vegetables, and all their rice. And he does it in a tiny little flat-topped truck.
Vlaun: Without causing any harm to the environment.
Vlaun: Actually rebuilding the environment it seems.
Mollison: He said his soil has gotten better every year. His vegetables are more productive every year. He uses the husks of the rice and his duck shit moved out every year to his vegetable crop. He said the soil is really getting very very good.
Vlaun: Is that system an evolution of Fukuoka's system of natural farming? (Masanobu Fukuoka was the author of the seminal book entitled "The One Straw Revolution" which detailed a style of farming which works in harmony with nature.)
Mollison: It doesn't refer to that. Fukuoka started as a philosopher. After a lot of struggle, 18 or 20 years, became a farmer. Furuno started as a farmer and after 18 as an organic farmer and now 8 years as a sort of duck-based organic farmer, everything he's done is extraordinarily practical. It's carefully measured. He can tell you exactly what to do.
Vlaun: Would you call permaculture a philosophy?
Mollison: If you would call philosophy a system for thinking things out, I would, but otherwise, I don't see it as a philosophy..... I don't want permaculture to be called a philosophy because people might mistake it with deep ecology and it's not deep ecology because it's very practical....... First of all, that's a very smart thing to do, to name yourself a deep-ecologist, because anybody else has to be shallower than you are. (laughs) All the deep-ecologists, and they're all philosophers, I've asked them all these questions, the same questions. "Do you own a car?" They all own a car. "Do they take a newspaper?" They all take a newspaper and some take many newspapers. "Do you have a garden?" Not one of them has a garden. I said, "You're the sort of deep ecologist I don't want to know because you're my problem. You're the world's problem!" Driving a car, taking newspapers every day, no food of your own, no attempt to grow your own food; what sort of deep ecologist are you? So the answer to that is, "I am a deep ecologist in my head but I take absolutely no notice of what happens in the world." Permaculture saves ecosystems; it preserves species; and it feeds the hungry. Nothing else does that.
Vlaun: Do you think everybody should grow their own food, at least attempt to grow some of their own food?
Mollison: No, everybody however should do something to help themselves and others. Now, if you're very good on a computer, you shouldn't be growing your own food, you should be helping the people growing their food to market the food they grow. You know, you should be setting up community supported agriculture and you should be the computer person taking in the orders and recording the numbers of customers and helping everybody as a computer person. I think we should be strong in our roles and our roles should all assist all of us to live in more efficient houses, use much less energy and power, provide ourselves with clean water and clean food and set up our own banking system in which we recycle our money for our own use. And permaculture does all that. We set up banks and credit unions in the third world and small farming societies. So you use your money to lend out to what you believe in. You should invest in what you use. And if you're going to use clean food, clean water, and very clever engineering for energy reduction, you should invest in that.
Vlaun: Do you think permaculture, as a construct, is a way to make us look at the reaction to every action that we take?
Mollison: That becomes obvious to you. Often, you set off the wrong way with a lot of things, and then permaculture helps you pull out very early because you're looking at the results of what you're doing and say, "Look, I want to get to where I was going, but this way is not the way. I'll try another way." Permaculture helps you think out how to get to where you want to go.
Scott Vlaun: Do you think that by building small scale permaculture systems in your own backyard, like your one room in Sweden for instance, that it makes you more aware of how larger systems work so we can better understand the consequences of our actions?
Bill Mollison: Yes, for example, I went to a new ecology, the tropics, latitude 28 and I went to the grasslands. Now tropical grasslands are fearful things: they're over your head, they're tangled, they're awful, and we turned it back into jungle, into rain forest; in about three years. I put in some 45 dams and miles and miles of swales, so it all turned into a huge self-watering system. So, at the end of three or four years, I said: I can do it, I can create paradise out of hell. There were 57 big Herefords on this farm of 170 acres-and you couldn't fatten them so you couldn't make it pay. And that's all there was-just great big earth-tamping machines running around losing money and now, you know, we produce more fish out of a half acre pond than all the Herefords put together. And thousands of mangoes and endless bunches of bananas and on and on and on and on.
Vlaun: Is this a model that could be used to regenerate the rain forest that's being destroyed?
Mollison: Well, up to a point. You can reclaim the tropical grasslands, but if you take southeast Brazil, or the southeast part of the Amazon, it turned into white sand desert once they cleared the rain forest. It's a long way back from white sand desert; it's not as happy a situation as back from grass.
And on the other side, in Ecuador, around a little town whose name is Cangagua, when they took the rain forest off there was only a thin layer of soil, about a foot, and it washed away. Underneath that was silica, so all the hills and valleys and everything's made out of glass. So you own a glass landscape; how do you reclaim that? Standing on a glass hill looking at a glass valley with a glass hill across the valley. Well, one day, some of the troops in permaculture down there on the coast noticed a guy up on one of those hills with a sledge hammer and he was breaking the glass-which is thick-smashing it up and making a sort of channel around the hill and then he was planting little trees in the channel and they said, "Oh we can't let him do that on his own," so they all went up there and helped him break channels around the hills. And now they say there's a little jungle coming along but it's going to take much longer than five to six years, but he decided that he wasn't going to be dispirited by the glass. Cangagua, it's called, after the town where it is. So, there are some very discouraging places.
