Bill Mollison

Bill Mollison

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Bill Mollison was born in 1928 and spent his childhood on the beach at Stanley, on the north west coast of Tasmania. It was probably the 'best place ever' to grow up, he reckons, dodging school to roam the rock pools with a bunch of mates.

Vinegar, Froggy, Wobbly Duck and me
Often used to wander down along the sea
Chewing on a limpet, eating a green pea
With nothing to remember and all the world to see

Bull and Frog and Vinegar
And me and Wobbly Duck
Climbing up the tea trees
Sometimes getting stuck
Catching wily tadpoles
Paddling in the muck
Nothing to write home about
No need of any luck...

Bill's father owned the local butter factory before building a bakery in Stanley. His spare time was spent supplying the family with fruit and vegetables from an acre of garden. Son Bill got into gardening seriously at the age of nine, starting with a crop of radishes that satisfied his appetite and the need for quick results.

During his secondary education at Burnie High School, Bill's main focus turned to cadets, and the prospect of flying a Spitfire in the second world war.

He clocked up 60 flying hours in a Tiger Moth bi-plane, but his plans came to an abrupt halt when US warplanes dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

The prospect of spending his life punching dough into loaves didn't appeal, so Bill went to sea, fishing the waters of Tasmania for the next decade.

Love lured him off the boats and back onto dry land, but when this affair washed up, Bill headed for the bush, working for the CSIRO observing wildlife behaviour. It was then that he started to become vitally concerned about the environment, and humanity's lethal influence on the world he was living in.

"As a child I lived in sort of a dream, and I didn't really awaken until I was about 28 years old," he explains. "I spent most of my early life working in the bush or the sea, and it wasn't until the 1950s that I noticed that large parts of the system were disappearing.

"First fish stocks became extinct. Then I noticed the seaweed around the shorelines had gone. Large patches of forest began to die. I hadn't realised until those things had gone that I'd become very fond of them; that I was in love with my country."

Bill spent the next decade studying possums, rabbits and wallabies in the forests of Tasmania, and started an external degree in psychology and environmental science.

Within a week of graduating, his career as an academic began, with a position as lecturer at Hobart University. Bill turned his attention from wildlife to humans, and how they behaved in their man-made jungle. This resulted in a new course at Hobart, called 'environmental psychology'. But after ten years of teaching, Bill was fed up and frustrated with the academic system.

"I sort of pulled out for a while in 1972. I cut a hole in the bush, built a barn and a house and planted a garden, gave up on humanity. I was disgusted with the stupidity of the University, the research institutions, the whole thing."

This break from the rest of the world gave Bill time to think, and resulted in a life-changing 'Eureka!' moment.

"I started to realise that I knew a lot about physics but wasn't applying it to how I heated my house. And I was an expert on ecology but wasn't putting that into practice in my garden. I knew that I needed to convert the principles of environmental science into directives for planning," he says. "And then the idea of permaculture came to me.

"It was like a shift in my brain, and suddenly I couldn't write it down fast enough. I felt like there was a roll of carpet tied up with string at my feet. Once I had cut the string, it just unrolled to the horizon and I could see forever, and nothing that has happened since has ever surprised me."

The term comes from permanent culture, and the concept is to create stable productive systems, both rural and urban, that harmoniously integrate the land and people. Bill saw permaculture as a positive solution to environmental exploitation.

One of his great achievements has been his success in spreading the word. He realised early on that unless you teach a thing, it doesn't go anywhere.

"So I wrote a two-week curriculum and started teaching. Since then I have had around 80,000 graduates from my permaculture design courses. In the first five years 500 became permaculture teachers, and now there are thousands of them teaching, as well as designing systems for farms and urban land."

Bill has visited and taught permaculture in almost every country in the world. He has never counted on governments for any support or funding, and his finances have largely come from sales of his permaculture manuals, with profits of around four million dollars being used for teaching programs in third world countries.

In many countries, permaculture has been accepted as a viable alternative to chemical-based agriculture, and its principles are taught in schools in Zimbabwe. The Vietnamese government was so impressed by the concept, they adopted it as their agricultural policy. Bill's permaculture handbook was translated into Vietnamese and 130,000 copies printed and distributed to every farmer in the country. He gave one design course in Botswana and now his students are out in the desert in Namibia, teaching the Bushmen of the Kalahari how to survive with the resources they have left.

His achievements have not gone without recognition. Bill has won the 'alternative Nobel Prize', the Right Livelihood Award, for his work on practical solutions to the world's problems. He was named one of Australia's Icons of the Millennium in the field of ecology, has received the Banksia Environment Award and been judged an Outstanding Australian Achiever. He was the first foreigner to be made a member of the Russian Academy of Agricultural Science, and received the Vavilov medal for contributions to sustainable agriculture in Russia.

After 30 years of travelling the world, Bill Mollison has returned to north west Tasmania to live. Although he calls himself semi-retired, he still teaches design courses, writes books and spends at least a couple of months each year working overseas. He recently grew more than 40 varieties of potatoes in straw beds in his garden.

Bill's land is a permaculture island in a sea of traditional Tasmanian farms, a constant reminder of his long-held view of modern agriculture.

"Agriculture is one of the greatest contributors to the destruction of our environment. Forty per cent of the world's soil and water has been polluted by farming," he says. "The great challenge for sustainable agriculture is to produce the food and fibre needed, while maintaining fertile soils and clean water, and enhancing the health of ecosystems.

"The impetus for the work I do is to leave our children gardens, not deserts."