What follows is an email conversation between David Holmgren and Stephen, a reader and practitioner of RetroSuburbia.
Stephen 10/10/20:Dear David,
Due to your experience in both considering possible future scenarios and devising frameworks to adapt to them, I would like to ask you a few questions if you have the time to answer them.
To provide some background, I feel as if I am in a similar position today to where you were at the beginning of the rise of Neoliberalism in the late 1970s where leaders around the world decided to press the accelerator in response to the growing awareness of ecological limits.
Thank you for your thoughtful and important questioning about the retrosuburbia strategy in an increasingly uncertain future. I trust that in replying at some length to your questions, you will be happy for us to repost these in some form online.
Today, it is clear that the federal and state governments in Australia are pressing forward with major gas and coal developments despite a general awareness that we are fast moving towards dangerous climate change (and other ecological limits) and a lesser awareness that we may not even have an adequate supply of energy in the future to deal with these crises.
I agree that the more interventionist (Keynesian) economic responses to restart the national and global economy mostly seem extremely dysfunctional in the face of such pervasive evidence of ecological limits. As the stark contrast between the issues and the action become clearer to more people, this tends to drive some people to radical political action, others to adaptive behaviour (including retrosuburbia) and still more to depression or denial. I have always been sceptical about whether some combination of these is likely to change the course of history. However in my essay Crash on Demand: Welcome to the Brown Tech Future (2013), I postulated that radical self-reliance associated with retrosuburbia by some significant minority of the population could trigger changes more effectively than mobilising mass movements demanding structural change.
As always, I remain circumspect and sceptical, rather than certain, in considering how much agency we have to avoid more severe economic and social chaos in response the multiple Limits-to-Growth factors. Because I have had to live with these evolving, but more or less consistent, understandings most of my adult life, I don’t get so caught up in the sense of emergency that characterises both radical political reaction and survivalist responses. While I respect those using the Climate Emergency framing to galvanise action with the implied hope of avoiding catastrophe, it bad for health and not really possible to maintain emergency level alertness and action for a lifetime. All crises become normal as they extend over time, something that is no longer necessary to point out to people in Melbourne enduring the longest continuous Covid lockdown.
The limits of any rapid renewable tech rollout to both avert dangerous climate change and maintain some more efficient version of globalised consumer capitalism for the masses of currently rich countries, let alone the rest of the world, is one of the messages that gets lost amongst most people desperately hoping for “the right” policies. Carbon Civilisation and the Energy Descent Future by Samuel Alexander and Joshua Floyd is my current recommended quick read for those still needing to decide whether to maintain faith in the various versions of ‘Green New Deals’ discussed in the media and promoted in Australia by The Greens (but not yet by either of the major parties even though the case for Australia succeeding with some version of this big renewable tech future is stronger than almost any other country).
It seems even more clear on a scientific level that the effects of climate change could make human survival unlikely. The language that scientists are using is becoming more alarming and I am becoming more convinced that we may not avert this catastrophe due to the absolute recklessness of our political leaders.
Based on your research, is this an alarmist position to take or are we headed into such severe territory?
I incorporated the risks of both unstoppable climate tipping points and near-term collapse in oil production in my 2009 Future Scenarios work, leading to the more severe Earth Steward and Lifeboat scenarios. But in my ‘Crash on Demand’ essay I “called it” that we were heading into the Brown Tech near-term scenario, which could unfold over the next few decades. I see more and more evidence that the subtle complexities I gather under the term “Brown Tech” are our present and near future (next few decades). I still assume that any deep transformation of the Earth leading to human extinction would take centuries, independent of whether it could be averted by human action or not.
There is nothing wrong be being alarmist when the stakes are so high and the uncertainties about the dynamics of climate change so complex, let alone the other intersecting Limits-to-Growth factors.
Would the RetroSuburbia framework still be a mitigation strategy in the face of this continued fossil fuel development or is it a serious adaptive strategy even in the most severe scenario that we could be facing? Or is it a way to buy time before the seemingly inevitable takes place that scientists are now warning us about?
The pandemic has highlighted how much of the economy is unnecessary or extravagant ways to meet the psychosocial needs of the population, and these needs could easily be met without the need to commute and consume. I believe there is still a fair chance that the pandemic will be the trigger for the global economy contracting enough to reduces GHG emissions faster than any likely combination of climate policies worldwide. The most likely way for this to happen is that the unprecedented creation of money by central banks will fail to convince the global connected networks of market traders and investors (probably less than 0.1% of the global population) that the values being created in the stock, real estate and financial markets are worth enough to avoid a rush for the exits that more money creation fails to stop.
