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.


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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.

[*Update 8/06/14*: After you’ve read the above 24 page essay, you might want to also consult the single page Crash On Demand: Concise Version which clarifies and attempts to answer questions, such as “Is David saying that the system will crash anyway and by scaling up permaculture activities will fasten the inevitable, or is he really calling for non-violent efforts to crash the economic system,  to save the planet, or is he not calling for that?” Again, it is recommend that you to read the original essay first. Hopefully this post, as well as my “What is David Holmgren Really Telling Us” and “David Holmgren: I Haven’t Really Changed My Message” posts will also answer these questions.]

Related, on Integral Permaculture:

David Holmgren 2011 Interview: Strategies for the Transition
Nicole Foss on Deliberate Attempts to Cause System Failure

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.