Reality Report: David Holmgren and FutureScenarios.org (Part 2)
The Reality Report interviews David Holmgren. David co-invented permaculture over 30 years ago and has been a practitioner and teacher ever since, both at his home in Australia and as a consultant around world. In 2002 he published the book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability that reviewed permaculture in the context of peak energy. More recently, David created a web site called Future Scenarios, see www.futurescenarios.org. This interview is based on that web site and was recorded on July 14, 2008.
The complete interview is nearly two hours long and is therefore broken into two segments. The first installment (link) discussed a broad view of history as related to ecology, energy and societal complexity. The development of permaculture in the context of 1970s economic woes was reviewed. David explains why he created FutureScenarios.org as an alternative to the predominant beliefs in either business as usual or a smooth steady state transition towards "sustainability," as well as the simplistic notion of a "Mad Max" type collapse.
This second installment covers four "energy descent" scenario groups that correspond to potential variation in the severity of both peak oil and climate change. Scenarios are also viewed as choices, with certain factors, such as social scale and resource availability, influencing the descent path.
Transcribed by Brian Magee
Jason Bradford: I'm Jason Bradford, host of The Reality Report.
I believe that solving a problem begins by facing the truth about its real causes. Our society is pressing against ecological and energetic constraints. We are at an historic inflection point in which decisions made today will have profound impacts for centuries to come.
The Reality Report is recorded in the studios of KZYX&Z in Mendocino County, California, and is a long-format interview program of key thinkers of our time.
Welcome to The Reality Report. I'm your host, Jason Bradford, and this is Part 2 of an interview with David Holmgren. David co-invented permaculture over 30 years ago and has been a practitioner and teacher ever since, both at his home in Australia and as a consultant around the world. In 2002 he published the book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability that reviewed permaculture in the context of peak energy. More recently, David created a web site called Future Scenarios. That's futurescenarios.org and this interview is based on that web site and was recorded on July 14, 2008.
David, thanks for being with us today—or tonight, depending upon what side of the world you're on.
David Holmgren: Pleasure, Jason.
JB: Well, our previous hour we went over, sort of, the first part of your web site, Future Scenarios, and kind of reviewed the energy dependency of societies and how societies go through phases of rises and fall based on resource availability, and you can think of this in terms of forests and fields and fisheries and mineral wealth. And right now we are very dependent, of course, on fossil fuels and have a much globalized economic system around those. And we talked about the concepts of peak oil.
So, let's summarize a minute. You make a compelling case that energy decline is inevitable, discussing things like net energy, and you implied that the techno-explosion scenario—sort of, we're all off to outer space—or the techno-stability scenario—meaning that we find a way not to need so much resources and we can maintain kind of a humming economy that's sort of de-materialized, in a sense. These are very unlikely.
And here's what you wrote to explain the need for energy descent planning, quote: "To suggest that the next energy transition will fall well short of the past patterns of human collective expectations is a gross understatement. My quick overview of evidence around the most critical issues suggests we need to refocus our assumptions about the future around energy descent while developing the psycho-social and eco-technical capacity to respond to the range of possible scenarios that we could face."
So next on the site, futurescenarios.org, you develop a scenario planning model, incorporating peak oil and climate change. So, why don't we start by explaining the model parameters and the four quadrants they form. It's sort of hard in radio, but there's a good picture on the web site of these four quadrants formed by peak oil and climate change.
DH: Yes. Well, the scenario planning approach, of course, is a way of telling plausible stories, if you like, that are internally consistent about the future without saying "we reckon that one the one that's going to happen," and being open to the emergence of all of the scenarios that seem reasonable within some framework allowing a greater flexibility.
And the reason I use peak oil and climate change as the two variables that then define four quadrants is that I believe they are the most powerful forces shaping the future. Clearly there are many, many other factors but these two are the strongest and they have great uncertainties in them.
In relation to climate, the climate modeling is really very, very uncertain about how fast climate change will come on, about how severe the actual impacts could be, and also other knock-on effects from that. There's still a lot of debate around that and that's made more complex by whether human societies are actually going to engage in significant mitigation of climate change. So, that really provides one access of uncertainty, that we can have relatively benign scenarios over the next 10-30 years, which is the time scale that I'm looking at, or in that that time they could be relatively severe, things could already be starting to happen. There's certainly quite a lot of evidence that that could be the case.