However, I thought the scale of money creation following the GFC would have been enough to do the job. Instead of crashing the system, it led to the greatest transfer of wealth in history (possibly being eclipsed by the latest larger round of money creation) and triggered the right populist politics most dramatically associated with Trump in the USA. Amongst other impacts, it managed to further accelerate dysfunctional growth in energy and resource consumption and consequently in GHG emissions. So, as with hopes around the peaking of conventional oil around the same time, hoping for a crash to save us may be as naive as hoping for Elon Musk to do so. So much for my attempts to predict the future – even if I am a little chuffed at my timing of 2020 for “The Second Great Depression” in my ‘Aussie St’ story.
To address the core of your question, I think widespread ad-hoc adoption of RetroSuburbia across the low-density residential landscapes of Australia and other similar countries could be a significant contribution to a “convergence and contraction” strategy, where affluent countries radically reduce their consumption and resulting GHG emissions and so provide leadership and modelling for change in more problematic higher-density residential habitats in both rich and poor countries.
I doubt whether the direct mitigation effect would be as great as what countries like Australia could do through a diversity of regenerative agriculture and forestry systems to sequester carbon (or the less proven, but great prospects for Marine Permaculture to do the same in the coastal, if not oceanic, domains). The problem is that so few Australians have the connections, skills or access to land to participate in these processes, other than indirectly as the consumers of the products of land- and sea-based regenerative systems. Short of some sort of harsh return to the countryside, most people are going to contribute and adapt to future scenarios in our current residential habitats.
I see retrosuburbia as an integrated mitigation/adaptive strategy that is accessible and realistic for viral adoption and adaption by the majority. It will help in other indirect ways through:
- undermining the financial and other drivers of GDP growth, thus it could extend the growth-contracting effects of the pandemic, while generating social and biophysical assets for cushioning the later stages of energy descent.
- acting as a benign nursery in which to raise the next generation with the skills to face harsher realities, which may require greater degrees of urban to rural migration to manage the land for collective sustenance and essential ecological services.
As an example of the sorts of actions we will need to take to defend and strengthen retrosuburbia, my ‘Bushfire Resilient Land and Climate Care’ essay outlined how the community-based management of forests fringing our residential landscapes could be an emblematic and practical way to address the divide in our communities about the causes of the bushfire crisis and what can be done, which satisfies truths on both side of the divide.
In my ‘History from the Future’ story (2016) I attempted to show how the positives of the retrosuburbia strategy might play out in our central Victoria bioregion over more than half a century into the future. As you may note from the story (which is a hybrid of my Green and Brown Tech scenarios), the conditions in Melbourne are more dire. Presumably efforts at retrosuburbia have partially failed to avoid the adverse impacts of social and economic breakdown, until the success of retrosuburbia and other solutions in regional and rural Victoria lead to restorative action in Melbourne. While the world avoids the worst climate scenarios in this story, the relocalisation of the economy to reduce both the advantages and adverse impacts of globalised forces only really takes place as a result of the second crisis of 2060s. It is interesting to note that the short war between the USA and China in 2022, contributing to the dire economic conditions in Australia, looks more plausible than when I wrote the story. One of the aims of this story is to show that while climate change and resource depletion might be the primary drivers of future scenarios, their expression is likely to be through economic, ideological, political and military outcomes while environmental factors are likely to remain in the background.
While we are talking fiction as a way to understand emerging futures, 470 is a great read with a very realistic near term climate change future. It is interesting that in both my short story and Linda Woodrow’s novel, the places with more resilience tend to be rural and small town rather than large cities. I think that while retrosuburbia in some form is the best option for many people making personal and collective plans for the future, I think smaller towns provide more of a sweet point for implementation of those strategies than our largest cities, even if the dynamic of the Brown Tech scenario suggests government and other services could contract from rural and even regional centres, to maintain those in the city.
I wanted to ask you specifically because I like your analytical style of thinking and how it transcends multiple disciplines. Plus I can clearly see that you have given this a lot of thought in the RetroSuburbia book (bought one two years ago, a fantastic book, well done).
I think the pandemic has highlighted for many people the paucity of their household situation, especially for those living alone in apartments without connection to nature, partners or kin. The household consolidation strategy that we highlighted in RetroSuburbia as the most likely way in which ordinary folk would adapt to harder times, has been unfolding in the US for decades, but anecdotal evidence here suggests an enormous acceleration due to the pandemic. For my initial reflections on the relevance of the retrosuburbia strategy in the context of the pandemic see The Class Divide in a Time of Pandemic; a permaculture perspective. For a rare foray into highlighting sensible policy responses to the Limits-to-Growth crisis see RetroSuburbia, Energy Descent, Degrowth and TEQs and my more recent rabble-rousing RetroSuburbia Roadmap.
Thanks for your time and if you get the chance to answer, I would be really interested in what you think about this.
Hopefully these thoughts and linked writings will help with your own plans to grasp the opportunities of rapid changing context, contribute to minimising the damage in the local and wider world, and find the wisdom to recognise what we cannot change and deal with the resulting grief.
