Stabbing the beast
I spent a while last night reading David Holmgren’s latest essay Crash on Demand (read the PDF here). 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.
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.
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