Permaculture Founder David Holmgren on Energy Descent
amazing interview with Permaculture Founder David Holmgren
Published on Tuesday, June 8, 2004 by Global Public Media
David Holmgren on Energy Descent
by Adam Fenderson
David Holmgren, co-originator of the permaculture concept and author of
Permaculture: Principals and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, speaks with
Adam Fenderson from www.energybulletin.net about permaculture and its role
in an energy constrained world.
Link with video for broadband users:
AF> Could you give us your definition of permaculture and tell us a little
bit about your role in it's creation and evolution?
DH> Permaculture is a design system for sustainable living and land use. It
came out of awareness about the limits of resources, especially the energy
crises of the 1970's. The work started between myself and Bill Mollison
when I was a student in environmental design in Tasmania. Since then
permaculture has spread around the world as a grassroots movement of
activists and designers, teachers, land managers - both gardeners and
farmers. It's also connected in to a very broad church of sustainable
alternatives in sustainable building, alternative currency, ideas,
eco-villages - many diverse areas.
It started from the premise of looking at the redesign of agriculture using
ecological principles, but it extended out from that to the redesign of the
whole of society using those principles. The foundation text was
Permaculture One which was published in 1978, a joint work between myself
and Bill Mollison. The biggest development of permaculture applications was
then Bill Mollison's Designers Manual, which he published in 1988. And then
more recently my new book, Permaculture: Principles - Walls and Pathways
Beyond Sustainability, has taken those ideas to a broader frame of
reference, away from just talking about land management and practical
issues to dealing with the fundamental underlying principles behind
permaculture and the link to resource limits, especially energy peak.
What exactly is the 'energy peak'? What do you mean when you employ that
DH> Well I suppose my understanding of that comes from both an awareness of
the ideas of limits to non-renewable resources and the early predictions of
some of those, especially the Club of Rome limits to growth report in 1972.
Which in a way, has gone down in public intellectual mythology as being
failed, you know - that they got it wrong - when in fact it was remarkably
on track. But more recently the work of Colin Campbell and the other
retired, independent oil geologists identifying the fact that the numbers
behind oil are arguably the most important set of numbers in the world, was
in fact largely garbage. The emergence of that information in the mid-
1990's and the gradual debate and discussion around that, identifying this
very important characteristic, that once you're halfway through a resource
the decline in the availability means that is the most critical point, not
when you run out.
The critical peak that we're reaching now is in relation to what's called
conventional oil. Further peaks are to come in world gas supplies, that are
the really important ones. Generally an energy peak is a cluster of
different resources that peak and then decline.
What kind of role does your vision of permaculture play in that scenario?
DH> Well, permaculture, as I've said in the book - in a world of constantly
rising energy and resultant affluence, permaculture is always going to be
restricted to a small number of people who are committed to those ideals
which have some sort of ethical or moral pursuit. It's always going to be a
fringe thing. Whereas in a world of decreasing energy, permaculture
provides, I believe, the best available framework for redesigning the whole
way we think, the way we act, and the way we design new strategies. It
doesn't mean to say that everyone's going to have a vegetable garden or
some other permaculture technique. But the thinking behind permaculture is
really based on this idea of reducing that energy availability and how you
work with that in a creative way. That requires a complete overturning of a
lot of our inherited culture.
Did this awareness of energy peak leave the permaculture movement for a
DH> Permaculture emerged out of that 'first wave' of modern environmental
awareness in the 1970s, this huge upwelling of positive creative response
to energy constraint. That appeared to go away due to a whole lot of
factors that explain that. Food prices became the cheapest they'd been in
human history. A lot of the incentives for why we would focus on food self
sufficiency and a lot of the other permaculture strategies actually
weakened. For example, the development of the city farms and the community
garden movement in Australia, which in a lot of ways has been an outcome of
the permaculture movement, has focused a lot on the social benefits of
people growing food in cities, rather than the food security issues. So
there wasn't good hard practical reasons why you needed to do this. And so
over twenty years or so, people adapted these ideas to the social and
economic realities that they found themselves in. And that becomes habitual
over a lifetime. I've been drawing the links back, because some of the
accumulated wisdom of the last 25 years or so of permaculture activism
doesn't necessarily apply when you move into an energy descent world.
