What is David Holmgren Really Telling Us?

January 20, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

David Holmgren’s latest essay, Crash on Demand, appeared on his website initially with little fanfare in December. My post (Crash on Demand: David Holmgren Updates His Future Scenarios) was perhaps the first online response (posted December 17th).

Now the peak-oil blogosphere is roiling with commentary, with lots of different positions being staked out. Jason Heppenstal characterizes Holmgren’s position as advocating “any means necessary” to protect life on earth.

Nicole Foss at The Automatic Earth mostly supports Holmgren’s position, but offers her own lengthy essay to stake out her nuanced position.

Rob Hopkins at Transition Culture, taking on one of his heroes, calls Holmgren “naive and irresponsible” and then quotes Nicole Foss out of context to boot. Guy McPherson was (apparently) even less kind to Foss. Kevin O’Connor at C-Realm calls him out on it and sets the record straight. [Kevin goes under the nom de web of "KMO"].

Joanne Poyourow at Transition U.S. in turn seems to imply that Hopkins is beginning to paint himself into the Green Tech Stability scenario, rather than that of Energy Descent (Steady State folk then claim they are misrepresented). She is careful to make her position clear: “I am not advocating for intentionally creating an economic crash.”

Then legendary permaculture activist Albert Bates offered up convenient charts so that we can see where all of our favorite Collapseniks fall into his 4 quadrant map. Do they lean toward Ecotopia or Collapse, toward Peaceful Transformation or Violent Revolution? He shows Holmgren moving from Techno-optimist into the “Violent Revolution” quadrant, which I would strongly challenge. Bates later clarified that the “Violent Revolution” tag is not meant to mean physical violence necessarily, but those “willing to push the agenda with acts of defiance of state authority.” Nevertheless, that nuance is easily lost when just looking at the chart.

Finally (so far), Dimitry Orlov has joined the fray, claiming that Holmgren has “proposed a new approach” because previous mainstream environmentalist strategies (including the Transition Towns movement) have had such a negligible effect.

For me, all of the commentators named above have valid points and important perspectives that are good to hear. However, it is very easy to misrepresent the views of the people being responded to…as I’ve likely unintentionally done above. I will be attempting to sort some of this out in a series of posts.

Today I want to discuss my contention that most of the writers named above, whom I have a great deal of respect for, seem to me to be missing the nuance of David Holmgren’s thinking. These deficient interpretations then are stretched and amplified as they bounce off one another in the blogosphere. No one seems to be noticing that the actual actions Holmgren recommends haven’t changed much since he wrote Permaculture One in 1978.

I hope I’m forgiven for using extended quotes in an attempt to make things more clear.

For example, here is David Holmgren in 1994, concluding an essay titled “Energy and Permaculture“:

To summarize…

  • Reduce, Reuse, Recycle (in that order).
  • Grow a garden and eat what it produces.
  • Avoid imported resources where possible.
  • Use labor and skill in preference to materials and technology.
  • Design, build, and purchase for durability and repairability.
  • Use resources for their greatest potential use (e.g. electricity for tools and lighting,
    food scraps for animal feed).
  • Use renewable resources wherever possible even if local environmental costs appear higher (e.g. wood rather than electricity for fuel and timber rather than steel for construction).
  • Use non-renewable and embodied energies primarily to establish sustainable systems
    (e.g. passive solar housing, food gardens, water storage, forests).
  • When using high technology (e.g. computers) avoid using state of the art equipment.
  • Avoid debt and long-distance commuting.
  • Reduce taxation by earning less.
  • Develop a home-based lifestyle, be domestically responsible.

And here is part of his introduction in last month’s Crash On Demand:

My 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.

It’s the same strategy advocated in both papers: Move from being “dependent consumers to responsible self-reliant producers.” The only thing that has changed is that he’s now also saying, (I’m paraphrasing), “by the way, engaging in this behavior just might help crash the system a little bit sooner.” It seems to me that this invitation is designed to bring into the permaculture fold the environmental activists that are already attempting to avert climate catastrophe by ever more defiant or desperate means – from McKibben campaigning against private oil companies (see my post here) to Klein calling for revolt (see my post here) to Jensen who claims that “the task of an activist is to confront and take down systems of oppressive power.” (see my post here).

