Celsias Interview: David Holmgren
[Celsias] David, I just wanted to take a moment first to thank you for living such an inspiring, creative, and explorative life. I've been very interested in permaculture for the last few years, and I'm keen to discuss many of the themes that have emerged in your latest book, Future Scenarios: How Communities to Adapt to Peak Oil and Climate Change.
The book is really great concise reference. Thank you for not providing another 500 page thesis on either climate change or peak oil. Your treatment is really thoughtful and well analysed. Digging into the material, what I found really enlightening was your take on the challenges of climate change and peak oil to be ones that can have particularly positive results.
Most people view these factors in a very "gloom and doom/the world is going to end" sort of way. Perhaps you can elaborate on some of your thoughts from the book?
[David Holmgren] Permaculture arose out of the limits of resources and unsustainability of society 30 years ago. People could have come to permaculture for a variety of reasons over the years. Since the 1970s, Bill Mollison and I have been very touched by Club of Rome, the ongoing oil crisis, environmental impact issues, global food crisis, and how we narrowly averted catastrophes on so many occasions.
A lot of these issues dating back to the 70's were largely swept under the carpet in 1980s and it no longer became acceptable to talk about "limits to growth". Later climate change became the galvanizing issue for the environmental movement, rather than just running out of resources. For me, over that long term, getting a better understanding that these things are taking place has meant I restructured what I believe in. I've changed my focus around the more positive outcomes will result from these inevitable shifts.
It works on two levels. One can change their own life in taking these issues as "Normal" (e.g. a world of scarce resources), become more self sufficient, and start doing things with nature rather than focusing on technological solutions. Through that process, you gradually become more comfortable with those realities becoming the norm. So actually the things we have been talking about, such as food being grown more locally for example, will become both economically and environmentally necessary. These trends make me comfortable.
Looking at the numbers, even if we were living with a 10th of the resources we have now, we would be better off than many of our recent ancestors, and maybe even relatives several generations ago. There is the opportunity to bring back many patterns of human behavior that have served us well for centuries. While the changes ahead of us could be quite challenging, some many good things can come out of it.
For example, the sense of community: decreased mobility and high energy cost will lead to people talking to their neighbours again... even if it is because they can't get away from it! Challenges will mean that people have to look out for each other. Real community isn't a "utopian" thing, it is a really basic thing... it is a normal human state.
Speaking of community, you mention Cuba's "Special Period" (the period during the 1990's where oil, fertilizer, and other imports were essentially shut out by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the U.S. lead embargo) as an interesting case study.
On that note, the activist and social entrepreneur Roberto Perez certainly has presented some incredibly inspiring stories of how people can overcome obstacles relating to peak oil. Then again, in the culture of Cuba, it might be said that the family and community bonds are stronger than say, in a dormitory suburb of Cleveland, Perth, or Leeds.
Do you think that other countries following a purely Capitalist model will have similar success as Cuba did in its challenges? Do we have the same dormant seeds for success in the face of adversity?
The Cuban society does have a strong sense of the collective, and what's good for everyone. In a crisis it is easy for those things to come to the fore. We don't have those things as well developed in Western Society and that is a key weakness. In some ways though, what we have something that puts us in a better position.
In Cuban society, most aspects of day to day life are controlled by huge bureaucracy. From the Western perspective, we don't have to wait for approval, we have an established culture of do it yourself and an entrepreneurial nature. We don't have to wait to be told what to do. I would hope that our capacity for individual action will be a key strength in these difficult times ahead.
With the global economic crisis in full swing, a lot, at least on the surface, seems to be changing. Do you think any of the soul searching and introspection going on at the moment is going to result in any profound social/economic changes, or do you think people will refer back to the same models that got them into the mess to begin with?
I think that structurally, there will be some kind of economic recovery and increase in demand for things like oil. Curiously, what's been overlooked in this recent situation is the price spike in oil that preceded the economic fallout. Of course after that happened, all the other financial instabilities were realized which made the whole thing go down that much faster. A spike in the price of oil has preceded every economic recession in recent history.
With all the forces trying to stimulate the economy now, there could be several cycles of advance and decline from here on out. With each one of these coming cycles, there will be people who question these degrees of greed and desire, questioning the irresponsibility and negligence of it all. I think people will start to change their lives away from a culture of consumption. They won't just want to be back in that cycle again.
While people stepping away from the lifestyle of consumerism might be bad for the economy, what people aren't commenting on is that this contraction is profound when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It's hardly getting any notice. While there are many proponents of a "green tech fix" to both economic and climate problems, nobody knows in the long term if a green tech approach will reduce emissions and slow climate change in the long run.
This economic contraction has taken people's attention away from climate change and peak oil, but at the same time it is normalizing much of the behavior that will be necessary to deal with those larger, non-negotiable forces at play.
Read the whole interview here.