And then on the other axis we've got peak oil. And it's not so much whether it's happening or even when it's happening, because I think it's pretty clear that it's really happening now or very soon in the future, in the next few years. It's more the issue of at what rate is the decline in production of oil. And because oil is the most high-quality energy that we are more dependent on than any other primary energy source, it really shapes the peak energy situation more than any other resource as well, so that I am working around the assumption that peak oil is really the precursor quite closely to peak energy.
And then we may a decline that's relatively slow, of possibly, say, 2% per annum, or at the other extreme we could have very fast decline of something like 10%. And that might not sound like much, but if you think about the extraordinary economic growth in China over recent years, that's been about 10% growth. Ten percent decline is very severe.
JB: Well, you halve your energy availability in, what, seven years with that.
DH: Yeah. So, that then gives four quadrants that combine these factors. And I then, sort of, characterize those combinations so the most positive, if you like, of those scenarios is the relatively benign climate change and slow decline in oil, and I call that scenario the Green Tech scenario, and at the other extreme where we could have a precipitous collapse in oil production leading to, inevitably, an economic collapse. But, even though that would lead to a massive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the very real possibility that we've already too far into the tipping points of the climate system and we're going to get very bad and accelerating climate change as well.
DH: So, there are, if you like, the two extremes. And on the other cross combinations a combination of moderate decline in oil but a severe onset of climate change due to accelerating greenhouse gas emissions. I call that scenario the Brown Tech scenario. And the other combination, where the climate remains relatively benign, partly because of, actually, global economic collapse. But the oil and other resources collapse rapidly and are more immediately unavailable, not because there isn't any left, but because there's no economic system that can hold together to organize the delivery of all these resources.
JB: Right. Okay. So, why don't we, then, go through these various scenarios for a little bit and let's start at the upper left quadrant where we've got a slow decline of oil but severe climate change—and you said it's called the Brown Tech—and this is characterized by strong central governmentand corporate control. So, what is life like in this scenario?
DH: Well, I think there's a big divide between city and remote rural areas that becomes more intense. And there's also an increasing divide between the haves and have-nots. So, some elements of our current global society just become more intense. So, there's great variability depending on where you are and, you know, what the situation is. And all of these scenarios might be expressed in different countries to varying degrees.
The Brown Tech scenario requires that there is still a lot of energy and resources and organizational capacity to manage those. And because the climate is so severe, what that leads to is, really... agriculture becomes extremely difficult. Food production falls or the supply systems become unreliable, the threat of rising sea levels starts to lead to either reinforcement infrastructure to protect coastal cities or new development moving away from the coast—a huge demand on society's energy and resources and the market economy can't really deal with this.
There's a constant sense of crisis because although the decline of energy is slow there may be extremely high prices and shortages and you get a re-emergence of strong governments that just start acting, as they see, for the common good and start forcing the changes that are needed, or that they see that are needed, and they would be dependent on the technical capacity of the corporations to make a lot of these changes. But the relationship between government and the corporations would be quite different to what it's been in the past. I believe national governments would have the upper hand in many countries. Whereas, in the recent past we've really been in a situation where the global corporations are almost more powerful than governments.
JB: It almost sounds like a wartime economy, in a sense, where it's managed by the top, sort of, bureaucrats making sure our technocrats, in a sense, that things happen quickly without delay because we can't afford, sort of, the debate and the stalling, in a sense.
DH: Yes, the wartime analogy I think is a good one. Ideas like rationing, governments deciding who's going to get the resources and who's not, putting large amounts of public money to subsidize certain activities such as in intensive agriculture under controlled climate structures, if necessary, large scale greenhouses to produce food close to the cities. These types of systems that will involve huge expenditure of resources and, of course, the development of energy sources that will actually tend to feed in to greenhouse gas emissions further.
So, there's a sort of a positive forcing where, for example, governments developing coal-to-liquids systems which will be, you know, very greenhouse gas intensive. Or even if there was a very large build program for nuclear. Although the claims of nuclear have been having less gas emissions, in that early phase, if this was going to be significant, just the building/construction activity would be an enormous increase in greenhouse gas emissions. This would be all of the other infrastructure development projects that might be undertaken. I mean, some of the projects that could occur might be large-scale public transport, these sorts of things.
