Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Underneath the Bunting at the Potluck Supper

David Holmgren’s ‘Crash on Demand: Welcome to the Brown Tech Future’ article has provoked some interesting discussion, with high-profile responses from Nicole Foss of the Automatic Earth and Rob Hopkins of Transition and comments beneath both. I’ve found the richest stream to be the informal conversations about Holmgren, Foss and Hopkins’s articles in the Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design Facebook group. In that forum there appears to be two main camps of opinion forming: one following the Hopkins (and to a degree the Foss) critique sees Holmgren’s idea as unhelpful at best and a poor demonstration of people care at worst, the other camp sees Holmgren’s idea as an opportunity for ‘direct-action’ and ‘that people of influence should be stating where they stand in these philosophical debates’. This resonated with a comment expressed by a fellow Permaculture Association trustee that at our next meeting we should discuss some of these ideas on the positioning of 'permaculture' in the public/online debates, because we have a responsibility to give a steer from the Permaculture Association.

I think that it might be difficult to find a common  position that contains the diverse opinions of the trustees, let alone the membership we represent, so I can’t personally see at present that our steer should be more than a reminder to use and value diversity.  I posted the original article and responses in the Facebook group but initially stayed out of the discussion afterwards, feeling that all the articles had their particular merits. Then someone posted this quote from Bill Mollison in Introduction to Permaculture:

“The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”

To which I felt compelled to reply:

“I guess we keep going back to who that 'us' is, of which 10% is enough. Mind you, I always take Mollison's statistics with a pinch of salt - he talks a good talk. I don't know when Mollison wrote or said that - most of his public comments come from the 1980s and early 1990s. Given the growth of permaculture & similar activities since, I imagine that a number of people greater than the 10% of 'us' he was referring to then probably have produced at least on a small-scale in their gardens. Is there any more 'enough for everyone' than there was then because of it? I guess this is a reason why RH looks toward outreach, engagement and scalability through Transition points and perhaps why he questions Holmgren's unsourced throwing about of numbers.”

That seemed to be taking more of a ‘Hopkins line’ than I felt, but it took another comment to bring that out. Some one else noted that:

 “I do not want a future where small % of the population plot to throw the rest into turmoil, I want a future where everyone is empowered to join in and make their difference and to help take society forwards. Planning to crash the system doesnt fit well with the kind of world and attitude I want to create. As Rob says, it’s not very 'people care'

For some reason that provoked me into some more thoughts on the issue, which follow:

Holmgren’s strategy is basically [as he acknowledges] a version of the well-worn economic-boycott, which previous social movements have used to influence systems perceived as destructive of human and/or natural capital: such as economic boycotts of South Africa, Israel, Nestle, Coca Cola etc. Withdrawal of economic relations with these nation states or corporations is designed to have negative consequences for those boycotted, through consumers providing negative feedback – placing a financial capital cost on abuse of human/natural capitals. If the boycotted actors do not respond by ending their abuse of human/natural capitals, they incur the financial capital costs, which may lead to other consequences such as employees losing their jobs and personal financial security through redundancy. This means an action to try and end human rights abuses through an economic boycott, might involve some harm to people through bring economic turmoil to their lives. Nevertheless, if the harm to people effected by the continuing business-as-usual of an actor is significantly greater than the harm to people effected by crashing that business-as-usual – e.g. boycotting South African businesses and products, leading to job losses in order to catalyse the end of apartheid – then the strategy might still be considered an ethical response reflecting people care and fair share.

The Holmgren ‘plot’ (I use quotes as the conventional definition of plot is a plan made in secret by a group of people to do something illegal or harmful – and this is a public proposal not a secret plan, not illegal and questionably harmful) is: ‘behaviour change from dependent consumers to responsible self-reliant producers’ with the intent of ‘reducing consumption and capital enough to trigger a crash of the fragile global financial system’.

I understand the ‘global financial system’ to represent business-as-usual: growth focused economics, based on ever increasing over-exploitation of the Earth’s resources, with evident consequences including dangerous carbon emissions, nose-diving biodiversity, acidification of the oceans, massive wealth disparities, declining amounts of freshwater, topsoil, forests, wetlands, coral reefs etc. Natural capital is already failing suddenly (crashing) – business-as-usual has triggered a crash. Everyday it gets worse. If we agree that this is the case, then we should be explicit that we do not want business to carry on as usual leaving us with three main options: trying to adapt the status quo situation to a sustainable alternative over  time, trying to end the status quo situation as quickly as possible, doing nothing.

‘Doing nothing’ is implicit support for business-as-usual and therefore untenable. Trying to adapt the status quo situation to a sustainable alternative over  time is the strategy of ‘transition’ – it is based on the incremental approach, it is designed to be inclusive, to take as long as it takes and to lead towards designing and implementing a plan for energy descent. Many Transition groups are in their early stages, others are more progressed and no doubt have had some success in their locality. Meanwhile everyday carbon emissions, biodiversity figures, ocean acidity, wealth disparity, and the amounts of freshwater, topsoil, forests, wetlands, coral reefs etc. have got worse. As Rob Hopkins notes in ‘the economies where emissions are actually growing’ like China and India ‘the kind of 'post-materialists' who in Western economies might pioneer … [a] "crash on demand" hardly exist’, it might be fair to conclude therefore  that the kind of ‘post-materialists’ who might pioneer Transition do not exist in those ‘economies where emissions are actually growing’ either. In fact, this tends to highlight that in terms of tactics there is not a lot of difference between Transition and ‘Crash on Demand’ – both focus on the household and local community levels as loci of action, both hope for a ripple effect from action on these levels by dispersed concerned individuals across the world, both think we should start right now if we haven’t already started, both promote actions which are worth doing anyway, both know that the success of their approach is not guaranteed.

The point of contention commonly found with Holmgren’s proposal appears to largely be a matter of marketing. Rob Hopkins has long held that the ‘key to our success will be our ability to generate positive visions of future, to harness the power of engaged optimism’, similarly in Nicole Foss’s response to Holmgren she writes ‘Permaculture has a very positive image as a solution to the need for perpetual growth, and this might be put at risk if it became associated with any deliberate attempt to cause system failure.’
If the success of Transition and/or permaculture is predicated on how well it “plays with the masses” or ‘speak[s] beyond the People Like Us’ – does it have to hide genuine desires and need for deep systemic change? If we believe that business-as-usual is killing the planet and  that swift action is necessary to stop it, is it either ethical or effective to hide that away underneath the bunting at the potluck supper?

I'll give the last word to Jamie Saunders:

'Design/Plan for the best, prepare for the worst... with spread-betting for robustness, resilience, durability and 'stability'/viability'... not either/or, and/both as 'the future is unwritten'... '

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