Chaos, Havoc, and The American Abyss

“If a path to the better there be, it begins with a full look at the worst.” – Thomas Hardy

In the final days before the 2016 American presidential election the pundits were out in force, engaged in collective hand-wringing.  Glancing through lists of commentaries and op-eds, here are some of the titles:

Don’t Trust the Future to President Havoc, America and the Abyss, An Order of Chaos, Please, Venomous 2016 Race Slithers to a Finish, Who Broke Politics?, Democracy’s Majesty and 2016’s Indignity, Final Days – Awful Choice, Europe on Pins and Needles, The First 100 Horrific Days of a Trump Presidency, America’s Descent into Banana Republican-ism, An Election is Not a Suicide Mission, Liberals Cried Wolf about Bush and Romney and We Were Wrong – Fascist Trump is Different, and The Post-Truth Presidency.

How did it come to this? And where are we headed after the election?

Many have speculated on the reasons for the current crisis in American politics, and surely there are many facets that have played a part, and there are many angles to cover.  Richard Heinberg’s recent analysis (An Order of Chaos, Please) covers much of the same ground  I was intending to cover here, and serves as a good introduction.  He begins by disabusing us of the notion that things will return to normal once the election cycle has concluded. He then shares the somewhat conventional wisdom that many Americans these days, formerly of the middle class, do not have things as well as their parents did. The “wage class” has declined in both income and political power, thanks in part to globalization and other forces. Backs are up against the wall, and people are ready for change. The same-old, same-old doesn’t cut it.

collapse

Heinberg then takes it a step further, telling us that “American civilization was destined to unravel anyway.” He mentions Joseph Tainter’s work, “The Collapse of Complex Societies,”  and offers the sobering analysis that “social pressures from unsustainable debt levels, increasing inequality, and rampant corruption” are the new normal, thanks to “deeper infrastructural issues having to do with resource depletion, pollution (in the form of climate change), and the essential unsustainability of economic growth.” The current election cycle is merely the prelude to an unfolding spectacle of America’s fabric coming apart.

Heinberg eloquently sums up the depressing scenario that seems all too likely:

“The government of the United States of America has developed increasing numbers of tics, limps, and embarrassing cognitive lapses during the past ten or 15 years, but it has managed to go on with the show. Yet as dysfunction snowballs, a maintenance crisis becomes inevitable at some point. When the crunch comes (most likely as a result of the next cyclical economic downturn, which is already overdue and could be much worse than that of 2008), we will reap the fruits of a system that is simply no longer capable of acting cooperatively to solve problems.”

“…The nightmare of the election itself will end soon.  But we may not like what we wake up to.”

Indeed. We are now being forced to wake up today to a Trump presidency and a divided country.

There is another writer who had a perspective that I have found to be unique, timely, and insightful. His name is Peter Pogany.  One of his last major papers, written in 2013 (Thermodynamic Isolation and the New World Order) before he passed in 2014, was about havoc, chaos, and the abyss, and it was turned into a book published in 2015: Havoc, Thy Name is 21st Century.

Havoc

As dismal as his short term outlook was, Pogany wasn’t all doom and gloom. Like Michael Dowd, Pogany was a short term pessimist, but a long term optimist (Dowd calls himself an “apocaloptimist,” listen to his interview discussing with Terry Patten The New Ten Commandments and the Coming Apocaloptimism here).

Pogany was an economist who saw that “a stagnating economy is civil discontent waiting to happen – especially at a time when government spending must be curbed.” Our current world economy is structured so that it requires continued growth at unsustainable rates just to maintain our standard of living.  We’ve hit the wall, and the wage class around the world is responding – Brexit and President-elect Donald Trump are two corresponding results. According to Pogany, the world is in the beginning phase of a “nonlinear macrohistoric episode” – a chaotic transition, which he saw as a necessity to precipitate a crisis of consciousness that would eventually lead to the wide-spread “integral a-rational” consciousness structure, as based on the thinking of cultural philosopher Jean Gebser

“What will it take to go from considering tightened modes of multilateral governance a monstrous dystopia to people around the world on their knees begging for a planetary Magna Carta that is more detailed, focused and enforceable than the United Nations Charter of 1945? It will take nothing less than a mutation in consciousness, as outlined by the Swiss thinker, Jean Gebser (1905-1973). But a mutation of the implied magnitude amounts to nothing less than a break with centuries of ingrained habits, values, and expectations. It is simply inconceivable without the hard fate of macrohistoric turmoil.”

