Why Permaculture?

Bill Mollison, Time Scout

bill_mollison2-PRIWe cannot describe here all of the many ways in which Bill influenced the world, or the many different hats he wore during his rich and adventurous life, but, to close 2016, there is one more that we would like to highlight: Time scout.

What is a time scout? It is, in many ways, what Bill devoted his life to becoming. In his autobiography Travels in Dreams,

When we design, we are always building for future floods, future fires, future droughts, and planting a tree a few inches tall that will be future forest giants, throw future shadows. Future populations will need future soils and forest resources, shelter, security. So somebody needs to range ahead in time, scout out the next century. We are not daydreaming. We are time scouts.

Bill Mollison

These few lines can’t capture the entirety of a man like Bill Mollison, but they do perhaps give us a glimpse of the essence of who he was, what he believed, and how he chose to live his life. In this passage, he is describing one of the priorities of permaculture — a movement that Bill helped to found.

Permaculture is a portmanteau that fuses the words “permanent” and “agriculture.” Here, permanent does not refer to something monolithically unchanging, but rather something that can evolve and grow and adapt with changes in the environment to continue to sustain those that nurture it. It is not the opposite of ephemeral, but rather the opposite of disposable. Where industrialized agriculture and lifestyles draw what resources they can and move on, disposing of the now-depleted land behind them without a second thought, permaculture design looks to emulate the cyclical, replenishing processes of nature. Nothing in nature is “disposable” — it goes on to serve some new purpose, to give back.

Bill and Lisa Mollison at the  Dead Sea, Jordan.
Bill and Lisa Mollison at the Dead Sea, Jordan.

Throughout his life and many different career and academic experiences, Bill has always sought out opportunities to transform the act of taking into one of giving. This philosophy is one which has been at the forefront of many of his actions, as when he participated in helping Aboriginal communities raise money for education through the sale of wallaby skins.

Bill’s life was not one which was tidy — and he himself would have agreed. He told Glenn Mulcaster, a writer for the The Age, that there should be awards for untidy towns. It isn’t litter and mess that Bill reveres. Instead, it’s the desire to roll up one’s sleeves and participate in life itself and to take responsibility for life itself, rather than relegate these roles and responsibilities to faceless corporations. A tidy façade that hides the poisoning and depletion of the planet is far uglier than growing beans on one’s front lawn — and doing so is, in Bill’s opinion, one of the best ways to address the growing obsession with false tidiness.

Permaculture, for Bill, was also more than the “beneficial assembly of plants and animals in relation to human settlements.” It was also a manifestation of his desire to improve the world with positive actions, rather than opposition. His experiences as a scientist with CSIRO and the Tasmanian Inland Fisheries Department solidified his conviction that our current way of life was unsustainable, “killing us and the world around us, ” and at first, he chose protest as a way to combat these practices.

But protest did not result in success, not in changing the industrial and political systems, nor in satisfying his need to feel that his contributions were meaningful. Two years later, the principles of permaculture began to emerge in his mind. It was the answer to his sincere goal to not “oppose anything ever again and waste time. I wanted to come back only with something very positive, something that would allow us all to exist without the wholesale collapse of biological systems.”

His permaculture ideals drew on his rich and varied life experiences. In 1959, he looked around him at the abundant life in the Tasmanian rain forests, “inspired and awed by the interconnectedness of this ecosystem.” The seed was planted — could human beings look to complex, abundant, and self-sustaining ecosystems for a way to nurture both themselves and the environment?

Bill devoted a great deal of his life to making sure that the answer to that question was “Yes.” His writings on permaculture, including Permaculture One and Two, Permaculture—A Designer’s Manual, and Introduction to Permaculture, among others, have educated and informed an entire generation. A generation which is now teaching its own children that the human way of life need not to be simply taking and taking from our environment, but living in harmony with it. There are now many organizations dedicated to teaching the very permaculture ideals that Bill began to formulate over half a century ago. Permaculture Institutes around the world have taught hundreds of thousands of people new ways to live in an abundant, sustainable environment.

From Left, Lisa Mollison, Bill Mollison (hungry and eyeing an orange),  Geoff Lawton and Lindsay Smith-Moir.
From Left, Lisa Mollison, Bill Mollison (hungry and eyeing an orange),
Geoff Lawton and Lindsay Smith-Moir.

