(PDC given by Bill Mollison in 1981, Transcript) (Comments in first transcript by Dan Hemenway (D.H.), in second transcript by Thomas Fischbacher (T.F.))
Permaculture for Millionaires
I am going to give you an anecdote. When I was in Toronto at the Futures Conference, one thing I discovered was that the people critically interested in futures are those people who are making large investments. It wasn’t a meeting of hippies. Hippies were in the two percent minority. This was the heart of Harbor Castle Hilton Hotel. I was in a pair of thongs, the only barefoot slopping in there. Here were investment bankers mobilizing their capital, some of their principals – not often many of their principals. These are people who deal in futures. Every businessman has a little clique around him. He has long term friends. If you meet one businessman, you have contacted somewhere between ten and twenty, intimates who are commonly ringing up and are doing deals, and who have had long associations. They are old friends.
I was one of the few people there who were giving anything positive. I think I was the only person there who was giving any indication of a future that you might be able to control. There were people there who were proposing ideas out of my control and, I’m sure, out of yours. There were proposals for a future that would need a huge amount of plumbing, technological fix. Whereas, I was indicating futures well within every man’s capacity.
I gave them the example of Babassu palm.
It is within every investor’s capacity to organize the development of fuel supplies from biological materials. I gave them the example of the Babassu palm. The Babassu palm grows under the worst conditions on the exposed coast of In- dia. These palms produce a high sugar sap. It comes down to a harvest of about ten to twelve thousand liters of fuel per acre annually. And they can be heavily intercropped. They furnish very good shade cover for intercrop; and there are vast areas in India in eroded seaside condition where these palms can grow. Besides, the palms give – and for centuries have given – a very large proportion of the building and thatch and carpeting material. So the situation is ideal, really, for an enormous energy production coupled with food, and the material for people to build their own dwellings. For they are building entire buildings out of thatch, and they are appropriate dwellings, because that thatch is absolutely water tight, low mass, and ideal for that climate. It is extraordinarily good for dwellings.
So we can do this. It is certain that we can put in something better than an oil well for an indefinite period, and with far less investment capital. Now there are dozens of these situations where we can operate, and they lie in all sorts of energy realms, including things like buffalo gourds and yallow trees in deserts, which are eventually going to out produce an oil well.
So people were listening pretty hard. What we want to do is to enable these people to take what they want out – the palm juice – and to provide a base level living for thousands more people. The processing is fairly minor. Intercropping within the whole situation would make the palms healthier, and the people living in there and attending this operation would get all the secondary and other spin-offs.
I am trying to sell the rich the idea of commonwork.
What I am trying to sell the rich is the idea of commonwork. It is functional stacking. The original meaning of the word is to put one painting on top of another. It is like laying on colors. What we are laying on is functions.
Now, for instance, if we get a large company to lease a large part of the Indian foreshore from the state of Maharashta and the start a Babassu palm production system, we would pay close attention to the ground. What we would set up would be an excellent sugar-palm production. This would be rich valley soil, and we would get a little keyline dam system going up along there. I worked out that sugar-palm system so the whole thing would be automatic harvest. No labor in harvesting except cutting the flower stems because the liquid is your saps. All we do is set up a whole system on an uphill slope and run it all down to one point. Then, in here, we would have other functions within the toddy sugar-palm system. There would be good places to live; they can graze cattle; they can take green-leaf Desmodium. They can take production from a bean crop, to the advantage of the health of the toddy palm. We can get in honey production, too.
All the investor wants is to earn a return.
We then have people who are looking after the toddy palms. We produce a crop. We produce honey. We practice aquaculture. The investor can let all of these go. All the investor wants is to earn a return from the alcohol production capacity of the site. All the other people own these other capacities. You would be surprised how many non-interfering overlays you can get on a site–overlays that will hold families in good health while maintaining an unending alcohol production.
Now the investor is not objecting to this, because he didn’t want a fish production capacity; he didn’t want a bee production capacity, and he didn’t want grain crops. So these are the sort of propositions which businessmen are very willing to discuss. They don’t even need to own the site. What they need to own then, is the right to the alcohol. As Gulbenkian says, “Let the meek inherit the Earth, just so long as I have the mineral rights.
So what is the logical way to go about this? Put the site into the Permaculture Institute. Then everybody receives the eternal right to that part of production in which they are interested. The Permaculture Institute holds and manages rights. Now that’s a good proposition! Because what are they getting? Very low overhead, enriched crops, marvelous appearance in the eyes of the world – Look what we’re doing here! Everybody is doing exactly what they want to do. Here are happy people who are keeping their situation healthy, and which some supervising designer, probably on site, trained in permaculture principles, is making sure it’s working. Every one of those palm trees takes little vanilla orchids. So the permaculture designer starts stacking in, and he gives the care of the vanilla orchids to yet another group.
