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The Archdruid Report: A Bargain with the Archdruid

The Archdruid Report: A Bargain with the Archdruid.

My anomalous position as a writer and speaker on the future of industrial society who holds down a day job as an archdruid has its share of drawbacks, no question, but it also has significant advantages.  One of the most important of those is that I don’t have to worry about maintaining a reputation as a serious public figure. That may not sound like an advantage, but believe me, it is one.
Most of the other leading figures in the peak oil scene have at least some claim to respectability, and that pins them down in subtle and no-so-subtle ways. Like it or not, they have to know that being right about peak oil means that they might just pick up the phone one of these days and field an invitation to testify before a Senate subcommittee or a worried panel of long-range planners from the Pentagon. The possibility of being yanked out of their current role as social critics and being called on to tell a failing industrial society how it can save itself has got to hover in front of them in the night now and then. Such reflections tend to inspire a craving for consensus, or at least for neatly labeled positions within the accepted parameters of the peak oil scene.
I can only assume that’s what lies behind the tempest in an oil barrel that’s rocked the peak oil end of the blogosphere in recent weeks, following the publication of an essay by Permaculture guru David Holmgren titled Crash on Demand. Holmgren’s piece was quite a sensible one, suggesting that we’re past the point that a smooth transition to green tech is possible and that some kind of Plan B is therefore needed. It included some passages, though, suggesting that the best way to deal with the future immediately ahead might be to trigger a global financial crash.  If just ten per cent of the world’s population stopped using fossil fuels, he noted, that might be enough to bring the whole system down all at once.
That proposal got a flurry of responses, but only a few—Dmitry Orlov’s, predictably, was one of those few—noted the chasm that yawns between Holmgren’s modest proposal and the world we actually inhabit.  It’s all very well to talk about ten per cent of the population withdrawing from the global economy, but the fact of the matter is that it’ll be a cold day in Beelzebub’s back yard before even ten per cent of self-proclaimed green activists actively embrace such a project ,to the extent of making more than the most modest changes in their own livestyles—and let’s not even talk about how likely it is that anybody at all outside the culturally isolated fringe scene that contains today’s green subcultures will even hear of Holmgren’s call to arms.
Mind you, David Holmgren is a very smart man, and I’m quite sure he’s well aware of all this. An essay by David MacLeod pointed out that the steps Holmgren’s proposed to bring down industrial society are what he’s been encouraging people to do all along.  It occurs to me that he may simply have decided to try another way to get people to do what we all know we need to do anyway: give up the hopelessly unsustainable lifestyles currently provided us by the contemporary industrial system, downsize our desires as well as our carbon footprints, and somehow learn to get by on the kind of energy and resource basis that most other human beings throughout history have considered normal.
Still, a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse; as far as I can tell, Holmgren’s essay hasn’t inspired any sudden rush on the part of permaculturists and peak oil activists to ditch their Priuses in the hopes of sticking it to the Man. Instead, it veered off into debates about whether and how “we” (meaning, apparently, the writers and readers of peak oil blogs) could in fact crash the global economy. There was a flurry of talk about how violence shouldn’t be considered, and that in turn triggered a surge of people babbling earnestly about how we need not to rule out the use of violence against the system.
It’s probably necessary to say a few words about that here. Effective violence of any kind is a skill, a difficult and demanding one, and effective political violence against an established government is among the most difficult and demanding kinds. I’m sorry if this offends anybody’s sense of entitlement, but it’s not simply a matter of throwing a tantrum so loud that Daddy has to listen to you, you know. To force a government to do your bidding by means of violence, you have to be more competent at violence than the government is, and the notion that the middle-class intellectuals who do most of the talking in the peak oil scene can outdo the US government in the use of violence would be hilarious if the likely consequences of that delusion weren’t so ghastly. This is not a game for dabblers; people get thrown into prison for decades, dumped into unmarked graves, or vaporized by missiles launched from drones for trying to do what the people in these discussions were chattering about so blandly.
For that matter, I have to wonder how many of the people who were so free with their online talk about violence against the system stopped to remember that every word of those conversations is now in an NSA data file, along with the names and identifying details of everybody involved. The radicals I knew in my younger days had a catchphrase that’s apposite here: “The only people that go around publicly advocating political violence are idiots and agents provocateurs. Which one are you?”
Meanwhile, in that distant realm we call the real world, the hastily patched walls of peak oil denial are once again cracking under the strain of hard reality. The Royal Society—yes, that Royal Society—has just published a volume of its Philosophical Transactions devoted to peak oil; they take it seriously.  Word has also slipped into the media that in December, a select group of American and British military, business, and political figures held a conference on peak oil; they also take it seriously.
