permaculture-751102Permaculture creates living systems using cooperation with nature. Using its designs and principles we can create beautiful, practical, self-sustaining urban or rural environments. Using the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems, people can create real solutions – and put back more than they take from the Earth.

Bill Mollison, the pioneer of Permaculture, provides alternative perspectives and catalytic solutions to seemingly intractable problems in this transcript of a talk we shared over an evening meal almost twenty years ago. His visionary solutions are even more relevant today, no matter where you live…

R.Ayana – You’ve been working with Permaculture for a long time now…

Bill Mollison – Yes, an unconscionably long time – about fourteen or fifteen years [at that time – Ed].

R.A. – What’s the aim of Permaculture?

B.M. – Oh, they change all the time. We’ve achieved a lot of aims in that we’ve set up a good educational system and design; that was an early aim. One success is we’ve generated more teachers – although we’re very short of teachers – who are teaching in their own languages in their own countries.The aims keep on changing and our current aim is to become developers, to purchase and develop properties or villages and to have the developmental capital for that. I guess we’ll get there, too – we seem to achieve our aims. That’s the worst part of success – where do you go from there?

R.A. – How does Permaculture development differ from the normal destructive developments we’re so used to?

B.M. – We bring all the sustainable forms of development in – a village we develop would contain more than sufficient food and would catch all its own water from rainwater, in filtration tanks. If we were very lucky we could also have a supply from a stream. But if not, we can build a village in the desert that can provide itself with water.
             Then the houses are largely self-energised by the design of the building for space, heating and cooling, either by use of a small amount of solar power in each house or by some other form of power. For instance, if we had a little stream we’d simply put in a small hydro system, so that the need for people to earn would be sharply reduced. The average family today spends 46% of its earnings on food and 19% on energy. We think we can cut down on individual expense by 70-80% – which frees up a lot of capital. In fact, in Brazil we found if we could provide houses with gardens, people could own them in five years. But if we didn’t, they would never own them because the interest kept beating them.
            So the difference in having your food supply and therefore half your income available is great. The Permaculture village also has proper disposal of wastes plus its own banking system that is all recycled back, first to the village and second as priorities to other villages or groups. It would have its own education system, its own schools, child-minding centres – like the libraries and all the education training going on here in modern suburbia. And its own small market and commercial centres and light industrial area.

R.A. – What size population are you looking at?

B.M. – Well, for full employment within the village structure, at a thousand people or slightly larger everybody would be employed in the village. Maybe as many as thirty or forty percent of people would work ‘location free’ – people would write books or are in service to the outside as consultants, for instance [this without the existence of today’s internet – Ed]. You could hike or walk to work and the amount of transport needed would be tiny and could be provided by a small delivery service plus a truck for trade and a little taxi service.

R.A. – How long would it take – from scratch – to get to self-sufficiency and surplus?

B.M. – Well, if you go on data from California, about three years after you start you’re about eighty percent sufficient in food. After that it gets a bit embarrassing – there are a lot of signs along the footpath saying ‘please pick the fruit’. So there are surpluses occurring all over different seasons after the third year. So three to six years – after six years you’re into heavy yields.
            At one site I had almost a tonne of almonds off the trees this year. I’ve been going back there for six years, since the inception, and it’s remarkable how much food is coming out of the system. It’s a medium-density town which provides all its own food. They still go and buy things like fish and chips – but if they were cut off they could supply everything.
            The kids love it – there’s just parkways and walkways – there are no through roads and it’s very quiet and safe and the capital gain on the housing has been enormous. A house there is now worth two or three times what it was worth six years ago and there’s a waiting list for vacancies. So these developments that use very low energy expenditures and high self-reliance are very much in demand.

Regreening the City

R.A. – People see how it’s relatively easy to achieve self-sufficiency in the county, but how would you do it in the suburbs?

B.M. – There are people who do it. The very first design that I did in 1975 was in the industrial suburb of Thornbury, Melbourne [Australia]. There was a small group of people who slowly bought up a city block as it became available. They had houses touching each other along the back, so they took down a lot of the fences and they put in a wood workshop, metal workshop, pottery and children’s house, which was an old garage. They closed off a couple of lanes and had chickens, ducks and all their fruit. They spent seven dollars per person per month. So $84 a year covered their food.
            Slowly, they went to work on the houses – adding little glasshouses and cold houses to bring cold draughts in the heat – and efficient heating systems. But that’s by remaking poorly designed houses. It’s been in continuous evolution since 1975. It’s a nice little jungle. R.A. – So you’re looking at a city block size?B.M. – Yes. Well, you can work on two blocks. If you have an association of friends who live in the city and all agree to move into a district as any house becomes available – sell where you are, buy there – you can do it.
            They did another strange thing in Thornbury. They pooled all their money into a single bank account and they all carry a cheque book and see how little money they can write each month. I think the surplus is as high as eight to nine thousand dollars a month. It provides for everybody, plus the surplus. They support two of their number in service to an Aboriginal settlement and pay them a wage to stay there and pay the fees of anybody who wants to go to university to improve their education – people are able to take another two or three years training as adults.
            They have a very large capital surplus and bought a little farm in Gippsland and a coastal patch of land down in Bass Strait on one of the islands, so they have a holiday place. Because of this big saving in food, energy and travel and also by pooling income, they achieve a surplus of capital while they work on a lot of projects…

R.Ayana – You’ve worked with Aboriginal communities?

