Wednesday, January 15, 2014

David Holmgren's Crash on Demand

Gary Larson
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 peace, 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 reigned 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.

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 MacPherson. 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 Homgren'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.


Ruben said...

Ahem. for a Trifecta blog, I would like to submit, my own.

a Small and Delicious Life — Common Sense for the New Times

Not quite the trifecta you specified, though it does incorporate much of what you mentioned. But, I have another 50 readers to throw on the pile!

Diego said...

"thoughtful peace"

Jeff Z said...

Yes- about that trifecta blog. Like Ruben, I'd like to suggest taking a look at my own. Yes, it may be a bit of self-promotion but I really have been blogging about peak oil, climate change, and growing and eating tasty food (and making homemade wine)since 2011.

it's at



Ahavah said...

While i do not blog much anymore, there are lots of us quietly walking the walk. Our house is for sale, and when it is sold, our new one will go through our credit union. At that point we will be 100% divested from commercial banking. We are lookingly exclusively at places with yards suitable foir gardening, with no hoas that might prohibit chickens or compost or rain barrels. I work from home, and my husband has walked or taken the bus to his job most of his life. None of our 3 sons is even interested in a driver's license, though i did ask. We are out here, under the radar. There may be more of us than you think.

BonRobi said...

Being a currently expatriating nomad and making my way away from USSA culture (in a van trhough Mexico) the web has been a info lifeline from the struggle to become truly fluent in a new language (although fitting in down here is remarkably easy as most locals love that western fable and are wonderfully polite and civil) in keeping us fed with bright insights. I've always covered a lot of web bases with a nice crop of alternative journalists and writers (one reason I made the decision to come down here) but lacking has been cohesive documentation of the big PIC. Oddly my recent on-the-road experiences have blessed me with interesections with a lot of expat engineering bent minds... something I have always appreciated in this blog: great insights tying a lot of disparate info together. IMHO this is a out of the park Orlov swing in the bottom of the 8th. Much appreciation for the brainfood as I am traversing the land of the uneducated currently (and loving the innocence even as I recognize the tragedy). Boots on the ground intel: prices in Mexico are going up just as fast as anywhere else. The central bank race to the bottom is alive and well here. Best bargain? Organic market produce at unbelievably low costs. Tools at a local Home Depot? Out of sight and hugely above USSA levels. Peace out from Comitan, Mexico.

Bytesmiths said...

Dmitri, I think you overestimate the task at hand.

For every person blogging about de-consuming while living on a boat, there's got to be dozens or hundreds of others who have done so, but haven't blogged about it -- they may have gone so far as to eschew the Internet!

On our tiny island, I know dozens of people who are in various stages of "opting out!" But none of them frequent peak oil or doomer blogs.

Now its true that boat-life or island-life tends to attract the fringe, but my point is that many people are already following Holmgren's suggestion -- even if they don't know that's what they're doing!

I'm not a conspiracy theorist. I don't believe in the Bilderbergs or Agenda 21. I merely think people in similar situations tend to act similarly -- no conspiracy needed. And just as rich people tend to all act the same in order to individually maintain their collective position, I think there is a swelling "un-movement" of people who find it in their best interests to "opt out" of the economy to the greatest extent possible.

They buy illegal milk from me. I see them at the dump or the thrift store. They haven't bought anything new in years. They probably haven't filed a tax return in years!

Like Ahavah noted, a few of the sheeple are waking up. And things are so precarious, it won't take many to bring the house of cards crashing down.

Unknown said...

Permaculture does not rewuire land. It is a process of design and decision making, not a system of agriculture.

ccpo said...

Dmitri, your comments on permaculture are completely fracked. Your compost toilet? That was permaculture. Kitchen gardens? Permaculture. Despite your reading on permaculture, you have managed to completely misunderstand what it is and have thus written an essay that is deeply flawed.

Permaculture does not require land: it's not a farming process. Permaculture is a design and decision making rubric that you apply to.... anything. You are confusing permaculture with farming/gardening techniques.

Jason Heppenstall said...

I see the permaculture police are out in force.

Could permaculture's achille's heel be its rigidity of definition? For very person who finds inspiration in it, many more are put off it by the hostile reaction of those who insist on defining it in such abstract terms that practically nobody can understand.

You don't need land to practice it? Common sense says you do.

flute said...

You also missed blogs not written in English. Sweden's biggest blog about peak oil etc has about 38000 unique visitors per week. That's 0.4% of Sweden's population. Still some way to go to get up to 10% though.

Unknown said...

My guess is two things. Those most strident about maintaining such clear and precise separation from design and implementation are not doing much permaculture except in the abstract sense of hashing out potential designs on a blog. My other suspicion is that because the current literature on permaculture is able to explain the systems design principle with such intuitive examples, that many converts are flush with the zeal of their first time getting systemic analysis. You see the same dynamic in leftist political social groups on college campuses.

When your first tool is a hammer...

Markku said...

The financial collapse might arrive through the actions of Central Banks, with no outside help needed. Governments don't know how to stop consuming, and Central Banks don't know how to stop printing money. This will necessarily come to an end.

