An Energy “Renaissance”?

David – I thought we were entering an energy “renaissance” with new and easy ways to extract gas via fracking.  Obviously, I understand the downsides of fracking.  Can you elaborate?

Ken Mann
Whatcom County Councilmember

Yes Ken, I would love to elaborate. Thank you for the question. Councilmember Mann’s note above was in response to my last post: Oil Company Woes: This is What Energy Depletion Looks Like.

Brief recap: In that post I pointed out that many of the big oil companies  (the “richest corporations in the history of civilization” according to Pete Kremen) actually are facing some serious cash flow difficulties. How could this be? I pointed to a Steven Kopits presentation at Columbia University showing that the costs of oil extraction have been rising rapidly in recent years, while the price that they’ve been able to sell for has remained fairly flat – about $100 a barrel for the last 3 years. Costs have risen almost 11% per year since 1999, and for oil companies to maintain expected profit ratios, the price should now probably be about $130/barrel or more.

Things are getting so bad that oil companies are cancelling projects, selling assets to pay dividends, and challenging property tax assessments.

Why don’t the oil companies raise the price?  Because they don’t set the price, markets do, according to Kopits.

Why doesn’t the market raise the price? Because the economy can’t afford it – prices that high could lead to another recession.

Why are the costs for extracting oil increasing so dramatically?

Here we come back to the concept of energy depletion. “The age of easy oil is over” Chevron CEO Dave O’Reilly told us in an ad campaign in 2005. It turns out he was right. Conventional oil production peaked that year.  What has made up the difference since then is unconventional oil sources: ultra-deep water oil, tar sands oil, oil from shale, and oil from fracking.  Which leads us to Councilmember Mann’s question:

I thought we were entering an energy “renaissance” with new and easy ways to extract gas via fracking…?

Yes, this is the meme that has been put out there through industry channels.  The peak oil community has continually challenged this message.  Petroleum geologist Art Berman said “I look at Shale gas more as a retirement party than as a revolution.”  Geoscientist Dave Hughes warns that we’re due for the gas bubble to burst in his Drill, Baby, Drill report (summary review here). And Richard Heinberg’s latest book is called “Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future.”


Lately, even the mainstream media is catching on.  Forbes magazine ran a story on Jan. 26th: “Why Shale Oil Boosters Are Charlatans in Disguise.”
It is interesting that this story claims peak oil theory is wrong, but the argument laid out is exactly what the intelligent ‘peak oil’ theorists have been saying for years.  This is not new material – it is a simplified version of what’s been said on The Oil Drum peak oil site many times: the importance of getting a significant energy yield for the energy that is invested to get that yield.

The first thing to understand about fracking is that the wells tend to deplete very fast. The second thing to understand about all of these unconventional resources is that it is taking more and more energy to get less and less net energy returned.  When you see costs of extraction going up exponentially, that usually means a lot of energy associated with those costs.

We’re already tapped out on the low hanging fruit, and now we’re having to reach further, to dig deeper, to cause more environmental destruction, for less and less of a return. Instead of peak oil, the Forbes article talks about the end of cheap energy, which is fine by me, and perhaps a better way to frame it anyway.

The situation we find ourselves in today is following the trajectory laid out in Heinberg’s 2003 book The Party’s Over, in which he reported the prognosis laid out by geologists Colin Campbell and Jean LaHerrere.  As I quoted Heinberg in my last post:

So they were saying back before 2003, because it published in 2003, so it was actually written in 2001 and 2002. So they were saying back in 2000 and 2001 that we would see a peak in conventional oil around 2005—check—that that would cause oil prices to bump higher—check—which would cause a slowdown in economic growth—check. But it would also incentivize production of unconventional oil in various forms—check—which would then peak around 2015, which is basically almost where we are right now and all the signs are suggesting that that is going to be a check-off, too. So amazing enough, these two guys got it perfectly correct fifteen years ago.

