Bill Mollison, Permaculture and Sustainability Transition

Over the weekend Australia lost one of its great pioneers in sustainable development with the passing of Bill Mollison, co-creator of permaculture with David Holmgren.  Author, educator, academic, researcher and innovative thinker, Bill Mollison, died peacefully in Hobart, Tasmania, on 24 September.  The permaculture design system they helped create is a holistic methodology based on systems thinking, ecological principles and energy literacy.

Permaculture has the potential to be a tool for operationalising sustainability transition and can provide a common language and methodology for bureaucracies and grassroots actors to cooperate on sustainability initiatives.

Permaculture co-creators Bill Mollison (left) and David Holmgren (right).
Permaculture co-creators Bill Mollison (left) and David Holmgren (right).

Permaculture, Sustainability Transition and the Paris Agreement

The December 2015 Paris Agreement is now the vanguard instrument of the global environmental governance. However, as has been well reported, there is a large gap between the greenhouse gas emissions reductions outlined in the Paris Agreement and what governments have currently pledged as policy.  Policy-makers are currently grappling with the practicalities of operationalising the Paris Agreement and making good on the goals outlined in its text.  Collaboration of governments and international organisations with actors as the grassroots will be critical to the achievement of the Paris Agreement’s stated 1.5oC emissions cap and the sustainability transition more broadly.

A constellation of grassroots initiatives are taking on the challenge of sustainability transition, demonstrating methodologies of sustainable systems design in agricultural, economic and social contexts.  Permaculture is an important part of this constellation.

As a system of ethics, permaculture is based on regenerating ecosystems and their constituent life forms, taking care of the needs of people, and distributing the yields of permaculture systems in a fair and just manner.

As a design system, permaculture utilises a set of twelve design principles to re-create human agricultural, social and economic systems to mimic and harmonise more intimately with ecological systems, such that they become sustainable (according to a ”hard” definition of sustainability).  The ethics, principles and design strategies have been written about extensively in a “cannon” of practitioner manuals, beginning with Permaculture One by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1978.

As a social movement, the network of permaculture practitioners has spread around the world to the point where today there are self-identifying permaculturists in over one hundred countries, practicing holistic and eco-centric models of social change. It moves beyond traditional activist models to create new economic and social systems that send tangible political, social and market signals to existing institutions and give its practitioners leverage in relation to these structures.

The permaculture movement is horizontally networked, with practitioners working on projects that are largely context-dependent, varying according to the goals of permaculture practitioners in relation to their unique local ecological, social, economic and political conditions.

The permaculture movement, along with its disciplinary cousin agroecology, is likely to represent the leading edge of local-level climate adaptation and mitigation.  The environment movements in which these local initiatives spring from are likely to shape the politics surrounding the efforts of national governments to operationalise the Paris Agreement.  How this multi-level process between the Paris Agreement, national policy, public sphere and local projects evolves in the different political contexts is likely to be the key dynamic space in environmental politics in the coming years.

Bill Mollison’s Legacy

In the permaculture movement, Bill Mollison leaves a powerful legacy of empowerment. Community-level projects and civil society actors are clearly going to be critical in helping governments operationalise the sustainability transition and the goals of the Paris Agreement in particular, however the contours of those relationships are yet to be fully formed.

The bureaucratic language and logic of governmentality, which characterises top-down environmental governance, sits awkwardly with more decentralised grassroots initiatives.  Bureaucracies and grassroots actors essentially speak different languages in terms of power and agency.  Despite this, governments need grassroots actors to help them operationalise the sustainability transition, while grassroots actors need governments to help them scale up their transition initiatives.  Because the permaculture design system is context-specific in its application, it can provide the common language necessary to achieve these objectives.

In my role teaching environmental politics at La Trobe University and as a contributing teacher into the permaculture design course at CERES Community Environment Park in Melbourne, I come across people from all walks of life—students, mid-career professionals, tradespeople, even public servants—who recognise the gravity of our environmental crisis, are tired of the political gamesmanship surrounding environmental governance, and who want to acquire the skills and networks to make the sustainability transition happen.  Bill Mollison’s great legacy will be to provide these people with a methodology to do just that.

Participants at 2015 Australasian Permaculture Convergence in Penguin, Tasmania.
Participants at 2015 Australasian Permaculture Convergence in Penguin, Tasmania.

See Also:

Permaculture Solutions for Climate Change.

Ben Habib – Permaculture’s Next Big Step: Thoughts on Networking Globally.

Ben Habib – Sustainability is Not Enough: A Call for Regeneration.

Donna Livermore, Sally MacAdams, Ben Habib, Nathan Alison and Catherine O’Shea – OASES September Breakfast: Exploring Local Initiatives for Living a Good, Low-carbon Life.

Ben Habib – Reading the Landscape: Decoding the Meaning of Built and Biological Environments.

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