Meanwhile, air is leaking out of the fracking bubble as firms lose money, the foreign investors whose wallets have been the main target of the operation are backing away, and the cheerleading of the media is sounding more and more like the attempts to boost housing prices around the beginning of 2008. The latest data point? Longtime peak oil researcher Jean Laherrere, who (let us not forget) successfully predicted the 2005 peak in conventional oil production well in advance, used the same modeling techniques to predict future production from the Bakken Shale. His call? A production peak in the fall of this year, with steep declines after that. He’s the latest to join the chorus of warnings that the fracking bubble is merely one more overblown financial scam moving inexorably toward a massive bust.
Of course we’ve been here before. Every few years, the mass media starts to talk about peak oil, proponents of business as usual look nervous, and those in the peak oil scene who are inexperienced enough not to remember the last few cycles of the same process start talking about the prospects of imminent victory. (Yes, I made that mistake a while back; I think we all have.) Then the walls of denial get patched up again, the mass media scurries back to some comforting fairy tale about ethanol, wind power, biodiesel, fracking or what have you; the proponents of business as usual go back to their normal blustering, and peak oil activists who got overenthusiastic about predictions of imminent triumph end up with egg on their faces. That’s standard for any social movement trying to bring about an unwelcome but necessary change in society. Each time around the cycle, more people get the message, and a movement smart enough to capitalize on the waves of media interest can grow until it starts having a significant influence on society as a whole.
That final step can arrive on various time scales; a successful movement for change can see its viewpoint filter gradually into the collective conversation, or there can be a sudden break, after which the movement can still be denounced but can no longer be ignored. Glance back through the last few centuries and it’s easy to find examples of either kind, not to mention every point between those two ends of the spectrum. I’m far from sure if there’s a way to tell how peak oil activism will play out, but my hunch is that it may be closer to the sudden-break end of the spectrum than otherwise. What lies behind that hunch isn’t anything so sturdy as a headline or a new study; rather, it’s something subtle—a shift in tone in the denunciations that The Archdruid Report fields each week.
I don’t know if other bloggers share this experience, but I’ve found that internet trolls are a remarkably subtle gauge of the mass imagination. There are some trolls who only show up when a post of mine is about to go viral, and others whose tirades reliably forecast the new themes of peak oil denial three or four months in advance. When some bit of high-tech vaporware is about to be ballyhooed as the miracle that’s going to save us all, or some apocalyptic fantasy is about to become the new reason why it’s okay to keep your middle class lifestyle since we’re all going to die soon anyway, I usually hear about it first from trolls who can’t wait to let me know just how wrong I am. It’s an interesting fringe benefit of a blogger’s job, and it’s alerted me more than once to trends worth watching.
It so happens that in recent weeks, some of the criticisms I’ve fielded have struck a distinctly new note. I still get the classic cornucopians who insist I’m babbling pessimistic nonsense and of course we’ll all be just fine, just as I still get the apocalypse fanboys who insist that I’m ignoring the fact that the doom du jour is sure to annihilate us all, but I’m now seeing a third position—that of course it’s a crisis and we can’t just go on the way we’ve been living, a lot of things will have to change, but if we do X and Y and Z, we can keep some of the benefits of industrial society going, and I’m being too pessimistic when I suggest that no, we can’t. Maybe everyone else in the peak oil scene has been getting these all along, but they’re new to my comments page, and they have a tone that sets them apart from the others.
To be precise, it sounds like bargaining.
I don’t imagine that anyone in the peak oil scene has missed the discussions of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of coming to terms with impending death—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—and their application to the not dissimilar experience of facing up to the death of the industrial age. Many of us can look back on our own transits through the five stages, and I’ve long since lost track of the times I’ve heard people at a peak oil event roll their eyes and mutter the name of one of the stages to whomever is sitting next to them. For the most part, though, it’s been a matter of individuals going through their own confrontations with the death of progress at their own pace.
Maybe this is still what’s happening, but I wonder. For a very long time, even among peak oil activists, the prevailing mood was still one of denial—we can solve this, whether the solution consists of solar panels, thorium reactors, revitalized communities, permacultured forest gardens, supposedly imminent great turnings of one sort or another, or what have you. After the 2008-2009 crash, that shifted to a mood of anger, and furious denunciations of “the 1%” and an assortment of more familiar supervillains became much more common on peak oil forums than they had been. The rise of apocalypse fandom has arguably been driven by this same stage of anger—suicidal fantasies very often get their force from unresolved rage turned inwards, after all, and it’s likely that the habit of projecting daydreams of mass extermination onto the future is rooted in the same murky emotional soil.
If that’s indeed what’s been happening, then bargaining is the next stage.  If so, this is good news, because unlike the two stages before it or the one that follows, the stage of bargaining can have practical benefits. If a dying person hits that stage and decides to give up habits that make her condition worse, for example, the result may be an improved quality of life during her final months; if the bargain includes making big donations to charity, the patient may not benefit much from it but the charity and the people it helps certainly will. People under the stress of impending death try to strike bargains that range all the way from the inspiring to the absurd, though, and whether something constructive comes out of it depends on whether the bargain involves choices that will actually do some good.
