Celsias Interview: David Holmgren

future[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. dh

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.

cuba1Speaking 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. 

poOne area I'm particularly keen to get your take on is the demand for oil in light of this economic downturn.  Accordingly, oil production has declined along with prices.  I came across an interesting theory on something called "Peak Lite". 

The theory essentially says this sudden drop in demand and price, and massive scaling back of production, may essentially "shut off" any rebound in production that is needed in the immediate future-- possibly shutting down certain oil projects for good.  As all our current world systems essentially run off the energy provided by oil, this drop in productive capacity could pose a major problem if/when demand ramps up again.  What are your thoughts on this?

That dynamic I would take for granted in that the really hardline geological view in how peak oil plays out has always been a bit doubtful as to when "global peak" takes place because of human factors in the economy, and how they come into play.  There are some human effects that will fundamentally change the rules of the game. 

It is very clear that all energy investment has been knocked on the head by two factors coming together.  One is shortage of capital with banks not lending/investing in new oil infrastructure.  The other factor is the oil price drop as that pulls the rug out from under the idea of profitability in developing oil resources.  A lot of those oil resources need $100 a barrel for development to be profitable.  The price of oil going back up does not automatically mean that investors will come back to the table right away. 

The global heights of production might never reach the highs they might have reached without peak oil.  It may mean that quite a few resources will never be dug out of the ground.  If we go into a long contraction, they may never be extracted.  People may have differing views on if it is a good thing or bad thing.  We might have less energy to make the transitions we need to make, or we might not have done anything positive with that extra energy anyway.  Overall, I see a lot of positive things that can come out of it. 

Not everyone in the world is blessed with the ability to leave urban life for a smaller, less densely populated countryside location to practice subsistence agriculture.  In many urban areas, especially with tens of millions of people as we see in Asian cities, even urban agriculture is challenging at best.  What sort of scenarios do you see as likely to play out in those sorts of areas?  How can people turn challenging situations and prosper in an urban environment in spite of hardship, or is a complete collapse the only likely option?

It's clear that in high density cities, even if affluent places, people can initially get by with less resource consumption, especially in transport.  My view over the last 30 years is that I see high densities as highly problematic.  If there is a decline in supply changes, especially food, it is very difficult to maintain them.  We will likely see a return to rural areas and a progressive abandonment of some urban environments. 

Rural densities aren't always the best options either.  Suburban densities are potentially the best option for adaptation.  There are communities in place, some land availability, and generally good basic infrastructure.  It is possible to do an incremental ad hoc adjustment in making those environments sustainable and habitable. 

suburbiaIn visiting Japan and Latin America, and in a lot of other societies outside of the West, there is a capacity for working together for the common good and strong family support networks.  People are used to a certain level of chaos and lack of security.  People build their own ramshackle houses and there is a lot of capacity towards cooperation.  It gives them resilience.  Countries like Australia have social brittleness by comparison.  There is always that mixture of the climate and the resources available, but also the social and psychological resources at people's disposal.  I'm certainly under no illusion that we can make high density urban areas aren't going to be sustainable into the future. 

In the Brown Tech scenario mentioned in the book, it could be possible that some urban areas are maintained to a certain level, but not to the ones we enjoy today (e.g. the roads, communications network, energy distribution).  Centralized services will be difficult to maintain and enormously problematic.  Many cities around the world are also located at or near sea level.  Putting resources towards maintaining sea walls etc. will be futile in the future.

The "End of Suburbia" is a fairly simple notion, mainly an equation about unaffordable commuting.  People will be able to grow food and get the basics, and they do have access to land and the ability to harvest water, as well as use extra space like garages as localized work space.  Once you have a home based lifestyle, these are all advantages.  The suburban lifestyle will certainly not be people sipping lattes and working on their Mac laptops however. 

Turning the attention to climate change, Jim Hansen and others have started changing their tenor from discussions of mitigation of carbon emissions and other green house gasses, to adaptation-that climate change is indeed happening now, and poised to come on much stronger and faster than we first conceived.  Are you seeing things from a similar vantage point?

Yes, certainly in Australia with bush fires and floods happening at the same time, dealing with the impacts of climate change is a pretty high priority.  That is a discussion that tended to divide people talking about both peak oil and climate change.  Climate change has focused on more of a tragedy of the commons, whereas peak oil discussions have focused on adaptation and resilience. 

Now it's interesting that the adaptation theme has come up with climate change.  Some of the people involved with climate change over the last 30 years are coming to adaptation very reluctantly as they think such an approach means people are giving up on stopping climate change. 