Darkness must come before a new dawn. It is Pogany’s work that we’ll continue to discuss in more detail in posts to come. An overview of his work can be found on our Peter Pogany page. Many of his older essays are archived at Resilience.org here.

Read Part 2 of this series here: Consciousness and the New World Order

Advertisements

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.

 

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.

David_Holmgren

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.

What is David Holmgren Really Telling Us?

David Holmgren’s latest essay, Crash on Demand, appeared on his website initially with little fanfare in December.  My post (Crash on Demand: David Holmgren Updates His Future Scenarios) was perhaps the first online response (posted December 17th).

Now the peak-oil blogosphere is roiling with commentary, with lots of different positions being staked out.  Jason Heppenstal characterizes Holmgren’s position as advocating “any means necessary” to protect life on earth.

Nicole Foss at The Automatic Earth mostly supports Holmgren’s position, but offers her own lengthy essay to stake out her nuanced position.

Rob Hopkins at Transition Culture, taking on one of his heroes, calls Holmgren “naive and irresponsible” and then quotes Nicole Foss out of context to boot. Guy McPherson was (apparently) even less kind to Foss. Kevin O’Conner at C-Realm calls him out on it and sets the record straight.

Joanne Poyourow at Transition U.S. in turn seems to imply that Hopkins is beginning to paint himself into the Green Tech Stability scenario, rather than that of Energy Descent (Steady State folk then claim they are misrepresented).  She is careful to make her position clear: “I am not advocating for intentionally creating an economic crash.”

Then legendary permaculture activist Albert Bates offered up convenient charts so that we can see where all of our favorite Collapseniks fall into his 4 quadrant map. Do they lean toward Ecotopia or Collapse, toward Peaceful Transformation or Violent Revolution? He shows Holmgren moving from Techno-optimist into the “Violent Revolution” quadrant, which I would strongly challenge.  Bates later clarified that the “Violent Revolution” tag is not meant to mean physical violence necessarily, but those “willing to push the agenda with acts of defiance of state authority.” Nevertheless, that nuance is easily lost when just looking at the chart.

Finally (so far), Dimitry Orlov has joined the fray, claiming that Holmgren has “proposed a new approach” because previous mainstream environmentalist strategies (including the Transition Towns movement) have had such a negligible effect.

For me, all of the commentators named above have valid points and important perspectives that are good to hear. However, it is very easy to misrepresent the views of the people being responded to…as I’ve likely unintentionally done above.  I will be attempting to sort some of this out in a series of posts.

Today I want to discuss my contention that  most of the writers named above, whom I have a great deal of respect for, seem to me to be missing the nuance of David Holmgren’s thinking.  These deficient interpretations then are stretched and amplified as they bounce off one another in the blogosphere.  No one seems to be noticing that the actual actions Holmgren recommends haven’t changed much since he wrote Permaculture One in 1978.

I hope I’m forgiven for using extended quotes in an attempt to make things more clear.

For example, here is David Holmgren in 1994, concluding an essay titled “Energy and Permaculture“:

To summarize…

  • Reduce, Reuse, Recycle (in that order).
  • Grow a garden and eat what it produces.
  • Avoid imported resources where possible.
  • Use labor and skill in preference to materials and technology.
  • Design, build, and purchase for durability and repairability.
  • Use resources for their greatest potential use (e.g. electricity for tools and lighting,
    food scraps for animal feed).
  • Use renewable resources wherever possible even if local environmental costs appear higher (e.g. wood rather than electricity for fuel and timber rather than steel for construction).
  • Use non-renewable and embodied energies primarily to establish sustainable systems
    (e.g. passive solar housing, food gardens, water storage, forests).
  • When using high technology (e.g. computers) avoid using state of the art equipment.
  • Avoid debt and long-distance commuting.
  • Reduce taxation by earning less.
  • Develop a home-based lifestyle, be domestically responsible.