If this stage is like the ones the peak oil scene seems to have transited so far, we can expect to see a flurry of earnest blog posts and comments over the next few years seeking reassurance in a manner peculiar to the internet—that is, by proclaiming something as absolute fact, then looking around nervously to see if anyone else agrees. This time, instead of proclaiming that this or that or the other is sure to save us, or out to get us, or certain to kill us all, they’ll be insisting that this or that or the other will be an acceptable sacrifice to the gods of petroleum depletion and climate change, sufficient to persuade those otherwise implacable powers to leave us untouched. The writers will be looking for applause and approval, and if that I think their offering might do some good, I’m willing to meet them halfway. In fact, I’ll even suggest things that I’m sure to applaud, so they don’t even have to guess.
First is conservation. That’s the missing piece in most proposals for dealing with peak oil. The chasm into which so many well-intentioned projects have tumbled over the last decade is that nothing available to us can support the raw extravagance of energy and resource consumption we’re used to, once cheap abundant fossil fuels aren’t there any more, so—ahem—we have to use less.  Too much talk about using less in recent years, though, has been limited to urging energy and resource abstinence as a badge of moral purity, and—well, let’s just say that abstinence education did about as much good there as it does in any other context.
The things that played the largest role in hammering down US energy consumption in the 1970s energy crisis were unromantic but effective techniques such as insulation, weatherstripping, and the like, all of which allow a smaller amount of energy to do the work previously done by more.  Similar initiatives were tried out in business and industry, with good results; expanding public transit and passenger rail did the same thing in a different context, and so on.  All of these are essential parts of any serious response to the end of cheap energy.  If your proposed bargain makes conservation the core of your response to fossil fuel and resource depletion, in other words, you’ll face no criticism from me.
Second is decentralization.  One of the things that makes potential failures in today’s large-scale industrial infrastructures so threatening is that so many people are dependent on single systems. Too many recent green-energy projects have tried to head further down the same dangerous slope, making whole continents dependent on a handful of pipelines, power grids, or what have you. In an age of declining energy and resource availability, coupled with a rising tide of crises, the way to ensure resilience and stability is to decentralize intead: to make each locality able to meet as many of its own needs as possible, so that troubles in one area don’t automatically propagate to others, and an area that suffers a systems failure can receive help from nearby places where everything still works.
Here again, this involves proven techniques, and extends across a very broad range of human needs. Policies that encourage local victory gardens, truck farms, and other food production became standard practice in the great wars of the 20th century precisely because they took some of the strain off  overburdened economies and food-distribution systems. Home production of goods and services for home use has long played a similar role. For that matter, transferring electrical power and other utilities and the less urgent functions of government to regional and local bodies instead of doing them on the national level will have parallel benefits in an age of retrenchment and crisis. Put decentralization into your bargain, and I’ll applaud enthusiastically.
Third is rehumanization. That’s an unfamiliar word for a concept that will soon be central to meaningful economic policy throughout the developed world. Industrial societies are currently beset with two massive problems:  high energy costs, on the one hand, and high unemployment on the other. Both problems can be solved at a single stroke by replacing energy-hungry machines with human workers. Rehumanizing the economy—hiring people to do jobs rather than installing machines to do them—requires removing and reversing a galaxy of perverse incentives favoring automation at the expense of employment, and this will need to be done while maintaining wages and benefits at levels that won’t push additional costs onto government or the community.
The benefits here aren’t limited to mere energy cost savings. Every economic activity that can be done by human beings rather than machinery is freed from the constant risk of being whipsawed by energy prices, held hostage by resource nationalism, and battered in dozens of other ways by the consequences of energy and resource depletion. That applies to paid employment, but it also applies to the production of goods and services in the household economy, which has also been curtailed by perverse incentives, and needs to be revived and supported by sensible new policies. A rehumanized economy is a resilient economy for another reason, too:  the most effective way to maximize economic stability is to provide ample employment at adequate wages for the workforce, whose paychecks fund the purchases that keep the economy going. Make rehumanization an important part of your plan to save the world and I won’t be the only one cheering.
Those are my proposals, then: conservation, decentralization, rehumanization.  Those readers who are looking for applause for their efforts at collective bargaining with the forces driving industrial society toward its destiny now know how to get it here. I’d like to ask you to step out of the room for the next paragraph, though, as I have a few things to say to those who aren’t at the bargaining stage just now.
(Are they gone?  Good.  Now listen closely while I whisper:  none of the things I’ve just suggested will save industrial civilization. You know that, of course, and so do I.  That said, any steps in the direction of conservation, decentralization, and rehumanization that get taken will make the descent less disruptive and increase the chances that communities, localities, and whole regions may be able to escape the worst impacts of the industrial system’s unraveling. That’s worth doing, and if it takes their panicked efforts to bargain with an implacable fate to get those things under way, I’m good with that.  Got it? Okay, we can call them back into the room.)