A lot of the experience of permaculture activism in Third World countries
actually makes a lot of sense. Permaculture has spread around the world and
is already dealing with energy descent type situations in other countries.
One of the places, for example, where people interested in permaculture go
to study that, as much as to help, is Cuba. There you have a society that
was quite industrialized that went into an artificial energy descent
because of collapse of the Soviet Union, and they've actually adapted to
that in quite a creative way.
I'm drawing those links in the permaculture movement to say these are
general lessons that will need to be applied everywhere, rather than just
First World versus Third World type situations.
Do you expect those Third World type situations to apply for us in the near
DH> Yeah, in a broad sense. It's interesting that Mollison's off the cuff
comment in 'The Global Gardener' TV program produced in 1989 had him
traipsing around the world looking at various permaculture projects. In
that he said "we need to get these competent gardeners of the Third World
to rich countries to teach people how to grow food." That reversed that
whole idea of aid, and effectively, that is part of what's needed,
conceptually, at least, if not literally.
What about within the broader environmental movement - do you have a
problem getting this awareness about limits to growth back in that arena?
DH> Well, a lot of the current environmental activism is based on a bedrock
foundation of the limits of climate and the Greenhouse effect. The energy
peak arguments are the insight of the first wave of environmentalists of
the late 1970's coming back to the fore, but folding in and combining wit
the insight from the second wave from the late 1980's, which is all
Greenhouse driven. Although I can remember discussing the Greenhouse in the
seventies with Mollison, it wasn't until the mid eighties that the
gathering consensus of our reality started to drive the environmental
agenda. I think that broadly, the same sort of strategies make sense
whether you're looking at it from a Greenhouse agenda or from an energy
peak agenda. But there's also blindspots that come with that awareness.
Greenhouse has meant that there has perhaps been an over focus on fossil
fuels being a bad thing, a primitive form of energy that we need to get
past. Whereas what the insights relating to energy peak say is that no,
fossil fuels are an incredibly good source of energy, but we've wasted it.
To some extent they're mutually reinforcing arguments, and in other ways
there's also a difference. The need to recognize the way in which fossil
fuels are really the power that create the good and the bad things in
society is really important.
You talk about appropriate use of fossil fuels. How do you maintain an
integrity within permaculture scene? Is it possible to use fossil fuels
without the negative effects?
DH> Well the example we give within permaculture is that right from the
beginning there has been a strong emphasis on earthworks, using bulldozers
to create dams, house sites, appropriately constructed roads and earthworks
to direct the flow of water. The idea that properly designed and
constructed earthworks are one of the ancient ways in which people
manipulated catchments to increase their total productivity. The rice
terraces of South East Asia and many other structures that required the
work of generations of people working with mostly human labor, sometimes
animal power. We now have, as the result of technology and fossil fuels,
the capacity to move earth very cheaply. Those earth structures, if they're
well designed, can be maintained by future generations with little human
labor. So that represents a very good investment of the capital capacity we
What are the main problems with conventional, industrial agriculture?
DH> Well, of course, permaculture started as a critique of industrial forms
of agriculture to see if it could be redesigned using natural principles.
The idea grew that traditional peasant agriculture was labour intensive,
industrial agriculture was fossil fuel intensive and permaculture was
design and information intensive. The central problem with agriculture -
industrial agriculture, is not so much it's damage to the productive base,
although that is very, very important, the main problem is just that vast
amounts of non-renewable energy are used to support an essentially
renewable system that provides human food, year after year after year.
Now in all pre-industrial societies agriculture, or it's precursors in
hunting-gathering, had to have a net energy yield, otherwise they were all
dead. And yet our agriculture system actually consumes more than it
produces. Now that is the fundamental problem of industrial agriculture. As
a byproduct of that it damages the soil and reduces future capacity.
