Requiem for a designer of ecosystems

January 17, 2017

Tom Roark

Zenith News


Bill Mollison died on September 24 at the age of 88. He was the co-inventor, in the early 1970s, of permaculture, an ecological design system, particularly for growing food. He was David Holmgren’s advisor at the University of Tasmania and, at the height of resistance to the Vietnam War and the ’60s counterculture, the two searched for better ways of living.




“Bill’s brilliance,” Holmgren said in eulogy, “was in gathering together the ecological insights, principles, strategies, and techniques that could be applied to create the world we do want rather than fighting against the world we reject.”


Born Bruce Charles Mollison, young Bill left school at 14, when his father died. He ran the family bakery and went to work as a shark fisherman, seaman, bouncer, forester, and trapper. In 1954, he became a naturalist with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, an Australian government research agency. During this time, he studied Tasmanian forests and speculated that it should be possible for humans to link species the way nature does.

Mollison and Holmgren devised a system of “guilds,” in which the plants and animals in each grouping support each other. Every organism in the system serves as many functions as possible in accordance with its needs and contributions—e.g., a nitrogen-fixing plant requiring partial shade might supply nitrogen to a plant that can supply shades, but needs nitrogen. Sun, water, shade, labor, soil, nutrients, etc. are all viewed by permaculturists as “embodied energy.” The more uses a system can get from that energy, the more efficient the system is.

The model for a permaculture guild is local ecology. The Ojibwe migrated seasonally, harvesting fish, wild rice, and maple sugar. South of Hinckely or Pine City, and throughout most of the Midwest, the oak savanna is the model. Wisconsin permaculturist Mark Shepard claims that the rotation for the oak savanna is 1,800 years. While individual plants produce less when grown in guilds, the yield is greater over a given area.

This is in contrast with conventional industrial agriculture, which uses external energy to grow large quantities of single crops, often at the expense of the native ecosystem. The California almond industry so monopolizes the landscape that almond blossoms—which appear for only a few days of the year—are the sole local source of pollen. Consequently, the region can’t support native bees and two-third of American bees travel to California to pollinate the almond crop. The industry has even imported bees from as far away as Australia.

British science writer Matt Ridley said in The Rational Optimist that industrial agriculture has preserved the rainforest. Quoting economist Indur Goldany he writes, “If the average yields of 1961 had still prevailed in 1998, then to feed six billion people would have required the ploughing of 7.9 billion acres, instead of the 3.7 billion acres actually ploughed in 1998; an extra area the size of South America minus Chile.”

He goes on to point out that there are now two billion acres of rainforest regrowing, the farmers having left for cities. The idea that the most ecologically sensitive way humans can behave is intensively pathological within a limited range is absurd, but the fact of the forest restored and mouths fed remains.

That permaculture would be an antidote to the ills of civilization was deeper than the equation of permaculture with abundance and peace—although those things are explicitly part of the philosophy.

Mollison believed that tending the little ecosystems of permaculture is the sort of work for which we are perfectly adapted. “Sitting at our back doorsteps, all we need to live a good life lies about us. Sun, wind, people, buildings, stones, sea, birds, and plants surround us. Cooperation with all these things brings harmony.”

In 1959, while studying the Tasmanian forest, Mollison imagined designing ecosystems. Ecosystems are complex, often counter-intuitive, and have so far only emerged naturally. Creating them may be a chimera.

Or the attempt might be sacramental, in the sense that a sacrament confers grace. By trying to build little ecosystems, we may recognize the complex and recursive nature of our planetary support system, and receive the grace to engage wholesomely with the rest of life. We can thank Bill Mollison for the idea.

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