Now I see that some countries are more likely than others to take this pathway and the ones that are naturally resource-rich like Canada and Australia, for example. And especially Australia because it's been assessed as being so vulnerable to climate change though drought that this is a scenario that you might say is more likely in a country like Australia.
JB: Okay. So, yeah. Sounds like there's a lot of concern about security, climate refugees, poor unreliable food supplies, worries about rationing, hoarding, those sort of things. And, so I can understand that it's like we've said it's almost like a wartime situation where you can't afford to let things get out of control because things are so tight. So, okay.
DH: Yeah, so, it's still an energy decent scenario but there is still enough resource and capacity to operate the largest levels of government and those governments effectively remain very strong at that basic level of security and provision of basic needs.
JB: Right. Okay. So, now why don't we go over what's called the Green Tech scenario, which includes a slow decline in oil supplies and not so severe climate change impacts.
DH: Yes. Well, if the climate change impacts are relatively moderate but we've got these high energy prices and declining production, we're going to see this accelerated change to the natural resource side of the equation. The economies of forestry and agriculture are relatively going to be delivering more to society than they have in the past.
You know, it's not that agriculture's going to become more productive than it has been, and it might actually be slightly less productive because of the cost of fertilizers and other things. On the positive side we might see the development, big spread, of organic agriculture and certainly low input ways of working natural resources. And that this relative wealth, given that the wealth from fossil fuels will be declining quite significantly, will lead to the strong economic growth in regional economies. So we've got this distributed resource of agriculture and forestry that's right across the country, which is not this, sort of, concentrated wealth in mines and focused into cities.
JB: I see.
DH: And this distributed wealth will also go with the development of renewable technologies which are, by their nature, distributed also—wind power, hot micro hydro, geothermal, methane, solar—that these things will really encourage regional economies and will encourage the level of power more at these regional levels. So, although national governments will still be there, a lot of the real economic power will be at the city and regional level.
DH: In some countries that would be what would be effectively state governments, may have more power. And what this would tend to encourage is a lot of the strategies that have been promoted by environmentalists in terms of encouraging a conserver economy, moving away from a consumer economy, greater degrees of efficiency, further development of public transport, and the development of regional economies that can buffer against the contraction that will be happening in global economies.
JB: Okay. Can you say anything about places... I mean, if we have an economy that's largely reliant on the productivity of a land base, you know, forestry and agriculture and water systems, I could think of some places that aren't going to do so well in this scenario. What sort of happens in places like that you see?
DH: Well, I think the big opportunities in those ones are around efficiency and changes in human behavior and that structures in society that actually encourage that rather than trying to hold on to the consumer economy with just declining number of participants, which is really the Brown Tech scenario. In the Green Tech scenario, if you get enough combinations of public policy and the shocks of energy costs don't leap to total economic collapse you could see the refocusing of resources on, "well, what's going to give everyone the best reasonable way of life."
And I think a lot of things can actually change, especially in rich countries that don't have necessarily a lot of immediate natural resources. For example, there's a huge surplus of housing stock and this huge surplus of motor cars that are not really being used. You know, if we put four people in a car, suddenly we've increased the fuel efficiency of the car four-fold. So, that wealth and surplus capacity with the right sort of organization can lead to a lot of breathing space in, you know, restructuring the society and can actually build a lot of better community connection and trust. We can see the development of shared households just being much more energetically efficient and, you know, more people basically working together. So, it's more then at the human end of the equation rather than the natural resources end of the equation.
JB: What do you see about, sort of, the rural/urban environment? Is this the re-ruralization scenario in the Green Tech?
DH: There would definitely be part of that. The whole further development of large cities would be switched off in a public policy sense and there'd be a re-ruralization process but a relatively gentle one and you would start to see the suburban landscapes become involved more in food production. Some maintenance of the, you know, the infrastructure of, you know, electricity supply and water systems, all these basic things, you know, might persist even if they're a lot more shaky and a lot more costly than they are now.
JB: Okay. So now why don't we move over to the side of the scenario chart where the energy decline is rapid. In these cases financial governance and communication systems break down leading to an inability to mobilize resources at the scales required for either this Brown or Green Tech scenario. So why don't we go where climate change is not overwhelming and you suggested a response called Earth Steward. What would this look like?