There's been a lot of focus on that damage with artificial fertilizers,
heavy machinery, monocultures, pesticides and that sort of thing. Those
things are important, but while there's still a cheap source of energy it's
possible to keep patching the system up, using more energy here to
compensate for a problem there. When you get an energy decline you can no
longer do that. You have to fall back upon natural pest management, but if
you've got an environment with no biodiversity in it, that has no
beneficial insects, then you have the problem that conventional farmers get
when they try to convert to organics too rapidly. You risk your production
crashing. You need that gradual transition .
Similarly, permaculture focuses on a lot more use of trees and perennial
crops because of their energetic efficiency, and the fact that you don't
need to re-sow them every year, which again requires an investment of
resources to make them bearing and productive. At the moment that's a
problem for farmers getting loans from banks, calculating how long it takes
to pay off the interest before a return comes in from the crops. But it's
also a problem of energy - are there the resources to spend to set up those
systems? Will it take a decade or so to start to yield? The more extreme
forms of industrial agriculture that have developed in Europe and the
United States, and the financial subsidies, is the extreme perversion of
agriculture. Cows are fed human quality food on the feedlot to produce
hamburgers. People are very familiar with the environmental and social
obscenities that these sort of systems represent. But they are perhaps less
aware of the extreme energy implausibility of those systems.
When I was in Israel looking at these large shed dairies they are like
European dairies but instead of being fed with crops from natural rainfall,
the crops in Israel are grown from water which has been pumped with
electricity. Vast field crops of corn and wheat fed to dairy animals. And I
said to the people there, "you know, in Australia the glass of milk we
drink is about twenty percent oil. In Europe, it's about fifty - sixty
percent oil. In Israel, it's about ninety percent oil! In Saudi Arabia
they've gone further than that - they have to desalinate sea water, too.
What that shows is if there's enough energy you can do anything, in a way.
You might get some very perverted systems, but it's still possible.
Industrial agriculture leaves some damaged topsoils and other affects in
it's wake. Can permaculture reverse any of these and if so, on what scale?
DH> There's a positive and a negative aspect to that. One of the biggest
limiting resources in agricultural productivity is phosphorous. It's
critical to plant nutrition and animal health, and it's in limited supply.
All ecosystems work to maximize to hold phosphorous and recycle it. It's
one of the non-renewable mineral resources that humans have dug out of the
earth at a few key places around the world in the last hundred years with
the aid of fossil fuels and have spread over large areas of agricultural
land. Interestingly enough, it's one of the few elements that doesn't get
leeched away readily. It's been estimated that in some parts of Australia's
farmland that's been intensively farmed for potatoes in a cool climate,
that there's enough phosphorous tied up in the soil, locked up, for a
hundred years of farming - if you could actually make it available.
Now making it available requires the work of a healthy eco-system. Because
nature is used to actually breaking apart this locked up phosphorous in the
form of aluminium and iron phosphate. So permaculture systems, especially
tree systems, as well as forms of organic agriculture that husband the soil
micro-organisms, can mine back out some of that resource. That's one of the
positive stories - agriculture hasn't just left a legacy of toxicity and
degradation, it's left a legacy of unused abundance. It's been technically
difficult to get at, so it's not just like people have pointlessly thrown
away fertilizers, it requires more sophisticated soil ecosystems.
In terms of really serious toxicities, tree based systems that can actually
capture the heavy metals and other elemental poisons, which of course can't
be broken down or don't go away, can only be tied up. But a lot of those
can be tied up in wooden structures, which aren't food. Soils can be
cleaned by going through cycles of reforestation, so the land is
effectively 'rested', or taken out of food production.
