1983: Interview with Bill Mollison

The Lost Stories are Bill Mollison's articles published in the print magazine originally named Permaculture, then International Permaculture Journal and finally the Permaculture International Journal that was published between 1978 and 2000.

All stories and other content ©Permaculture Australia unless otherwise noted.

Story by Bill Mollison, May 1983. Edition: 12.

Editor's note:

The identity of Bill Mollison's interviewer was not disclosed in this article, nor was Bill Mollison identified. The verbal and content style strongly suggest the interviewee as Bill.

The article carried no headline. It appeared on pages six and seven of Permaculture magazine's May 1983 edition.

The interview

I started an organic gardening society as an innocent in 1972 because I believed in clean food. I've migrated from that to a study of what is really happening in the world and realising that being a good gardener can be like being an ostrich with your head in the sand. You will inevitably die in your own good garden if you don't pull your head out and see what is happening in the real world. You can't garden under the above conditions. Soil cannot be created under those conditions. Life cannot continue under those conditions. Everything we say about soil is meaningless under those conditions.

Therefore, for us to continue to live on the earth, stop for a while from just being gardeners and look at what is happening and try and stop it. And to a large extent this is why permaculture associations are formed and are forming rapidly across Europe, the UK, throughout all American states and all Australian states — to tell people what is happening, to help them to design out of it.

Positivist rather than optimistic

Now, while I'm not optimistic, I'm positivistic. I think there are things we have to do . Quickly. I'm not at all optimistic that we'll do them or that if we do them, we'll succeed. I think we have a very short time in front of us.

An analysis of the cadmium in food sold in Canberra shows two to three times above world health limits to avoid permanent lung and kidney damage. This can't be told to the public victims because they'd stop buying vegetables, and it would require stopping using superphosphate and phosphate rock, and we don't know how to garden without it.

We can't tell North American people, by presidential decree, about the acid rain that's falling on them because they'd try to vacate north east USA, which would mean chaos that would shatter the economy and shatter the nation. They must be allowed to perish where they are. Real estate and banking would collapse. They must be allowed to turn into pickle right where they stand.

We must let Canberra people go on eating their own death warrant. We must let our children absorb lead and become idiots. Politically, it is impossible to keep control if anyone is told the truth. The only way we can tell people the truth is to get on our feet and go tell them.

So I get on my feet and I go to Vermont, have the snow reliably analysed, and the same in Germany. Because I'm not the government and I believe people should know what is happening in their lives and should know about the threat of universal death. I'm a political animal, not just an organic gardener.

We've got work to do. In the cities you use far more energy, water, superphosphate, more sprays than the total of agriculture in the whole country. On lawns you are putting more water, herbicides, pesticides, more agricultural nutrients than the total of Australian agriculture.

Some questions: Do you need any farms at all? Are you prepared to use those resources to grow food? Can we change our soils to be safe soils? This is the only chance. To become home gardeners with a good compost layer on your garden.

Back to the start. We must all become organic gardeners or die. That's the plain unvarnished truth. I've understated everything I've told you. I'd like you to look at the New Scientist of this year and read the story on acid rain throughout the northern hemisphere. The original article appeared in Der Spiegel Berlin in three editions.

Now you are up against it, worse than in the bushfires because this enemy is impalpable. You can't go out and fight something that is yourself. This year arises in Germany with the Green Party candidate running for parliament. The Green Party says it doesn't matter if the whole economy is brought down, if every factory is shut down, it doesn't matter if we blow up every highway, we're going to stop killing the earth forever.

We can't burn coal or oil or run atomic power. We can develop hydroelectric power, wind energy, solar energy, bio power, and we must be careful how much fossil fuel we use in that development. We can't run around like blowflies, up and down the street, six cars going this way this morning and six going back this evening not knowing why they're going in either direction. We can do a modest and essential trip occasionally on alcohol fuel. And we can sail as far as we like and as long as we like. We could even probably balloon great distances, but you get a long way by walking, in a long time.

We are working at completely meaningless tasks. I once came into Adelaide and sat in North Terrace watching workers loitering on a big building construction opposite, and sleepwalkers along the pavement. Everybody here is crazy, I thought. Not one of them has a single say on what he does every day. They are there as accidental cogs in the mindless economic industrial machine. So I am sane and they are crazy. I do what I like, when I like, and laughing, with a lot of time for my gardening friends.

Interviewer: Where do you get your money from?

BM (Bill Mollison): It's given to me by people who think I'm worth it. I'm an entertainer with chalk and words. They give generously to me because they think I'm a great clown, and they're right. I sing and dance for it. People like to throw money at people who sing and dance.

Lady, you print your own money. All wealth comes from the application of brain power and muscle power to the world around us. You can easily produce all your own food year round and have surpluses for trading in a few necessary imports. But a few strategic mass-production operations produces such teeming outputs, that any mechanism-of exchange is really a hilarious irrelevance.

In your spare time you can clothe and house yourself and indulge in the civilised arts or status fripperies while keeping viable your surrounding ecosystem. The natural food jungle is powered by sunlight, rain and the natural interaction of a million living things who charge you nothing. We don't need much of that to live royally.

So permaculture is about suiting inputs to outputs: fitting needs and innate characteristics and yield of the natural elements of our environment to the needs of other elements of our environment, putting them in the right place. If the chicken are grossly underutilised we have to expend a huge amount of fossil energy just to eat.

The best thing you can do is spread the news and keep on gardening and showing people how to do things. Keep on measuring your own environment. You know what is happening in South Australia at present around the lead burning area, the risk to children and the terrible condition those soils are in. That chimney was simply put higher, you remember, so the lead is falling further and further away. We have all the CSIRO reports on the levels of lead along the roads and we have all the information on the amount of cadmium we put on annually. All the information you need on the amount of fallout of sulphuric and nitric acid over our cities and their drift across the country is available. We have information you need on tree deaths in Australia which is averaging 11 percent per annum, which gives us ten years of trees.