Ahem. So there you have it; if you want to bargain with the archdruid, those are the terms I’ll accept. For whatever it’s worth, those are also the policies I’d propose to a Senate subcommittee or a worried panel of long-range planners from the Pentagon if I were asked to testify to some such body,. Of course that’s not going to happen; archdruids can draw up proposals on the basis of what might actually work, instead of worrying about the current consensus in or out of the peak oil scene, because nobody considers archdruids to be serious public figures. That may not sound like an advantage, but believe me, it is one.

Crash on Demand: Energy Descent Scenarios

Crash on Demand: Energy Descent Scenarios.

by David Holmgren, originally published by Holmgren Design  | TODAY

This is Part 2 of David Holmgren’s new essay Crash on Demand: Welcome to the Brown Tech Future, which updates his Future Scenarios work. Read Part 1 here

Is time running out for powerdown?

Many climate policy professionals and climate activists are now reassessing whether there is anything more they can do to help prevent the global catastrophe that climate change appears to be.   The passing of the symbolic 400ppm CO2 level certainly has seen some prominent activists getting close to a change of strategy.  As the Transition Town movement founder and permaculture activist Rob Hopkins says, the shift in the mainstream policy circles from mitigation to adaptation and defence is underway (i.e. giving up).[1]

While political deadlock remains the most obvious obstacle, I believe at least some of that deadlock stems from widespread doubt about whether greenhouse gas emissions can be radically reduced without economic contraction and/or substantial wealth redistribution.  Substantial redistribution of wealth is not generally taken seriously perhaps because it could only come about through some sort of global revolution that would itself lead to global economic collapse. On the other hand, massive economic contraction seems like it might happen all by itself, without necessarily leading to greater equity.

The predominant focus in the “climate professional and activist community” on policies, plans and projects for transition to renewable energy and efficiency has yet to show evidence of absolute reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that do not depend on rising greenhouse gas emissions in other parts of the global economy.  For example, the contribution of renewable technology installation to reduced GGE in some European countries appears to be balanced by increased GGE in China and India (where much of the renewable technologies are manufactured).

The Jevons’ paradox[2] suggests than any gains in efficiency or tapping of new sources of energy will simply expand total consumption rather than reduce consumption of resources (and therefore GGE).

Richard Eckersley in his article ‘Deficit Deeper Than Economy’ identifies the improbability of ever decoupling economic growth from resource depletion and green house gas emissions.  He states “Australia’s material footprint, the total amount of primary resources required to service domestic consumption (excludes exports and includes imports) was 35 tonnes per person in 2008, the highest among the 186 countries studied.  Every 10 per cent increase in gross domestic product increases the average national material footprint by 6 per cent.  By 2050, a global population of 9 billion people would require an estimated 270 billion tonnes of natural resources to fuel the level of consumption of OECD countries, compared with the 70 billion tonnes consumed in 2010.”[3]

Time seems to be running out for any serious planned reductions in GGE adequate to prevent dangerous climate change without considering a powerdown of the growth economy.  The ideas of degrowth[4] are starting to get an airing, mostly in Europe, but the chances of these ideas being adopted and successfully implemented would require a long slow political evolution if not revolution.  We don’t have time for the first, and the second almost certainly crashes the financial system, which in turn crashes the global economy.

Is time running out for bottom up alternatives?

Like many others, I have argued that the bottom up creation of household and community economies, already proliferating in the shadow of the global economy, can create and sustain different ways of well-being that can compensate, at least partly, for the inevitable contraction in centralised fossil fuelled economies (now well and truly failing to sustain the social contract in countries such as Greece and Egypt).  When the official Soviet Union economy collapsed in the early ‘90s it was the informal economy that cushioned the social impact.  Permaculture strategies focus on the provision of basic needs at the household and community level to increase resilience, reduce ecological footprint and allow much of the discretionary economy to shrink.  In principle, a major contraction in energy consumption is possible because a large proportion of that consumption is for non-essential uses by more than a billion middle class people.  That contraction has the potential to switch off greenhouse gas emissions but this has not been seriously discussed or debated by those currently working very hard to get global action for rapid transition by planned and co-ordinated processes.  Of course it is more complicated because the provision of fundamental needs, such as water, food etc., are part of the same highly integrated system that meets discretionary wants.

However, the time available to create, refine and rapidly spread successful models of these bottom-up solutions is running out, in the same way that the time for government policy and corporate capitalism to work their magic in converting the energy base of growth from fossil to renewable sources.[5] If the climate clock is really so close to midnight what else could be done?

Economic crash as hell or salvation

For many decades I have felt that a collapse of the global economic systems might save humanity and many of our fellow species great suffering by happening sooner rather than later because the stakes keep rising and scale of the impacts are always worse by being postponed.  An important influence in my thinking on the chances of such a collapse was the public speech given by President Ronald Reagan following the 1987 stock market crash.  He said “there won’t be an economic collapse, so long as people don’t believe there will be an economic collapse” or words to that effect.  I remember at the time thinking; fancy the most powerful person on the planet admitting that faith (of the populace) is the only thing that holds the financial system together.

Two decades on I remember thinking that a second great depression might be the best outcome we could hope for.  The pain and suffering that has happened since 2007 (from the more limited “great recession”) is more a result of the ability of the existing power structures to maintain control and enforce harsh circumstances by handing the empty bag to the public, than any fundamental lack of resources to provide all with basic needs.  Is the commitment to perpetual growth in wealth for the richest the only way that everyone else can hope to get their needs met?  The economy is simply not structured to provide all with their basic needs.  That growth economy is certainly coming to an end; but will it slowly grind to a halt or collapse more rapidly?

The fact that the market price for carbon emissions has fallen so low in Europe is a direct result of stagnating growth. Past economic recessions and more serious economic collapses, such as faced by the Soviet Union after its oil production peaked in the late 1980’s,[6] show how greenhouse gas emissions can and have been reduced, then stabilizing at lower levels once the economy stabilized without any planned intention to do so.  The large number of oil exporters that have more recently peaked has provided many case studies to show the correlation with political upheaval, economic contraction and reductions in GGE.  Similarly many of the countries that have suffered the greatest economic contraction are also those with the greatest dependence on imported energy, such as Ireland, Greece and Portugal.  The so-called Arab Spring, especially in Egypt, followed high food and energy prices driven by collapsed oil revenues and inability to maintain subsidies.  The radical changes of government in Egypt have not been able to arrest the further contraction of the economy.