DH: Well, in these scenarios, as you say, the energy decline is rapid and there is major financial system and, consequently, economic collapse. But unlike the 1930s it's not possible to rebuild from that because all of those resources are actually in decline, rapid decline. But the other factor that immediately, sort of, cuts off the capacity of society at a larger organizational scale to adjust is that the financial systems are predicated on the belief in growth and when that completely stops, you know, this spiral down in the economic situation then leads to resources being stranded, whether that's like a huge amount of food rotting on farms or whether it's coal mines that can't be worked because they don't have the spare parts and that, sort of, spiraling out of control.
This is like very, very severe impacts, especially in the cities. There is almost inevitably large-scale increase in the death rate in some places. I would see things like the possibilities of what happened in the Black Death and other pandemics that have happened in the past and a re-development around very localized forms of governance and in places where there was some capacity focusing on subsistence production of food and trade of scavenged items.
Now, the interesting thing about this situation compared with crises in past civilizations is the amount of materials that would be available, very high quality materials, and tools and things that could be used would mean that a whole lot of things could continue to be done, even though there may be no capacity to make those things again.
JB: Right. Right.
DH: So, many of the actual things that, you know, we've come to associate with industrial civilization, like whether it's just good pneumatic tires and vehicles with springs. You know, it's not like back to a medieval world where there's solid-wheel carts and things like that, because all of this stuff, if you like, of industrial society, is still all around us.
Now, obviously there is decreasing capacity to use a lot it. But it doesn't just disappear. But you do have this very strong focus on food, water, and in that situation this is such a, sort of, psycho-social shock, such a huge crisis and change that new communities form around what I would see as, really, a reverence for nature. Because if the climate hasn't turned bad the wonder that nature still provides, that food still grows, that the rain still falls, will become such a sort of a central focus in people's lives that the new communities that develop will have, probably, this earth spirituality focus.
Clearly that will go with very serious concerns about security and very, very difficult situations and, you know, the possibility of some places that are completely lawless without any order or any social capacity. In other places that manage to re-group and form forms of local governance and even the elements of a basic economy with a tax base from small, local businesses, and such things. So, again, this could be very, very different outcomes in different places according to the particular factors that emerge.
JB: Yeah, and you say this is the situation where permaculture might be most helpful.
DH: Yes. Well, I think permaculture with that focus on how do we work with nature with limited industrial inputs, limited used of fossil fuels, or those technical focuses on food production from gardens, rather than large-scale agriculture. The culture of permaculture of creative recycling, how you, sort of, use leftover industrial rubbish to make something useful that's productive for some other purpose, right through to the community strategies and communitarian strategies in eco-villages and co-housing projects, things like local currency systems that provide some capacity to continue to organize some sort of basic exchange of goods and the emphasis on simple technologies that can continue to be maintained. The degree to which communities have those sorts of things partially in place will mean they will fare a lot better.
JB: Yeah. Now, the scenario that is, of course, the most dire is we've got onset of climate change and rapid onset of peak oil, and this you call the Lifeboats scenario—all potential responses are overwhelmed. And this is sort of the classic image that we have, maybe, of societal collapse. But you suggest some ways in which humanity isn't relegated to, sort of, bands of hunter-gatherers circling the Arctic Ocean. What are those?
DH: Yeah, well, I think sometimes when we, sort of, try and contemplate these worse and worse scenarios that then just falls to the bottom and we say it's, sort of, you know, nothing persists. But if we look at those same places that have gone some distance towards providing for basic needs in small, close communities, some eco-villages and other households that are well-organized, the possibility that beyond just providing for a immediate survival, there could be some capacity to start salvaging the beneficial technologies and knowledge from industrial society to save for the future.
And the model for this is really the way the monasteries worked in the decline of Rome to save this knowledge. Now there were very clear things that the monasteries had going for them; they had their own house in order in order to provide for their own needs. But they also had skills that were useful to their surrounding communities and they could provide those skills and those communities then defended the monasteries against the affect of pirates and bandits and whatever. But the real work of the monasteries, of course, was packaging away this knowledge of civilization.
And I think there's some factors that may mean that we get more help from nature than some ecologists and climate modelers are suggesting because there is generally a view that there's just this, sort of, collapse of natural ecosystems.