The other ones are in the deserts. We do analyses and we find that 96 or 98% silica and no other elements and it's non-wetting so you can pour water on it and it all runs around on top in little bowls and it's a bit dispiriting. I started there in an aboriginal settlement and the only water we had was 1100 parts PPM salt; you couldn't drink it; it would knock your kidneys out. You can feed it to cattle and you can irrigate with it if you want to use a lot of it; it goes down through and comes out in low places. I think in about two years we had a booming organic garden there, in this eroded sand dune, using this dreadful water. And the aboriginal community fed itself very well from there and also sold a lot and made a lot of money. I think the mice got in once and ate $8000 worth of pumpkin seeds out of it, we had to even put out mouse fences. Mouse called moonpi. We had moonpithons to reduce the mice and in the end we only had to put flat sheet on fences all around our garden. So you never know what's going to attack. First of all, we had to put a kangaroo fence, very high, 12-15 feet high and then we had to put a moonpi fence 'round the outside of that to keep the mice out. Moonpis are more damage than the kangaroos, really.
Vlaun: There's always something.
Mollison: Yeah, there'll always be something. And you can always stop it. I saw an electric fence for snails. It was 4"wide plastic pipe pressed a little bit into the earth so there's no hope they could go under it, and it had little studs along the top about a half or a quarter of an inch high. It had a little thin wire running around it all and a small battery running this little electric fence. The snails would come up over this little pipe to cross it, leading with their eyes, and their eyes would touch this wire and they would disappear into this dimple, into the snail, as he got shocked through his eye stalks and he'd back off and he would never do that again.
Vlaun: Really. They're that smart.
Mollison: Not so smart. If somebody jolts your eyes with electricity, you don't want to go back there again. It's not so much smart as really basic.
Yeah. I think a New Zealander told me once that a New Zealander will keep anything in or out with electric fencing. Give him elephants, give him mice, give him snails, give him beetles, he'll control them . . .
Vlaun: I would say that a Mainer is probably second to a New Zealander . . . Everybody has an electric fence. Keep 'em in or keep 'em out.
Mollison: Those are for the deer.
Vlaun: Yes and, of course, livestock. What some people do up there, because a deer will jump the wire, they put peanut butter on tin foil and hang it off the wire. The deer will come and lick the peanut butter, get shocked, and then they run away and never come back. They won't touch the wire. Kind of like the snails.
Mollison: There are things that hate electricity. Cats are one. Possums are another. In Australia if you put the electric fence on, every so often there's a loud scream as a cat tries to cross it. Then, you can turn it off for up to six months. And then somebody gets the courage to come back and you gotta turn it on again for awhile. Most animals won't cross it once they get a bad sting.
Vlaun: If someone was interested in permaculture and wanted to think more about designing their landscape, even if they had a small garden, small yard, what would be their best approach.
Mollison: We publish books. We've got a book called Introduction to Permaculture which is inexpensive and we've got another book called the Permaculture Designers Manual. I say that book is for fanatics but it's probably wrong to call them fanatics. It's for people who are seriously interested in design.
One of my students married permaculture to his computer and he has programs that let him pull down properties from archives kept by the state. He can plan all the water for the farm and tell you how much it will be to make your dams and how many thousands of gallons or megaliters you've got in each one; how much your fence will be; he'll plant all your trees for you; he'll plant them on mounds; he'll put mouseproof and rabbitproof collars around them all. He invests, on behalf of people buying farms, probably a hundred million dollars a year at present. So he does hundreds of farms; he's always got 20 or 30 going. He's got a full-time surveyor; And then he's got a big nursery backing that up and very large teams of planters. So he does a lot. He's the future of permaculture. The near future. The present of permaculture. So, in his short life, in Victoria, after I trained him (he doesn't have a degree or anything), he has put in more forests and more farms than anybody in the history of Australia and he has decided the future of hundreds of thousands of acres of land. And that's how I'd have all my students go. But in America, they seem to be going more woo woo every day, more into the theories . . .
Vlaun: So how do we bring that practical approach back?
Mollison: We'll keep training people and I'll bring Darren over here and he'll workshop with people interested in computer design and the fuel will catch fire and the woo woo's will get blotted out. It's been very rough in America. It took ages to get my students through to teach their own courses. Very few of them went overseas into helping areas of famine and now they've gone woo woo. I don't know what to make of it all. There just isn't a lot of selflessness going on in America.
Vlaun: If someone was interested in studying permaculture in America, where would you send them? What do you think are the best centers?
Mollison: Damned if I know. The Bullock brothers up on Orcas Island have always been great, you know, mixed system, marsh and hillside and there are many others, I'm sure. But for every Bullock brother, there are a hundred woo woos spinning around in circles.
Vlaun: But don't you think that it's the people who aren't necessarily woo woo's but are just holding on to the industrial scale, high-input, petroleum-based model of agribusiness and non-sustainable development that are the real problem.
Mollison: The woo woos aren't a problem to anybody much but themselves. It's the people who are trying to sell you something, particularly limited resources, that are a big problem, and you've got more of them than anybody else.