A front page story in The Wall Street Journal on January 29th confirms our story about the cash flow struggles the industry is currently facing: “Big Oil Companies’ Big Projects Struggle to Justify Soaring Costs” by Daniel Gilbert and Justin Scheck, Jan. 29th.  I think the story is behind a paywall.  Someone tweeted the graphic used in the story, which says a lot by itself  (Twitter post here.) :


You can see that since 2009 the oil companies have worked very hard to supply the market with oil. The efforts have been compared to The Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland (“Fracking and The Red Queen Syndrome” from Climate Crocks):

Red Queen Syndrome: "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place."

Red Queen Syndrome: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

The problem is, they can only run in place for so long. As Gail Tverberg pointed out, if the oil companies are now having to cut back on their spending, does this spell The Beginning of The End?

Richard Heinberg and Chris Martenson are right: The Oil Revolution Story Is Dead Wrong.

Oil Company Woes: This is What Energy Depletion Looks Like

Here in Whatcom County, WA our local paper has an article today indicating the dismay being expressed by the local council over the fact that the two largest corporate taxpayers are challenging their property tax assessments.  These would be BP Cherry Point refinery and the Phillips 66 refinery in Ferndale.

The Bellingham Herald article by John Stark tells us that BP is challenging the most recent property tax assessment of $975 million, which they say is at least $275 million too high. BP is the number 1 taxpayer in Whatcom County, and number 2 is Phillips 66, which got an assessed value of $459 million for 2014 taxes and is also contesting its assessment, seeking a reduction of $35 million.

Council member Pete Kremen said he thought BP was asking for far too big a tax cut. “It is a huge, audacious ask, in my opinion,” Kremen said. “I think it is absurd. … It’s one of the richest corporations in the history of civilization.”

Kremen went on to joke that BP needs the money to pay for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that resulted from the explosion of their Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

I would argue that we need to connect the dots to a more systemic problem the oil industry as a whole is facing.  Ironically, these “richest corporations in the history of civilization” actually are facing some serious cash flow difficulties.  The problem was spelled out in painful detail recently in a presentation by Steven Kopits at Columbia University.  You can view the hour long presentation or download the pdf here. Or you can get an overview from Gail Tverberg over at the excellent Our Finite World blog. She titled her post Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending. It boils down to this:

Steve Kopits recently gave a presentation explaining our current predicament: the cost of oil extraction has been rising rapidly (10.9% per year) but oil prices have been flat. Major oil companies are finding their profits squeezed, and have recently announced plans to sell off part of their assets in order to have funds to pay their dividends. Such an approach is likely to lead to an eventual drop in oil production…

Kopits presents data showing how badly the big, publicly traded oil companies are doing. He looks at two pieces of information:

  • “Capex” – “Capital expenditures” – How much companies are spending on things like exploration, drilling, and making of new offshore oil platforms
  • “Crude oil production” -

A person would normally expect that crude oil production would rise as Capex rises, but Kopits shows that in fact since 2006, Capex has continued to rise, but crude oil production has fallen…According to Koptis, the cost of oil extraction has in recent years been rising at 10.9% per year since 1999. (CAGR means “compound annual growth rate”)…Kopits explains that the industry needs prices of over $100 barrel…

…companies have found themselves coming up short: they find that after they have paid capital expenditures and other expenditures such as taxes, they don’t have enough money left to pay dividends, unless they borrow money or sell off assets. Oil companies need to pay dividends because pension plans and other buyers of oil company stocks expect to receive regular dividends in payment for their equity investment. The dividends are important to pension plans. In the last bullet point on the slide, Kopits is telling us that on this basis, most US oil companies need a price of $130 barrel or more.

…Kopits reports that all of the major oil companies are reporting divestment programs. Does selling assets really solve the oil companies’ problems? What the oil companies would really like to do is raise their prices, but they can’t do that, because they don’t set prices, the market does–and the prices aren’t high enough. And the oil companies really can’t cut costs. So instead, they sell assets to pay dividends, or perhaps just to get out of the business.

