Bill Mollison: Father of Permaculture

Bill Mollison is the founding force behind permaculture. He created the original Bill Mollison Permaculture Institute in Australia, where students still flock to take a Bill Mollison permaculture course. He and David Holgrem are credited with designing the system of permaculture,including the 12 principles of permaculture, and spreading it through education.

Who is Bill Mollison?

You can find a Bill Mollison bio on nearly any permaculture website – from his birth in a remote fishing village in Tasmania in 1928, through his adolescence and twenties working as a seaman, forester, mill-worker, trapper, snarer and naturalist, to his career as a field biologist and later university professor. It was in 1974 when he was working as a professor that Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, one of his students, developed the permaculture concept.

Bill Mollison’s Permaculture Epiphany

Bill Mollison’s life story has enough adventure to fill several books. But I find his personal story about permaculture the most inspiring.

Here’s how it goes:

When Mollison “came to town” after a lifetime in “the bush” he had his first chance to observe humans in what most of us consider a normal society. Up til then he had worked every job under the sun, almost entirely outdoors and working in nature, living in small communities or far from any community.

Think of Bill Mollison’s entrance into the city a bit like Jane Goodall’s entry into chimpanzee society. Goodall went into Tanzania to study a species in its natural habitat. Mollison studied humans the same way Goodall studied chimpanzees: by observing behavior.

“I turned my attention to humans, much as I had to possums in the forests. Humans were my study animal now – I set up night watches on them, and I made phonograms of the noises they make. I studied their cries, and their contact calls, and their alarm signals. I never listened to what they were saying – I watched what they were doing, which is really the exact opposite of the Freuds and Jungs and Adlers.”
Bill Mollison in an interview with Alan AtKisson

Mollison found that human behavior didn’t jive with human speech. In fact, it seems that humans were (are) often completely unaware of their behavior. They told stories about their actions that didn’t actually reflect the truth.

“What they were doing was very interesting, but it had no relation whatsoever to either what they were saying, or what questions they could answer about what they were doing. No relationship.”

Bill Mollison on Permaculture

Image courtesy of

Bill Mollison was so put off by his discovery that he pulled away from the world, living a reclusive life in the bush and avoiding the rest of humanity. He was disgusted with the whole thing.

But then Bill Mollison had the Permaculture Epiphany. He woke up one day and realized that he knew so much, but he didn’t actually apply that knowledge to his own life. He didn’t build his own home, garden or barn in a way that made sense with his knowledge of ecology. He thought, “If I did apply what I know to how I live, that would be miraculous!” This sudden awareness was the birth of permaculture as we know it.

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Extended Reading

Permaculture: A Practical Introduction

Bill Mollison shares his life story in this interview with Frank Aragona.