The curious thing about that is this (I'm told this by your own merchant bankers): something like 80-90% of the capital invested in non-sustainable companies is invested by American women. So that's true of the whole world.
Vlaun: In non-sustainable companies?
Mollison: Yeah. Like tobacco. So you've got to reform the women of America. And the woman you've got to reform is young. She's 30 to 35 years old. She's professional. She has a degree. And she only has a modest investment: only $18-20,000. She is running the world right now. She's the one who's buggering everybody up. It is quite a narrow section of your population and you can narrow it even more. I'm sure you can change the whole world by working on relatively small numbers of American women. There's your problem. Not the woo woos.
Vlaun: Interesting. What about beauty Bill? Where does beauty come into this whole equation?
Mollison: You can't take beauty out of nature no matter how you try. Sometimes I sit in gardens, five years after I've made them, and think, I didn't do this; it did itself. They are so beautiful, they take my breath away. I sit in there and I could sit in one place all day. In some of the gardens that I've made, every bird that is represented in that region is represented in that garden, so I started off with one nesting species and three other species on a cattle farm in the sub-tropics and now I've got 118 species, most of whom are nesting. What do you think of that?
Vlaun: That's amazing. So you're rebuilding an entire ecology.
Mollison: A beautiful ecology. The parrots in my wife's garden-she planted a lot of sorghum for them, and they're all scarlet-breasted and gaudy parrots, and emerald and blue-and she said, it's like a garden full of flowers really, and so she plants just to have them in the garden.
Vlaun: So when you design a garden, beauty is not the issue, it's function.
Vlaun: So really permaculture is . . .
Mollison: . . . is functional design.
Vlaun: It's the classic "form follows function" and the beauty becomes evident because of the functionality.
Mollison: I think the best thing I've heard about that, about form following function, is about modern architecture. It's "Fiasco follows form." Frank Lloyd Wrong and all those people. They can't build a house you can actually live in. I was in one of Frank Lloyd Wrong's buildings and to actually survive one hot summer's night, we had to wet our sheets, go down to the bathroom-we all slept on the floor of the bathroom to survive-and I said, "Oh my God, and he designed this!" It was never designed for you to live in. To look at, perhaps, but not to live in. So, yeah. Isn't that an awful thing to say about one of your icons, Frank Lloyd Wrong. (laughs) I'm happy to say it about people who pretend otherwise. If they can't design good systems, I'm happy to say it. We do good systems and they work very well and they're full of life. And when they're full of life, to me, they're full of beauty because things are happening there that you could never design. That garden gets much smarter than you are really quickly. It's amazing how fast it gets clever.
Vlaun: Could you, in a nutshell, state some basic permaculture principles? You've said that each thing should perform multiple functions and each function should be achieved in multiple ways. Are there other basic principles?
Mollison: Yes. Make the least changes that you need to achieve what you want. Don't cut a tree down unless you have to. . . and I've never had to since I've adopted that as a principle.
Vlaun: You've never had to cut a tree down?
Mollison: Never. I've never had to.
Vlaun: But you said the first place you went to, you said you went to the forest and cleared an acre and a half.
Mollison: Oh, now, this was before permaculture. I was hatching permaculture in that hole in the forest. In fact, I am a logger. I've logged forests as a profession and broken down the logs with Canadian twins and sawed them up into six houses every day, six days a week. So I've cut up a lot of timber for housing.
Vlaun: What would someone in a situation like I'm in do? I live in a forest, more or less.
Mollison: There are things I call type- one errors. The first one is I say is, for Christ's sake, don't move into a forest if you want to feed yourself because you're going to have to destroy the forest to feed yourself. That's a type one error. Once you make that error, error after error will follow. And the other thing is, don't put your house up on a high bluff or on a ridge. We find it impossible to save you from fire. We find it very difficult to get roads to you and it will cost you much more for your roads than your house. We can't get water up to you. We can't keep getting it up to you in emergencies. Don't go there. Don't make the error of selecting that site.
Vlaun: In my case, this place used to be a farm 200 years ago. It was abandoned. Trees grew up in the fields. Somebody came and cut all the big trees and cleared a couple of acres for a landing. They left this huge mess, holes where the stumps were, piles of slash, piles of stumps. We're committed to restoring the forest ecology as well as producing our own food.
Mollison: I know what you're talking about. You want to farm there so you'll have to clear some of it and so you're caught in a bit of a bind. And you want to farm there so you'll have to control the animals. You're gonna have raccoons and possum and God knows what after your corn ears, aren't you? So you're gonna eat raccoon or shoot raccoon or set out wire fences against raccoon or something. So you've forced yourself into a situation where you're not sure that's where you want to be, you know, shooting deer and cutting down trees.