But the trouble with this is the more you move into an energy descent
world, the more pressure to grow more food, because the yields per hectare
actually drop. So the pressure to bring more land into food production is
greater. While we continue to have some energy affluence, growing forests
on some of that degraded land - and to some extent this is already
happening naturally in European agriculture, conservation strategies,
revegetation, has allowed large areas to be taken out of production,
ironically, because of surplus - too much food being produced. In Sweden
they have biomass harvesting - growing short rotation willow crops on
agricultural land to actually reduced agricultural surpluses, and those
crops are then fed into district feeding plants to provide energy. You can
look at that as , is that a system of net energy and debate that, but it is
also a soil healing, cleansing system as well.
Do you envision a labour intensive form of agriculture to maintain anything
like the kind of yields we're getting at the moment?
DH> Whether future generations can improve on the agricultural productivity
that existed before industrialised agriculture remains to be seen. The
expectation that we can actually maintain industrial levels of agricultural
activity - well, yes, it is possible in intensive gardening to produce more
food per hectare than the most intensive industrial systems. But we're
looking at mostly garden agriculture, where there's a net input of
resources, compost materials, and it's very labour intensive. And most of
that is actually in urban areas where people live. So garden agriculture
can yield more per hectare than the industrial equivalent form, but with
broad acre agriculture systems you definitely need many more people and you
need the infrastructure for people to be able to live on farms. All those
farm landscapes that used to be all these farmhouses are all gone and are
now relics. We will again need more accommodation on farms as farms will
require more people to work them.
What do you imagine for the future of suburbia?
DH> I think it's a mixed message. There tends to be a view that suburban
development - spread out cities - are a product of the motorcar and cheap
energy. And although that's true, the suburban landscapes are no denser in
human settlement than some of the denser settles of dense agricultural
landscapes in the world. Now admittedly people living in those suburbs
consume far more resources in total than people who lived in those densely
settled agricultural landscapes. Somewhere like the Red River Delta in
Vietnam has a higher density of people living more or less totally self
sufficient off that land than say, Australian suburbs. Of course they're
very special environments, they're all fed by integrated water systems,
it's fertile, flat land, but similarly we can looks at our suburbs and say
they are an infrastructure. Our cities water system has the biggest
articulated agricultural landscapes in Australia. So the water is there. We
have an infrastructure of hard surfaces that actually harvests storm water,
which is seen as a problem at the moment, which allows augmentation of
natural rainfall to direct that water into the remaining areas that are
potentially productive. We've got mostly individual houses that can be
retrofitted to have solar access because they're generally set far enough
back from neighbouring houses to get that. Now that might involve cutting
down a lot of gum trees in those leafy suburbs, but there's a lot of ways
in which the suburbs can be incrementally retrofitted in an energy descent
One of the things I think a lot of the urban planners miss is that they
assume that any future framework will be driven by public policy and
forward planning and design. Whereas, I think, given the speed with which
we are approaching this energy descent world, and the paucity of any
serious consideration of planning or even awareness of it, we have to take
as part of the equation that the adaptive strategies will not happen by
some big, sensible, long range planning approach, but will happen just
organically and incrementally by people just doing things in response to
immediate conditions. So if you live in an apartment in a multistory
building, and you've got to work out how to try and retrofit that in an
energy descent context, there's a lot of complex technical infrastructure
and organization involved. In the suburbs people can actually just start
changing houses and doing things - give or take planning regulations -
without the whole of society agreeing on some plan. The suburbs are
amenable to this organic, incremental, adaptive strategy.
In practical terms what that really means is that big suburban houses that
have one to three people living in them, mostly not present, will actually
re-adapt to have people work from home. Home based businesses and
retrofitted garages with workshops and people making things, even with food
production in them, will increase. The street, which is a dead place at the
moment in suburbia, will again become an active space because people will
be present rather than commuting away. Now that re-creation of active urban
life will be not that much different to what existed prior to and even into
my childhood in the 1950s. It's not really a radical a thing to envisage
suburban life where there's larger households - whether that's a family or
shared households where people are taking in borders to help pay the rent
or mortgage or whatever, and help share the tasks that need to be done in
larger, more self reliant households. So I'm quite optimistic about how the
suburbs can be retrofitted.
You talk about how the top down approach isn't going to solve out problems,
but do you see any problems stopping the spread of permaculture ?