And here is part of his introduction in last month’s Crash On Demand:

My argument is essentially that radical, but achievable, behaviour change from dependent consumers to responsible self-reliant producers (by some relatively small minority of the global middle class) has a chance of stopping the juggernaut of consumer capitalism from driving the world over the climate change cliff.  It maybe a slim chance, but a better bet than current herculean efforts to get the elites to pull the right policy levers; whether by sweet promises of green tech profits or alternatively threats from mass movements shouting for less consumption.

It’s the same strategy advocated in both papers: Move from being “dependent consumers to responsible self-reliant producers.”  The only thing that has changed is that he’s now also saying, (I’m paraphrasing), “by the way, engaging in this behavior just might help crash the system a little bit sooner.”   It seems to me that this invitation is designed to bring into the permaculture fold the environmental activists that are already attempting to avert climate catastrophe by ever more defiant or desperate means – from McKibben campaigning against private oil companies (see my post here) to Klein calling for revolt (see my post here) to Jensen who claims that “the task of an activist is to confront and take down systems of oppressive power.” (see my post here).

Holmgren writes, “disillusioned social and political activists are just starting to recognize Permaculture as a potentially effective pathway for social change as 20th century style mass movements seem to have lost their potency.”

Their methods are not showing to be effective, whereas the Permaculture/Transition approach will not only put them and their community in a more secure position, it just might also “have a chance of stopping the juggernaut of consumer capitalism from driving the world over the climate change cliff.”

And yet, the way Holmgren’s position is being presented in the blogs, you might think he was saying the opposite. Such was the impression of Lou, who left this comment on Hopkins’ blog:

If you agree with David [Holmgren] come and join us at [Deep Green Resistance link]…

Holmgren states up front in the introduction that “this provocative idea is intended to increase understanding.” This indicates to me that he’s using the suggestion at least partially as a rhetorical device.

On page 14, Holmgren writes:

An argument can be mounted for putting effort into precipitating that crash, the crash of the financial system. Any such plan would of course invite being blamed for causing it when it happens.

Note that he doesn’t mount the argument, he instead, choosing his words carefully, says “an argument can be mounted.”  Then, a few paragraphs later:

Before considering whether this is a good idea or not, I want to consider whether concerted action by limited number of activists could bring it about?

He has still not decided whether this thought experiment is a good idea or not. Now notice the nuance in Holmgren’s words as he concludes Crash on Demand:

Conclusion

Mass movements to get governments to institute change have been losing efficacy for decades, while a mass movement calling for less seems like a hopeless case. Similarly boycotts of particular governments, companies and products simply change the consumption problems into new forms.

I believe that actively building parallel and largely non-monetary household and local community economies with as little as 10% of the population has the potential to function as a deep systemic boycott of the centralized systems as a whole, that could lead to more than 5% contraction in the centralized economies. Whether this became the straw that broke the back of the global financial system or a tipping point, no one could ever say, even after the event.

Discussing such possibilities may be counterproductive and may brand us as crazy people, a doomsday cult or even terrorists. Maybe it is better to keep focusing on the positive aspects of these bottom up changes that are acceptable to the average citizen, better physical and mental health, more fun and empowered children who can survive and thrive in a world of dramatic transformation, while minimizing our contribution to harm to nature and others.

On the other hand, bringing these issues out in the open might inspire desperate climate and political activists to put their substantial energy into permaculture, Transition Towns, voluntary frugality, and other aspects of positive environmentalism. It just might stop the monster of global growth after all other options have been exhausted. Rather than spurning financial system terrorists, we would welcome the impacted and vulnerable to the growing ranks of terra-ists with their hands in the soil.

Did you notice that Holmgren begins by pointing out the ineffectiveness of traditional activism (much as Hopkins does here). He then acknowledges that his provocative suggestion that “reducing consumption and capital enough to crash the fragile  global financial system” might actually be counterproductive. “Maybe it is better to keep focusing on the positive aspects of these bottom up changes…”  Here he seems to back away a little from the idea of intentionally crashing the economy, coming back around to his common Permaculture message of the past 30 years.

