The Tasmanian rainforests gave him the founding structure for his life's passion, Permaculture: the idea that we could consciously design sustainable systems which enabled human beings to live within their means and for all wildlife to flourish with us.
Born 1928 in the Bass Strait fishing village of Stanley, Tasmania, Bill's life story included backwoodsman, academic, storyteller, lady's man, and to many just ‘Uncle Bill', doing all these things par excellence.
Bill was co-founder, with David Holmgren, of the permaculture movement - a worldwide network of remarkable resilience, with organisations now operating in 126 countries and projects in at least 140, inspiring individuals and communities to take initiatives in fields as diverse as food production, building design, community economics and community development.
Bill left much useful information and numerous words of guidance and encouragement for those who will miss him most:
"The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter."
Growing up in Stanley, Tasmania he left school at 15 to help run the family bakery and before 26 went through the occupations of shark fisherman and seaman (bringing vessels from post-war disposals to southern ports), forester, mill-worker, trapper, snarer, tractor-driver and naturalist.
His lack of formal education gave him many learning opportunities in how the real world works.
A first class scientific carreer
Bill joined the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO, Wildlife Survey Section) in 1954 and gained extensive research knowledge.
His time in the Tasmanian rainforests gave him the founding structure for what became his life's passion, Permaculture. The idea that we could consciously design sustainable systems which enabled human beings to live within their means and for all wildlife to flourish with us.
A spell at the Tasmanian Museum in curatorial duties, a return to field work with the Inland Fisheries Commission took him back to college in 1966 living on his wits running cattle, security bouncing at dances, shark fishing, and teaching part-time at an exclusive girls' school.
Upon receiving his degree in bio-geography, he was appointed to the University of Tasmania where he later developed the unit of Environmental Psychology. During his university period (which lasted for 10 years), Bill independently researched and published a three-volume treatise on the history and genealogies of the descendants of the Tasmanian aborigines.
In 1974, he with David Holmgren developed the beginning of the permaculture concept, leading to the publication of Permaculture One. He became fixated on proving and promulgating what he saw as a world renewing concept. Leaving the University in 1978, abandoning a secure academic tenure at the age of fifty (an unheard of move) Bill devoted all his energies to furthering the system of permaculture and spreading the idea and principles worldwide.
He founded the Permaculture Institute in 1978, his ideas influencing hundreds of thousands students worldwide. As a prolific teacher, Bill taught thousands of students directly, and contributed to many articles, curricula, reports, and recommendations for farm projects, urban clusters and local government bodies.
In 1981, he received the Right Livelihood Award (sometimes called the 'Alternative Nobel Prize') for his work in environmental design. In recent years, he has established a "Trust in Aid" fund to enable permaculture teachers to reach groups in need, particularly in the poorer parts of the world, with the aim of leaving a core of teachers locally to continue appropriate educational work.
Of all the accolades he received, however, the one he was most proud of was the Vavilov Medal, in large part due to the tenacity, courage, and contributions of the award's namesake, who Bill considered a personal hero. Bill was also the first foreigner invited and admitted to the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
A leader of 'peaceful warriors' for a better world
Bill came to the UK in the early 80s, visiting city farms and early permaculture projects, teaching courses and visiting the newly formed Permaculture Association. His charismatic style drew large audiences and led to a flurry of new projects and programmes.
We are helped in remembering Bill by his 1996 autobiography Travels in Dreams. Typically he laughs at himself: "This book is a work of fiction: most if not all of it is lies. Even the lies are imprecise reports of old lies overheard."
He wasn't universally liked. One reason being he was committed to disrupt the status quo of misguided and unfeeling management. "First feel fear, then get angry. Then go with your life into the fight."
He was eloquent about the need for peaceful ‘warriors', as he called them, to challenge the stupidity of ill-governance on a global scale. Despite, or perhaps because, he was an iconoclast, he engendered a global respect which will endure and grow as others develop his foundation thinking.
He authored a number of books on the permaculture design system, the best known being The Permaculture Designers' Manual, published in 1988, and often cited as his most outstanding work. Bill collected solutions and his Permaculture Book of Ferment and Human Nutrition, is an outstanding compendium of traditional food storage systems from across the world.
Few could match his intellectual vigour or ability to recount stories that thrilled and taught deeper lessons about our relationship with each other and nature.
Healing the Earth
Bill asked: "Are we the public or the private person?" The truth of the matter is that for all seasons we are both. Perceived as challenging, a huge harvester of great ideas from around the world (and not always crediting their sources), Bill was also a sensitive man, eloquent raconteur, poet and appreciative of the poetry of others.
He knew how to provoke others to action, but also when to withdraw and let others carry on the work. He paraphrased Lao Tzu: "True change is to so change things that it seems natural to everybody but no-one knows who thought of it." And: "Our best will not be our children's best."
Bill returned to his Tasmanian homeland to spend his final years at Sisters Creek on the Bass Strait coast.
Bill's legacy is that hundreds of thousands of past students have created a worldwide network to take his concept forwards. In a world in which we are acutely aware of our environment, its capacity and limitations, permaculture design offers a systemic approach to meeting human needs which respect those limitations and provide strategies to actively repair ecosystems.
The effect of Bill's legacy will only grow as the world recognises the urgent need to work together on environmental solutions.