On 15th Oct 2020 at 3:09pm Stephen replied with the following points and further references
In response to David’s comment on the framing of climate change as an emergency Stephen replied:
It’s a very useful way to think of the Climate Emergency framing; a way to galvanise action but not a state of mind that can be maintained over the long term. Having read Kris De Decker’s article on what a 100% renewable Europe or US region would look like, it looks very clear that infrastructure would need to be oversized to overcome the intermittency of renewables which would greatly increase the cost and possibly negate the environmental benefits (as compared to fossil fuel energy systems) of renewable energy.
Ironically, Australia is actually one of the few countries that could pull this off given our low population density, wealth and high amount of wind and sun energy available though I completely agree that demand reduction should be the first priority; once demand is really reduced, more benign and localised energy sources become far easier to implement. Also enjoyed the Crash On Demand essay, given that the financial system is heading that way anyway, it’s an idea that could allow us to choose the timing of what is an inevitable financial collapse to shift onto a better path, especially if community and household infrastructure can be developed to cushion the landing or so to speak.
In response to David’s comment about “alarmism” Stephen replied:
I had a read of the Future Scenarios website, very interesting especially that the Brown Tech scenario is unfolding. I particularly liked the explanation of nesting which is a useful way to look at why responses across different power hierarchies have ranged from Lifeboat to Brown Tech where even the same political parties in Australia have somewhat been different or where different political parties have had the same response (e.g: Green Tech response in South Australia, Brown Tech response federally or that Northern Territory and Queensland state Labor governments have adopted Brown Tech policies in line with the Brown Tech policies of their opposition party at a federal level).
In response to David’s “prediction” of the Second Great Depression in the 2020s Stephen replied:
When the pandemic and consequent lockdowns hit Australia, I had to remember the mention of a 2020s “Second Great Depression” in the RetroSuburbia book (first read it in 2018). Was a little amazed at the coincidence of timing with your predictions. As for other future predictions, I am understanding that it is very hard to make predictions when there is a dynamic interplay between the financial sector, energy use and extraction and what is happening to the greater biosphere.
I never thought that governments and investors would be foolish enough to chase lower grades of fossil fuel energy on credit nor to throw billions of dollars at the real estate market to keep pushing land values out of reach for first time buyers but the last two decades have left me with the feeling that anything can happen if the wealthiest people want to try and keep this system going. Whilst I still know the possibility in my bones that this can’t keep up, I have conceded that this may continue on for longer than I thought would be possible and have adjusted household planning to reflect this reality.
In response to David’s comments about bridging the ideological divides in our communities Stephen replied:
Thanks for the clarification. It is imperative to keep skills alive and ready to be upscaled when it becomes absolutely clear to the majority that these skills are vital. I think this is a really big strength of the RetroSuburbia vision. Through my personal experience, I have also found that many of the elements of RetroSuburbia are appealing regardless of a person’s political leanings. As an example, installing rainwater tanks, wicking beds and solar panels are something that I have found to be popular amongst people across the political divide.
In response to David’s comments about ecological and energetic drivers of future scenarios not be recognised Stephen replied:
Absolutely. It is sometimes hard to imagine what climate change and resource depletion will actually look like, the likely scenario being as you described an economic, political and military expression. This is eerily reminiscent of what has happened in Syria where climate change induced drought led to civil unrest which was fuelled by geopolitics.
In response to David’s recent writings about the pandemic Stephen replied:
Due to our frugality, my wife and I are already on our way to buying a suburban sized block in the country with minimal debt (we’re both country born and bred and want to return) and the pandemic has definitely highlighted the need to increase our household resilience and participate in building community resilience. Although the fact that other people at the moment will also be contemplating a move out of Melbourne, at the end of the day, it is still a good thing to do even if it will be a bit more competitive and prices may rise. The fact was that we couldn’t have done it earlier even if we wanted to.
To build on the move from the household to the community (and even beyond) in terms of a better future, there are two things that I think may help to bridge the gap between the household and governmental level. Adam Brock’s book, Change Here Now is permaculture inspired and seems to look at pattern-based solutions for community transformation. I am also interested to see what happens with the 2020 Glasgow agreement (not to be confused with the UN climate talks) which can be found at https://glasgowagreement.net/. It is a coming together of 55 environmental organisations that are drafting an agreement to take action on the climate situation in the full knowledge that governments, the UN and big business can no longer be relied upon to deal with this crisis.
Although, this focuses on climate change rather than the other crises that we are facing, it could be a very interesting dynamic in your future scenarios if the realisation hits home for activist organisations that asking governments and big business to change is no longer a viable strategy and that a new strategy is required.
Finally in response to David’s comments about personal plans and grief about the world Stephen replied:
Thanks again for your really thoughtful response and having read all of the linked writings, it has definitely provided some clarity around what to do next (at a personal and community level) and to have the wisdom to practice grief for the things that we have lost and are unlikely to recover. It has been very enlightening to converse over such big picture issues and the RetroSuburbian vision.