Death is the fa­ther of duty


The pro­gen­i­tor of per­ma­cul­ture, Bill Mol­li­son, who died on Septem­ber 24 at the age of 88, avoided the spir­i­tual arena with a healthy pas­sion. With­out mercy, he would brashly chal­lenge any and all claims as to the ex­is­tence of the para­nor­mal. “Aye, fairy wor­ship!” he’d protest with a snort and a hy­per­bolic roll of his wide eyes.

Iron­i­cally, it may be time to put Mol­li­son in prophetic terms. Okay, I know. Some of you may not be ready. He hasn’t been gone long, but please make your sob­bing snappy. Time is short. Re­source de­ple­tion, species ex­tinc­tion, cli­mate change. Pick your pol­lu­tion. Like it or not. We must quickly cul­ti­vate Mol­li­son’s legacy. What the Hell? Why not aim high?

Like any par­a­digm-shift­ing bloke, Mol­lison­was a pro­found thinker and a charis­matic com­mu­ni­ca­tor. I’ve been blessed to see him in ac­tion sev­eral times, and in 1992 I was for­tu­nate to have him as lead teacher of a per­ma­cul­ture design course at Santa Fe’s Apache Creek Ranch. I’ve had many ef­fec­tive teach­ers in my life— pro­fes­sion­als, who blew minds on reg­u­lar bases. He tops them all.

Mol­lison­was to teach­ing as Jerry Gar­cia was to play­ing gui­tar— tal­ented, orig­i­nal, ex­ceed­ingly in­ter­est­ing and of­ten amus­ing, poignant and pro­found. Both would go noodling off on saucy, seem­ingly ir­rel­e­vant and half-brewed tan­gents. But if a pa­tient lis­tener gave the chow fun time enough to boil, a slip­pery new world would spi­ral into a dreamy bite of rhi­zoma­tous wis­dom. De­liv­ered with a plucky faith in life’s mer­cu­rial tempo and a preter­nat­u­ral abil­ity to slow down and soften up, each mas­ter reg­u­larly pro­vided his saga­cious goods with an in­tense and en­dur­ing shock.

But Mol­li­son was more than an en­ter­tain­ing teacher who made you gig­gle and grow, greater than a soul­ful sage who made you weep and love.

His prophetic side be­comes ap­par­ent when one con­sid­ers the con­tent of his mes­sage. Like all proph­esy, it’s mo­rally sig­nif­i­cant, di­rectly con­nected to the work­ings of the uni­verse, and able to pre­dict the fu­ture. Some call it mys­ti­cal, re­li­gious, or tran­scen­dent. In per­ma­cul­ture, we use a set of self-ev­i­dent ethics founded on the con­cept of moral re­spon­si­bil­ity, and we study pre­dictable pat­terns in na­ture as we ap­ply univer­sal, sci­ence-based prin­ci­ples to our work.

Per­ma­cul­ture’s moral sig­nif­i­cance is best un­der­stood in com­par­i­son to the term “sus­tain­abil­ity.” Both words were coined in 1972, but as syn­onyms go it’s crit­i­cal to note that they dif­fer al­most as much as they re­sem­ble each other. Sus­tain­abil­ity de­scribes a con­di­tion, real or imag­ined, but it’s an end unto it­self with no known­means to at­tain its goal. Con­versely, per­ma­cul­ture pro­vides a de­tailed and com­pre­hen­sive road map to­ward the sus­tain­able Promised Land. The word it­self comes com­plete with a built-in plan for real-world suc­cess, which is es­sen­tially this: Mimic the pat­terns and prin­ci­ples of na­ture when­ever you af­fect your en­vi­ron­ment, and ef­fi­cien­cies will oc­cur, yields will in­crease, lo­cal bio­di­ver­sity lev­els will be­gin to re­bound, and you will be on the road to a sus­tain­able fu­ture.

Like sus­tain­abil­ity, per­ma­cul­ture can re­fer to a goal, but the lat­ter is also a moral plea, a cul­tural move­ment, a mo­ti­va­tional phi­los­o­phy, a sys­tem of design, a set of prac­ti­cal tech­niques, a wide-spec­trum of au­then­tic ex­am­ples based on the same bi­o­log­i­cally based creed, and much, much more. I tend to think of per­ma­cul­ture as a school of thought and ac­tion — in sharp con­trast to the vague and easy to co-opt term sus­tain­abil­ity. This lin­guis­tic dis­tinc­tion is help­ful to un­der­stand when you are try­ing to com­pre­hend the in­ter­nal power and univer­sal life-forces em­bed­ded in the more-com­plex term.