So what is the problem? Evidence continues to support the notion that, as many of us “peak oilers” have been saying for many years,  conventional oil production peaked in 2005.  Since that time the industry has had to increasingly rely on unconventional oil – the expensive, dirty, hard to get “oil” found in the ultra-deep waters of the ocean, from tar sands, from the Bakken shale, etc. The problem is not that those resources do not exist, the problem is that they are not cheap, they are not easy, and the energy returned on the energy invested continues to shrink.

Part 2 of the problem is that the oil companies can’t charge $130 a barrel, because that would crash the economy, and when the economy tanks, so do the oil prices, at which point the amount of oil they extract and process will have to shrink as well.

Continuing on this theme, I recommend the recent discussion between Chris Martenson and Richard Heinberg, which is a bit easier to follow that the above referenced presentations by Kopits and Tverberg.  Martenson says The Oil Revolution Story is Dead Wrong.

Chris Martenson: So I want to start here. The Party’s Over, the book that did get me started on peak oil, written in 2003. And very clearly articulated, oil is a finite substance, and we built this whole giant growing economic model around it and that is a problem, it is a predicament. Here we are, eleven years later in 2014, and the party is still continuing. What is going on?
Richard Heinberg: Well, you know, I recently went back and reread the first edition of The Party’s Overbecause it was the tenth year anniversary. And I was actually a little surprised to see what it really says. My forecasts in The Party’s Over were really based on the work of two veteran petroleum geologists—Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrère. So they were saying back before 2003, because it published in 2003, so it was actually written in 2001 and 2002. So they were saying back in 2000 and 2001 that we would see a peak in conventional oil around 2005—check—that that would cause oil prices to bump higher—check—which would cause a slowdown in economic growth—check. But it would also incentivize production of unconventional oil in various forms—check—which would then peak around 2015, which is basically almost where we are right now and all the signs are suggesting that that is going to be a check-off, too. So amazing enough, these two guys got it perfectly correct fifteen years ago.
Chris Martenson: Well, it is an amazing part of the story is that at a price, there is always more oil, right? If it was a trillion dollars a drop, I assume we would find ways to actually flip North Dakota over and scrape the source rock out. And so the price and availability and supply of oil is always a big deal. I see that a lot when people are talking about the resources of natural gas that exist but fail to tell me at what price those exist, right? To get the resource is always possible but the price is important.
And yet, we look at the economic sphere and we discover that the economy also has a price for oil but it’s what it can afford to pay.
Richard Heinberg: That is exactly right.
Chris Martenson: And as I look across the last three years, we have roughly been averaging $100 a barrel on the international landscape. And what do we see? We see Ukraine suddenly dissolving, we see Southern Europe with 50% unemployment rates—all things that I think were predicted by almost anybody who was really looking at the peak oil story a long time ago. It is all really coming true and yet the story today is not really connecting those two pieces together, except for people like you and myself and a number of others, but really a handful.
Richard Heinberg: Right. Yeah, the big news right now is that the industry needs prices higher than the economy will allow, as you just outlined. So we are seeing the major oil companies cutting back on capital expenditure in upstream projects, which will undoubtedly have an impact a year or two down the line in terms of lower oil production. That is why I think that Campbell and Laherrère were right on in saying 2015, 2016 maybe, we will also start to see the rapid increase of production from the Bakken and the Eagle Ford here in the US start to flatten out. And probably within a year or two after that, we will see a commencement of a rapid decline…
Is peak oil a myth? Tell that to our local refineries who are experiencing the downslope of formerly abundant oil flowing through the  Alaska pipeline, and now must instead turn to the more expensive and problematic oil coming via trains from North Dakota.
The era of easy oil is over, and the prospect of oil trains, coal trains, and less tax revenue from oil companies are all signs that things are changing, and changing fast. This is what the first stages of energy depletion look like.