The effects of peak oil and climate change have combined with geopolitical struggles over pipeline routes to all but destroy the Syrian economy and society.[7]

Slow Contraction or Fast Collapse

The fragility of the global economy has many unprecedented aspects that make some sort of rapid collapse of the global economy more likely.  The capacity of central banks to repeat the massive stimulus mechanism in response to the 2008 global financial crisis, has been greatly reduced, while the faith that underpins the global financial system has weakened, to say the least.  Systems thinkers such as David Korowicz[8] have argued that the inter-connected nature of the global economy, instantaneous communications and financial flows, “just in time” logistics, and extreme degrees of economic and technological specialisation, have increased the chances of a large scale systemic failure, at the same time that they have mitigated (or at least reduced) the impact of more limited localised crises.

Whether novel factors such as information technology, global peak oil and climate change have increased the likelihood of more extreme economic collapse, Foss and Keen have convinced me that the most powerful and fast-acting factor that could radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions is the scale of financial debt and the long-sustained growth of bubble economics stretching back at least to the beginnings of the “Thatcherite/Reaganite revolution” in the early 1980s.  From an energetics perspective, the peak of US oil production in 1970, and the resulting global oil crises of 73 and 79, laid the foundations for the gigantic growth in debt that super accelerated the level of consumption, and therefore GGE.

Whatever the causes, all economic bubbles follow a trajectory that includes a rapid contraction, as credit evaporates, followed by a long-sustained contraction, where asset values decline to lower levels than those at the beginning of the bubble.  After almost 25 years of asset price deflation in Japan, a house and land parcel of 1.5ha in a not too isolated rural location can be bought for $25,000.  A contraction in the systems that supply wants are likely to see simultaneous problems in the provision of basic needs.  As Foss explains, in a deflationary contraction, prices of luxuries generally collapse but essentials of food and fuel do not fall much.  Most importantly, essentials become unaffordable for many, once credit freezes and job security declines.  It goes without saying that deflation rather inflation is the economic devil that governments and central banks most fear and are prepared to do almost anything to avoid.

Giving credence to the evidence for fast global economic collapse may suggest I am moving away from my belief in the more gradual Energy Descent future that I helped articulate.  John Michael Greer has been very critical of apocalyptic views of the future in which a collapse sweeps away the current world leaving the chosen few who survive to build the new world.  In large measure I agree with his critique but recognise that some might interpret my work as suggesting a permaculture paradise growing from the ashes of this civilisation.  To some extent this is a reasonable interpretation, but I see that collapse, as a long drawn-out process rather than resulting from a single event.[9]

I still believe that energy descent will go on for many decades or even centuries.  In Future Scenarios I suggested energy descent driven by climate change and peak oil could occur through a series of crises separating relatively stable states that could persist for decades if not centuries.  The collapse of the global financial system might simply be the first of those crises that reorganise the world.  The pathways that energy descent could take are enormously varied, but still little discussed, so it is not surprising that discussions about descent scenarios tend to default into ones of total collapse. As the language around energy descent and collapse has become more nuanced, we start to see the distinction between financial, economic, social and civilisational collapse as potential stages in an energy descent process where the first is fast changing and relatively superficial and the last is slow moving and more fundamental.

In Future Scenarios I suggested the more extreme scenarios of Earth Steward and Lifeboat could follow Green Tech and Brown Tech along the stepwise energy descent pathway.  If we are heading into the Brown Tech world of more severe climate change, then as the energy sources that sustain the Brown Tech scenario deplete, and climate chaos increases, future crises and collapse could lead to the Lifeboat Scenario. In this scenario, no matter how fast or extreme the reductions in GGE due to economic collapse, we still end up in the climate cooker, but with only the capacity for very local, household and communitarian organisation.

If the climate crisis is already happening, and as suggested in Future Scenarios, the primary responses to the crisis increase rather than reduce GGE, then it is probably too late for any concerted effort to shift course to the more benign Green Tech energy descent future.  Given that most of the world is yet to accept the inevitability of Energy Descent and are still pinning their faith in “Techno Stability” if not “Techno Explosion”, the globally cooperative powerdown processes needed to shift the world to Green Tech look unlikely.  More fundamental than any political action, the resurgent rural and regional economies, based on a boom for agricultural and forestry commodities, that structurally underpins the Green Tech scenario, will not eventuate if climate change is fast and severe.  Climate change will stimulate large investments in agriculture but they are more likely to be energy and resource intensive, controlled climate agriculture (greenhouses), centralised at transport hubs.  This type of development simply reinforces the Brown Tech model including the acceleration of GGE.

While it may be too late for the Green Tech Scenario, it still may be possible to avoid more extreme climate change of a long drawn out Brown Tech Scenario before natural forcing factors lock humanity into the climate cooker of 4-6 degrees and resource depletion leads to a collapse of the centralised Brown Tech governance and a rise of local war lords (Lifeboat Scenario).

The novel structural vulnerabilities highlighted by David Korowicz, and the unprecedented extremity of the bubble economics highlighted by Nicole Foss suggest the strong tendencies towards a Brown Tech world could be short lived.  Instead, severe global economic and societal collapse could switch off GGE enough to begin reversing climate change; in essence the Earth Steward scenario of recreated bioregional economies based on frugal agrarian resources and abundant salvage from the collapsed global economy and defunct national governance structures.