DH> Whether these solutions actually spread under a label of permaculture
or not is less significant than their spread itself. But the impediments
are in many different forms. We can see in the global economy at the moment
with the established powers in corporations that are struggling to position
themselves as to how to deal with the energy descent. That may not take the
form of a corporate plan worked out in the boardroom, but I think somehow,
there's an understanding in some circles that the current game is a short
A lot of the big forces that are driving world politics and the global
economy at the moment are very much reflecting energy descent. Essentially
the global war on terrorism - as Donald Rumsfeld said, '"the war that will
never end in our lifetimes" - is in fact their version of how to deal with
energy descent. They're trying to gather all the key productive zones under
their complete control. The idea that the society as a whole is completely
ignorant of this is wrong. But it may not express itself in the ways we
would expect. If you look at the drift towards fascism that's everywhere in
the world at the moment, that seeks to find blame or causes for unfortunate
circumstances as being the responsibility of some other group - that is
actually a classic response of established authority when it's caught with
it's pants down.
Whether we describe that as a conscious conspiracy if you like, or whether
it's a natural, organic response to energy descent is playing out in front
of our eyes now. That is actually the biggest threat to the permaculture
industry now. We have an opportunity to positively engage with energy
descent and to learn and to change as we've done in the past.
Could you talk about one of the ideas which I think underlies permaculture,
Odum's concepts of eMergy and energy accounting?
DH> One of the influences on permaculture in the beginning was the work of
Howard Odum. I dedicated my new book - Permaculture: Principles and
Pathways beyond Sustainability to his memory. He died in 2002. He was an
eminent American systems ecologist. And around the world there's a whole
network of people who've taken his ideas of energy accounting idea, which
is called eMergy - which stands for embodied energy. It's a particular
method of measuring the energy that it takes to make something, whether
it's a built thing or a living thing. Whatever it is, eMergy is a currency
with which we can measure the human and natural worlds. This idea has of
using energy as a currency for measuring things has got quite a long
history, but the various attempts to do it in the past haven't quite
worked, partly because people have tried to use just energy itself.
As a simple example we can look at a lump of wood and a book - both can be
put into a fire. They both have the same amount of energy given off, but
common sense tells us that's a poor use of a book. We have in us an
energetic commonsense which comes from a peasant groundedness connected to
nature, which permaculture is trying to recreate, because we've mostly lost
it. We actually have this energy hierarchy in our heads of energy quality
and embodied energy. We understand that a lot of work one way or another
went into making the book.
As energy descent becomes a public discussion, one of the big questions
that emerges is how do you measure this economic process, or this social
process, against that one. Is it worth putting resources into that or this.
Now if we think the current discussions about public policy priorities,
trying to account for environmental, social and economic values are
complicated - that's nothing compared to what happens when energy becomes
scarcer. Because it then becomes really important you're not wasting
resources, putting them into a process which is actually a blind alley. You
need forms of accounting that can compare very, very different things.
Some of the current attempts at energy accounting like the triple bottom
line are an absolute a joke. They're an insult to children even in terms of
their intellectual content, because they try and compare vague abstractions
of social and environmental values - just dot pointed - against a
completely econometric financial accounting system of an organization which
is actually doing the work. So you've got two hierarchical levels - one
compares with qualitative things, and the other is internal to a system,
like the accounts of a corporation, and yet most of the environmental and
social values that will be listed in triple bottom line accounting will be
actually external to the organization. You can not add it up.
Accounting is not an answer, but it gives some guidance, because we can
look at other systems that do work and use these accounting methods as a
crosscheck on our commonsense. What we find generally is that using eMergy
accounting, permaculture strategies come up trumps as the most
environmentally progressive strategy. A study was done in Britain some
years ago on recycled paper. They concluded it was easier to just put paper
in an energy efficient furnace and use it for fuel rather than recycle it.