Swales Update: A Pulse of Snow and Rain Offer Good Chance to Observe and Interact


Good design depends on a free and harmonious relationship to nature and people, in which careful observation and thoughtful interaction provide the design inspiration, repertoire and patterns. It is not something that is generated in isolation, but through continuous and reciprocal interaction with the subject.

- David Holmgren, Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability


Getting about a foot of snow a week ago, then a few more inches this last weekend, followed by rain today offered a good opportunity to employ Permaculture Principle #1 with our swales: Observe and Interact.  Above, see the sun glistening on the snow that has blanketed our raised beds and berms between the swales.  Below, see one of our swales iced over.


Timeout for building a snowman (Permaculture Principle #12: Creatively Use and Respond to Change):


From PatternDynamics (TM) by Tim Winton

From PatternDynamics (TM) by Tim Winton


In PatternDynamics, we call this big influx of snow and rain a Pulse event. “The Pulse Pattern signifies  the repeated rhythmic surges of activity related to resource flows and exchanges.” – See more at:

Since installing our swales last summer, we have been mostly Observing how they’re behaving through the seasons.  Brian Kerkvliet advised that we might need to tweak them at some point for fine tuning.  In our last Swale post, Angela ended with this comment: “I’m excited to see how the swales work and to know that we can change them in subtle ways as the needs arise.”

Over time we have so far observed that the spillways at the end of each swale have not yet come into use.  The swales had not yet filled to the point of overflowing into the spillways.  We’ve been concerned that perhaps we need to dig the spillways down a little lower so that the swales could drain a bit, but we’ve been taking the Small and Slow Solutions approach (Principle #9), to just keep observing over time (for now).

Time to check in with the snowman again, and Observe how he’s reacting to a little bit of warmth. Our friend Sus observes: “This guy has so much class in all phases of life. I see him ecstatically surrendering to the sun.”


After the big pulse of snow started to melt…followed by more snow, and then more rain…we were eager to see again today how the swales are responding. For the first time, I noticed that the spillway of the 2nd swale has been operationalized! It is now spilling out into the yard below – with puddles beginning to form in the yard (where without the swales we would have a huge pond right now).  The first swale, however (pictured below), is still not emptying into it’s spillway.  Instead it seems to be overflowing at the other end (on the west side closest to the fence).  That area has the most clay soil, and water is pooling on the ground near our peach tree between the two swales (peach tree to the right in the photo below).


This next photo below shows the spillway from the first swale where water is not flowing. It has finally become clear to me that it is time to follow our Observations with some Interactions.


But first lets go back in time a few days and check back in on our snowman…ah, devolution. I think this is the Order/Chaos Pattern at play.


And now its finally time to go to work.  Going just a shovel length deep, I carved a deeper winding path in the spillway, and bingo! The water started to flow!


I used some of the soil dug from here to build up a little more berm on the west end of the swale where it was overflowing.  It will be interesting to continue the Observation tomorrow and in the days ahead to see the effect of my actions today.


It was very satisfying to see the water now flowing between the swales.


*All photos in this post by Angela (except the first snowman by David).  Snowman constructed by David

Nicole Foss on Deliberate Attempts to Cause System Failure

This post is a continuation of my series discussing David Holmgren’s Crash On Demand essay, and the multitude of responses that have popped up in the peak oil blogosphere.

One of those responses was by Nicole Foss, of The Automatic Earth. In fact her response was a long essay in its own right, which deserves to be read in its entirety: Crash on Demand? A Response to David Holmgren. In the middle of this long essay, Nicole Foss has a section that I’d like to quote at length. One of the unfortunate outcomes of long essays is that important ideas can get lost, and I want this to see the light of day.