The whole of the peninsula of northeast Australia runs right up into the tropics, it's called Cape York. When we first got photographs of it, it was solid rain forest. In Sydney, though, we're noticing little holes appearing in the rain forest all along the coast and in the end, they turned into quite large holes with buildings in them. So, they went to have a look, and the hippies were escaping the city by going to Cape York, finding a nice waterfall ten yards from a beach, cutting themselves a clearing, putting in a garden and building a house and then getting a bigger house and asking their friends to come. So the hippies were actually eating the rain forest. And they're the very people who turn up in thousands to stop all forests being cut anywhere. But they themselves, at home, were the main cause of the disappearance of a very uncommon tropical rain forest because they like to live in a beautiful place. What they don't like to do is build a beautiful place to go and live in. They like to go to a place that is already very beautiful. That's very typical of rich people and hippies. You'll hear hundreds of hippies say, "Oh, I've found this marvelous place. It's got a waterfall; it's got beautiful trees. It's got thousands of birds, you know. I'm gonna build there." It's right in a national park! You'll hear that a million times, right? And I think, "You stupid bastard. You're a type one error yourself!"(laughs) The hippy should go somewhere where there's no forest, like I did, where there's just cattle-trodden grasslands and build that beautiful place, which I did. I put lots of lakes in it with 50 good dams, so everywhere there's water, and I created paradise. It created itself even more than I did; I gave it a three-year start. It built itself amazingly fast.
Vlaun: It's a frustrating thing for us. I never could have cleared that field where my garden is. It just never would have happened. It was a deep, dark pine forest. I never even thought about going in there. T,hen one day, it was gone, and all of a sudden, there was sky and a whole new vision occurred to us and we ended up buying the land. I'm trying to reforest a little part of the cleared area but the rest of it I want to keep open for gardens.
Mollison: Yeah, that's a bind. If you look at America, there's more land cleared than will ever be used to grow food and maybe we need 2% of the cleared land that now exists to grow all the food we need. That's a fair estimate. Some people say 4% in England or somewhere. You could close 96% of the farms down or 98% depending on which way you're growing your food. Just reforest the whole thing again.
Vlaun: Do you think that food would be better grown in much smaller scale and more locally throughout the country?
Mollison: Food needs to be grown very close to where it's consumed and farmers' markets need to be plentiful. There are very good farmers' markets throughout the United States. There just aren't enough of them. Where I live, they're not half an hour apart, so you might have six farmers' markets you can go to that don't take you an hour from where you're living. So, you need a lot more farmers' markets and they should have rules. The people selling there have to have grown what they're selling, so that means it's all grown very close to the market and therefore, to the consumer.
The next step is what the Japanese have taken on wholesale: to do nearly all your marketing via consumer-producer coops. So you have maybe three farmers to supply 150 homes. In Japan, that's nearly the only way food is marketed, so all the consumers know their farmers; they even know the birthdays of their children. All the farmers know their consumers as well. They support each other like crazy. You'll never win them away from each other. And it's all organic, straight from the farm to you. So I think it's the future of food. The future of food is here. At the same time that the future of food is here and you can say that Japan is the way that food will be distributed in the future and that Vietnam has set the basis of how food will be produced in the future-it's adopted total organic systems-you've got some other force which in a sense appears to be evil, like Aventis and some of the other big seed companies who are introducing genetically modified organisms on a broad scale and deliberately polluting other crops with their pollen. So they've just made a statement: if you don't want to eat genetically modified food, you've got to stop eating now because we've spread it so widely that you're going to get it, when we already know that some of the animals fed on genetically modified potato are showing gross deformities. So the evil people are trying to spread their evil and they're very rich. At the same time, everybody else is trying to get good food locally produced. So we're in kind of a desperate battle. It's the last battle too, because if they win, it's the end of all of us. So, in a sense, we have to win. I say this, if it sounds simple or not: it's too late to fail. So the systems you take up should be systems that work. You just have to be a serious thinking person doing things which are going to work.
Vlaun: So establishing local food systems should be a priority.
Mollison: Everybody should be able to see most of their food out the window. They should live where you can see the food you eat being grown. You can't see it being grown if it's in Mexico and you don't have control over it.
Vlaun: I live in Maine, Bill, and people are buying organic salad greens in June that are grown in California.
Mollison: That's a bit of nonsense, isn't it?
Vlaun: Absolutely crazy, but it seems like, although there's an obvious market, nobody around is taking advantage of it.
Mollison: The whole world is not like this. If you lived in Russia, every little town produces all its food and there are no shops. You can't go down to the shop and buy a packet of potato.
Vlaun: I've seen it in China. Everywhere you look, there's food. You look out the window of the train, there's bok choi growing all along the edge of the tracks, on the roofs.
Mollison: In the end, you'll see who can sustain their system, and I say, in Russia you're safe, in Vietnam you're safe, in America you'll have trouble to find any food growing. You'd have to run for miles to find any and you're not safe here.
Vlaun: I must say, in Maine, a lot of people do grow a lot of food in the summer. Everybody has a garden, especially the old-timers. The young kids don't want anything to do with it.
Mollison: Maine's a bit more old-fashioned, isn't it, than California?
Vlaun: Yes it is. People have gardens. They grow their corn, their potatoes . . .
Mollison: I guess in a sense we choose our own fates. If you want to fuse off the end with no hope of recovery, you behave in a certain way.
Vlaun: It seems like the forces of evil that you're talking about are part of a whole system that creates this model. We're being told what's cool in the culture and growing food isn't cool, you know.
Mollison: It's extremely cool in Japan.