And then he tells us why he offered the suggestion in the first place: to inspire activists “to put their energy into permaculture, Transition Towns…and other aspects of positive environmentalism.”

He’s not a terrorist after all – he’s the same “terra-ist” he’s been all along. He’s not inviting us to take to the streets, but rather to put our “hands in the soil.”

Like Joanne Poyourow, I want to make it clear that I do not support the idea of intentionally creating an economic crash.  We’ll go into this in the next post as we look at Nicole Foss’s own thoughtful essay.

shop_principles_800s-400x400My deepest hope is that after all this discussion ABOUT Holmgren’s ideas, that people will actually read his work, especially Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. The theme of the book is energy descent, the same theme as the latest paper. The book rises above any particular strategies associated with Permaculture and offers broad principles that can be applied at any scale to the problems of a society that has reached the limits of growth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[*Update 8/06/14*: After you’ve read Crash On Demand, 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?” Hopefully this post, as well as my blog posts “Crash on Demand and “David Holmgren: I Haven’t Really Changed My Message” 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 2011 Interview: Strategies for the Transition

The peak oil blogosphere is currently awash with responses to David Holmgren’s latest essay Crash on Demand (which I wrote about here on December 17th).  The distortion of his views seems to be increasing with each post, in my view.

In my reply to Dimitry Orlov, I wrote:

No one seems to be noticing that he [Holmgren] did not propose a new approach at all. He is still advocating for the same approach he’s written about for the last 30 years: reduce consumption and be domestically responsible. I don’t agree with the huge shift in [Holmgren’s] position that Albert  [Bates] has put on his chart. The only difference is that this time he has associated his suggested strategies with the idea that if enough people put them into practice, it just might tip the already fragile global finance system over the edge. I think he’s throwing this idea out there primarily to attract what he calls “the disillusioned social and political activists who are just starting to recognize Permaculture as a potentially effective pathway for social change.”

Stay tuned – I’ll have more to say very soon, as I’m preparing  a new post on the subject.  In the meantime, I thought I’d share an interview with Holmgren that took place in 2011.  Below the video are my notes…I call them “notes” rather than a transcript, because they are not 100% verbatum.

Interview of David Holmgren by Luke Miller Callahan at Groaction.com.

The Upcoming Transition Away From a Fossil Fuel Based Society: David Holmgren Talks Strategy

2011 GroAction Interview with Luke Miller Callahan
http://groaction.com/discover/3110/david-holmgren-interview-permaculture-principles/

How Do You Spend Your Time?

1/3 time spent on home based self-reliance and local community
1/3 time spent speaking and teaching
1/3 time spent on research, especially “over the horizon” research on the world we are moving into.
Enjoys the balance of doing hands on work and conveying the big picture of where we’re heading in the world to people, to empower them to do things with their hands.

Empowering People to Do the Small, Local, Bottom Up Actions

I think that, while the big political movement stuff is always going to be in some ways more exciting – and there’s certainly some exciting aspects of that emerging in the world now around the notion of demanding that someone do something, I don’t think those things really help change the structure much, unless people are also making the changes themselves.  Because the changes people make themselves are double insurance – they are insurance against dysfunctional or anti-social behavior by elites (and there’s certainly plenty of evidence for that), but they’re also the way we model the world that we’re actually wanting to be, because in a lot of ways it’s a matter of being able to crawl before you walk. The sort of world we’re trying to construct, I think it’s actually impossible to construct that top-down. It has to actually be rebuilt bottom up, in parallel with the crumbling system. And then as those models become more real, it’s possible to get some degree of top-down reform/support for those things. But if they don’t actually exist, if we don’t have the working, living solutions, then it’s very hard for policymakers to say “Yes, we’ll have more of that, and less of that.” They can’t actually create the things we need. The things we need are all very small, localized, particular, and large scale systems just can’t do that.

Do the systems in place now need to come down?