Holmgren writes, “disillusioned social and political activists are just starting to recognize Permaculture as a potentially effective pathway for social change as 20th century style mass movements seem to have lost their potency.”

Their methods are not showing to be effective, whereas the Permaculture/Transition approach will not only put them and their community in a more secure position, it just might also “have a chance of stopping the juggernaut of consumer capitalism from driving the world over the climate change cliff.”

And yet, the way Holmgren’s position is being presented in the blogs, you might think he was saying the opposite. Such was the impression of Lou, who left this comment on Hopkins’ blog:

If you agree with David [Holmgren] come and join us at [Deep Green Resistance link]…

Holmgren states up front in the introduction that “this provocative idea is intended to increase understanding.” This indicates to me that he’s using the suggestion at least partially as a rhetorical device.

On page 14, Holmgren writes:

An argument can be mounted for putting effort into precipitating that crash, the crash of the financial system. Any such plan would of course invite being blamed for causing it when it happens.

Note that he doesn’t mount the argument, he instead, choosing his words carefully, says “an argument can be mounted.” Then, a few paragraphs later:

Before considering whether this is a good idea or not, I want to consider whether concerted action by limited number of activists could bring it about?

He has still not decided whether this thought experiment is a good idea or not. Now notice the nuance in Holmgren’s words as he concludes Crash on Demand:


Mass movements to get governments to institute change have been losing efficacy for decades, while a mass movement calling for less seems like a hopeless case. Similarly boycotts of particular governments, companies and products simply change the consumption problems into new forms.

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 centralized 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.

Discussing such possibilities may be counterproductive and may brand us as crazy people, a doomsday cult or even terrorists. Maybe it is better to keep focusing on the positive aspects of these bottom up changes that are acceptable to the average citizen, better physical and mental health, more fun and empowered children who can survive and thrive in a world of dramatic transformation, while minimizing our contribution to harm to nature and others.

On the other hand, bringing these issues out in 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. It just might stop the monster of global growth after all other options have been exhausted. Rather than spurning financial system terrorists, we would welcome the impacted and vulnerable to the growing ranks of terra-ists with their hands in the soil.

Did you notice that Holmgren begins by pointing out the ineffectiveness of traditional activism (much as Hopkins does here). He then acknowledges that his provocative suggestion that “reducing consumption and capital enough to crash the fragile global financial system” might actually be counterproductive. “Maybe it is better to keep focusing on the positive aspects of these bottom up changes…” Here he seems to back away a little from the idea of intentionally crashing the economy, coming back around to his common Permaculture message of the past 30 years.

And then he tells us why he offered the suggestion in the first place: to inspire activists “to put their energy into permaculture, Transition Towns…and other aspects of positive environmentalism.”

He’s not a terrorist after all – he’s the same “terra-ist” he’s been all along. He’s not inviting us to take to the streets, but rather to put our “hands in the soil.”

Like Joanne Poyourow, I want to make it clear that I do not support the idea of intentionally creating an economic crash. We’ll go into this in the next post as we look at Nicole Foss’s own thoughtful essay.

Image RemovedMy deepest hope is that after all this discussion ABOUT Holmgren’s ideas, that people will actually read his work, especially Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. The theme of the book is energy descent, the same theme as the latest paper. The book rises above any particular strategies associated with Permaculture and offers broad principles that can be applied at any scale to the problems of a society that has reached the limits of growth.

David MacLeod

I live in Washington state and consider myself a social permaculturist (exploring “invisible structures”), and am involved with the Transition Initiative movement as a co-initiator of Transition Whatcom.  Transition Training in 2008 from the original UK Trainers Sophy Banks and Naresh Giangrande, and Permaculture Design Certificate earned at Inspiration Farm (where I lived for about a year and a half), 2009.  Introduction to Integral and Integral Sustainability from Alan Seid, of Cascadia Workshops. I have a particular interest in what I call Integral Permaculture, as well as PatternDynamics (TM) (informed by both Integral theory and Permaculture). In January of 2014 I became the first person in the PatternDynamics Community of Practice to receive Level II (b) Accreditation, certifying me as a facilitator of the PatternDynamics workshop. Also known to be a “peak oil activist,” I am an occasional contributor to Resilience.org (formerly Energy Bulletin), and have been a panelist at Seattle’s Green Fest.

Tags: Crash on Demand, Crash on Demand responses