David Holmgren’s “Crash on Demand”

January 16, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.
There has been a lot of reaction in recent days to David Holmgren’s recent reassessment of his Future Scenarios paper of 2007. In that paper, Holmgren describes four alternative scenarios, calling them Brown Tech, Green Tech, Earth Steward and Lifeboats. In his reassessment, he notes that Peak Oil has so far failed to trigger any sort of decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, while the projected effects of rapid climate change have gone from bad to borderline lethal for human survival. Noting that previous strategies for stopping this slide to environmental destruction, such as international negotiations, mainstream climate activism, the Transition Towns movement and all the rest have had a negligible effect, he proposed a new approach:
“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 systemic boycott of the centralized systems as a whole, that could lead to more than 5% contraction in the centralised economies. Whether this became the straw that broke the back of the global financial system or a tipping point, no one could ever say, even after the event.”
In response, Nicole Foss has written a lengthy, thoughtful piece, in which she explains that each of these scenarios operates at a different scale: the current juggernaut of Brown Tech, including shale oil and gas production using fracking, deepwater oil and gas production, tar sands and so on are conducted at the national or the transnational scale; Green Tech initiatives such as solar installations, micro-hydro, shift to bicycling over driving and so on are happening, where they are, at the city or regional level; the Earth Steward approach functions best at the local level of the town or the village; finally, building Lifeboats is largely a personal or family pursuit.
I agree that treating these four as distinct scenarios is at best misleading: these are just different facets of reality, observable, as Nicole points out, at different scales. Brown Tech is a set of desperate coping mechanisms: in the face of Peak Oil (conventional global oil production peaked in 2005-6) and declining production from conventional wells, energy companies have attempted to keep production up by resorting to desperate measures such as fracking and drilling in the Arctic, and have succeeded, so far, albeit at a much higher cost. Notably, what has made it possible for them to do so is the magical levitation act performed by the world’s central banks, which has kept global lines of credit open against all odds. My feeling is that once gravity starts working again Peak Oil with reassert itself with a vengeance, and that the Brown Tech economy is a dead man walking. Let’s have some respect for the dead.
I am, obviously, a fan of Green Tech. A few years ago Boston had no bike lanes; now it has bike lanes along all major streets, and a very successful bike sharing program. What’s not to like about that? I am also, at this point, practiced at installing solar panels and wind generators for easy off-grid living. I’ve experimented with having a composting toilet aboard a boat, with mixed results, but have extracted some useful lessons. At some point I would like to try my hand at welding up a biochar converter. But will any of this have much of an effect at the global scale? I doubt it! In fact, I doubt that anything will. The Massachusetts state legislature just voted $50 million to mitigating the effects of climate change. Problem solved! LOL!
Likewise, Earth Stewardship sounds lovely. I haven’t been involved in Permaculture beyond reading a bunch of books. My problem is that Permaculture requires land, and I don’t happen to have any. Perhaps some day I will get to try a few experiments setting up self-perpetuating patches of edible plants on uninhabited bits of coastline. But there is another type of culture with which I do have direct experience: the kitchen-gardening culture in Russia. Gardening can be a lifesaver. You still need to periodically get a sack of grain from somewhere, and it’s hard to survive with eating an animal now and again, but it can make a huge difference. All you need is a patch of dirt and some skill; no swales, guilds or other Permaculture concepts needed. Can kitchen-gardening make a difference at a national scale? Yes it can. It has and it will again. There is just one problem: foodies. They don’t want to merely survive by eating a balanced diet of potatoes, turnips, cabbage and rye periodically augmented with guinea pig stew; they want fresh, delicious produce and fancy recipes. I’ve often thought that a good trifecta for a collapse-related blog to hit would be to incorporate climate change, peak oil and delicious, healthy, organic, local food. There could be three tabs: near-term human extinction got you down? Click on another tab and look at some luscious, mouth-watering tomatoes. But if the foodies can be reined in, then kitchen-gardening becomes something of survival value.
Likewise, there is nothing wrong with Lifeboats. I happen to live on a boat, so I have taken the concept beyond the metaphor stage. But even metaphorically, it’s a good idea to have a plan for what to do in case of the sudden shutdown of global finance followed by the shutdown of global supply chains for everything from Saudi oil to Canadian toilet paper. Someone who hasn’t made any preparations for that at all is going to have to go and bother those who have, with mixed results. If you don’t like thinking about big disasters, think small. I have backups upon backups: if electricity goes off, I have batteries; if I can’t heat with diesel, I can heat with propane; if shore water goes off, I can switch to internal tanks; if internal tanks run dry, I have a jerrican of potable water. Such minor emergencies do occur with some regularity, so these preparations are not in vain. Being prepared for minor emergencies makes it easy to take the next step and prepare for big ones.
So these are all facets of reality, not alternative scenarios. The fact that the Brown Tech facet is currently expanding by leaps and bounds is problematic. It would certainly be nice if it collapsed sooner rather than later. If, like Holmgren says, 10% of the population boycotted global finance, and global finance crashed, Brown Tech would probably just shut down, because its activities are very capital-intensive. Now, since our voices—Holmgren’s and mine and those of other people who may be consonant with Holmgren’s message—are mainly projected through blogs, I can do some math and figure out how many me-equivalents it would take to bring about the required change in global sentiment.
This particular blog gets around 14k unique visitors a month. Let’s assume a sky-high conversion rate of 50%, where half of my readers pledge to support Homgren’s boycott. That’s 7k people. Global population is 7 billion, 10% of that is 700 million. Dividing one into the other, we get our result: it would take on the order of 100,000 me-equivalent activists/bloggers to bring about the required change of consciousness. Next question: how many me-equivalent (give or take) bloggers are there out there? Albert Bates has obliged with a nice chart that shows all the notable ones.
Image Removed
Note that there are quite a few worthies hiding out along the axes. Bates cares about the means (peaceful) and is agnostic about the outcome. Five more are distributed along the Ecotopia-Collapse axis, which means that they are agnostic about the means. One—Kunstler—is agnostic about both. Note my position on the chart: between Greer and McPherson. Greer thinks that collapse will take a few centuries; McPherson thinks that humans will be extinct before then. My hunch is that those alive today will live to see the Earth’s population decrease by at least 50% through famine, disease and war—if they live to see it, that is. How can you tell if you are extinct if you happen to be extinct?
Back to the math: of the 22 activists/bloggers on Albert’s chart, how many might go along with the plan? We already know that Rob Hopkins wants us to count him out. He wrote that Holmgren’s Crash on Demand “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…” Yes, I can see why local govenments might take a dim view of a plan to zero out their budgets, and why the trade unions might not be enthused by a plan that would put their entire rank and file on the unemployment line. I guess Hopkins’ “potential broad coalitions” will just have to wait for collapse rather than try to bring it about. Potentially, that is.
Not that any of that matters, of course, because, even if we assume that everyone will go along with Holmgren’s plan, dividing one into the other we still get a 99.98% shortfall in the required number of activists/bloggers. La-de-da. But don’t let that stop you from trying because, regardless of results (if any) it’s a good thing to be trying to do.