I have previously pointed out (here and here) that David Holmgren was not directly advocating that people engage in activities for the purpose of crashing the economy. Rather he was appealing to those who do think that such an approach is appropriate – suggesting that the permaculture approach of withdrawing from the consumer economy and becoming more self-reliant might actually contribute more effectively to the end result of creating the kind of world we do want to live in, AND might also, by the way, hasten the crashing of the current economic system. In a recent interview, Holmgren stated: “…some people thought  I was advocating that the primary motivation for the sort of Permaculture strategies was actually to destroy the current economy. That’s not the purpose at all, but it’s a bizarre situation that we’ve got to, where the possibility of the success of that strategy would hasten what is an inevitable process, because generally the view is that these personal things that we do don’t really have any impact.”

Nevertheless, I think it is important to address this question – should we engage in deliberate attempts to bring the system down? I personally do not feel this to be a strategy that would be effective in the long term. This is a message I have tried to put out numerous times (for example here and here and here and here), but I think Nicole Foss says it better than I have ever been able to articulate. Perhaps she does not fully grasp the subtleties of Holmgren’s position that I’ve outlined above, but I appreciate the clarity of her own position. I am quoting at length to provide context – the important points I want to focus on are in the last three paragraphs:

Holmgren argues that collapse in fact offers the best way forward, that a reckoning postponed will be worse when the inevitable limit is finally reached. The longer the expansion phase of the cycle continues, the greater the debt mountain and the structural dependence on cheap energy become, and the more greenhouse gas emissions are produced. Considerable pain is inflicted on the masses by the attempt to sustain the unsustainable at any cost. If we need to learn to live within limits, we should do so sooner rather than later. Holmgren focuses particularly on the potential for collapse to sharply reduce emissions, thereby perhaps preventing the climate catastrophe built into the Brown Tech scenario.

He raises the possibility that concerted effort by a large enough minority of middle class westerners to convert from dependent consumers to independent producers could derail an already over-stretched and vulnerable financial system which requires perpetual growth to survive. He suggests that a 50% reduction in consumption and a 50% conversion of assets into building resilience by 10% of the population of developed countries would create a 5% reduction in demand and savings capital available for banks to lend.

An involuntary demand collapse is, in any case, characteristic of periods of economic depression. Conversion of assets from the virtual wealth of the financial world to something tangible would have to be done well in advance of financial crisis, as the value of purely financial assets is likely to evaporate in a large scale repricing event, leaving nothing to convert. There are far more financial assets that constitute claims to underlying real wealth than there is real wealth to be claimed, and only the early movers will be able to make a claim. This is already well underway among the elite who are aware that financial crisis is approaching. In a world where banks create money as debt at the stroke of a pen, a pool of savings is not actually necessary for lending. Lending rests to a much greater extent on the perception of risk in the financial system. The impacts of proposed actions would not be linear, as the financial system is not mechanistic, meaning that quantitative outcomes would not necessarily be predictable. Holmgren recognizes this in his acknowledgement that small changes in the balance of supply and demand can have a disproportionate impact on prices.

Holmgren realizes the risks inherent in explicitly advocating such an approach, both at a personal level and in terms of the permaculture movement as a whole. These concerns are very valid. Permaculture has a very positive image as a solution to the need for perpetual growth, and this might be put at risk if it became associated with any deliberate attempt to cause system failure. While I understand why Holmgren would open a discussion on this front, given what is at stake, it is indeed dangerous to ‘grasp the third rail’ in this way. This approach has some aspects in common with Deep Green Resistance, which also advocates bringing down the existing system, although in their case in a more overtly destructive manner. In a command economy scenario, which seems at least temporarily likely, such explicitly stated goals become the focus, regardless of the least-worst-option rationale and the positive means by which the goals are meant to be pursued. A movement best placed to make a difference could find itself demonized and its practices uncomprehendingly banned, which would be simply tragic.