Elements of that are true looking at a whole lifecycle process. Ironically
using the permaculture strategy of using the paper as a sheet mulch
technique to establish a food garden is probably light years ahead of
either of those options. So the things that look very very simple,
rudimentary, even amateur, often when you use these more complete
accounting methods, come up as the most energetically efficient.
So I think eMergy accounting is very technically complex, not many people
understand it, but it is something that needs to be understood more, if any
of this energy descent stuff is actually going to get to a level of
adaptive public discussion and public policy. We may actually be in an
energy descent world where there won't be any adaptive public policy, but I
suppose most of us would still hope that that common sense does emerge.
Can you talk about Odum's system ecology and the type of insights that
DH> Apart from energy accounting, systems ecology especially Odum's
development of it, provides a big picture, top down view of systems.
Whether we're looking at a national economy, an environment or a region, it
provides a more holistic framework for understanding what's happening in
any scale of human society or nature, rather than a reductionist view which
tries to pull things apart into their components, to study the bits, and
then reassemble the functioning system. That reductionist view has
dominated science, and a lot of people think that's the only type of
science, we've learnt an enormous amount from it. But it has now got to the
point where it's creating more blindness than insight. The balance of that,
the more holistic ways of looking at things - of which systems theory is
the greatest example within the scientific tradition, has had enormous
benefits in the development of cybernetics and the computer revolution, yet
the thinking behind it is virtually absent within public discussion. Odum's
work helps us try to see how things link together, what are the important
flows and energy storages, by using an energy circuit language which
describes things from a farm scale to a global scale. And I've found that
quite useful in understanding the dynamics at work in managing land,
through to managing an economy.
We can look at systems at any scale and still take a holistic view. For
instance we can think of a tree not as just an individual organism, we can
think of it as a set of productive units, which are the leaves, the
infrastructure which is the heartwood of the tree that holds everything up,
and the tree as habitat for other things and living beings. Systems theory
doesn't necessarily divide things into the convenient compartments that
we're used to thinking of. A forest can be seen as an interconnectedness of
roots, as one shared system and the canopy as another. Leaves dropping down
into a stream add to the nutrient flows. Fish migrate up and are eaten by
animals and those nutrients go out into the forest . Systems theory
connects us back also to indigenous and traditional peasant peoples
connected with nature - their ways of understanding things. Systems
thinking, while it's an incredible abstraction, and seems to involve lots
of maths and science, actually brings up insights connected to the ways
indigenous people think.
What do you think the world will look like in twenty or thirty years?
DH> Well, we're actually in a change phase now which is so multi-leveled
and inherently chaotic - our understandings of chaos theory and ecological
change that suggest we're at this big turnover point where things can go in
many different directions all at once. What we should expect is that the
pattern of the world becoming more globalised, certain aspects of that will
continue into the future; the residue of globalisation. But we can also
expect a counterflow of things starting to become localised and
differentiated. So different outcomes in different places. At the moment
the globalising forces tend to take the same set of economic solutions and
ideological values and methods of production of agriculture and living and
try to apply them everywhere in the world. So there's a conformity of
monoculture wiping out cultural diversity. This is a great source of angst,
this loss of cultural diversity, this huge loss of languages which is in
parallel to the catastrophic loss of biodiversity.
But counter to that, as energy descent consolidates, you start to get the
globalised flow of genetic material - plants, animals and people from all
over the world in a particular place, responding to a particular set of
social and economic, environmental and political circumstances, actually
developing systems which are less subject to global buffering or
counterflow from elsewhere. So they go their own path. What that means is
we'll have everything from paradise to hell simultaneously in different
places, that are not necessarily predictable. You can see that in the
breakdown of the nation state and it's power, from empowered communities in
one area to feudal warlords in another. The pace at which that emerges will
be variable - a lot of these things exist in the world already, and we have
a very affluent reality view of what the world will be like in the future.
What most people are really asking, is what will the world be like for the
billion or so middle class consumers of the world.
A lot of things in the world in thirty years will be similar to now. One
affect of energy peak and descent is that you get a slowdown in the rates
of change. For instance, most of the buildings around were here thirty
years ago and we're still living in them, despite the rate of development.