So it's time we opened a really great debate with all people. We need thousands more voices, millions. The number of informed people is pitifully small.

Interviewer: Would you be aware of the Henry Doubleday event in England? They tested cabbages at a city stop light and found the lead the same at all distances from the light over two home allotments.

BM: Yes, and the same everywhere else in the city too.

In Germany we measured the lead in a vertical plane and found we had to be over 40 metres up before it was safe for window box food growing.

On windy days it goes over the top of the highest buildings. There's nowhere in the city that we should grow food, nowhere but the city that we should grow food, nowhere but the city that we must grow food.

We must must not add any more to the lead in petrol and we must compost everything that enters the city and start to create the city soil. We can no longer afford the agriculture we have, it kills us more surely than anything we've ever had. Agriculture is killing Australia.

Interviewer: Could you give me an answer to the chappie who's trying to push hydroponics down my throat. I told him to drop dead, but…

BM: You beat me to it. If we abandon the environment, we'e sunk. We have to live on the earth, we can't go into space capsules, interplanetary fantasies are the ultimate copout.

To go inside with hydroponics is a copout. Most people would never make it in time. We've got to try to survive on the face of the earth, with the earth.

There is a great group called the Society for Growing Australian Plants. I like them and many are friends of mine. They took exception to my following remark: If you live like an Aborigine and garden like a European you'd be completely out of trouble. But when you insist of living like a European and gardening like an Aborigine you're in disastrous trouble. However, if you live like an Aborigine and eat like an Aborigine you're out of trouble. If you can eat as you garden you're out of trouble.

Interviewer: I'm an organic fruit grower for 20 years, from the Riverland. We have one massive problem with salt. Should we abandon these areas and concentrate agriculture in areas of higher rainfall?

BM: Yes. Agriculture should be transferred as far as possible into the cities themselves. Every city can not be only food-self-supporting, but exporting.

We should use every area available to it. Its rooftops, gardens, unused public lands, its roadsides (though obsolescent). The city can easily produce all its food. As long as we let hoofed animals run on the ridges, and woodchippers chip our forests, you'll go from salt to saltier.

We all know it, we know its causes in dryland and wetland irrigation. Its basically the loss of trees. The cause of salting is the loss of trees.

We cannot continue putting a thousand units of energy into farming and only getting one back. We could do better with a lot of New Guinea gardeners coming here. They'll give us 70 energy units out of their garden for every one we give them. We haven't got a farmer that can come near to or even touch an urban gardener for energy efficiency. An urban gardener runs on bacon and eggs. A farmer's got to have at least a 45hp tractor and uses the equivalent of 45 tons of coal every time he ploughs one acre for one crop, and that will kill us.

We are a little luckier than some of the European cities. We've kept the 1/4 acre block which happens to be the ideal production size. 1/2 acre is too big to look after properly, 1/8 acre is a little too small to achieve excess food.

Now what we've got is a lot of idiots as politicians. They came up either through the law or through economics. They are all political animals, they don't care whether they call themselves Liberal or Labor. They are none of them saying one damn thing to us, not one of us. They are not talking about life or the care of life. They are talking about childrens' armies, more industry, more aid to farmers. They are going to kill us. They are complete idiots, we have madmen at the helm, both sides and everywhere. We've got to change it.

Some of you are going to have to volunteer to become prime minister. Now when you do we'll make you PM next election because we, organic gardeners, men of the trees, wilderness societies, Aborigines, women, freaks, hippies and others are the majority of Australians. We who want to live, and live peacefully and quietly are the majority of Australians.

I think we must get some members of the Green Party of Germany here. They promise to bury atomic power, to bury the coal industry, to bury the car. Your future, folks, is urban hippies, and a good job too.

Interviewer: What political structure would you see a permaculture society living under?

BM: Basically, just an environmental structure with totally open discussion and full local input, a lot of regionalisation, a lot of measuring of what we've got in the soils, of where it's coming from, of what it's urgent to stop of what we must continue doing to make the transition into the energies we talked about. That is solar, wind and biological energies. We can make that transition fairly rapidly.

When we clean it all up we'll sit back and have a talk to each other on national radio, that's what it's for, a few TV channels, to pop in and talk to each other and see how we are getting on. That's what they're for, they're ours. Keep our information flowing, say look we're winning here, see this is how we are doing it, we think we've worked out this energy problem here . . . we've built a solar pond, we're getting this out of it, and we'll sort it out.

We've got all the brains on our side, we're the majority, right? I mean we're not stupid. Stupid people poison each other and we don't do that.

We could improve things rapidly. Now we have to do it.

Editor's note

In the interview Bill Mollison refers to lead in petrol. Petrol containing lead was phased out in Australia on 1 January 2002. Lead Replacement Petrol was developed as a substitute for the leaded petrol that was necessary for most cars produced before 1986.

Lead in petrol

According to Wikipedia, Tetraethyllead, commonly called tetraethyl lead), (CH3CH2)4Pb "was a patented octane rating booster that allowed engine compression to be raised substantially, which in turn increased vehicle performance or fuel economy. Ethanol was already known as a widely available, inexpensive, low toxicity octane booster, but TEL was promoted because it was uniquely profitable to the patent holders."

More on lead

The Lead Group: http://www.lead.org.au/fs/fst29.html

World Health Organisation: http://www.who.int/bulletin/archives/80(10)768.pdf

Australian Department of Environment and Energy: http://environment.gov.au/protection/chemicals-management/lead

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