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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.
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).
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 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.”
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 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. 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, 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.
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 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.
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.
 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).
 See Deficit Deeper Than Economy http://www.canberratimes.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/deficit-deeper-than-economy-20130929-2umd3.html#ixzz2js46nGBp
 See Wikipedia article for overview of movementhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Degrowth
 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).
 See for example, Peak oil and the fall of the Soviet Union by Douglas B. Reynolds on The Oil Drum.
 See Trade-Off, Metis Risk Consulting & Feasta, 2012
I spent a while last night reading David Holmgren’s latest essay Crash on Demand (read the PDFhere). Back in 2007 Holmgren, who is one of the initiators of the concept of Permaculture, wrote a series of possible future scenarios in which he posited a number of different scenarios that could play out with regard to civilisation and the environment. I won’t go into those scenarios here but suffice to say that this latest essay represents an additional one – and a new way of thinking.
The two civilisation destroying situations we face are peak oil and climate change. Holmgren goes into some detail about why his perception of these has changed, concluding that peak oil has not yet turned out to be as bad as expected (for various reasons, notably financial) and climate change is likely to now far exceed our worst expectations, with a 4-6C degree scenario now likely in a BAU scenario.
This change in thinking was the result of an observation of the way energy and economic issues are panning out, plus a deeper consideration of the role of finance courtesy of systems thinker Nicole Foss. The gist of it is this: we are rapidly losing the chance to persuade policy makers to take the risk of global warming seriously, and given that the course we are now on would likely wipe out nearly all of humanity and make life considerably worse for millions of other species over the coming millennia, then the only sensible option for us is to crash the system of global growth-based capitalism.
If that sounds radical that’s because it is. Holmgren points out that the last few decades of environmental protest have failed miserably. The dominant paradigm of ‘economic growth at any cost’ grinds ecocentrist concerns into the dust. A quick survey of the news headlines should convince anyone of the veracity of this. And although we are now living in an age of limits, where the quantity and quality of the fossil energy sources available to us begins to diminish, the system is perpetuated by the financial system which continues to magic credit out of thin air without any basis on a claim in the real world. Witness the shale oil boom in the US, a vastly inefficient and polluting operation that only makes economic sense due to the distorting wizardry of Wall Street financiers.
Furthermore, he rightly observes that the vast majority of people in the industrialised world could not care less about destroying the basis for life on planet Earth. As the global economic bubble deflates – something it has been doing since 2008 – most people in our overdeveloped economies are too busy trying to hold down a job or are too influenced by the growth-perpetuating mantra of politicians and the media to give much thought to the wider world. This is unfortunate, but at least it demonstrates the pointlessness of trying to gain political traction in a system that is rigged against anything other than limitless growth. Any concessions the system makes to preserving the biosphere tend to be largely symbolic, such as increasing bottle recycling rates, or charging a levy on plastic bags, while the real business of exploitation on a planetary scale continues apace.
Furthermore, the plateauing of oil production has not seen the rapid uptake of clean-tech that its proponents suggested would happen as soon as oil prices climbed. Instead it has seen a switch to dirtier and more dangerous to extract fuels, aided and abetted by the fossil fuel sector and its financial backers. So instead of moving into a ‘green tech’ future we are in practice moving into a ‘brown tech’ one. And although the financial instruments used to boost the production of shale oil and gas are by nature Ponzi schemes and cannot last, Holmgren argues that they may indeed last long enough to make a controlled powerdown situation impossible, as well as missing the window to wean ourselves off fossil fuels.
However, given that the economic system is only being held together by an almost-hallucinatory perception of continued growth and stability which is held by the majority, perhaps this is also the key to seeing its Achilles heel. Holmgren says that a sudden whole scale implosion of the global financial system is really the only hope of curtailing our carbon emissions and cutting them to a level that would avoid runaway global warming. He estimates the chances of a global economic collapse happening ‘naturally’ at 50% over the next five years.
Adopting local currencies, bartering, avoiding paying tax and using the copious quantities of materials lying around as leftovers from the current waste-based economy would be ways of hastening the demise of the planet-destroying system, while simultaneously acting as a good model for late adopters, many of whom would want to ‘join up’ as the current system of industrial production begins to falter. This, he concedes, would also hasten the demise of a good many worthy and progressive projects, and would likely make enemies with those on the left of the political spectrum who rely just as much on the growth of the industrial system as those on the right. Nevertheless, he says, this is a bitter price that must be paid.
Would this be enough to starve the beast? Nobody knows, but it might represent a better expenditure of energy rather than waving a banner outside a climate conference. The system, he maintains, cannot be reformed. Instead it must die and be reborn. He is quite aware that advocating such a view would vilify him and others who could be accused of trying to collapse the economic system, but maintains that we have a duty to protect life on earth by any means necessary from a rapacious class of human being and a system that has got out of control. This is best done by building an alternative parallel economy – one that is not predicated on endless growth.
By a strange coincidence, after I had finished reading David Holmgren’s essay an email popped up in my browser. It was just telling me that Collette O’Neill – the Irish blogger who lives at Bealtaine Cottage – had a new post. I clicked on it and was greeted by a series of pictures and text that are a living example of everything David Holmgren was advocating. It summarised how she herself had turned away from ‘the machine’ and how this had allowed her to build her permaculture cottage and lead the kind of life that many dream could only be possible by, say, winning the lottery. See her example here.
Crash on Demand: David Holmgren updates his Future Scenarios: Review
David 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 ourenergy 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.