JB: Yeah. It's very scary.
DH: And I think these most speculative. But I see in the modern weedscapes—the spread of different plants from many parts of the world—the possibility that we may have some reasonably productive ecosystems that are adapted to new conditions that can develop quite rapidly. And if those do develop then there is more of a resource base to support people. And that's not just starting from scratch because nature is actually in this state already. We already have these very complex mixed ecologies where people live that include a much greater biodiversity than existed before Europeans spread many plants around the world.
JB: Yeah. I think of gardens and farms like a permaculture landscape in the yard or a farm, and where all those species came from and why they were chosen, what properties they have, and will they self-propagate? That's sort of a question I have.
DH: Yeah. I think some of the models we can see there's been highly degraded environments in the Third World where someone introduced some new species. Often it's been eucalyptus from Australia and there was no fuel in the landscape at all. And because these trees are unpalatable to animals and were just that much tougher and better adapted than any other trees in the environment, they actually spread and those people now actually have at least a reasonable fuel supply and some straight poles that they manage to built houses from. Whereas without that they just would have been literally sitting in a desert. So, we can see in different, you know, highly depleted and degraded environments at least some of the models that could lead us to take a slightly more positive view of this otherwise very severe scenario.
JB: Yeah. You even talk about how there will be new reefs and estuaries forming around inundated cityscapes, or something like that. That could be very productive because there's all this, sort of, stored...
DH: Yes, well, we know that restructures including artificial elements lead to enormous increase in surface area that supports all of the basis for the most productive coastal marine ecosystems. And, ironically, that would be one of the outcomes of the flooding of a lot of coastal infrastructure. Of course, even in the worst climate scenarios those sort of things may not be happening for 50 years or so, but they might be developing new resources nevertheless.
JB: Now, these four scenarios are based upon these variables of peak oil and climate change. But I'm wondering how important might cultural attitudes and expectations be for responding well to energy descent. I mean, obviously there are scenarios we would... if we have to accept energy descent as, you know, "this is happening and these are these variables," though obviously some sides of the equations I'd rather be on than others. So, how important are people's attitudes and how does that feed into the decisions that are made that may help us go one direction or another?
DH: Yes. Well, this is a sort of a tension here between the, you know, what might at one extreme be called—criticizing this work—as biophysical determinism. These things are said and what we can do is respond and adapt through to the other extreme that is saying, "Oh, well, we like that one best, let's go there."
I think clearly a huge wild card and a huge variable is how humanity, sort of, collectively responds. And when I say collectively I don't necessarily mean just through these, sort of, international organizational agreements or those larger scale systems, but the net result of what people do and also the very localized result.
And I think all of these strategies are to some extend—sorry, the scenarios—to some extent involve a re-localization of power and action and that really means there's quite a strong force that's tending to make different outcomes in different places according to the particular factors of that place. Whereas in a globalized world the globalized power forces tend to moderate the differences between place or accentuate them through the structures of globalization. But as those linkages break down different places are more free to evolve around their own dynamics.
So, I think that means, ironically, that people acting in a particular place actually have more power to shape the future than they may have had in the recent past.
JB: Yeah. And a lot of local activists are often discouraged because they see themselves as so small and being overwhelmed by these global forces. And, so, you're sort of saying maybe not. Maybe as energy descent happens, these local sub-cultures are around will help shape the direction that the larger culture then goes?
DH: Yeah. There's also the thing that once some of the larger scale systems break they actually free resources to make people's more basic needs. There's evidence in the decline of Rome and other empires that the resources required to maintain the empire, maintain the military, maintain all these high-level power structures that the elites were committed to that ordinary people really couldn't care less about; they just want to have a reasonable life. And ironically when some of these structures started to break, actually people became better off.
JB: Yeah. I could see like the rural hinterlands of the Roman Empire where the tax man comes on a horse with the soldiers could be a real bummer.
DH: Exactly. So, I don't think these things are, you know, necessarily going to play out, but I do try and emphasize, you know, sort of starkly the changes that these scenarios involve and that these are not just choices that we make.
JB: I found your description of the Nested Scenarios to be one of the most insightful and helpful parts of the web site for me. I mean, I see myself and people around me engaging in behaviors that would support maybe two or more of the scenarios and you've helped, sort of, explain why that might be so. We all have particular zones of control and then there are constraints in our behavior based upon positions of power we might be in or lack of positions of power. So, please explain how these four scenarios may develop in parallel.