Bill Mollison – My work with Aboriginal communities was chiefly in South Australia. South Australia has a lot of Aboriginal communities, from the [Great Australian] Bight at Ceduna right up to Oodnadatta and there are four or five tribal groups. We’ve seen a lot of trees and a lot of food go into each community we’ve worked with. We set up a city farm and city training programs and at one stage we were putting twelve backyards a week into urban Aboriginal households. It made a tremendous difference both to the monetary position of Aboriginal groups and to their health. Some of them have been able to give up their diabetic pills once they got onto fresh fruit and vegetables. That’s been a good time and we’ve always enjoyed the work, although at first it was slow to take off. But after a few years everybody trusted us and we were welcome everywhere – we didn’t have to rebuild that trust in each settlement.

R.A. – Has that been the case in other countries where you’ve been working?

B.M. – In Native American Indian groups, yes. I started with the Paiute Nation and some Hopi came in – and I’ve worked since with the Papago or Sand People in the Sonora Desert and with the Cherokee people on their reservations. We’ve had a lot of fun.

R.A. – Are you mainly using plants that are native to the land that you’re working with?

B.M. – With the Papago we’re working with plants that they actually developed. They developed beans and all your chillies and peppers and a lot of desert species – cat’s claw and all sorts of special plants – so they’re a great agricultural people. They still grow their traditional crops. The Paiute still plant their rice-grass out on the dunes, that’s their main grass – and they’re experts.
            Sometimes we bring in new crops, certainly. But sometimes we’re working with people who are originators of the crops. Sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes, beans, peppers and chillies all originated in these peoples, particularly the Papago group.

R.A. – So you’ve been learning a lot about cultivation directly from them?

B.M. – Yes, by their traditional methods – and we’ve been looking a lot more closely at the archaeology of they who were the precursors of the Papago. I worked in Geronimo’s country with the Chiricahuas, but they’re sadly all gone and the Chiricahuas are resettled now over in Florida. Geronimo resisted occupation and moved the whole of his tribe away from the ancestral grounds. But you can still find traces of their agriculture in the Chiricahuas.

R.A. – How do you get clear water in arid areas?

B.M. – Well, there are various methods. There are very sophisticated runoff systems to bring the flood water from the washes out into the fields and they’re very ancient and very skilled in their construction. Then just before the fields at the bottom of the waddies, or the sandbanks – or the arroyos, as we say there – they dig wells. Above the wells are actually water-filled pans, too, at flood time.
            But in the really dry period, everyone traditionally leaves the desert and goes into the mountain foothills to the permanent springs. Then you hang out up in the foothills and collect your pine nuts and deer and all. And when the rains come back you go to your fields in the centre of the desert. That’s the Sand Indians.
            The same Pima group as the Papago live along the river and they have water all the time, so they water their beds from the river. They have pretty intricate
systems of floodwater trapping with little fences and mounds, so the floods come up and flood the fields, leaving the silt – almost like the old Egyptian culture. They have a very ancient agriculture down there, five or six thousand years old, older than the earliest Egyptian records.
            It’s amazing how far they took agriculture. You go up steep ravines and there’ll be thousands of little stone-walled fields in which they grew agave – and a special agave only found in those fields, there are no wild ones like it. They trim it all off until it looks a bit like a short pineapple and then they pile tons of it into pits and cook it; hot stone pits.
            There were thousands and thousands of people there with a pretty sophisticated agricultural base. Since white Americans overran most of that country the Indians are now penned into much smaller and poorer reservations and they can’t leave the desert for the hill country.
It’s interesting working with each Indian group and they’re very hospitable, put on little ceremonies for me and do sweat lodges, dust me down with Eagle feathers and have little chants. They really have a lot of good times and tell a lot of stories – and jokes.

R.A. – Do these deserts still retain their original gene stocks because they’ve remained in the hands of native people?

B.M. – No. The Sonora desert and all that area was a great prairie with huge herds of animals on it. In 1880 the first of the Texan [cattle] herds reached the Sonora and they wiped off the prairie. By 1890 the first gulches and arroyos had cut into the grassland and it drained the water table down so there’s no more prairie. In those days there were huge trees in the river valley, two or three feet through, but now all the cattle and horses have to eat is mesquite. They went and took cattle up onto this dried-out landscape, so now you have a sand plain with scrub mesquite.
            Originally it was a densely forested area with a lot of beaver streams and huge cottonwoods – that was only in 1880. And cattle have reduced it to a cactus desert today. The cattle alone have done that.