Things develop in parallel to a fair degree and there’s an ambiguity between how much needs to be rebuilt from scratch, and how much is a matter of reform. The old debate between reform or revolution. Permaculture comes from the premise that you’ve got to design from first principles. A whole lot of the ground design principles built into our society, which have been functional in the past, aren’t functional in the future, and you can’t necessarily just modify them beyond certain limits. Example: material growth is very much built into the foundations of the system we’ve got. In regards to climate change, we know that a proven strategy to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is to contract the economy, but no one ever discusses it as a serious strategy. That tells us how deeply committed our system is to perpetual growth. So it’s hard to know at what point that could actually be part of a serious discussion at the levels of policy. I suspect it’s not really possible. There’s always got to be this fabrication – oh yes, we’re going to reduce our impact on the environment by all sorts of means, but we’re not going to question growth…even when the evidence is that that growth is not occurring…

Faith in People

It doesn’t mean that the situation is hopeless for the possibility of positive things coming out of a national level or an international level.  But the assumption is, that because those are big and powerful systems, and because we need positive change very fast, that that is the predominant place we have to have faith in. I think the reverse is true. The predominant place we have to have faith in is for the ability of people, as like fast moving intelligent new life forms, like the early mammals replacing the dinosaurs. That humans individually and collectively without rigid institutional structures can think on their feet, and can incorporate both the long term vision stuff that we associate with big institutions and long term planning – that humans are actually capable of that… We’re capable of responding to the immediate environment around us in ways that institutions can never be capable of, but we’re also capable of some of those things that we associate with institutional capacity – the long term wisdom and ability to understand complexity. And maybe that’s part of the inheritance of the modern world, because people in the past didn’t necessarily  have that on an individual basis. But it is possible now if people want to look and learn for humans as individuals and communities and families to have virtually the intelligence that we previously associated with institutions and societies.

Crisis as an Opportunity

Any system that has rigidity in its structure around past, proven ways of doing things is obviously reluctant to change out of those patterns. It takes a big shock break that apart. We know that occurs in nature, we know that occurs in our own lives, the way a health crisis can trigger a reorganization of our lives, and we can see that happening in society around us… The crisis becomes an opportunity to leverage the system in certain ways…Interest in things like Permaculture is counter-cyclical to the economy…focus changes to family, connection to nature, basic needs…It’s not that they run and change, but they turn their heads in a different direction.

Effects of Peak Oil

Of course, crises can unfold in different ways. You mentioned peak oil. A lot of peak oil researchers tended to think that that would come through astronomical prices for oil. Recent evidence suggests the current economy can’t cope with oil prices much higher than they are now, because it produces recession if not depression. Rather than seeing astronomical oil prices – which is imaginable in a world structured very differently from ours – our current economy depends on oil being very cheap. It is quite surprising the way that comes about. People think energy and food will become more expensive, and therefore those things won’t be available…What’s often missed is that long before there’s no food in the supermarket, all of the discretionary, luxury, service parts of the economy have contracted back, and energy and food are still available, because you’ve gotten rid of all the other stuff. When things contract, you dispense with the luxuries, the extras. And of course, that’s what most of our economy is.

…Although the strategies of people growing their own food are important, they’re not important in the way that some simple survivalist motivation that might drive some people to do that. They’re really around a reconnection around a more frugal, simple way of living where you can provide for some of your own needs and reserve the money you have for the things you can’t produce yourself. Historically, people growing their own veggies is one of the things people can do for themselves. Beyond food, it’s about having some skill that you can trade with some other person. Whereas a lot of people have skills that can only be bought by a large institution like a bank or a corporation or government department…Whereas, if you know how to fix cars – and that might be counter-intuitive, because you think there are going to be less cars driving around – that might be true, but there might be more old cars that need to be repaired, rather than new cars that don’t need repair. So skills as a mechanic is a tradable skill for self-reliance, maybe almost as much as being able to grow food and have a surplus to provide for others.

Retrofitting the Suburbs for Sustainability

There is an assumption that modern life is about movement from one place to another each day, and that it is a completely natural experience…and that to be a member of society, that’s what you have to do. Whereas, a normal society operating with limited energy will have most things done where people live.  Some people will move each day, but a much, much smaller proportion. What that really means is that the places where people are living, and especially in our car based societies with their extensive suburbs – that is, these spread out areas of suburban development and small towns – that’s where we have to re-create the economic activity so that we don’t need to move, rather than the notion that we just need efficient forms of transport. Efficient forms of public transport would be lovely to have, but we are moving into the crisis so fast that a lot of what we’ll have to do is adapt in place of where we are.

