PERMACULTURE DESIGN: SEPTEMBER 6–20, 2019 • REGISTER!
Center for an Ecology-Based Economy
Resilient Communities Restoring the Earth
INTERVIEW WITH BILL MOLLISON
Note from interviewer, Scott Vlaun
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: 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 $8,000 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 around 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 mouse-proof and rabbit-proof 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. Then 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 mind 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
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?
Vlaun: Entirely. 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 co-op.
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 poison.. 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."
(Thanks to Lisa Moore of the Beal Street Wordsmithery in Norway, Maine.)
BEAUTY IN PERMACULTURE
"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. "
-Mollison on where beauty fits into the equation (of permaculture design.)
LESS IS MORE
"Make the least changes you need to achieve what you want."
-Mollison on design principals.
THE FUTURE OF FOOD
"...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. " -Mollison on Japanese farming practices.
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