Decentralization initiatives already face opposition, but this could become significantly worse if perceived to be even more of a direct threat to the establishment. While they hold the potential to render people who disengage from the larger system very much better off, on the grounds of increased self-reliance, they also hold the potential to make targets of the early adopters who would be required to lead the charge. Much better, in my opinion, to continue the good work with the declared, and entirely defensible, goals of building greater local resilience and security of supply while preserving and regenerating the natural world. While almost any form of advance preparation for a major crisis of civilization would have the side-effect of weakening an existing system that increasingly requires total buy-in, there is a difference between side-effect and stated goal.

The global financial system is teetering on the brink of a major crisis in any case. It does not need any action taken to bring it down as it has already had easily enough rope to hang itself. Inviting blame for an inevitable outcome seems somewhat reckless given the likelihood that many will be casting about for scapegoats. Holmgren argues that, as those who warn of a crash are likely to be blamed for causing it anyway, they might as well be proactive about it. Personally, I would rather not provide a convenient justification for misplaced blame.

- Nicole Foss: Crash on Demand? A Response to David Holmgren

Please read her complete essay here.

Enantiodromia Enantiodromia has been identified by PatternDynamics as a common system pattern.  The term was invented by Carl Jung  who observed that “the superabundance of any force inevitably produces its opposite.” In PatternDynamics it is described as “the force exerted by extreme movements on the emergence and growth of their opposites.” The extreme conditions brought about by climate change impacts can spur some groups of people to develop an extreme response, which will likely result in an even more extreme response by opposing groups. For an extreme example, imagine an activist blowing up train tracks in order to stop coal trains from delivering their cargo to an export terminal. The likely result would be a swing in public opinion in support of both the railroad and the export terminal. Most people would not be able to identify with that level of violence, and so would tend to identify with its opposite. As the Bible says, Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.

Although I thought Rob Hopkins’ response to the Holmgren essay was somewhat off the mark in its interpretation of Holmgren’s essay, he had an important point along these lines as well: “be careful what you wish for.” The Transition approach is still, for me, one that holds a lot of potential. The scale of changes needed calls for larger segments of society to come on board. The Transition Principle of Inclusion and Openness states, ““Successful Transition Initiatives need an unprecedented coming together of the broad diversity of society.” Hopkins’ follow-up piece, Reflections on Being a Cultural Optimist, is for me a stronger contribution to the Crash on Demand discussion. He writes:

Transition, for me, is in part about withdrawing our support from the existing, climate-destroying, fossil fuel-hungry beast, and transferring it to a new culture, a new economy, a new society.  It’s divestment writ large.  As Lipkis put it,

“I think we’ve been trained to spend time on these battles, on the negativity, and we lose people.  We’ve lost precious decades. The crash is on its way. We don’t have to do anything. We need the time to convert people and move people. From the experience of those of us who went through the ‘60s and ‘70s in protest movements, I don’t think that route’s going to succeed. If we focus on that our best leaders are going to end up in jail for too long.”

That’s why Transition, for me, is skilful.  It works at the local level, it is apolitical and therefore works beneath the radar, and it has the power to make what currently seems politically impossible become politically inevitable.

In my own “Integral Permaculture” approach, I have a high level of concern about the perilous state of the planet, and so I resonate with the concern and frustration of those who want to stop the destruction by any means necessary. However, like Hopkins and Foss, I believe positive actions are more effective strategies. The system is more likely to change course when a new and better paradigm is demonstrated. It is in this spirit that we strive for positive actions with both immediate and long term benefits.

The “us vs. them” approach is not working.  We’re all in this together now.


Permaculture Design Certificate Course at Inspiration Farm

Permaculture Design Certificate Course

Aug. 17th – 29th, 2014

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Brian Kerkvliet Brian Kerkvliet, Co-steward of Inspiration Farm and P.R.I. Certified permaculture designer.

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photo David MacLeod from Transition Whatcom (on Social Permaculture/Invisible Structures, and PatternDynamics – a new tool for creating systems level change, developed out of Permaculture, Systems Theory, Complexity Theory, and Integral Theory).

