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

January 13, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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

‘Crash on Demand’ in a nutshell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I believe that actively building parallel and largely non-monetary household and local community economies with as little as 10% of the population has the potential to function as a deep systematic boycott of the centralised systems as a whole, that could lead to more than 5% contraction in the centralised economies".  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Jackson, in Prosperity Without Growth, writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two: the concept of ‘Skilful Means’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last thoughts

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

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

Holmgren argues that:

"bringing these issues out into the open might inspire desperate climate and political activists to put their substantial energy into permaculture, Transition Towns, voluntary frugality, and other aspects of positive environmentalism".  

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

Rob Hopkins

Rob Hopkins is a cofounder of Transition Town Totnes and Transition Network, and the author of The Transition Handbook, The Transition Companion, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, 21 Stories of Transition and most recently, From What Is to What If: unleashing the power of imagination to create the future we want. He presents the podcast series ‘From What If to What Next‘ which invites listeners to send in their “what if” questions and then explores how to make them a reality.  In 2012, he was voted one of the Independent’s top 100 environmentalists and was on Nesta and the Observer’s list of Britain’s 50 New Radicals. Hopkins has also appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought and A Good Read, in the French film phenomenon Demain and its sequel Apres Demain, and has spoken at TEDGlobal and three TEDx events. An Ashoka Fellow, Hopkins also holds a doctorate degree from the University of Plymouth and has received two honorary doctorates from the University of the West of England and the University of Namur. He is a keen gardener, a founder of New Lion Brewery in Totnes, and a director of Totnes Community Development Society, the group behind Atmos Totnes, an ambitious, community-led development project. He blogs at transtionnetwork.org and robhopkins.net and tweets at @robintransition.

Tags: Crash on Demand, global economic crash, permaculture, scaling up