DH: Yeah, well this is going beyond the idea that different scenarios will be predominant in one place rather than another place. This is where they're all one inside the other.
So if we look at the... if we're operating at a high level in planning, in corporations, or in national governments, and are seriously looking at how we're going to respond to peak oil and climate change, not at the public publicity level but seriously dealing with this stuff, then it's sort of inevitable the type of responses that will be canvased will be those that, sort of, tend to fit into the Brown Tech scenario because they are the ones that reinforce that level of power. You know, this is the way that national governments could manage to survive as functional entities. And, so, organizations, like organisms, then to work to make sure that they actually, as much as possible, can survive.
On the other hand, if we are, sort of, working at a more city level government and responsible for the provision of water and electricity and basic needs to the citizens or involved in medium-scale businesses that are strongly dependent on hinterland resources and more localized investment, then a lot of the strategies that come to the fore in the Green Tech scenario actually just make natural sense to us.
And then if we're working as a sort of a community activist—typically a lot of permaculture activists are sort of working at this level of the local community level trying to bolster local food security, getting local currencies going, these sorts of strategies that might link to some of the things that are happening in very local government or, you know, community networks—then the Earth Steward scenario, sort of, a lot of those things actually make sense at that level. That sort of cooperative, communitarian, very localized, sort of, outcomes.
And then if we're having private thoughts about how our family and ourselves are going to survive in this difficult world in the future, we might be thinking about "have we got a water tank," you know, "do we have basic stocks of food," all of those basic concerns about security. The very things that are central in the Lifeboats scenario. So, if you like, the level of functional governance at the Lifeboats scenario is really the household or a small, relatively close community.
And, of course, we can see all of these things going on simultaneously in society at the moment.
JB: Yeah, I mean my own life is like that. I have Lifeboat planning; I have, you know, permaculture, communitarian stuff; I work with local governments trying to get them to do renewable energy; and I lobby my federal government.
JB: It's a riot. That's why I love that part so much, you know.
DH: Yeah, so, I think this does help people make sense of the incredibly confusing and contradictory nature of the work we're actually looking at around us and what we're trying to do ourselves, like conflicted parts of ourselves that are almost schizophrenic about how can we, sort of, actually be doing these things that appear to be self-contradictory or incompatible or whatever.
JB: Well, part of the issue is that personally all of us only have a certain amount of time in our lives and we have to allocate our time according to where we think it might be most effective. And I think that people who are more inclined towards, you know, individualism and don't believe in the ability for people to get along a going to move more towards Lifeboat. Those who are maybe engaged in politics all their life and, you know, have political connections and want to be part of something bigger will move toward the larger governance side of things. And so some people just hedge their bets and try different strategies, I guess. That's tough. It's tough to know.
DH: Yes. That's right. A lot of people have had the reaction that you've said. They said, "Ah, yes, I'm effectively working on all four." And that actually indicates a flexibility that the whole scenario-planning idea is trying to bring out, that you've got to, actually, as we say in permaculture, diversity is the way to go and not put all your eggs in one basket.
JB: Right, right, yeah. Well, there's a famous Chinese saying. It's given as a blessing but I think meant as a curse that goes "may you live in interesting times." Then I suppose that, you know, the security and stability are really comforting to think about and, you know, some of the sadness is that we don't appear to have, sort of, the luxury of a peaceful stasis right now to look forward to. And I'm just wondering what lessons or perspectives from ecology and history might be useful for those of us wanting to respond proactively to energy descent?
DH: Yes, well, I think there clearly is a huge process of grief about what we are, could lose, and what we perhaps could have saved if we'd acted differently as a civilization or at a societal or community level. There's sort of huge difficult, sort of, processes involved, but there's also those possibilities about transition and even biblical stories about walking through the valley of death and coming out the other side that actually have a resonance in what happens in natural ecosystems, that you can get major disturbance events like forest fire that can be clearly catastrophic to the system but then there is sort of a regrowth from the ashes. And, in fact, a lot of things are actually adapted to this.
But further than that often the natural disaster events in natural ecosystems lead to new opportunities. Actually, that's a point at which new ecosystems evolve. Effectively, new plants come in and instead of just spiraling down into a spiral of ecological degradation, you actually get new possibilities emerge from that.