Vlaun: I feel like it's our job to make it cool here too, so that people will start doing it. Young kids will say, "Wow. That's a life that I'm interested in."
Mollison: I've been teaching permaculture for 25 years and what I find is that younger and younger people come to classes. As they go for two weeks, and we teach about seven hours a day, they have to be about 13 before they can stay awake through a course, but we are graduating more 13-year-olds now than we ever have. The grandchildren of my first students are coming.
Vlaun: Well that certainly gives us some hope for the future! How do you feel about the conversion of organic agriculture to a larger scale?
Mollison: Let me say it again: you want local farmers' markets. You want farmer/consumer cooperatives. And really, there are a lot of countries in which that's happening. I think if you've sold out as much as America has to the money system, you've sort of signed your own death warrants, really. But surely to God that's not really what America is, is it, money? It's what I hear people talking about it more here than anywhere else in the world. I can't believe that they really believe they can eat money.
It's nice to go to Japan and find the whole country going over to really tight farmer to consumer systems and their big coops are purely organic, too.
Vlaun: It is frustrating because it just seems like what you're fighting against is this huge machine that has so much clout . . .
Mollison: I remember once, I had trained 3000 people and then I found that one of your companies had 30,000 graduate engineers. (laughs) I realized how puny I was! But that was a long time ago and I've trained a couple of thousand more people and they've trained hundreds of thousands of others, so we are much bigger than any company now and we are spreading. And the point is that we don't lose anybody to them, but boy, they're losing a lot of people to us.
Vlaun: What do you think are our biggest tools to make this change to more sustainable development?
Mollison: The biggest tool we have is education: to teach people how to garden, to teach people how to market, to teach people how to set up their own credit unions, to teach people how to set up their businesses without capital-we do that. And you know, for the last 15 years of my life I've kind of been out of touch with the West because I figure that America can do what it likes. It can find out how to do something and it can put it into place. India's not like that. There are too many outcasts, too many marginalized people, so I go there, and Africa and South America and I prefer to teach where the need is great. The changes are huge from my teaching.
Vlaun: It seems like one of the problems is that because of the way that we are living here, so energy intensive, using inordinate amounts of the world's resources, we're creating these situations that you're then going out to mitigate. In some ways, we're mining the resources, we're keeping the people poor . . .
Mollison: That may be true in South America. It's not true in India. The caste system kept a lot of people down there.
Vlaun: But don't you think the Western agricultural model has gone into places like India and just thrown their local agriculture on its head?
Mollison: In fairly modern times, but most of the agriculture is still there. Land ownership was badly skewed. It was nearly as bad as it is here. I think there's something like 3% of the people own 90% of the land, much like America. And that was upper caste people.
Vlaun: Don't you think that the Novartises and Monsantos have their sights set on these places, to go and install their model of chemical and biotech based agriculture? Buy this seed. Buy this fertilizer. Buy this pesticide. This is the new model. Forget about all the diversity of pulses and grains that you've been growing for centuries . . . you don't need those anymore, you need this higher yield, mono-crop model.
Vlaun: We're imposing that on whole cultures . . . .
Mollison: It's true. But at the same time, what the individual Indian farmer is saying is, "We went down that track and it doesn't work." And they almost all say, "My soil died when I went modern and sprayed," and they can't stand the thought that they've killed their soil. There's no more crabs in the fields; there's no more birds; and we're not going that way anymore. And so, they're uprooting the "modern" crops and chucking them into the hedgerow and going back to the older methods and the older systems. When you try that stuff, the Green Revolution stuff, it doesn't take you long to decide that it's not good for anybody.
Vlaun: Have you done any work in Cuba?
Mollison: No, But I'm proud to say that my students have done a lot. They found what they called the "Green Team" and went into Cuba and apparently have done a lot with home gardens and community gardens. I told them not to take any notice of . . . what's his name . . . Fidel because he's a notorious brown thumb. Fidel decided to plant only sugar cane, you know, and left them in such a mess.
Vlaun: I went down there in 1997, and we brought 25 copies of your Introduction to Permaculture in Spanish. Most of the Farmers knew about permaculture and were very grateful for the information. They are very smart about creating new permaculture models suited to their environment.
Mollison: Well, take Vietnam. We went in there at a critical point when they weren't finished, the army was being immobilized; all the soldiers were becoming farmers but some had been fighting for 40 years so they didn't know much about farming. So I went in and just traveled slowly through the country. Some of my students had been teaching courses and reported being overwhelmed with requests for courses. And then the people who controlled the country said to me, "Could we have your book, Introduction to Permaculture." I said, "What do you plan?" They said, "We're going to translate it into Vietnamese and give it out, free to the farmers, and tell them that's our policy now because it's organic and it works for what's there. We don't have the money to bring in a lot of other stuff." I said, "Of course you can." So they printed 140,000, gave one to every farmer, and said, "This is it. We're going organic." And so they did.
But, I forgot and they forgot that my photograph's on the back cover. Now, every farmer in Vietnam knows me. No matter where I am, "Hi Bill!" I don't know if he's Nu or Nuan or what his name is, but it's strange to be named by everybody in the most remote areas. And they rub my tummy for good luck 'cause I look like a longevity god. So in all the markets . . . .my wife didn't believe me until she came with me . . . little hands come under my arms and rub my tummy and they think I won't notice too much because I want longevity and I'm the good luck man . . .