Through permaculture, we have been pushing for diversity; even a tree species that might be marginal to your climate region might survive and help adapt to changes in climate.  That flexibility is important.  There has been too much faith placed in the ability to make the macro change. 

Once there is the belief that future growth as we know it is not possible, there will be huge economic collapse.  That is what underpins all of the wealth that has been hit by the current financial crisis, but as soon as there is the widespread belief that future growth is no longer possible, all those stocks and shares plummet in their value.  What we tangibly have in the way of resources is not reflective of that paper wealth we focus on

It is really important that people focus on adaptability and it is certainly something that has been behind a lot of permaculture ideas that depart from mainstream ecology views of leaving the environment "as it is".  Nature needs to be allowed to move and shift as she determines and that's how she's survived crisis of the past. 

We represent a huge challenge and threat to nature, but in past crisis on earth, there have been other things that have been much more threatening than what we've done.  Flexibility and adaptability in nature has to be mirrored in what humans are doing, and of course a lot of those things that need to be done are things that reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.  We don't necessarily see any conflict between adaptation and mitigation if you do it in a holistic approach. 

The key is to look at the whole system rather than breaking things down into a narrow view.  It is a deeper thinking tool to how we examine issues in a deeper way and get past cultural blind spots.  We need a completely new way of thinking and that's the strongest contribution of permaculture, as much as the particular techniques that people need to adapt and copy.  It's how we think into new situations where we don't have any models or examples to work from, or in other words, our future.

I'm a big fan of taking personal action and responsibility for one's life, which is part of the reason I find permaculture such a fascinating design strategy and philosophy.  What advice would you give to our readers waking up to issues like climate change and peak oil on how they can take the reigns of their future and get involved?

It's always difficult to give personalized advice, and the era of giving blanket solutions is part of the passing world.  Having said that, I think it is important for people to build their local networks of mutual support, both through economic resources as well as supplies and familial community wherever you are.  Rather than just existing in a network so characterized by the internet, a lot of our wellbeing will be determined by who we know and how we get things. 

It is important to have some skill that is useful to another to a person.  A lot of us have skills that are only useful when plugged into a larger system (governments, corporations, technology).  Having practical skills will be highly useful.  That is the sort of cultural insurance that can be done anywhere.  You don't have to grow your own food, you just need to be useful.  One's own physical fitness is important to maintain and be able to do things, to be able to look after yourself.  Focus on things that can be done anywhere.  Decide where the geographic community is and plug in.  Don't wait to practice permaculture when you move out into the country, it is something that can be useful no matter where you are or circumstances you have. 

What else is in the pipeline for you professionally in the years ahead? 

There's a manuscript now in the works on retrofitting the cities and suburbs into the future.  It will look at not just the physical retrofitting of the landscape, buildings and environment, but also at the social shifts that will take place and how we can increase efficiency through behavior change.  Larger households will start to take shape, whether people are related or not.  There are huge efficiencies to be gained by the economy of scale in households.  Most of the "gigantic structures" of what we have in society are too big to be sustainable, and yet the current households are too small to be sustainable.  It is very difficult to do a lot in the way of self reliance of a household of 1-2 people.  Things get more efficient in 5-10 people household.  I'm interested in exploring the evolution of these ideas and the culture that will grow up around it. 

Seems like we've got something to look forward to.  David, it has been a pleasure.  Thanks again for all your amazing work and we look forward to hearing more from you as you develop these new avenues.

David Holmgren is best known as the co-originator with Bill Mollison of the permaculture concept following the publication of "Permaculture One" in 1978. Since then he has written several more books, developed three properties using permaculture principles, conducted workshops and courses in Australia, New Zealand, Europe and Japan.  David is passionate about the philosophical and conceptual foundations for sustainability which are highlighted in his latest book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.  David lives with his partner Su Dennett and their son Oliver at "Melliodora", a one-hectare permaculture demonstration site at Hepburn Springs, Central Victoria, Australia. Visit his web site at www.holmgren.com.au

More cool stuff on Celsias:
Agriculture for the 21st Century

Permaculture 101

Follow us on Twitter: Celsiastweets

Add a comment
  • to get your picture next to your comment (not a member yet?).
  • Posted on May 12, 2009. Listed in:

    See other articles written by Chris »

    Pledge to do these related actions

    Adopt a tree, 11°

    Forests are really important for life not just for man but also other flora and ...

    Give Coal The Boot, 40°

    Greenpeace are asking people to help give coal the boot once and for all: "Burning ...

    I heart clean energy, 0°

    This Valentines day, show your leaders in Washington why you care about a clean energy ...

    Featured Companies & Orgs