To con­firm the orac­u­lar na­ture of per­ma­cul­ture qua proph­esy, let’s work our way back from 1972. In co­op­er­a­tion with Mol­li­son’s stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Tasmania, David Holm­gren, the two ecol­o­gists de­vel­oped a prac­ti­cal phi­los­o­phy that pro­vided the keys to hu­man sur­vival. As a port­man­teau of per­ma­nent, agriculture, and cul­ture, per­ma­cul­ture un­veiled the im­por­tance of cre­at­ing lo­cally based food and en­ergy sys­tems in or­der to main­tain some sem­blance of hu­man civ­i­liza­tion given our planet’s lim­ited re­sources. In sharp con­trast to the post-WorldWar II soil-de­plet­ing sys­tems of in­dus­tri­al­ized food pro­duc­tion, per­ma­cul­ture was a sibylline call to ac­tion to which our cul­ture has re­sponded but has not yet fully em­braced.

In 1978, Mol­li­son and Holm­gren pub­lished Per­ma­cul­ture One. Af­ter that, Holm­gren mostly stayed home to cre­ate an Aus­tralian oa­sis. As liv­ing proof that per­ma­cul­ture works, he’s the move­ment’s well-grounded and much-loved mother fig­ure. Tune in next time for my saint­hood ar­gu­ment. (Well, no. Don’t—I’m in deep enough, I’d as­sume.)

Mean­while Mol­li­son spent­many decades ex­hort­ing the ways, means, and ben­e­fits of per­ma­cul­ture. By the be­gin­ning of the 1980s, he’d taught in five con­ti­nents. By the end of the decade, Per­ma­cul­ture: A De­sign­ers’ Man­ual was pub­lished, and per­ma­cul­ture de­sign­ers, per­ma­cul­ture teach­ers, and even teach­ers of per­ma­cul­ture teach­ers sud­denly had a for­mi­da­ble text­book, a 580-page eco-bi­ble towhich they could re­fer and through which they could sound rea­son­ably in­tel­li­gent and mostly be­liev­able.

Con­ceived in one of the most re­mote cor­ners of western civ­i­liza­tion, the idea first swept swiftly into the fringes of al­ter­na­tive so­ci­ety. Decades later, even theNew York Times, Le Monde and Al­jazeera America are re­port­ing about it. In the Guardian’s obit­u­ary on Mol­li­son, which has close to 10,000 shares and God knows how many views, the 195-year-old in­ter­na­tional news out­let claimed that per­ma­cul­ture has three mil­lion prac­ti­tion­ers and that the move­ment has spread to more than 140 coun­tries.

One apos­tle, Robyn Fran­cis of Djan­bung Gar­dens, has taught 143 per­ma­cul­ture design cour­ses since 1985. Last month she grad­u­ated over 40 more per­ma­cul­ture de­sign­ers in China. The move­ment is grow­ing. But what’s next?

In macabre sit­u­a­tions like the death of a beloved guru, per­mies might look to the sec­ond of Mol­li­son’s five design prin­ci­ples, “The prob­lem is the so­lu­tion.” Of course, the “prob­lem” of Mol­li­son’s mor­tal­ity is a “so­lu­tion” to the prob­lem of loom­ing cul­tural demise. For­tu­nately, given his cur­rent phys­i­cal state, we don’t have a rot­ting-body prob­lem. With Mol­li­son’s death, we have a duty to dis­sem­i­nate a grow­ing body of knowl­edge across the globe and down the street. It’s an op­por­tu­nity to spread the word, so please do.

In the great tra­di­tion of ecol­ogy-based moral­ity, which in­cludes the work of Aldo Leopold, Masanobu Fukuoka, and Rachel Car­son, Mol­li­son rec­og­nized the dilem­mas that hu­man be­ings would be fac­ing to­day. He found the so­lu­tion and spent the rest of his life shar­ing it with oth­ers. May we con­tinue his work and move it into con­tem­po­rary main­stream so­ci­ety. And­may he de­cay into glory and rise up through the trunks of the trees planted by those who’ve learned that we are all creators now.

Nate Downey is the au­thor of Har­vest the Rain (Sun­stone Press, 2010) and the pres­i­dent of Santa Fe Per­ma­cul­ture, Inc. You can con­tact himthrough his new com­pany web­site, www.per­made­

Bill Mol­li­son

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