In another thirty years that will be even more so. We will have knocked
down less building and build new ones. Even energy efficient buildings, we
won't have built too many of them, we'll be living with what we've got.
Similarly with technology, we will be making do and adapting things that
are no longer being made. A lot of that engine of technological change will
slow down. I think a lot of people assume that that engine of technological
change has been a straight acceleration, even in the last thirty years. But
thirty years ago there were the signs of this energy slowdown. When I was a
child it was the general assumption that supersonic air travel was just
around the corner - and it was, in the form of the Concord and the Russian
equivalent. The Americans were going to build a supersonic transport which
was as big as the Jumbo and with swing wings. It was never build. The
Concord has being taken out of service - it never made a profit. We've
already reached some energy peaks. Things like the computer revolution have
enabled all these other ways for that technological engine to keep driving
forward. The possibility is that some of those will continue to accelerate
in the next thirty years depending on the state of the world economy and
depending on a lot of things which aren't to do with hard numbers or facts,
but to do with faith. Already the world economy may be largely an article
of faith. It's like a thing projected out over the precipice by the
collective belief of everyone.
After the 1987 stockmarket crash, Ronald Reagan - the most powerful man in
the world said, in an amazing, na´ve insight, said "There won't be an
economic collapse as long as people believe there won't." People can bring
the whole house of cards down just by losing faith. That underlies the
inherent unpredictability of things. It's not just when does this resource
run out, or when is there enough destruction of this to stop that process.
It's to do with the people to some extent prefiguring what is actually
happening through their awareness and their unconscious, they start to
withdraw, individually and collectively, their support for systems.
Arguable, historians might end up looking back, post energy descent, and
argue whether it all could have continued if people had of kept the faith.
So there is the possibility of large scale sudden change because of loss of
faith, but it's not inevitable that that happens either. That notion of
collapse and having to rebuild can happen at any multiple scales. So
something that looks like a collapse at one scale is just a small adaptive,
creative move when you step back. If you look at the decline of the Roman
Empire, it didn't go in a cataclysmic bang like the Minoan civilisation
did. It went in a sow rundown, and a lot of the knowledge and systems of
value managed to be condensed, repackaged and held on to, because that
process of wind down into what became called the Dark Ages was gradual.
Are there any positives to the middle class environments?
DH> Over the last thirty years, starting with the babyboomers and the
generations since, have actually taken a different pathway to maximising
material gain. In the process of going against what's in peoples apparent
economic self interest people have explored all sorts of different ways of
living, skills and travel, and have built up this great collection of
experience. In an energy descent world of tougher conditions most of that
will go into the dustbin of history. But parts of it actually represent new
ways of doing things that you can't predict which bits will be useful. We
can see this in the revival of traditional skills like blacksmithing, which
is a skill bas e that is important in a low energy society. These type of
skills have come out of middle class affluence that may be seeds of new
ways of doing things.
How will the energy peak affect those people and environments?
DH> A lot of the limits to affluence that can be best understood are not
actually the energetic or external limits. They are the internal or social
limits. Clive Hamilton's book 'Growth Fetish' talks very well about this.
People are driven mad by the total continuous drive to consume and the
hollowness of this sort of existence, the lack of community and identity.
In an energy descent world a lot of those destructive behaviours are just
set aside, because there are more important things to do. So, at the
extreme it's a bit like what happens in a society where there's a natural
disaster. Community is re-discovered, people set aside their differences
and get working on fundamental things. A lot of the angst about alienation
and all sorts of seemingly intractable problems almost evaporate. For a lot
of people I think this would be an enormous relief. Most people can't get
off the treadmill because of peer pressure and individual and collective
addiction in society. Sometimes people recognise a problem, want to change,
but they need a crisis, something that affects their peers, so they can all
What do you think about the die-off scenarios?