R.A. – Do you think cattle have caused the same problems in Australia?

B.M. – Since their presence here – yes, most definitely. It’s made our desert land very arid, and eventually it will become just a sand dune desert. You can see it happening with increasing rapidity.

R.A. – How do you turn it around aside from taking cattle and hard-footed animals off the land?

B.M. – Ah, well how are you going to take the graziers out of parliament? I mean, only four percent of our beef comes off the deserts. It’s an insignificant amount of beef, but to get that small amount we’re destroying thousands of square miles of landscape and it’s an obvious immorality that its yields before cattle were enormous – and the yields now are ridiculously small.

R.A. – If you remove the cattle, how do you regenerate the land?

B.M. – You make ‘sausages’ of stone all wrapped up in wire – very heavy ones – and you build them in place across the valleys, so the sand builds up behind them to the old level. You have to start putting swales across the country – contour drains about thirty feet wide; they catch runoff. And then you start replanting the swales and it’s tedious and painful work but the results are pretty spectacular.  You can bring back some of the old grasses at that point so you get a prairie and tree effect and you can start to plant cottonwoods behind the covered stone ‘sausages’. But it’s all hard work once you’ve gone downhill.
            I very much admire the Papago Indians. They’re using all these techniques to return the land to some kind of health.

R.A. – You seem to be continually drawn to arid lands.

B.M. – I tend to be. I told the people at Alice Springs, “Why send for me? I’m a Tasmanian – I don’t know anything about the desert.” But by observing I started to learn how to use the desert. Over a decade ago we started to learn how to direct and absorb water and studied the work of the Israelis. We’ve become good at deserts. We like deserts. We think they’re great places to grow.

Water Harvesting

The way to grow in deserts is by water harvesting. Say you’re getting an average of fifteen inches of rain per year, then half of that – seven inches – falls only thirteen percent of the rain days and the whole fifteen inches over only thirty-four rain days. You only get four days of heavy rain and during those four days half the rain will fall. But if you can find a rock shelf, you can store water. Every hundred feet or so you store a shelf of water twenty feet wide with a bank about a foot high on the outside. All the hundred feet of runoff will fill that shelf – you can absorb forty-seven inches in it. And in that you can grow big orchard trees on contour strips or swales, for miles.
            You can grow trees which require forty inches of rain in a fifteen inch rainfall area – and we can do that down to four inches of rain. It’s quite productive with an average rainfall of twenty inches.

R.A. – Do the trees help hold the moisture as well?

B.M. – Yes. After the swales age there’s a noticeable leaf litter catch washing off the desert above into these little strips. Then slowly you’ll see deep, rich chocolate soils developing and you can sit in the swales picking up humus – soil that smells like a compost heap.
            Every bit of animal manure is washed across the desert and into the swale, every leaf, every stick. And the trees in the swale drop their leaves, so the soil becomes very rich very quickly. After a while the trees produce more rain because they transpire and by increasing the number of swales you could turn the desert back to humid forest in a relatively short time, as little as twenty years – if we can hold back the graziers who want it all to be beef and lamb.

R.A. – Thanks, Bill.

Bill Mollison – My pleasure.
P.S. – Bill had this talk with me twenty years ago. Cattle continue to be one of the greatest destructive agents of our soils and atmosphere, emitting more ‘greenhouse gases’ than all other human industries combined – because people persist in the stupid, destructive, unhealthy, unethical and unnecessary practice of eating dead animals. Cattle consume most of the grain and arable land on the planet – without them there’d be far more than enough food to feed Earth’s teeming billions for the foreseeable future.
            It’s not the footprint of Humankind that is too large for the planet to sustain – it’s the footprint of ignorance and thoughtless greed.
            Our benign universe provides more than enough – if we’re wise enough to know how to use and share it.
            What excuse does anyone have for keeping, torturing, killing and eating dead animals – if it’s unnecessary for human health? And guess what? It is unnecessary, despite what any and all unilluminated money-grubbers with vested interests (or your co-opted grandparents) may tell you. Only desert-dwellers (including those in frozen deserts) have an excuse to eat meat to survive.
            Eating animals is nothing more or less than an optional and unethical choice – unless you’re eating true pest animals you catch yourself. The biggest contribution you can make to healing the soils, forests, rivers and atmosphere is to stop contributing to the destruction and turning vegetarian – today. After a few months or a year you won’t miss it; like all addictions, it will become utterly unattractive – the smell of dead flesh will turn your stomach, as is only natural. By the way – fish are also animals.
            You’ll then think a lot more about what you eat – it’s easy for lacto-vegetarians to get enough vitamins and minerals and stay healthy!

Originally published in NEXUS New Times Magazine Vol. 1 No 8 1988-89 (Source:  New Illuminati; June 15, 2007;