Who invented permaculture?
hint: it wasn’t Bill Mollison and David Holmgren
Bill Mollison, often credited as the “founder of permaculture,” was an Australian traveler, scientist, baker, fisherman, gardener, autodidact, and writer who researched and published extensive genealogies of Indigenous Australians, and through this work became inspired to dedicate the rest of his life to learning and teaching integrated ways for humans to live on the planet without destroying it.
Mollison worked with many people and wrote, co-wrote, and inspired many books, organized hundreds of courses, and traveled all over the world collecting and sharing information about ecological design. He was especially enchanted with the notion of agricultural systems working together with human home systems so that each meets the needs of the other, and collaborated on a huge array of visionary design drawings with his then-colleague and illustrator, Reny Slay, (who was credited as co-author of Introduction to Permaculture but somehow never gets mentioned in any of the courses.)
Mollison was also influenced by writers who had come before him, such as Rachel Carson (Silent Spring, 1962) Ken & Barbara Kern (The Owner-Built Home, 1961), P.A. Yeomans (Water for Every Farm, 1965), and J. Russel Smith, who wrote Tree Crops for a Permanent Agriculture (1929), the title credited with sparking the idea to call it “perma-culture.”
And guess what? Many of the exact ideas Mollison presented in his early books can also be found in the above four books. Read them and see for yourself. He did NOT invent this concept and neither did his student David Holmgren!
Indeed, throughout his life until he died in 2016, Mollison consistently pointed back to his sources and reiterated that he did not “own” any of these ideas, and that this type of knowledge can not and should not be owned.
Indeed, “Permanent agriculture” is an oxymoron. Nothing in a living system is permanent and I have never considered it a service to the students to pretend that ecological living was invented by two Australian blokes in the 1970's.
We were all born ecological designers, and “permaculture” is an amalgamation of ancient knowings that are free and available to anyone who puts their hands in the soil.
Unfortunately, this simple statement seems to bring out the worst among the supporters of “permapatriarchy”, who have trolled me relentlessly for a decade, to the point that I can’t really publish any article at all anymore without garnering hate speech and death threats.
Over the years, these people have:
- made fake accounts in my name and fabricated whole conversations, to make it seem like I said all sorts of crazy things, then shared those screenshots with my personal contact information and encouraged others to leave my groups, boycott my courses, send me hate mail, and even assault me, in real life.
- posted photoshopped pictures of my body to mock online, in permaculture groups. The images are often left up by admins for weeks.
- blamed me for horrific violent, racist photoshopped images of somebody else, images they themselves had created.
- bombarded me with a steady string of hateful emails, to every message box on every network, saying stuff like “your life is less valuable than the shit on Holmgren’s shoes.”
“People care” apparently means “dehumanize the brown girl,” in my case, and many of the self-proclaimed permaculture “leaders” seem to revel in it. I find this level of aggression not only inappropriate and out of proportion as a response to a simple statement of facts, but also note it as a clear indicator that these folks haven’t learned a damn thing about feedback, whole systems design, or sustainability.
And, with Holmgren’s recent alliance with the far-right and active perpetuation of misinformation regarding the pandemic, I feel it is very important that “permaculture designers” who know the true lineage and history of ecological design do our due diligence to make sure that incoming students are not fed misinformation, but are appropriately directed to the indigenous, academic, and authentic sources of the material.
For those of you reading this who have sat the fence for decades about racism, classism, sexism, sexual predation, economic exploitation, and worse, you need to make a choice: either you are teaching anti-racist, anti-patriarchal permaculture that acknowledges past and ongoing appropriation from indigenous people…or you are upholding racist permaculture and enabling the abuse of people who look like me. It happens daily, and those of us who believe that hate speech and harassment have no place in permaculture are already leaving y’all behind.
I will close with this:
Permaculture, by definition, defies both ownership and large-scale leadership. Permaculture is a set of actions and strategies based on site-specific, climate-aware, community-invested ecologies. In this sense, leadership beyond the immediate stakeholders is not practical nor is it possible. Permaculture is about personal responsibility, thoughtful action, and careful, ecological design. It is about science, evidence, and results. The very first thing I always teach my students is that I am NOT the authority, and that a good design needs no teacher’s approval, because a good design validates itself through the integrity of the ecological systems it perpetuates.
Best Permaculture Books Written by Women
Shining the spotlight on women writing about permaculture.
On permaculture, entitlement, and that pesky third ethic: all aboard the elephant in the room
“Contact with the soil reminds us that we are an integral part of nature, rather than feeling shut out and excluded…