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Doug Bullock Doug Bullock, Washingtons premier permaculture designer and teacher.

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Alex Winstead Alex Winstead from Cascadia Mushrooms,

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Courses held at Inspiration Farm, an established 12 acre Permaculture / Biodynamic farm setting! Enrollment includes camping space and prepared wholesome beyond organic farm meals. Located in rural Whatcom County, just north of Bellingham, Washington, USA.

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David Holmgren: “I Haven’t Really Changed the Message”

I’m suggesting in my essay, the underling thing is an appeal to those people to come and join us in the positive side where we’re going to create the world we do want, whether or not it leads to a larger scale positive change, or whether or not it contributes to a crash.

- David Holmgren

It’s a great interview of David Holmgren by Steffan Geyer on his show “21st Century Permaculture!” broadcast by Shoreditch Community Radio. The “classic retro funk” mixed in is an added bonus. The interview is now being streamed at Mixcloud here.

The interview focuses on the hubub that has surrounded Holmgen’s Crash on Demand essay, and I’m very pleased (and relieved) to report that my interpretation (What Is David Holmgren Really Telling Us?) was apparently spot on.


Here are a couple of excerpts I’ve transcribed from the interview:

David Holmgren:
I’m fairly pleased with the response [to the essay] – the fact that it’s created quite a lot of discussion, and triggered a lot of more nuanced thinking about ranges around ‘Future Scenarios.’ Albert Bates’ slightly  lighthearted work on this, where he shifted me from an optimistic ecotopian view to a pessimistic collapsnik. …well, I didn’t agree with that at all, in that I’ve always had a mixture of the two, and I don’t think I’ve particularly changed my position. But in speaking of permaculture as a positive response of creating the world we do want, whether or not it leads to, if you like, ecological salvation for humanity, just that positive, can do, ‘we’re going to do this anyway’ – it sort of put me in a box, I suppose, naturally enough with Rob Hopkins, but also surprisingly techno-optimists like Amory Lovins, and even people imagining techno utopias. Whereas, I’ve always had this permaculture view which has been framed against a fairly dark view of the state of the world and likely possibilities, but a positive view about what  personal, household, and community action can be in the context of that world.

Steffen Geyer [I think he's referring to my post]:
Some people have actually commented that you’re advocating something very similar to what you advocated in Permaculture One, and that you’ve been doing that the whole time in your work, and there’s actually not much of a departure. It’s just a little bit more explicitly said.

David Holmgren:
Yeah, that’s pretty much it! I’ve always been skeptical about the ability to say “What we’re doing in Permaculture might be useful at some local scale, but it only becomes useful when it leads to some large scale societal change.” Another step in that assumption is that large scale societal change will inevitably come by the powers that be, pulling the levers at the top of the system in the right way to give us the policies to restructure the economy and restructure things you can’t do at the household level. I’ve always seen that as a very limited, what I call “old fashioned” view of political change.

Because Permaculture’s never been cast as you say as a revolution, it’s really been cast as gardening; that a lot of the actions have then been acceptable to a lot of people, because you don’t have to buy in to an idealogical view of the world to see the benefit in some Permaculture strategies and techniques, and the common sense behind a lot of the principles. The fact that those things are actually subversive to the sort of economy and power structures we have, is not necessarily self evident or important to most people. It does this work for them, it’s useful, it seems fairly benign, and it has multiple benefits. That is a real and true basis for Permaculture, but Mollison and I were never under any illusion that the widespread adoption of this would sort of overturn the power structures in society in the process of getting us in line with the limits that nature ultimately imposes on human systems.

Those limits will and are being imposed, and we can sort of go with the flow of that or we can resist it.  So I haven’t really changed the message, but in a public sense, and of course the blogosphere, the internet, allows one to be very public, and I did choose words fairly carefully with the Crash on Demand essay, and I can see how some people thought  I was advocating that the primary motivation for the sort of Permaculture strategies was actually to destroy the current economy. That’s not the purpose at all, but it’s a bizarre situation that we’ve got to, where the possibility of the success of that strategy would hasten what is an inevitable process, because generally the view is that these personal things that we do don’t really have any impact.