The rich don’t have anybody to tell them what to do.
I see no reason for that not to happen. But what the rich don’t have is anybody who can tell them what to do. I pointed out that they are not immune from acid rain; they are not immune from environmental disaster. They have no real desire to be moving among dead lakes, in a world that the wood chippers have stripped of the last of its forests, a world in which humankind is stranded on a naked rock. They own that they worry about it. But there is no leadership. They don’t know where to look for leaders. They are thinking of funding schools to train people to be leaders. There is nobody to tell them what to do about the environment, how to handle this situation, give a businesslike, reasonable proposition. Nor is it possible to link to the alternative, because the alternative is not businesslike. The alternative has set up no structures that can integrate with ours. Now we have a structure. Here it is.
They understood. They can work in there with their banks; they can work in there with their investments. We can give spare lands over to them, of which we have several million acres that we are not using for this or that.
So we were the first people they ever met who were really alternative, really had ideas, really could suggest how they could invest their money, and who had a structure to which they could link. They just can’t be running around themselves as individuals, or sending out people to try to find out how to link to the movements that are going on, and how to work with those movements to make a beneficial interface.
Now there are those who say to us, ”Don’t go with them, it’s dirty money.“ But then, there they are and here we are. We haven’t 10 years to sort it out. It’s war, or it’s cooperation. For me it’s going to be cooperation because war doesn’t work. Opposition doesn’t work. War replaces one lot of oppressors with another lot of oppressors.
There’s no opposition.
There is no opposition in high echelons. So don’t go looking for opposition; there is none. There is a high capacity for information gathering very rapidly. If we have data on acid rain, they can get it quicker. It’s just that they had never thought to look. You give them that data, and say, ”Go check it for yourself. Don’t believe me.“ Do you know, this group can have it checked in maybe four days and get a high impact statement that is absolutely frightening? All they need to do is tell their very bright secretary to do it, and she, maybe, has a degree in biochemistry. She taps that acid rain, man, and brrrrrrrrrrrr…..
I said, ”Look, I don’t want you to believe me, but I tell you what – I’ll give you four areas to look at and let you make up your own mind as to whether you have a future. Look at soils, forests, pollution, and acid rain. You look there.“ We are not meeting any opposition. What we are looking at is complete acceptance, acceptance of a real situation with a methodology to which the investor can link. That’s the whole situation. That’s the sort of methodology we are working out for them. It is a valid methodology.
Companies are basically immortal. You can talk to a company about putting in a 70-year investment. They look at very long term investments.
Because you just can’t turn off all coal production, there are two ways you can work on it. One is suppression of pollutants, and the other one is very rapid generation of a vast resource to replace coal. That’s got to be biological. Frankly, I also think that we must go toward the decrease of energy use. You might be moving toward a rapid development of biological resources and at the same time assisting in the decrease of energy use.
When we get to the end of that cycle, maybe nobody is making much money; but look at the money Corning is going to make out of your attached greenhouses. So you can spot in these futures, and these are real futures. Capital can be switched to energy decreasing modes; no problem doing that.
Nobody is informed.
But the investor doesn’t always have good advisor in these fields, either. Their own people are unequipped to advise. They are mainly graduates of economic schools and management schools. Those who employ them are for the main part people who inherited money. So nobody is informed. As soon as their vision widens to a comprehension of the future, they may say, Where can I use what I’ve got? or Where do I fit into this?
However, there is one problem. It’s easy at the top to get these agreements, but that person usually has a set of underlings who get on with the actual work. Now that’s where you strike trouble. It’s exactly at the level of implementation that you strike trouble, because underlings are in the sort of desperate financial position where they are always looking out for their own corner. They don’t want some parts of change, because there is no corner for them, no way they can continue to carry out the sort of operations to which they have become accustomed. For this reason, it is the principals, rather than the underlings, who must become involved in large scale permaculture conversion.
Yet they must have assistance. What we need is thousands of qualified permaculture designers, capable of handling the implementation and managerial aspects. To set up these permaculture systems on a scale of two or three million dollars investment capital, or two or three billion dollar investment capital risk, will take many designers full time for many years to adjust it and tune it and extend it.
It is worth doing something that size, for that is going to be effective as an example. The investor will be able to say, ”Look! This year we have water in, and we have apricots growing around the water, and there are now ten families living here that weren’t here before. This water stimulates the growth of palm trees. In seven years time we may be getting crops off here and here and here. Just look at what we are going to get!
And we are seven years ahead of everybody else¡‘ It is a 10,000- liter an acre business, every year. With 500 acres of that –What’s that worth compared to a liter of petrol? You have a $5,000-an-acre business. So 500 acres of that is a 2.5-million- dollar proposition, and there are thousands of acres of it–thousands of acres with presently not another thing on them except starving people, a few dying cattle, and a few pariah dogs.