I’ve been for many years an advocate of the idea that the suburbs, rather coming to an end, as suggested in the pioneering peak oil movie “The End of Suburbia,” is a place that is adaptable (in a counter-intuitive way) to a low energy future. This is partly because of an accident of history – certainly not  to do with sensible planning and forethought, but I don’t think the prognosis for suburbia are as bad as people suggest; on the contrary, the idea that dense urban cities are more efficient, is, I think, questionable, if not dangerous in a world of serious energy descent.

What Will the Transition to Self-Sufficient Suburbs Look Like?

It will happen at a number of levels. Firstly, because it can be started incrementally, you can start with one household garden within the limits or under the radar of regulations and social censure from neighbors – without having to get the whole of society to agree. When you’re in a multi-story apartment, there’s a very limited number of things you can do until everyone in that apartment or whoever owns it agrees.  So the piecemeal nature of suburbia allows models to develop ahead of when society understands it needs to do this…Secondly, the level of space that exists give a lot of opportunities to start productive activities…Thirdly, shared households and having boarders can create economies of scale in the household economy…

The Biggest Barriers to Retrofitting the Suburbs

A lot of people have moved beyond the obvious barriers, such as pride of individual ownership, and always wanting the better and bigger for themselves. But other barriers remain:

1)      The degree of disconnection between neighbors and the regulatory structure of sharing households, mother-in-law apartments, etc.

2)      The sense of privacy and psycho-social aspects of sharing housing. We are uncomfortable in exercising power – what if I have to ask my tenant to leave?

Indebtedness

In a counter-intuitive way, the loss of asset-values is actually what is needed to bring the values of real estate down to where it’s possible for people to actually live in those places without enormous debt. Some of that, of course, is tragedy for current owners, but might actually be opportunities for others who currently don’t own. In a world where houses might end up at 20% of their past values, then people might be able to contemplate very frugal living with minimal income to support being a…[?]

Suburbia is not just going to disappear overnight…it’s going to be sitting there, and somethings going to be done with it, people are going to be living there some way or other. We’re not going to transform our cities overnight, we’re going to transform our behavior overnight.

Agriculture

The current industrial food supply will not be abandoned soon. To build the parallel system, the backyard garden agriculture to provide a part of people’s food needs is the breeding ground for a new generation of farmers – that is one of its prime functions, where a small percentage of people learn to become quite good at it, and start to do it commercially, and then the open space in our cities starts to become converted into urban agriculture. Managed animals will be used in urban areas for landscape management and dairy products. There is a big opportunity in the tree crop realm – much more of our diet could come from tree crops rather than field crops.

Preparing Society

What we need most is examples of surviving and thriving doing these things, so that other people can see that those people are doing well. And those people need to be organized enough so that they can pass on something of value – “here are some seeds, here’s a garden fork.” Being able to offer what is needed to replicate the success. You can’t get replication unless you have lots of local, working examples. They need to be local examples – nature changes from one place to another very, very fast – you can’t just download all the standardized information off the internet as a global set of information.

The Transition Movement and the Permablitz

The Transition movement is very much founded and based on Permaculture design principles, and is an attempt to do this in a more organized way. There’s been a lot of criticisms about the weakness of those efforts compared with the scale of the problem, but it also has been more than an attempt to actually bring these issues beyond arm-chair discussions to active engagement in the community.

The Permablitz idea started locally, and this concept has spread around the world informally, and locally more formally with funding… The positive, “get in and do it” stuff is one of the strongest motivators for a lot of people, rather than “The Grand Plan.”

Energy Descent Action Planning

But I think there’s also been efforts, and I’ve been involved myself locally, with the idea that’s come through Transition, with the idea of what’s called the Energy Descent Action Plan, or Energy Descent Action Planning, where we could do this in a slightly less chaotic and more planned way. But, my comment on that is that what that requires is a very, very different sort of thinking than what is characterized as local government or community planning in the past. Not just because the things we need to do are different, but because we have to give up that idea that we can lay it all out as a plan, and we have the resources and the budgeting and then we will just implement it. It’s much more chaotic than that.

