David Holmgren: “I Haven’t Really Changed the Message”

February 5, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

I’m suggesting in my essay, the underlying thing is an appeal to those people to come and join us in the positive side where we’re going to create the world we do want, whether or not it leads to a larger scale positive change, or whether or not it contributes to a crash.
– David Holmgren

It’s a great interview of David Holmgren by Steffen Geyer on his show “21st Century Permaculture!” broadcast by Shoreditch Community Radio. The “classic retro funk” mixed in is an added bonus. The interview is now being streamed at Mixcloud here.

The interview focuses on the hubub that has surrounded Holmgen’s Crash on Demand essay, and I’m very pleased (and relieved) to report that my interpretation (What Is David Holmgren Really Telling Us?) was apparently spot on.

Image Removed

Here are a couple of excerpts I’ve transcribed from the interview:

David Holmgren:
I’m fairly pleased with the response [to the essay] – the fact that it’s created quite a lot of discussion, and triggered a lot of more nuanced thinking about ranges around ‘Future Scenarios.’ Albert Bates’ slightly lighthearted work on this, where he shifted me from an optimistic ecotopian view to a pessimistic collapsnik. …well, I didn’t agree with that at all, in that I’ve always had a mixture of the two, and I don’t think I’ve particularly changed my position. But in speaking of permaculture as a positive response of creating the world we do want, whether or not it leads to, if you like, ecological salvation for humanity, just that positive, can do, ‘we’re going to do this anyway’ – it sort of put me in a box, I suppose, naturally enough with Rob Hopkins, but also surprisingly techno-optimists like Amory Lovins, and even people imagining techno utopias. Whereas, I’ve always had this permaculture view which has been framed against a fairly dark view of the state of the world and likely possibilities, but a positive view about what personal, household, and community action can be in the context of that world.

Steffen Geyer [I think he’s referring to my post]:
Some people have actually commented that you’re advocating something very similar to what you advocated in Permaculture One, and that you’ve been doing that the whole time in your work, and there’s actually not much of a departure. It’s just a little bit more explicitly said.

David Holmgren:
Yeah, that’s pretty much it! I’ve always been skeptical about the ability to say “What we’re doing in Permaculture might be useful at some local scale, but it only becomes useful when it leads to some large scale societal change.” Another step in that assumption is that large scale societal change will inevitably come by the powers that be, pulling the levers at the top of the system in the right way to give us the policies to restructure the economy and restructure things you can’t do at the household level. I’ve always seen that as a very limited, what I call “old fashioned” view of political change.

Because Permaculture’s never been cast as you say as a revolution, it’s really been cast as gardening; that a lot of the actions have then been acceptable to a lot of people, because you don’t have to buy in to an idealogical view of the world to see the benefit in some Permaculture strategies and techniques, and the common sense behind a lot of the principles. The fact that those things are actually subversive to the sort of economy and power structures we have, is not necessarily self evident or important to most people. It does this work for them, it’s useful, it seems fairly benign, and it has multiple benefits. That is a real and true basis for Permaculture, but Mollison and I were never under any illusion that the widespread adoption of this would sort of overturn the power structures in society in the process of getting us in line with the limits that nature ultimately imposes on human systems.

Those limits will and are being imposed, and we can sort of go with the flow of that or we can resist it. So I haven’t really changed the message, but in a public sense, and of course the blogosphere, the internet, allows one to be very public, and I did choose words fairly carefully with the Crash on Demand essay, and I can see how some people thought I was advocating that the primary motivation for the sort of Permaculture strategies was actually to destroy the current economy. That’s not the purpose at all, but it’s a bizarre situation that we’ve got to, where the possibility of the success of that strategy would hasten what is an inevitable process, because generally the view is that these personal things that we do don’t really have any impact.

I suppose I have, increasingly in recent years, started to articulate Permaculture as a political strategy back to people who are of that ilk – activists who are desperately trying to change the structures of society around both equity issues and environmental limits. A lot of them see Permaculture as just a sideshow, or maybe as something good, but not really important. As their world is progressively unraveling… what I mean by ‘their world’ is the faith that it is possible to martial rational evidence, influence enough policy and powerful people that the inevitability and the logic of the changes that we’re proposing will prevail through some sort of orderly process. That is unraveling. Large numbers of people in that field, I believe, will give up – are giving up – especially on the climate front. These are people who’ve had enormous energy and commitment, they’re not your average Joe-blow citizen, they’re people who are empowered, who’ve put massive personal energy into these things. As that community and psychology falls apart, …I’m suggesting in my essay, the underlying thing is an appeal to those people to come and join us in the positive side where we’re going to create the world we do want, whether or not it leads to a larger scale positive change, or whether or not it contributes to a crash.

But interestingly, when people have this belief that it’s possible to bring about this larger change, and that faith is lost, there’s a few places people go. One is toward a sort of catatonic disconnection and dysfunction, or just total burnout. Another place where a minority will tend to go is back to the old hard revolutionary movement -that we’ve got to have in the end violence to bring the system to an end. I think people have, at a lot of levels, misunderstood my essay, because part of what I’m doing is appealing to those people to come and join us on this side of the fence. And one of the arguments is yes, one of the effects of a change in behavior by a small proportion of the world’s global middle class could actually bring the system down. And that idea is attractive to people who have lost all hope for that sort of change. It’s not actually a motivation for me, and I don’t think it’s a motivation for most people involved in Permaculture. But for those sorts of people, it’s actually a safer place than ending up on the track of the Unibomber.

Because we don’t need many prominent ex-environmentalists and social justice advocates to end up in that active violence against the system to have really severe demonization and lockdown of the positive movements we’re talking about. And I think that’s an aspect that hasn’t so much come out in the discussion around the essay. Though I think there’s been some very good and useful discussion, and good points made by almost everyone who’s commentated on it.

A couple of things. First, I really appreciate that Holmgren acknowledges that a lot of good points were made by almost everyone who’s commented on his essay. I think it’s important to see all the posts as a friendly discussion sharing important perspectives, all of which are worthwhile to hear and to discuss – rather than framing this as an acrimonious debate.

Second, I appreciate the important point about the potential negative impacts of more violent responses.

In future posts I hope to explore both of these last two topics, and I hope to employ some examples of using PatternDynamics in the process.

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: building resilience, Crash on Demand, economic crash, permaculture, social movements