Although it might be possible to shift 10, 20, 30-million dollars capital across within a month or two, who, who is going to oversee it? For this, you don’t want some inspired person who wants to do good. You want a thoroughly competent person who knows exactly what to do. So we are trying to train inspired people to become competent. You can’t train competent people to become inspired; but, again, we might well just do that, too.
Now there are many, many of these propositions that are of great interest to me. There are large areas of waste land, of desert, and all of which have a fantastic potential for production. In the Australian desert, land can be purchased at maybe $120,000 for a 700 square miles, or $200,000 for 1,000 square miles. In such areas there are probably 500 miles of excellent date washes, without anything else. Again, an enormous output of sugars. And that still leaves most of your area really untouched.
At the same time, an equal part of the investment capital should be directed toward energy use. Do you know what we need in deserts? We need sail freighters. We could sail any desert in freighters, and large freighters, too. All we need is a hundred foot wide strip which is sown down. All deserts have constant winds of 15 miles an hour, blowing all the time, and enormous loads could be sailed across the desert and straight to the coast. Everything produced in the desert is self-stored. It is in dry storage. So at the same time they are developing date production, we want them to be building the technology that cuts out the 600-gallon diesel engine tank, and the highway, and the truck – these things consume a lot more energy than is necessary.
It doesn’t worry me if the investor doubles his money, providing we can go on doing what we are doing, providing they leave behind a huge number of people in charge of the land. In the end, you see, what you have is levels of function. All the investor buys is the product in which he is interested. The rest of it is the people’s. That is all an investor is interested in when investing in an oil well – just the oil.
The cheapest way to make a profit out of a forest might be to go and cut it down, chip it and leave. That’s happening. It is happening because people aren’t persuaded that such a course is a deadly action. So information becomes vital. It is necessary to get this turned off. The man going to Borneo, wood chipping it and running, isn’t usually an associate of these investors. They are simply providing money at interest to fund his operation. They are handling his account. When the people providing money for these operations become convinced that this sort of thing must stop, they can take that man out of there within two or three months, just by slowing down and drying up the flow of money. They can stop that operation without doing anything that is illegal, no marches, no fuss. Now that is all possible. Even the Mafia has to route money through financial systems. If you have a lot of allies within those financial systems, then you can stop certain operations much faster than you can running around and sitting down in front of chain-linked fences and getting arrested. But there must be a lot more of us at it. What we’re in for is a persuasion job.
Put my thongs under the bed.
Some of us find all this enormously terrifying. It can throw a person into totally unaccustomed conditions. You’re up 28 floors off the ground. Everybody is dressed smart and rushing in all directions, talking millions of dollars like mere pennies.
The butler asked me, did I want to have my clothes laid out? I said, ”Yea, put my thongs under the bed.“ That sort of thing is going on. You have private planes running you to and fro. I wanted to have a look at some palm trees. The plane is chartered to take me flying up the valley and land me, collect me some seeds, and bring me back.
We can link to any multinational.
These people must become sold on what we are doing, must become excited about this sort of thing, convinced that it is a good thing. The beauty of it is that we have a system set up by which we can link to any multinational. Now you can take on amateurish methodologies that do not work and have no outreach at all. Or you can take on a methodology that they know, and which suits their financial and money transfer operation extraordinarily well. That means large money for operations there in India. And the spin-off benefits from those operations they can pass on to the people of India.
The world is made up of two sorts of people that I approve of. There are people who stay home and look after their house – I approve of those. And there are the people who are world-shakers. I approve of those, too. What we are dealing with here is the world-shakers.
We shouldn’t be running around on the face of the Earth doing silly things. We should be centering in so that in two years time when you look at the globe, see what we are doing on the globe, it will look as if a lot of nuclei are all joining up. Everybody will be enjoying this. The financiers will be enjoying it; the people in the occupancy will be enjoying it; we will be enjoying it. It seems to me that this is where many us ought to be heading if we have any capacity at all.
All that we want is to rapidly get reforestation back on the Earth.
There are these very large cattle and sheep ranching operations, and, being scarcely financial, they are cheap. The people who started up those ranches got the land for nothing, or for a shilling an acre, or ten cents an acre. They stocked them with half wild cattle. The sod went off, trodden into the ground. To buy that land now, with 400,000 cattle on it, you will never make money. So what we must see in property is a totally different function. It is essential to get all the cattle off those properties. In all of Australia, they probably don’t produce as many cattle as in Essex in England. Thousands of cattle die for every one harvested, and if the market is no good, they don’t harvest. We need to get these very large areas under control and very quickly. In one of those areas it would take ten of us to even see half of it, let alone direct operations.
