It’s time we honoured our permaculture prophets

Modern permaculture was born in Tasmania. The climate challenge and peak oil have brought its great benefits into sharp focus. It’s past time that Tasmanians picked up some permaculture habits. [15 September 2009 | Peter Boyer]

Energy is life — nature’s gift to us that enables us to survive. We know that, but we continue to use energy as if it’s nothing more than the flick of a switch. If ever we needed a sign that reason plays little part in our lives, this is it.

STREET FOOD: Almond trees in Greenlands Avenue, Sandy Bay, planted in the 1980s by the Hobart City Council

STREET FOOD: Almond trees in Greenlands Avenue, Sandy Bay, planted in the 1980s by the Hobart City Council

Tasmanians, of all people, should know better. Our closeness to nature is something that millions around the world, trapped in growing urban wastelands, can only dream of. Being aware of the way nature supports our lives should be imprinted in our DNA — but it would seem not.

There’s another reason we should know better. This island is the starting place for modern permaculture, a way of thinking based on growing food (concentrated energy) by mimicking the way nature works. The permaculture movement is now a world-wide phenomenon.

This powerful, disarmingly simple idea had its roots in the early 1970s, when The Limits to Growth study revealed a world living beyond its means, and when Tasmania’s march of progress prompted Richard Jones to found the world’s first green party, the United Tasmania Group.

Founding UTG member and university lecturer Bill Mollison and a young environmental design student named David Holmgren, as mentor and student, forged the permaculture concept. While Mollison took his message first to his students and then to wider audiences, Holmgren produced a thesis on the subject which informed a 1978 book by the pair, Permaculture One.

Fundamental to the permaculture thesis is the ability of natural systems such as woodlands, with their high biodiversity, to maximise the energy in a system by converting it into biomass — many times the capacity of the monocultural food crops that dominate modern agriculture.

The Mollison-Holmgren writings ought to have alerted us to the danger of ignoring natural processes and the possibilities that open up when we tune into them. Richard Jones, at least, was impressed enough to persuade the Hobart City Council to replace ageing ornamental trees lining his street with food-producing species — an almond grove.

But while permaculture ideas were resonating among people concerned about our alienation from nature, they failed to connect with the mainstream. In Tasmania the movement stuttered and stalled. It was as if we had it too good to ever think of changing the way we do things.

Bill Mollison and David Holmgren each took the message about deriving nourishment from natural systems to those wanting to hear. Their classic texts are Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual (Mollison, 1988) and Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability (Holmgren, 2002).

For 25 years Mollison, who at 81 is still working from his Tasmanian base near Stanley, taught his permaculture design course throughout the world to people from all walks of life, revitalising lives, communities and regions. The most remarkable transformations of degraded land have been achieved by people in poor countries struggling to survive.

The prosperous West, by contrast, has been slow to respond. But with ever-increasing climate and energy threats, the wisdom of permaculture is finding its way into Western lives. with a steadily rising demand for the time and expertise of  what is now an international network of permaculture designers, educators and activists.

For Holmgren, permaculture has become a lifelong investigation of relationships between different species in the natural environment, and between humans and nature. Based in Hepburn Springs in country Victoria, he has pioneered use of non-native plants to help in the recovery of degraded land.

It’s interesting that despite all their foresight, dedication and sheer hard work to put theory into practice and take their vision to the wider world, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren have had such a low profile for so long. It’s long past time we honoured these prophets in their own land, and the best way of doing this is to take up their ideas and run with them, as far and and fast as we can.

Intensive permaculture training is on offer to Tasmanians in January 2010, when specialist Rick Coleman leads a 12-day residential course at Lorinna, north-western Tasmania. For further information contact Hannah Moloney on 0418307294.

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