Vlaun: Sounds like woo woo to me!
Mollison: Well, that's woo woo I don't mindâ€¦ them rubbing my tummy if it gives them comfort. It doesn't do anything for me, I gotta say. So they're great now, the Vietnamese farmers. They're probably the ones who have pushed permaculture as far as you can.
Vlaun: Really? Out of necessity? I'm sure, like Cuba, that they can't afford to bring in all these chemical inputs.
Mollison: Of course, in after me came Takao Furuno so now they can grow all their rice without any fertilizers too. So between Furuno and me, we sort of did it.
Vlaun: So, if you get in there before the Monsantos and the Novartises get in there, you can set up these systems that can resist . . .
Mollison: I have to say that once we've been in, the resistance to those is total and I repeat, some of them are joining us but none of us are joining them. I've been working throughout southern Africa and my students are working throughout eastern Africa. My African students are in their seventh generation of teachers.
Vlaun: You're talking about building self-reliance and that allows them to resist these other models that are going to be imposed on them from outside . . .
Mollison: . . . and to know they're coming and to know what it will do. I tell them not to accept anything but OP (open pollinated) seed, stick to their own local seed systems, on and on and on. Be organic. I've built nations of fanatics (laughs) for sensible living! They're fanatic about sensible and sustainable systems.
First, I never set off on foot to save the world. I set off to educate those who want to be educated in sustainable systems and I ask every class: would they teach others? Not all of them did, but some of them did very well. So, I'm not somebody who is pretending to save the world or that I have saved the world; I have simply developed a system . . . where I've put permaculture in place, they're OK. Where I haven't, they're pretty well buggered.
Vlaun: But it seems like it's getting to the point now with genetic engineering that people can "bugger" up our own organic agriculture, you know, even our open pollinated seeds . . .
Mollison: I think in America, most people accept GMOs. In fact, there's nobody here that won't carry them, right? That's not true in Europe or the rest of the world. Australia, you can't do it. You can't sell them. So there's no sense in planting something you can't sell. So America is increasingly being left out on a limb. Not just with GMOs but with a whole lot of other things. As I say, you elected the wrong president. You might find you're the only people in the world doing certain things in a very short time. And the only people in the world not eating organic food. I think that will be the case. I think the third world is changing very fast and cooperating.
I'm very impressed with the Vietnamese. I went to see a farmer, Mr. Man is his name, he had adopted permaculture but his wife didn't agree with him. She just wanted to grow rice. So he said, you take half the farm and I'll take half. So they did and that's how it looks. Half the farm is just rice, grown with chemicals. Half the farm is like the Garden of Eden. He was able to sell very large quantities of food at the local market whereas she was competing in a world rice market, and wasn't doing too good. So she didn't make much money. She was working hard, but didn't make any money. He made a lot of money. He bought a bike for himself and they bought a black and white television set and a radio. He's a rich farmer. Then he had a $400 surplus. So what did he do? He gave it to the farmer next door so he could do the same. It's very un-American, isn't it?
We have a food cooperative in our town. After 25 years we moved our little store that was tucked away in a back alley out onto Main Street. Somebody had a workshop for our Grand Opening that was titled "Is there Enough Food for Everyone?" It turns out that, even though the food is there, there are lots of people who are going hungry because they don't know how to cook whole food. If they can't buy processed food then they won't cook rice or beans.
Mollison: In little towns up in Queensland, that's where our cooperatives got up and got going. We put the credit union there too and the credit union is for everyone in the town. It started with an average investment of $15 each and it now stands at about $18,000 each and it grew so fast. Everybody bought their own houses, bought their own cars, bought their own farms, set up their own businesses, and they had a huge surplus, I think it's about 15-20 million bucks. It's only a little town. And nobody wants any capital anymore. They're all fully capitalized. And they did it with their own money! It's amazing what your little town could be like if you put your credit union with your coop.
Vlaun: It seems like the core problem for us is basically that no one wants to do much physical work. Maybe if we can teach more permaculture techniques to show that it's not about going out there and toiling and digging and shoveling . . .
Mollison: Like growing everything in mulch.
Vlaun: Great idea, although it doesn't always work where we live. We can't keep mulch on our soil all year round because it takes too long for the soil to warm up in the spring. We have to get our mulch off so the soil can dry out and warm up. We get lots of slugs living under the mulch if we're not careful too. It's a little tricky.
Mollison: A lot of duck food. You do have a slight excess of duck deficiency. I'm sure it's true that you can't do this and you can't do that but look to what you can do . . .
Vlaun: Exactly. It seems like one of the principles of permaculture would be for every single situation, there's a unique solution.
Mollison: Yes, that might be true, but you apply the same things. I remember when we were in Hawaii dealing with Cauceria grass. You couldn't plant a tree; it just went over it and killed it. And so I said, OK, is that one of your big problems. They said, yes, that's a big problem. I said go out, observe it-where it is and where it isn't-and come back and tell me under what conditions you don't get Cauceria grass. They did that. Then, we drew up a system; we thought we could plant an instant garden with no Cauceria in the middle of Cauceria. And we did. We planted it and it grew.