Show that it can be done.
Our job is to make resolutions in conflict, to set up social meetings between people who have ideas and skills, and people who have the power to move things. Let’s get a large section of these arid lands, sell the commonwork idea and get cracking out there on real arid land agriculture that counts on its own rainfall to make production. Show that it can be done. Then we’ve done a good thing. We give them all their money back. They have good real estate that we have substantially improved, and we have happy people all over the place carrying out functions. I have two Australian aborigines who are superb desert nurserymen. That’s the sort of consultants we want on those jobs.
 The ”Commonwork“ Model
T.F.: In this section, Bill Mollison refers to the ”Commonwork“ model. This actually is much more important than ”Permaculture for Millionaires“ and hence presumably should be discussed instead here. Comparing this lecture transcript with Jeff Nugent’s audio recordings (parts 16B and 17A) of one of Bill’s Perma- culture Design Courses, there are a number of serious omissions and shortcomings. For example, taking this passage:
What I am trying to sell the rich is the idea of commonwork. It is functional stacking. The original meaning of the word is to put one painting on top of another. It is like laying on colors. What we are laying on is functions.
This definitely refers to the term ”Palimpsest“, an alternative name (in fact, the original one) for the ”Commonwork“ model which does not occur in Dan Hemen- way’s transcript, although, curiously, this explanation of the term ”Palimpsest“ does. (The term ”Palimpsest“ usually denotes an ancient piece of canvas, onto which something has been painted or written on top of which something else has been written later. Maybe you have heard of the discovery of ”the Archimedes Palimpsest“ in recent years – a piece of cow-hide onto which Archimedes had written which later was erased and written on by somebody else.) From what I’ve learned from Jeff’s recordings, the ”Palimpsest/Commonwork“ model refers to ”painting multiple layers of livings onto the land, one on top of another“. According to the audio tapes, it has been used by a large group of Quakers near Kent, UK.
When taken out of context, one may get the idea that ”commonwork“ may have to do something with ”communism“ or ”community“. Actually, this is not at all the case.
The important ideas underlying the ”Palimpsest“ model consist of (as far as I understand it):
• Dealing with the problem that a highly complex rural resource flow system (i.e. a farm designed not with a single product in mind, but as a complex flow network) needs a number of people to realize its full economic potential.
• Maximizing the number of (modest) livings that can be put onto a piece of land by splitting the tasks into units which are specialized to the degree that they each allow a modest income of comparable size. (E.g. bee-keeping, tool repair, tool production, finance, laundry, communication services, providing energy, trade, communications services, healthcare, plumbing, etc. – taking a certain amount of money, say 10000 – 15000 quid per year as a standard for ”a living“) The primary design goal is to maximize the number of rural livings, using appropriate degrees of specialization, rather than maximizing specialization. (I.e. if a 40-hours-a-week bee-keeping job could provide a far- more-than-modest income to a single apiarist, this then actually should be split into two more specialized modest 20-hour livings, e.g. honey production and bee health (including queen breeding)).
• ”Livings“ come in the different categories of ”primary production“ (example: beeswax), processing (example: wax candles), and ”services“ (example: selling products on the market).
• Each ”living“ is split into three (or four) ”modules“, so, rather than supporting one person on a single living as an apiarist, there will be a group of three people each doing one-third of the job (earning one-third of a living that way, and two thirds in other ways). So, every person normally takes on three different roles, earning a third of a living from each. This has a number of benefits: people get more flexibility in defining their role in society, can more easily switch (part of) their occupation, have greater security, and as every role is provided by multiple elements, the construction comes with inherent resilience. (This nicely fits nature’s principle of resilience that ”every element serves multiple (but usually not too many) functions, every function is provided by multiple (but usually only a few) elements“.)
• If ”livings” have been designed in an intelligent way, especially going for high- value niche products, there may be a considerable amount of spare time. Certainly, no one is prevented from using that time to do other jobs and make a lot of money out of them.
• Meetings and processes of finding consensus are reduced to the necessary minimum: If something can be done without a group meeting, then there won’t be such a group meeting. As every function is satisfied by three people, two of which have a quorum, both meetings and consensus processes effectively become unnecessary: decisions are brought down to just the level of those who are concerned by them. The tailor does not have to be involved in decisions concerning the apiarist team only.
There are a number of interesting sources that explain in more detail what Bill is talking about here. The original ‘Commonwork’ model was adopted and evolved by a group of Quakers near Kent. They now do have a website at [URL]1. One should in particular also do some background research on the ‘Mondragon Cooperative’ model to learn about tried and tested options and strategies for designing economies. A further important source (which I was unable to obtain so far) is the ‘Handbook for Community Economic Change’ published by the Intermediate Technology Design Group (or was it the Schumacher Society)?