We’ve suggested there are three broad levels in the process. The first is what we call the No Regrets Actions.  Things like “why don’t we plan a garden?”  Good idea anyway, not a big investment or cost or difficulty, and maybe really useful.

Then there is the Long Term Investment Actions. It might be putting photovoltaics on the roofs or planting food trees in the public streets. Something that does involve more substantial investment and a deferred benefit in the future mostly.

Third, the Responding to Crisis Actions. The opportunities that come from chaotic and unpredictable change, whether natural disasters, financial disruptions, or shortages of oil – whatever it is, those things that break the system.

Chaotic Change

Environmental activists have been very polite and not pointing out when natural disasters are immediately happening (“well, this is what climate change looks like”). Big disasters are also an opportunity to leverage change in the way people see things. That’s when people do change. Most people don’t change when things are just trickling along, getting slowly a bit more difficult.

It’s about society reading signs around it that it needs to change, and that change is coming. We have all sorts of interpretations about why that might be. I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone to believe in climate change or peak oil to start to behave sensibly, to look after their own interests and the interests of their children and grandchildren.  An understanding of peak oil and climate change certainly helps to understand the complexities that are unraveling in the world, but I’ve argued quite strongly that it doesn’t really matter whether these crises are caused by geological climatic realities, or whether they’re caused by evil actors, or whether they’re caused by a God who is punishing us for our sins. It all means we’ve actually got to change what we’re doing.

So I’m sort of ambivalent about that issue of the first thing is to hammer into people that they’ve got to accept a particular explanation of what’s going on in the world. I don’t think that is necessary.

Crash on Demand: David Holmgren updates his Future Scenarios

Future ScenariosDavid Holmgren, co-originator of the Permaculture concept, published Future Scenarios in 2007, originally as a website, and then published by Chelsea Green in 2008 as a small book (126 pages). He explores four possible human futures as the two great crises of Peak Oil and Climate Change converge into what he has coined our energy descent future.  In my view, this is essential reading. Adam Grubb, founder of Energy Bulletin, characterized it like this:

These aren’t two-dimensional nightmarish scenarios designed to scare people into environmental action. They are compellingly fleshed-out visions of quite plausible alternative futures, which delve into energy, politics, agriculture, social, and even spiritual trends. What they do help make clear are the best strategies for preparing for and adapting to these possible futures.

Three years later, in 2010, Holmgren contributed an additional important essay, Money Vs. Fossil Energy: The Battle for Control of the World. Holmgren describes this essay as “a framework for understanding the ideological roots of the current global crisis that I believe is more useful than the now tired Left Right political spectrum.”  Like all of his work, it is based on a profound energetic literacy, and is quite startling and original, and “challenges much of the strategic logic behind current mainstream climate change activism.”

A year ago, in a December 2012 interview, Holmgren was asked:

What do you see as the biggest challenges in our struggle to control our resources today?

His Answer:

After a lifetime of focusing on the biological basis for existence, and then the energetic basis, I’ve now become more and more interested in money, ironically, after ignoring it for most of my life. On the downside of the energy peak, it’s actually the bubble economies that can unravel so fast, that become almost the most important thing in shaping the immediate future. That bubble economy is, of course, actually falling apart right now. So a lot of the mainstream sustainability strategies assume we have a growing and steady economy. Permaculture works from the basis that we can adapt and do these adaptions in an ad-hoc way from the bottom up, and we’ve been doing that essentially for 30 years without the support of government and corporations. I’m not saying that we’ve got all the answers, but there’s a lot of people out there who are modeling and have been modeling how creative responses are going to happen.