If Yellen, Draghi or Abe doesn't take the world down, bitcoin and other P2P cryptocurrencies will. Basically, cryptocurrencies enable trading, saving money and consuming outside of government's reach. Over the years, this will totally destroy the tax base of nation states. If the U.S. citizens don't cheat on their taxes, many other nationalities will.

There's really no stopping this. If bitcoin were crushed by the governments, it would be replaced by some other cryptocurrency offering true anonymity instead of pseudonymity.

Albert Bates said...

No foolin'! I'm going after the foodies!

Unknown said...

I'd have to agree that permaculture does require land, or at least the ability (time/freedom) to design on another persons or public land. Or perhaps a large enough domicile to allow for internal (house) design. Sure you could call permaculture everything but that sort of misses the point. If I wasn't working my land I wouldn't call what I do permaculture, nor would I feel like permaculture was open to me. Sure designing aspects of your life to reduce their energy inputs could be called permaculture, but it is a pretty vague permaculture.

As for another poster and the original article, I don't really know how tall the task is. I find myself just wishing the way things are going would end so we stop damaging everything, and I live my life in a way to prepare and remove my funds from doing further harm. But of course the other side of the coin is be careful what you wish for. I'm not wishing for people to die, but this process will probably cause many people to die. I don't think that people have to die to support our population in a post oil world. I really believe our population is supportable but it seems people can't do the things necessary to survive any drastic shortages. Heck even ran prieur gave up 'homesteading' because it was too much work.

There is no doubt in my mind I can walk the walk when it comes to the hardship of labor, and knowledge of how to survive without tech. But I don't have any idea if someone will pick me off from a tree because they don't want to work.

In the end, thanks for the article. Holmgren is great, and I guess we will just have to watch how the great stage plays out, not worry about the folly of our fellow man, and just live our lives as we feel morally sound.

EBrown said...

Hmm, yeah, last time I read the Permaculture Handbook by Mollison I seem to remember his definition being something to the effect of a neologism combining "permanent and agriculture". Last time I checked agriculture required land.

So I too agree that some of the principle of permaculture design can be incorporated into other realms of life, to actually be permaculture some land is a prerequisite.

Mollison's whole text is about how to design living and working lands for maximum productivity over the long haul. This demands some consideration of buildings and dwellings, but we have to keep in mind that it is about land productivity, not simply amorphous design.

Cathode Ray said...

The link to Holgrem's paper does not work. The correct link is

S said...

I'm consciously opting out of a substantial portion of the dominant western culture. I'm completely debt free, have no credit cards, and intend to remain so for the rest of my days. I bank at a small local bank. I am self employed and keep my income low and my consumption frugal. I live in a small straw bale house I built myself. I'm growing food and nurturing my 6 acres. Most of my clothing is second-hand. I consume very little highly processed food. I don't own a TV. I drive a small fuel efficient car....I'd ride a bike but I live in a rural area. I drive minimally. I make things, reuse, repurpose, repair, etc. Shopping is never for entertainment but rather necessity. I do not participate in christmas shopping. I do things organically as possible. I live without air conditioning (in Texas), I heat with wood. I eat meat that I raise or hunt. I have no cell phone. I don't blog about these things. Unfortunately I do not know of anyone else near me/personally who is doing anything similar...but I find them on the internet scattered all over.
I do what I do because it it liberating. Also I am sick of the corporate rape and pillage of the environment and the complicity of government. I'm for not supported their efforts with my energy.

Mark said...

I'm with S: liberating life patterns, not bloging, reading books more than blogs. A friend who doesn't have a car even (I have an old 4cyl truck) said: "The cost of freedom is everything". But there is a continuum between slavery, and freedom. I've been moving closer to free for decades, I see more people doing same. Still, lots of people do different. I say, thank gods for city people, who leave the countryside to us.

Norris said...

I agree with Holmgren's goal of collapsing the global economy sooner rather than later, so as to leave us with a better chance of a livable planet at the end of this whole mess. But as Dmitri shows, the numbers just don't add up. Holmgren is basically calling for the same thing he, other permaculturists, and countless individuals and non-profits have been pushing for decades: voluntary simplicity.

Of course that's still a worthy goal for its immediate and long-term rewards for individuals and their immediate community. But it's highly unlikely to the stop the global juggernaut. I think we have much more effective strategies and tactics we can use. I wrote a response that explores this further: "Demand Crash!"

stefimker said...

Here’s David Holmgren talking about his essay on the ’21st Century Permaculture’ radio show

Unknown said...

In his essay, Holmgren talks about the need for 10% of the world's middle class to disconnect from the economic system, not 10% of the whole population. If his assertion is correct, then the task is smaller than Dmitri's calculation suggests.

Dmitry Orlov said...


If 10% of tbe midddle class disconnects, 10% of the lower-middle class will start consuming on their behalf. That's the beauty of Jeavon's paradox, and the reason voluntary measures cannot affect the big picture.

Unknown said...

Mr Orlov,
your math doesn't seem to add up because, out of the 7billion, 2 are starving and don't in any way contribute to the global economy (except as recipients of aid). Also, if the infamous numbers that say 1% of the population control 98% of the wealth, are even remotely acurate, I would imagine that simplicity is complulsory for most and the ones for whom it could be voluntary cannot be so many as to make such complete mockery of Holmgreen's ideas to 'crash on demand'.