And I think there's also many stories that have been told about the the seeds of rebirth from collapsing cultures. The American historian William Irwin Thompson often referred to Pythagoras and his being part of the ancient Egyptian mystery schools that were really part of a declining cultural which was ossifying and he was really a revolutionary running from that, set up his own school which really was the first university in the world, started what we know call science and mathematics.
And even though Pythagoras had a very rough time of it he's followers, really, fleeing from Italy into Greece, were the seeds of what we call classical Greek culture that we acknowledge as the starting point of Western civilization. So, this possibility of how we take bits of the industrial society which is dying and combine those with traditional indigenous cultures of place and traditions that are all now mixed in the world through migration, and piece together some new culture which we can't yet see exactly what that is, exactly what it'll be. But I think that's an incredibly powerful process in terms of, you know, the future of humanity to be engaged in. That's an amazing opportunity, in a way.
JB: Yeah. Certainly, I think, you know, permaculture gives us such a great guidance system for this and I think, you know, your book is a great one to read and when you're trying to think about, kind of, the schematic for how to go about, maybe, rebuilding something like this because it does cover everything from the natural world to the, sort of the, human psyche and social relationships which are all going to be a big part of the mix as we go forward, of course, as they always have been. But we're not taught that very directly. So, I really thank you for all the teaching you've done. I'm just wondering, you know, is there anything else you'd like to cover or reiterate as we close out the show?
DH: Well, maybe I could just finish with a story about presenting these scenarios at a workshop in Mexico. One night I finished by saying "well, we don't need to, sort of, really even think that these scenarios are likely to do some sort of sensible, sort of, planning and thinking around that." "It's a bit like insurance," I said. "People don't have fire insurance on their house because they think their house is going to burn down, but they do it because they recognize how severe the consequences would be if it did burn down." And these mostly middle-class Mexicans laughed at me. And I said, "What's the problem?" And they said, "Well, in Mexico no one has insurance on their house. And if they did they wouldn't trust that the insurance companies would pay anyway."
And it sort of made me think about, you know, comparing Australia and Mexico and looking at the very, very severe situation of how energy descent will play out in Mexico. And on the other hand just noticing how people's flexibility and adaptability and acceptance of chaos and uncertainty was so much a part of the culture and the ability of people to cooperate, and that in some ways maybe they'd fare as well as rich countries like Australia where the culture is so much more brittle and people's expectations are so much more. So I think there's, you know, reason for focusing on what are the opportunities everywhere because there's always opportunities which is what permaculture always focuses on.
JB: Alright, well, David Holmgren, I want to thank you so much for spending so much time with us on the program and look forward to looking at your site again and for inspiration and seeing how people are reacting to it. So, that's futurescenarios.org. And you take care in Australia. I really appreciate it.
DH: Thank you, Jason.
JB: Good night.
JB: This is a debrief of my interview with David Holmgren. And what struck me about about this show was the sense of calmness that David had throughout. He is obviously dealing with some pretty gruesome and frightening topics and not as a fantasy, but as a thoroughly researched and critically considered forecast of the next few decades. And I thinking about those who may be new to this sort of information and struck by this matter-of-fact tone. I'd like to, kind of, make an analogy that may be more familiar to people. Think of it like you'd think of doctors during a surgery. And they have their emotions sort of managed and in check and many people are able to do this during difficult work and what I think is going on is that David has just had the time to keep these emotions in check by processing this information enough. And note that I've been using the terms "manage" and "in check" because these emotions exist. They still exist within people who maybe have to deal with traffic accidents or are in a situation where, you know, life is on the line. But, they are just under the surface. And I wouldn't say that the emotions are any less real or complex than people who are, let's say, emotional about this. In fact, what I've discovered through this is that my emotional state when talking or imagining these things is more profound the longer it goes on because the emotions have been thought through so many times and have been integrated with thought. So, I just want people who are coming to this for the first time to realize how really important it is to integrate the emotions with the thought so that during crisis situations or during difficult times you can draw on the emotions but not let them overwhelm you.
So, this has been The Reality Report. I'm your host Jason Bradford and this is the debrief of a two-part interview with David Holmgren about his web site, futurescenarios.org.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.