[1] See  Why I’m marking passing 400ppm by getting back on an aeroplane by Rob Hopkins published on Transition Culture on 16 May, 2013

http://transitionculture.org/2013/05/16/why-im-marking-passing-400-ppm-by-getting-back-on-an-aeroplane/

[2] During the early stages of the industrial revolution English economist William Stanley Jevons noticed that a doubling in the efficiency of steam engine technology led to an increase rather than a halving of coal consumption as businesses found more uses for the available power. See the Coal Question (1865).

[3] See Deficit Deeper Than Economy http://www.canberratimes.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/deficit-deeper-than-economy-20130929-2umd3.html#ixzz2js46nGBp

[4] See Wikipedia article for overview of movementhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Degrowth

[5] Of course true believers in global capitalism’s capacity to reduce GGE in time, still abound. See for example Christian Parenti’s piece from Dissent, reposted at Resilience.org, which is amusingly titled A Radical Approach to the Climate Crisiswhich is actually a plea for activists to forget trying to reform, let alone build systems based on sustainability principles, in favour of getting behind the power of corporations and governments to make big changes quickly (to get GGE falling fast enough).

[6] See for example, Peak oil and the fall of the Soviet Union by Douglas B. Reynolds on The Oil Drum.

[7] See Guardian article by Nafeez Ahmed.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/earth-insight/2013/may/13/1?INTCMP=SRCH

[8] See Trade-Off, Metis Risk Consulting & Feasta, 2012

http://www.feasta.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Trade-Off1.pdf

[9] leaving aside the issue of whether the energy descent future will be a permaculture paradise or not.

Acknowledgements
Thanks to Rick Tanaka, Maureen Corbett and Daryl Taylor for comments and corrections

Holmgren’s ‘Crash on Demand’: be careful what you wish for

Holmgren’s ‘Crash on Demand’: be careful what you wish for.

Scenarios

It is a rare occurence that I disagree with David Holmgren.  One of my heroes, and the co-founder of permaculture, I generally find his intellect formidable, his insights on permaculture revelatory, and his take on the wider patterns and scenarios unfolding around us to be deeply insightful.  But while there is much insight in his most recent paper, Crash on Demand, it also raises many questions and issues that I’d like to explore here.  I am troubled by his conclusions, and although I understand the logic behind them, I fear that they could prove a dangerous route to go down if left unchallenged.

‘Crash on Demand’ in a nutshell

So what are the paper’s core arguments?  It picks up from his ‘Future Scenarios’ work a few years on, reassessing their relevance in a rapidly changing world (you can read Jason Heppenstall’s summary of the new paper here).  In essence, he has shifted to thinking that a gradual energy descent isn’t going to happen.  Rather than his Green Tech Future scenario which sees a concerted government response (similar to what we’re seeing in Germany) or the Earth Stewardship scenario, an intentional powering down, he argues that in reality we are moving deeper and deeper into what he calls ‘Brown Tech’.

Brown Tech has emerged because “sustained high energy prices have allowed private and national energy corporations to put in place many new fossil and renewable energy projects that are moderating the impact of the decline in production from ageing ‘super giant’ fields”.  Most of these new fossil fuel projects, he argues, “generate far more greenhouse gases than the conventional sources they have replaced”.

David Holmgren

The pace of the unfolding of climate change has outpaced expectations, and the world, if it continues to pursue Business as Usual, is still on course for a 6 degree rise in temperature, which would be catastrophic.  He states that we have left it too late for a planned and intentional ‘Green Tech’ future, and the structural vulnerabilities of the economy mean that the currently emergent ‘Brown Tech’ future will be short-lived.

He suggests that in this context, “severe global economic and societal collapse would switch off greenhouse gas emissions enough to begin reversing climate change”, and that we should deliberately seek to make this happen. That troubles me.  I have two key objections to the paper which I’ll set out below.

One: A Post-Growth Economy = Economic Crash?  Really? 

The first place the paper comes unstuck for me is in his overarching conclusion, namely that a post growth, climate-responsible world is inevitably a crashed economy.  Holmgren writes:

“If we accept a global financial crash could make it very difficult, if not impossible, to restart the global economy with anything other than drastically reduced emissions, then an argument can be mounted for putting effort into precipitating that crash, the crash of the financial system”.  

He argues that “a radical change in the behaviour of a relatively small proportion of the global middle class could precipitate such a crash”.  He goes on:

“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 systematic boycott of the centralised systems as a whole, that could lead to more than 5% contraction in the centralised economies”.  

That feels like a huge claim.  No research is used to back it up. It’s also a huge leap to state that a post growth economy is unavoidably a crashed economy, as well as being a very Western-centric proposition.  Talking to people from China and India recently, it is clear that the kind of ‘post-materialists’ who in Western economies might pioneer this “crash on demand” hardly exist there, and those are the economies where emissions are actually growing.

Also, on what research is this idea that boycotting the economy would bring it to its knees, and that that would be a good thing to do, actually based?  The main reference to this thinking is given when Holmgren states:

“By 2008, the work of both systems analyst Nicole Foss and economist Steve Keen had convinced me that deflationary economics would be (and already are) the most powerful factors shaping our immediate future”. 