Vlaun: So observation is the starting point in any permaculture project?
Mollison: Right. No, it's the starting point for a lot of techniques that we've worked out. The starting point for any permaculture project is someone who wants to start the project.
Vlaun: But once you decide you want to start the project: say you want to take over your backyard which is 3/4 of an acre of lawn that you've been mowing for 20 years and all of a sudden you want to look at it in a different way, you need to go out and observe what's going on in that environment.
Mollison: Yes, certainly.
There was never any book on the design of natural systems or agriculture. Every book on agriculture is a book on technique. There are none on design. Permaculture is the first book ever on the design of agricultural and architectural systems. So it didn't have any precursors. It sort of sprang like dragon's teeth, new out of the ground. It had to also define what design was. Now that was difficult, because nobody defined design. So, the only way we could do that is to define practical design, utilitarian design, because if you left "utilitarian" out, you can call anything design. But you can't if you're not achieving something. Utilitarian design is what we do. Functional design. So then, you define design, methods of design. There are six or eight methods given to you by which you can design. All lead to good design and we suggest you use some of all of them.
When I wrote Permaculture, I didn't think I was the first person to write it or teach it. I thought, there must be a lot of people much better than me to do it. Nobody ever did. So I kept on teaching it and my students kept on teaching it and their students as well. I thought eventually, they'll imitate it. Only in recent years have people actually imitated it.
I can give you a list of institutions in America who have asked me to hand it over and most of them have done really awful work, you know.
Vlaun: It's such a stupid question to begin with . . .
Mollison: Isn't it a funny idea? Couldn't they go out and invent sustainable systems for themselves? I mean, they all have PhDs and big salaries and tons of time. They could employ people to research sustainability. Some of them have grants of $6 million. Agriculture Departments have started to disappear in areas where there's a lot of permaculture because they don't want what the Ag Department has to sell. What the Ag Department had to sell for most of history was poisonâ€¦.. they have no future, nor do other people like Monsanto or Novartis . They have no future. They'll be looked upon as a horrible mistake.
Vlaun: How do we make that happen faster?
Mollison: Sue them.
Vlaun: How can you sue them? Their pockets are so incredibly deep that they can hire all these lawyers. Monsanto's got a hell of a lot of money.
Mollison: Where do they get it from?
Vlaun: (long pause) Good question. They got it from selling us something. That's the power they have: to sell. They can sell this industrial food system through advertising. You flip on a television in this country, everyone has one . . .
Mollison: A very strong thing happened in Japan. Japan buys its rice off Japanese growers because they grow the varieties of rice the Japanese know and love. And now they're growing it organically through the use of ducks. It's got a duck on the packet: duck rice. So it's beyond organic. It's time we all went beyond organic.
Vlaun: How do we sell it?
Mollison: You sell it to people who know your farm and know you. There's no problem to Furuno because all the people he sells to visit his farm all the time.
Anyhow, the Japanese love their rice and they love the rice that their farmers grow organically for them--the duck rice. So America and Australia have a big trade deficit with Japan. They said to the Japanese, "you've got to buy our rice. It's going to be a lot cheaper for your customers," and they said, "All right, we'll take 80,000 bags a year." So they built these great big warehouses at Nagoya and all this rice came in from Australia and the United Kingdom and first, they tried grinding it up and making biscuits for the army but the army didn't like them. So, they couldn't get anyone to buy it as rice because they didn't like that rice and they knew it wasn't organic. So they bought even bigger storage sheds and then they decided that it's too expensive. So now they've got the solution. They put it through a little screw feed and blow it into electric generators or furnaces, generating steam for electricity. They say it's quite good as fuel.
Vlaun: Expensive fuel.
Mollison: Yeah. Well, it's not as expensive as building more and more storage to keep Americans and Australians happy about rice. No one in Japan will ever eat it. Ever. They can do market research until their ass drops off. They won't be able to sell a grain of that rice to any Japanese person. Because rice is almost a holy thing to them. But now, Feruno, he could run 7000 acres and sell all the rice because he sells the right sort of rice, beautifully made, beautifully done, packaged nicely, put in your hand by your farmer. I'll buy that.
Vlaun: So what makes the Japanese different? Why don't we have that same mentality here? Why don't we care about our food?
Mollison: I think one thing is very obvious: you don't come from a single cultural stem. There's nothing like rice coming to all of you. In fact, rice is common to nobody except the Japanese who were here before you put them in prison. The Chinese, perhaps. So, if anything, this is a wheat society. Increasingly, it's becoming a soybean society. And the root crops are sold only locally.
Vlaun: Michael Pollen told an interesting story on the radio recently, He's written this book called "The Botany of Desire," which we sell on our website. When he was researching the book he grew some of these GMO potatoes he writes about. He just never ate them. He had other potatoes that weren't GMO. He grew them just to see what they looked like, as research. He was going to a potluck picnic and he cooked a whole bunch of these potatoes to make potato salad and then he started thinking, "if I bring this potato salad, I'm going to have to tell everybody that these are GMO potatoes and if I do, and there's somebody else that has potato salad, everybody's going to eat the other potato salad." And he had this revelation about why they won't label GMO food. It's so obvious that people don't really want to eat it.
