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22 Billion Energy Slaves: Stabbing the Beast

22 Billion Energy Slaves: Stabbing the Beast.

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.

But then he goes on to advocate giving it a good shove in that direction.An estimated billion people on the planet live middle class lifestyles and use up the lion’s share of energy and resources. Holmgren says that if a section – he reckons 10% – opt out of the growth at any cost paradigm and massively downscale their involvement with the global system of capitalism, then this might be enough to send it into a terminal decline faster than it is already in. This might be easier than it sounds, he says. A majority of people are now disillusioned to some extent with bankers and politicians, and this number can only grow as promises continue to be broken and the wealth gap continues to widen. Actions could be as simple as withdrawing all your money from the bank and storing it as cash – after all, take £100 out of the bank and you are starving the system of £1000 of credit that it would otherwise use as part of the fractional reserve system. He goes on to advocate turning ones back on corporations, shopping locally, growing your own veg and all of the other things that Permaculturists and Transitioners do as a matter of course. This, he insists, is a positive thing to do that offers the only real hope of making a difference.

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

Crash on Demand: David Holmgren updates his Future Scenarios: Review.

Crash on Demand: David Holmgren updates his Future Scenarios: Review

by David MacLeod, originally published by Integral Permaculture  | DEC 18, 2013

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 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?

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

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.

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