David Holmgren

David Holmgren

The 2013 Update

And now a year later, as 2013 draws to a close, David Holmgren has published a new essay (a 24 page pdf download), which is an update of Future Scenarios, builds on Money Vs. Fossil Fuels, and expands his new focus on money and economy.  The essay is titled Crash on Demand: Welcome to the Brown Tech Future.

energy_descent_scenarios-300x207

Six years on, of the four scenarios outlined in Future Scenarios, Holmgren is seeing the Brown Tech scenario as the one currently in play, where the decline of fossil fuels unfolds slowly, “but the severity of global warming symptoms is at the extreme end of current mainstream scientific predictions.” The political system is Corporatist, and emphasis is placed on replacing declining conventional fossil fuels with lower grade fossil fuels, which are both more expensive and also release more GGE (Greenhouse Gas Emissions), which exacerbates Climate Change even further. The introduction to this essay states:

David’s argument is essentially that radical, but achievable, behaviour change from dependent consumers to responsible self-reliant producers (by some relatively small minority of the global middle class) has a chance of stopping the juggernaut of consumer capitalism from driving the world over the climate change cliff.  It maybe a slim chance, but a better bet than current herculean efforts to get the elites to pull the right policy levers; whether by sweet promises of green tech profits or alternatively threats from mass movements shouting for less consumption.

browntech_logosmlw_bt

In the extensive discussions about money and economy, the influence of systems analyst Nicole Foss (Stoneleigh -The Automatic Earth) and economist Steve Keen (Debt Deflation) are strong and freely acknowledged. Holmgren believes that deflationary economics is the most powerful factor shaping our immediate future.

The basic recommendation (as noted in the quote above) is not much different from what David Holmgren has been recommending for 30 years: to engage in a shift away from being a dependent c0nsumer, and toward being a responsible self-reliant producer for your household and community, and to shift a significant portion of assets out of the mainstream economy and move them into building household and community resilience. These actions not only put us in a more secure position, they also, if engaged by perhaps 10% of the population of affluent countries, might be just enough to shift our economies out of the perpetual growth paradigm we’ve been inhabiting since at least the industrial revolution, and is now only hanging on via  a rising debt bubble. The collapse of the current bubble economy will be painful. However, given that current growth is only being made possible by rising debt, we are not doing ourselves any favors by perpetuating it. As he had previously pointed out in Future Scenarios:

…without radical behavioral and organizational change that would threaten the foundations of our growth economy, greenhouse gas emissions along with other environmental impacts will not decline. Economic recession is the only proven mechanism for a rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and may now be the only real hope for maintaining the earth in a habitable state.

Holmgren makes the case that while it may be too late for the Green Tech scenario to materialize, it may still be possible to avoid the worst effects of the Brown Tech scenario (a 4 to 6 degree “Climate Cooker” Lifeboats scenario). A severe global economic collapse could switch off enough GGE to begin reversing climate change, so that the Earth Steward scenario of bioregional economies based on frugal rural agrarian living, assisted by resources salvaged from the collapsed global economy and the defunct national governments, might emerge in the long term future.

It’s not a picture of a bright and shiny future, granted. The last 10 pages or so, however, I found to be quite stimulating, and opened up more possibilities for positive engagement. Topics discussed are Nested Scenarios (different scenarios co-existing at different scales); Investment and Divestment; Formal and Informal Economies; Alternative and Non-monetary Economies; Labor and Skill Vs Fossil Fuel and Technology; Brown Tech Possibilities; Actors at the Fringe; and Not Financial Terrorists (but Terra-ists with hands in the soil). There are also many great footnotes/links worth following up on.

This is a highly recommended essay – essential reading for those trying to make sense of our long term future and how we can best make a positive difference.

[*Update 8/06/14*: After you’ve read Crash On Demand, 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?” Hopefully this post, as well as my blog posts “Crash on Demand and “What is David Holmgren Really Telling Us?” 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

 

Lessons from the Ages, Part 1
Lessons from the Ages, Part 2

Other Related Articles
Conversation with David Holmgren (a 15 minute radio interview, where Holmgren is forced to give concise answers to key questions)
Retrofitting the Suburbs for a Resilient Future (Excellent David Holmgren video presentation of his famously practical vision for the future of suburbia)
Powerdown: Let’s Talk About It (popular recent post by Joanne Poyourow of Transition US)
Downloading Responsibility
(Extraenvironmentalist interview with Nicole Foss and Laurence Boomert)
Climate After Growth: Why Environmentalists Must Embrace Post-Growth Economics and Community Resilience (Rob Hopkins and Asher Miller appeal to environmental activists, urging to let go of the growth paradigm)