He was always generous with his knowledge, and indeed, with himself. When asked if he was going to patent an apartment gardening method he developed in Sweden, Bill said “Oh, that’s ridiculous. You want to give it away and teach it so that every Swede is happy in their room.” And note his language—not “you must give it away,” not “you should give it away,” but “you want to give it away.” Any other thought process would have been alien to Bill. He said everyone “should do something to help themselves and others,” just as every element in permaculture design gives as much as it takes.

Bill lived his life as an adventurer, a traveller, a fisherman, a scientist, a lecturer, a farmer, and much more than that. His life did not, perhaps, take the most traditional path — or at least, not the one we’ve been conditioned to believe is traditional. In a 2001 interview with Scott Vlaun for Seeds of Change, Bill says, “I saw that Nature never has a single system. It never just grows pines or just grows anything, really.” Bill was not a man to just grow one idea, to just learn one way of living, any more than Nature tends gardens of just one type of tree. He embraced mistakes, seeing them as learning opportunities, believing that self-awareness and awareness of our surroundings could help us say “Look, I want to get to where I was going, but this way is not the way. I’ll try another way.”

Bill Mollison didn’t just describe ideals. He lived them, and in many cases, embodied them. He tried another way, and another way, and another—and in doing so, provided us all with a way to embrace and sustain ourselves and the earth. He described permaculture as a system of design in which “everything you put in had a multiple purpose and was in the right place to carry out its job.” Thankfully, for each and every one of us, for each and every life he and his teachings have touched, Bill Mollison was in the right place to carry out his job.

But we should also remember that, for a man who understood so much about the complexities of Nature and its cycles, for a man who was always “always building for future floods, future fires, future droughts, and planting a tree a few inches tall that will be future forest giants, throw future shadows” that while we close 2016 without him, he has not truly left us.

He devoted himself to a future he likely would not see, but that was not his concern. His concern was to help us and our children, and our children’s children to get there. Why? Because that is the job of a time scout, and Bill Mollison was nothing less.

Thank you, Bill, for all that you’ve given — the future shadows you throw will be long indeed.

The Permaculture Research Insitute

PRI Zaytuna Farm functions as a model farm (in development) and permaculture training facility. Geoff and Nadia Lawton, world-renowned permaculture educators and consultants, lead the project. Much of Geoff and Nadia’s time over the last few years has been spent away from the Institute, consulting and helping set up projects in diverse locales around the world. Seeing the worldwide demand for knowledgeable permaculture consultants and teachers increase exponentially, as fuel and fertiliser prices skyrocket and the effects of climate change, soil depletion and water shortages begin to hit hard, priority and focus is now shifting back to the Institute, where growing the training program will increase the output of quality teachers to help fill the growing need for them.


  1. Beautiful article. Fantastic read for new comers to get an understanding of how bright the future can be.

  2. I enjoyed the tribute to a Pioneer and Giver, the title “Hat” of Time Scout is so fitting and I am sure he is smiling if able to appreciate the new Hat.

  3. Why is it that every mention of this guy still just makes me want to cry? . .Somehow, somewhere, we future “time scouts” all must cross paths along the way! Here’s to redoubling Bill’s vision as we engage in a whole new chapter of this fascinating work.

    1. Thank you so much for this article!! What you have written has so inspired me to just be me!! I can so relate to “You want to give it away” and the idea that ‘nature never grows just one thing’!! I’ve been thinking that my keen awareness about these two ideas was actually a fault of mine (you know, Jack of all trades/master of none… ) rather than something I should simply allow and fearlessly take actions on. Ha, ha… they both are so against all of life’s constructs; coming from the current unsustainable ways of living(taking). Again thank you! Happy 2017!

  4. Beautifully written and truly moving. A true inspiration to all who have the dream of doing something different, living an authentic, meaningful life that will make a real difference.

    Bill showed us that with conviction, ethics, personal responsibility and sincere effort, one person CAN change the world! We as individuals may not be the genius that was Bill Mollison, but we have the privilege of standing on the shoulders of giants who came before us, and the advantage that we are many, unified by a common vision of a better world.

    Thank you Bill for teaching us how to see the planet through new eyes, and for showing us a better way to live, we are eternally grateful!

  5. Greetings from Kenya we have special request for develop permaculture centre that protect the ecosystem of near lake Victoria water, training people to grow organic foods than depends fishing and hunting creat tourist attraction center, created more fish ponds, planting more trees and medical one,creat permaculture school for learning center among others region is Rich mangoes oranges, tomatoes what I need funds to purchase aland fo pemaculture development I request you first if you can support my I dea and donation towards my permaculture land purchase before starting?

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