Now I’m no economist.  The subject, once it starts getting even vaguely complicated, leaves me rather puzzled.  But I do know that there are views other than Foss and Keen, and many of them don’t share their analysis (as an aside, I’m still scratching my head about Foss’ statement, in her response to this Holmgren piece, that “the best way to address climate change is not to talk about it”).  There is a wide range of views on what happens when an economy stops growing beyond those of Foss and Keen.  Here are just a few.  Robert Solow, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics has said:

“There is no reason at all why capitalism could not survive without slow or even no growth. I think it’s perfectly possible that economic growth cannot go on at its current rate forever”. 

When I talked to Peter Victor in 2012, author of Managing Without Growth (subtitled ‘Slower by design, not disaster’), I asked him “so the end of economic growth doesn’t necessarily mean an economic collapse?”  He told me:

“It could mean that, if you have an economic system that relies on growth.  That’s the dilemma we’ve got now. It seems to be that unless the economy is growing it flirts with collapse or it does collapse. The challenge to us is to try to configure an economy that doesn’t grow and doesn’t collapse”. 

Tim Jackson, in Prosperity Without Growth, writes:

“The risk of humanitarian collapse is enough to place something of a question mark over the possibility that we can simply halt economic growth.  If halting growth leads to economic and social collapse, then times look hard indeed.  If it can be achieved without collapse, prospects for maintaining prosperity are considerably better”.  

Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill’s book Enough is Enough, which explores the possibilities of a post-growth, steady-state economy, don’t even mention the word ‘collapse’ in the book.  Kevin Anderson, one of few climate scientists explicitly stating that staying below 2 degrees excludes economic growth as a possibility, told me when I interviewed him in 2012:

“Of course our view is that to deliver on 2°C, we should plan the economic contraction. It need not necessarily have the devastating impact that it very clearly had, and very inequitable impact, in Russia in particular”.

I have never heard him use the word collapse in relation to his proposals.  When I attended the DeGrowth conference in Venice last year, I don’t remember any presentations among that whole 4 day programme of talks and presentations anyone talking about collapse.  So I, for one, do not accept this notion that stopping growth, even if attainable, means inevitable collapse, and that striving to cause a collapse is a highly dangerous and irresponsible approach.

In the environmental movement in general, and in Transition in particular, there has long been a tension between “brightsiding” (always focusing on the potential upsides of climate change) and dashing straight to the idea of collapse.  As John Michael Greer put it in a 2007 piece called Immanentizing the Eschaton’ 

“It’s one thing to try to sense the shape of the future in advance, and to make constructive changes in your life to prepare for its rougher possibilities; it’s quite another to become convinced that history is headed where you want it to go; and when the course you’ve marked out for it simply projects the trajectory of a too-familiar myth onto the inkblot patterns of the future, immanentizing the Eschaton can become a recipe for self-induced disaster”.

But it’s not only one or the other, it’s a spectrum.  It’s not clear to me why Holmgren dashes straight to collapse.  He argues that in his opinion, regardless of what we do, there is a 50% chance of a crash anyway, as an inevitable outcome of the fragility of our economic system.  But no evidence is provided for this.

As a recent paper by the Simplicity Institute (who also published Crash on Demand), entitled The Deep Green Alternative, highlights, between industrial growth and collapse lie a broad spectrum of approaches, all of which explore different routes to “a radically alternative way of living on the Earth – something ‘wholly other’ to the ways of industrialisation, consumerism, and limitless growth”.  To simplify this discussion down to such an either/or really does nobody any favours.

All of this leads on to my second point, that of how Holmgren communicates his proposal.

Two: the concept of ‘Skilful Means’

There is a concept from Buddhism called “skilful means” which offers some very useful insights as to what lies at the root of my disagreement with the paper.  Skilful means (or upaya in Sanskrit) is sometimes also translated as tactfulness or ingenuity, and refers to the observation that different people have different capacities, different ways of taking in information.  If you want to share an insight with a diversity of people, given sufficient insight and wisdom, with some you might sit and explain it, for another you might tell them a story, and another, you might just make a particular comment at a particular time that triggers a train of thought that leads to the same conclusion.

For me, skilful means is what this paper lacks.  Personally, I find Holmgren’s analysis, namely that we seem to be moving towards a Brown Tech scenario, that climate change is accelerating, that no leadership looks likely from most government, to be compelling.  It is a useful analysis, a useful revision of Future Scenarios.  It may be that some people involved in localisation and resilience work choose to see what they are doing in the context of a deliberate attempt to crash the system.  But is it in any way skilful to publicly reframe that as the driver for Transition, or permaculture for that matter?  That is where I part company with Holmgren.

That’s not to say I don’t understand why he would think it.  Climate scientist Kevin Anderson recently stated “Today, after two decades of bluff and lies, the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony”.  He argues that economic growth is no longer compatible with staying below 2 degrees.  This entirely justified sense of urgency leads some to take an approach to climate change that resonates closely with the famous words of Mario Savio in 1964:

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

But to imagine that a popular movement could be built around deliberately crashing the global economy feels to me naive in the extreme. It would certainly prove virtually impossible to muster any kind of mainstream political support for it.  While a number of MPs I have spoken to are happy to state off-the-record that they have doubts that growth is the best way forward, none of them would say so on the record.