I suppose I have, increasingly in recent years, started to articulate Permaculture as a political strategy back to people who are of that ilk – activists who are desperately trying to change the structures of society around both equity issues and environmental limits. A lot of them see Permaculture as just a sideshow, or maybe as something good, but not really important. As their world is progressively unraveling… what I mean by ‘their world’ is the faith that it is possible to martial rational evidence, influence enough policy and powerful people that the inevitability and the logic of the changes that we’re proposing will prevail through some sort of orderly process. That is unraveling. Large numbers of people in that field, I believe, will give up – are giving up – especially on the climate front. These are people who’ve had enormous energy and commitment, they’re not your average Joe-blow citizen, they’re people who are empowered, who’ve put massive personal energy into these things. As that community and psychology falls apart, …I’m suggesting in my essay, the underling thing is an appeal to those people to come and join us in the positive side where we’re going to create the world we do want, whether or not it leads to a larger scale positive change, or whether or not it contributes to a crash.

But interestingly, when people have this belief that it’s possible to bring about this larger change, and that faith is lost, there’s a few places people go. One is toward a sort of catatonic disconnection and dysfunction, or just total burnout.  Another place where a minority will tend to go is back to the old hard revolutionary movement -that we’ve got to have in the end violence to bring the system to an end.  I think people have, at a lot of levels, misunderstood my essay, because part of what I’m doing is appealing to those people to come and join us on this side of the fence. And one of the arguments is yes, one of the effects of a change in behavior by a small proportion of the world’s global middle class could actually bring the system down. And that idea is attractive to people who have lost all hope for that sort of change. It’s not actually a motivation for me, and I don’t think it’s a motivation for most people involved in Permaculture. But for those sorts of people, it’s actually a safer place than ending up on the track of the Unibomber.

Because we don’t need many prominent ex-environmentalists and social justice advocates to end up in that active violence against the system to have really severe demonization and lockdown of the positive movements we’re talking about. And I think that’s an aspect that hasn’t so much come out in the discussion around the essay. Though I think there’s been some very good and useful discussion, and good points made by almost everyone who’s commentated on it.

A couple of things.  First, I really appreciate that Holmgren acknowledges that a lot of good points were made by almost everyone who’s commented on his essay.  I think it’s important to see all the posts as a friendly discussion sharing important perspectives, all of which are worthwhile to hear and to discuss – rather than framing this as an acrimonious debate.

Second, I appreciate the important point about the potential negative impacts of more violent responses.

In future posts I hope to explore both of these last two topics, and I hope to employ some examples of using PatternDynamics in the process.

David Holmgren Responds to “Crash on Demand” Discussion

I’m looking forward to hearing David Holmgren in his own words on this radio interview on Sunday, Feb. 2nd.  He’ll be answering  some of the questions raised in the recent debate on his essay “Crash on Demand.“ 8pm London time, I believe that’s Noon PMT, where I am in Northwest Washington.

Here’s what was posted on Holmgren’s site. I love the radio image, which underscores Holmgren’s adage “When using high technology, avoid using state of the art equipment”:

radio_barmaya-300x203The other day David Holmgren was interviewed by Steffen Geyer from the radio show, “21st Century Permaculture” answering  some of the questions raised by the fellow travellers in the recent debate on his essay “Crash on Demand“.

The interview is scheduled to go to air on Shoreditch community radio in London this Sunday [Feb. 2, 2014] at 8pm. If you are not in London, you can listen to it via the station’s website. We will be getting up early at 7am Feb 3 Monday morning (AEDT zone) to listen to the program, no doubt.

If you are in any other time zone,  convert your local time and tune in. [12:00pm, PST in Seattle]

Facebook event page of the radio show.