DH> I've followed some of the emerging discussions since the late 90s on
the internet, Jay Hanson's was one of them. I think the die-off scenario
and that provocative wake up call is really useful and I think it can't be
completely discounted. A large and very catastrophic drop in populations,
like bigger versions of what happened in Europe with the Black Death, could
be likely through infectious diseases. The evidence points to a
re-emergence of infectious diseases, both old ones and new ones. So these
possibilities are there but I think they get confabulated. Just a decline
in material affluence back to the levels of the 1930s would be seen by many
people as the die-off scenario. So, in that sense I think people should
expect radical changes and a lot of things that are taken for granted now
might just disappear and evaporate.
In the same way in the Third World now, AIDs in Africa could be seen as a
die-off scenario, but if you step back to look at phases of big disasters,
global wars, even the 1919 influence epidemic; those things on the bigger
scale are relatively small hiccups. I don't think of them as the die-off
The die off scenario is actually the whole end to the development of
intensive settled agriculture, civilisation and industrialisation, all of
the last 6000 years swept into the dustbin of history. What goes with that
is a very large drop in human population in a relatively short time like
100 years; possibly back to some sort of hunter gatherer type of
organization, with a much depleted resource level and without the capacity
to use the resources we would can use now. And you get a complete regrowth
of wild nature and you get that cycle starting again, but without the
possibility of it going to the fossil fuels stage. But even that I don't
think is the end of the human story. Given that fossil fuels represent
hundreds of millions of years of stored energy - effectively the surplus of
the abundance of Gaia as a self organising organism, the living earth. You
could say that now we've dug it all out again, in a way we've done nature's
task - humanity's task is now over. We've put it all back into the
atmosphere, recycled all the biological elements and nature will now use
that to develop to a higher level of energy. And humans will just be swept
away in that.
So it is possible, and I'm not being fanciful, if you have a look at how
big fossil fuels are, as the Earth's storage of energy, you see that we are
talking about a dynamic that is geological in scale. It's actually even
bigger than the ice ages. So it's silly to discount the possibility of any
order of change that humans have experienced before - even the ice ages are
smaller that what we are now involved in.
That's at the God level, perhaps. That's for the earth to decide, anyway.
We can't do anything about that, we're not God, we're not Gaia, yet we're
understanding systems at a scale which are well above our capacity to have
any influence over. We just have to worry about what it means to be human
and to continue to attempt to live out that story.
Original article available here.
David Holmgren, co-originator of the permaculture concept and Author of
Permaculture: Principals and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, speaks with
Adam Fenderson from www.energybulletin.net about permaculture and its role
in an energy constrained world.
Link to transcript:
Q1. Can you tell us a little bit about permaculture, and your roll in its
Q2. What do you mean by the term 'energy peak'? (2:09)
Q3. What role does your vision of permaculture play in that scenario? (1:07)
Q4. Did permaculture leave the awareness of the energy peak for a while?
Q5. What response are you getting within the broader environmental movement
to these issues? (2:40)
Q6. How can fossil fuels be used appropriately? (1:17)
Q7. What problems are there with industrial agriculture? (5:19)
Q8. What legacy does this leave and are there ways to reduce the damage?
Q9. So are you envisioning a labour intensive type of farming to maintain
anything like the yields we get today? (1:26)
Q10. What do you see as the future of suburbia? (6:35)
Q11. What threats do you foresee to the spread of the principles of
Q12. Can you tell us about energy accounting and Odum's concept of eMergy?
Q13. Can you talk about Odum's system ecology and the type of insights that
Q14. So what do you think the um... world... might look in 20-30 years?
Q15. Do you see any positive outcomes for the world's middle classes? (2:11)
Q16. What about dis-connection from the land, and what does this imply for
our reconnecting? (5:35)
Q17. What do you think about the die-off scenarios? (5:51)
NB. We would very much like to transcribe all of the above material (though
some clips are probably already being done):
If anyone is interested in helping with this task (on a volunteer basis),
please email Julian Darley ( firstname.lastname@example.org).
* To facilitate the task of transcription, there are (or will be) links to
download the mp3 audio files, and where possible, pre-processed texts will
also be posted.
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