Mollison: Really, you've got two foods: tomatoes. This one says, "Poisoned." What are you gonna buy?
Vlaun: You're gonna buy the non-GMO. Always.
Mollison: Always. I think there should be a class of people like all those who work for those big (Biotech) firms who are force-fed on GMO food.
Vlaun: But we're all eating it.
Mollison: Tasmania hasn't got any . . .
Vlaun: I mean in this country at least.
Mollison: . . . . and it's banned them for the future.
Vlaun: Any soy product . . . if it's not organic soymilk, it's GMO. Tofu. It's GMO. Stuff that we always thought of as our "natural foods" are now being made with GMO soybeans.
Mollison: I believe that.
Vlaun: It's come in under the radar. No one really understood, they just kind of foisted it on us before anybody really knew.
Mollison: Bastards, aren't they?
Vlaun: 70% of our soybeans, or something like that, are GMO, and I don't think that most of us understand what we're supporting when we buy these products. It's like we buy non-organic corn chips now that they've bred BT into corn plants.
Mollison: Well that's the end of BT. Years ago they brought some seed into Australia to grow cotton which is BT-inoculated, GMO seed, and they sowed it and the boll weevil wiped out half the crop because it didn't work. And now all the seed is from that BT-immune group. That might be a way to sort of finish off BT.
Vlaun: I think you might be right and that's the primary pesticide that organic growers have to use. It's gonna become worthless in five years because pests are building resistance to it.
Mollison: I had an extraordinary occasion once. The Sierra Club was meeting on Maui. I was on Maui giving a course and they asked me if I would come one evening and address them and I said sure. It occurred to me while I was traveling there that there were pretty well-off people in the Sierra Club and they might have something to say about what they are investing in. I asked them, "Could some of them who have investments stay and talk to me?" And they had their money in tanks and armaments. You know, the Sierra Club is a conservationist club, but their money is not telling a conservationist story. I said, "water tanks?" "No, no," they said, "military tanks." I said, "Shit! What are you doing putting your money there? So, I think one should say, "Do you put your money where your heart is?"
Vlaun: It's a big battle.
Mollison: I agree. I've given it all I've got for 25 years. And I've changed a fair bit.
Vlaun: Yes you have.
Mollison: But I didn't promise to save the world. To help it, we've all got to get into the battle.
Vlaun: But how do we recruit? How do we recruit the younger generations?
Mollison: Well, I've trained lots of people in Australia, and within days of finishing training, they take off to Ecuador and they'll turn up doing something up the side of a mountain. And, mainly, they are young, within a few years of 20. So, they're all over the place, you know, Borneo and Timor and Macedonia looking after refugees. They're just everywhere. I meet them occasionally and I say to them, "My God. When you're old you're going to be so pleased with these few years you've put in helping. What a great adventure you've had that most young people haven't."
Mollison: I say, "It's tremendous that you've had this adventure. And you're only 24."
Vlaun: It's adventure with a purpose: traveling and working. . .
Mollison: Lots of students to follow up on. Two young people, very young, boy and girlfriend, went to a class and took off for Borneo because of the rain forest trees. They wanted to go and protest the logging in Borneo. So they got to Borneo and they got up the river and they got with the Dyak or somebody and they said, "We're starving." "Well, why are you starving?" "Because they've cut down all our forest where we get our food." They said, "we know how to grow food." So they stopped there and showed them how to grow food and a year later, they had lots of bananas and papayas and mangoes and this and that. They said, "we've got to get on. We didn't come here to show you how to grow food." They said, "If you leave us, we will die." So they stayed and he eventually got sick of that and came back to Australia and went into aboriginal work out on a remote settlement. She married a Dyak and stayed forever and they are now teaching from settlement to settlement with the Dyaks. Both of them have totally forgotten about protesting rain forest. That's happened, really.
The mess that's after that, what do you do about that? You can't protest the war in Kosovo. It's happened. You can go and try and look after those 86,000 people who fled. A lot of the (permaculture) troops are there. I think they're great. In Kosovo, the numbers are up to 200 enrolled in a course. One guy came out and said, "I think I've taught about 10,000 people just in Kosovo." The courses are huge and the enthusiasm is phenomenal. Because they're in a mess. And you know, you can eat or believe anything you like in America because it really doesn't matter. You're not in much of a mess. Yet. But down in the Bronx, people listen very intently and down in Watts, they do too. The Hawaiians do. So, the minorities in America and the native Americans have set up their own teaching groups. They go from tribe to tribe teaching. So, I have done work here, you know.
Vlaun: Any last words of wisdom for us Bill?
Mollison: There are no such things, really. Anybody who makes up their mind can make huge difference. People who can't make up their minds make no difference at all. And yes, it's incredibly simple, I remember myself, I just determined one day I would go and teach this system. And I did.
Vlaun: All we can do is work and hope. I have a lot more hope after talking to you today. Thank you.
What we do
- BILL MOLLISON
- ATLANTIS FOOD FOREST
- NEW SCHOOL PERMACULTURE
- HELDER VALENTE
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