My question is, if Holmgren is right to suggest that we deliberately seek to make economic collapse happen (which I personally think is a naive and irresponsible proposal), then how best to communicate that?  What is the audience for this paper?  Is it written in such a way as to appeal to a broad range of readers?  No.  It is written for “PLU”s (People Like Us).  It isn’t written for potential allies in local government, trades unions, for the potential broad coalitions of local organisations that Transition groups try to build, for the diversity of political viewpoints that are found in most communities.

It is written for the very small sector of people who read this kind of thing.  Yet the very issues we need to be creating responses to are felt across society and need responses from across society.  It is precisely my frustration with permaculture’s seeming contentment at residing in a niche of its own making that prompted me to start thinking about the need for Transition in the first place.

This paper offers something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: if we present the alternatives to collapse in such a way that they engage and appeal to nobody, then the opportunity to avert it (assuming its inevitability) becomes even less likely.  It’s the antithesis of skilful means.

It seems to me that what we need to be doing, and what permaculture, Transition, and many other movements around the world are trying to do is to build resilience, model a post growth economy, from the ground up at community level, the “actively parallel economy” Holmgren describes.

For example, in Totnes, we produced a Local Economic Blueprint.  It set out the case, built on extensive research, for 10% shift towards a local economy.  Part of its power was the coalition of local stakeholders who co-published it, Town Council, Chamber of Commerce, Development Trust and so on.  But did it present itself as a plan to deliberately crash the global economy in order to save the biosphere?  If we had done, almost certainly we’d have been the only group involved in it.  Instead it found a wording that everyone was happy with:

“We agreed the overall goal of this system would be to maximise the wellbeing of our entire community, and to do this in a way that uses and distributes resources fairly while respecting natural limits. Economic growth is welcome, certainly within the sectors identified within this project, but not at any cost”.

Enabling the kind of shift of financial capital from fossil fuels to investment in local resilient economies that I set out in last week’s post will be key to enabling this transition.  As will building vibrant coalitions of local organisations around the benefits of doing it.

Holmgren argues, in his ‘Nested Scenarios’ graph (below), that what we are seeing is different scenarios unfolding at different scales.  “To some extent”, he writes, “all scenarios are emerging simultaneously and may persist to some degree into the future, one nested within another”.

Nested scenarios

For me, rather than trying to use the local community and household scales to try and deliberately crash the economy, they both have a huge potential, as yet barely scratched, to inspire and model a new economy.  One that is low carbon, resilient and which builds social justice.  Yet that can only happen with the very broad support, buy-in and engagement that an explicit goal of “crash on demand” and the kind of language and approach embodied in this paper would render impossible.

I may be naive, but I still think it is possible to mobilise that in a way that, as the Bristol Pound illustrates, gets the support and buy-in of the ‘City/State’ level, and begins to really put pressure and influence on ‘National’ thinking.  I may be naive, but it’s preferable to economic collapse in my book, and I think we can still do it.

Also, if Holmgren is going to explicitly call for an orchestrated attempt to trigger an economic collapse, this paper should surely contain more about what that might look like?  What does collapse mean for someone living in an inner city food desert, whose benefits are being capped, reduced, or taken away altogether, with no access to land for growing food, with no skills, and little interest in acquiring any?  How does he intend to “sell” this message to them, to make this seem like an inviting proposition?  Given that one of permaculture’s three core underpinnings is “PeopleCare”, this paper is surprisingly lacking in such considerations.

Or is he heading towards a position of assuming that the dangers of climate change are so overarching that the nightmare collapse would lead to in such communities is just what needs to happen, a “can’t make an omlette without breaking a few eggs”-type approach. Can it really be right that “a relatively small proportion of the global middle class” should be able to deliberately plunge those beneath them on the social ladder into such chaos without a clear strategy as to how such large-scale suffering might be mitigated? If so, this placing to one side of issues of social justice is alarming. As Yotam Marom wrote recently:

“We have to re-learn the climate crisis as one that ties our struggles together and opens up potential for the world we’re already busy fighting for”.

Last thoughts

There is a progression of thinking in this paper, and a point at which I part company with Holmgren.  Economic growth and the current financial system means we are on course for a 6 degree rise in global temperatures.  Yes, get that.  Current approaches aren’t working. Yes, fine.  We need, with great urgency, to move beyond the growth paradigm to a different approach built on local economies and so on.  Yes, I’m with you.  And as Naomi Klein sets out in her recent New Statesman article, there are grounds for building a popular movement around that.  But then to state that we need to deliberately, and explicitly, crash the global economy feels to me naive and dangerous, especially as nothing in between growth and collapse is explored at all.

This month on the Transition Network website we are exploring the theme of “scaling up”.  It seems to me that if there is one sure and certain way of ensuring that we won’t scale up all the great work already being done around the world to build community and local economic resilience, it will be by framing it as being about deliberately bringing around an economic crash. It would set us back years.

Holmgren argues that:

“bringing these issues out into 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”.  

That’s as may be, but if we are to make anything happen, we need to also bring the wider community and other organisations on board.  We have to speak beyond the People Like Us.  Unless we’re able to do that (last week’s piece about Transition Laguna Beach showed a brilliant example of such skilful means in practice), a rallying flag of Crash on Demand will be entirely self-defeating.  ‘Crash on Demand’ is a case of, as they say, being careful what you wish for.

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