Renewing the Planet
Permaculture creates living systems using cooperation with nature. Using its designs and principles we can create beautiful, practical, self-sustaining urban or rural environments. Using the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems, people can create real solutions - and put back more than they take from the Earth.
Bill Mollison, the pioneer of Permaculture, provides alternative perspectives and catalytic solutions to seemingly intractable problems in this transcript of a talk we shared over an evening meal almost twenty years ago. His visionary solutions are even more relevant today, no matter where you live…
R.Ayana – You’ve been working with Permaculture for a long time now…
Bill Mollison – Yes, an unconscionably long time – about fourteen or fifteen years [at that time - Ed].
R.A. – What’s the aim of Permaculture?
B.M. – Oh, they change all the time. We’ve achieved a lot of aims in that we’ve set up a good educational system and design; that was an early aim. One success is we’ve generated more teachers – although we’re very short of teachers – who are teaching in their own languages in their own countries.The aims keep on changing and our current aim is to become developers, to purchase and develop properties or villages and to have the developmental capital for that. I guess we’ll get there, too – we seem to achieve our aims. That’s the worst part of success – where do you go from there?
R.A. – How does Permaculture development differ from the normal destructive developments we’re so used to?
B.M. – We bring all the sustainable forms of development in – a village we develop would contain more than sufficient food and would catch all its own water from rainwater, in filtration tanks. If we were very lucky we could also have a supply from a stream. But if not, we can build a village in the desert that can provide itself with water.
Then the houses are largely self-energised by the design of the building for space, heating and cooling, either by use of a small amount of solar power in each house or by some other form of power. For instance, if we had a little stream we’d simply put in a small hydro system, so that the need for people to earn would be sharply reduced. The average family today spends 46% of its earnings on food and 19% on energy. We think we can cut down on individual expense by 70-80% - which frees up a lot of capital. In fact, in Brazil we found if we could provide houses with gardens, people could own them in five years. But if we didn’t, they would never own them because the interest kept beating them.
So the difference in having your food supply and therefore half your income available is great. The Permaculture village also has proper disposal of wastes plus its own banking system that is all recycled back, first to the village and second as priorities to other villages or groups. It would have its own education system, its own schools, child-minding centres – like the libraries and all the education training going on here in modern suburbia. And its own small market and commercial centres and light industrial area.
R.A. – What size population are you looking at?
B.M. – Well, for full employment within the village structure, at a thousand people or slightly larger everybody would be employed in the village. Maybe as many as thirty or forty percent of people would work ‘location free’ – people would write books or are in service to the outside as consultants, for instance [this without the existence of today’s internet – Ed]. You could hike or walk to work and the amount of transport needed would be tiny and could be provided by a small delivery service plus a truck for trade and a little taxi service.
R.A. – How long would it take – from scratch – to get to self-sufficiency and surplus?
B.M. – Well, if you go on data from California, about three years after you start you’re about eighty percent sufficient in food. After that it gets a bit embarrassing – there are a lot of signs along the footpath saying ‘please pick the fruit’. So there are surpluses occurring all over different seasons after the third year. So three to six years – after six years you’re into heavy yields.
At one site I had almost a tonne of almonds off the trees this year. I’ve been going back there for six years, since the inception, and it’s remarkable how much food is coming out of the system. It’s a medium-density town which provides all its own food. They still go and buy things like fish and chips – but if they were cut off they could supply everything.
The kids love it – there’s just parkways and walkways – there are no through roads and it’s very quiet and safe and the capital gain on the housing has been enormous. A house there is now worth two or three times what it was worth six years ago and there’s a waiting list for vacancies. So these developments that use very low energy expenditures and high self-reliance are very much in demand.
Regreening the City
R.A. – People see how it’s relatively easy to achieve self-sufficiency in the county, but how would you do it in the suburbs?
B.M. – There are people who do it. The very first design that I did in 1975 was in the industrial suburb of Thornbury, Melbourne [Australia]. There was a small group of people who slowly bought up a city block as it became available. They had houses touching each other along the back, so they took down a lot of the fences and they put in a wood workshop, metal workshop, pottery and children’s house, which was an old garage. They closed off a couple of lanes and had chickens, ducks and all their fruit. They spent seven dollars per person per month. So $84 a year covered their food.
Slowly, they went to work on the houses – adding little glasshouses and cold houses to bring cold draughts in the heat – and efficient heating systems. But that’s by remaking poorly designed houses. It’s been in continuous evolution since 1975. It’s a nice little jungle. R.A. – So you’re looking at a city block size?B.M. – Yes. Well, you can work on two blocks. If you have an association of friends who live in the city and all agree to move into a district as any house becomes available – sell where you are, buy there – you can do it.
They did another strange thing in Thornbury. They pooled all their money into a single bank account and they all carry a cheque book and see how little money they can write each month. I think the surplus is as high as eight to nine thousand dollars a month. It provides for everybody, plus the surplus. They support two of their number in service to an Aboriginal settlement and pay them a wage to stay there and pay the fees of anybody who wants to go to university to improve their education – people are able to take another two or three years training as adults.
They have a very large capital surplus and bought a little farm in Gippsland and a coastal patch of land down in Bass Strait on one of the islands, so they have a holiday place. Because of this big saving in food, energy and travel and also by pooling income, they achieve a surplus of capital while they work on a lot of projects…
- R. Ayana
Originally published in NEXUS New Times Magazine Vol. 1 No 8 1988-89
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