Norris Thomlinson: A Response to Holmgren’s “Crash on Demand”

By Norris Thomlinson / Deep Green Resistance Hawai’i

The situation in many third world countries could actually improve because of the global economic collapse. First world countries would no longer enforce crushing debt repayment and structural adjustment programs, nor would CIA goons be able to prop up “friendly” dictatorships. The decline of export-based economies would have serious consequences, yes, but it would also allow land now used for cash crops to return to subsistence farms.

–from the Deep Green Resistance Decisive Ecological Warfare strategy

David Holmgren, co-originator of permaculture, has a long history of thoughtful and thought-provoking publications, including design books from the original Permaculture One to his 2002 Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability. He’s written numerous essays over 35 years, ranging from the specifics of agricultural vs forestry biomass for fuel, to the future of energy decline.

I’ve long admired and respected Holmgren’s thinking, so I was looking forward to reading his new “Crash on Demand” (PDF), an update of his 2007 “Future Scenarios” projections for global developments. I felt especially intrigued that he has arrived at conclusions similar to my own, regarding not just the inevitability, but the desirability of a crash of the financial system as soon as possible. But the article disappointed me; I think Holmgren is soft-selling his realizations to make them palatable to a hoped-for mass movement. Interestingly, even this soft-sell is being rejected by the permaculture blogging community.

Holmgren argues:

“For many decades I have felt that a collapse of the global economic system might save humanity and many of our fellow species great suffering by happening sooner rather than later because the stakes keep rising and scale of the impacts are always worse by being postponed.” (p 9)

“It seems obvious to me that it is easier to convince a minority that they will be better off disengaging from the system than any efforts to build mass movements demanding impossible outcomes or convincing elites to turn off the system that is currently keeping them in power.” (p 14)

“Mass movements to get governments to institute change have been losing efficacy for decades, while a mass movement calling for less seems like a hopeless case. Similarly boycotts of particular governments, companies and products simply change the consumption problems into new forms.” (p 22)

Holmgren proposes a possible solution:

“Given the current fragilities of global finance, I believe a radical change in the behaviour of a relatively small proportion of the global middle class could precipitate such a crash. For example a 50% reduction of consumption and 50% conversion of assets into building household and local community resilience by say 10% of the population in affluent countries would show up as 5% reduction in demand in a system built on perpetual growth and a 5% reduction in savings capital available for banks to lend.” (p 13)

Where I Agree

Holmgren couches his proposal almost rhetorically, apologetically, as if proactively halting the ecocidal system is crazy talk. He need not be so shy about advocating for collapsing the system! It follows very logically if you agree that:

  1. Industrial civilization is degrading our landbases every day it continues, far faster than we’re healing them
  2. Industrial civilization will collapse sooner or later regardless of what we do
  3. Industrial civilization will not divert its resources into healing our landbases before it collapses

The facts back up Holmgren’s assessment of our dire situation, including imminent climate catastrophe if we continue with anything like business as usual. Industrial civilization is driving 200 species extinct each day and threatening humans with extinction or at best a very miserable future on a burning planet. It is deforesting, desertifying, polluting, and acidifying forests, croplands, landbases, and oceans orders of magnitude faster than nature and all the hard-working permaculturists can heal the damage. The industrial economy consists of turning living ecosystems into dead commodities, and it won’t stop voluntarily. It’s headed for an endgame of total planetary destruction before itself collapsing.

So I fully agree with crashing the system as soon as possible, and I fully agree with getting as many people as possible to withdraw their dependence on and allegiance to the systems and structures of industrial civilization. We desperately need people preparing for crash and building resiliency, in human and in broader ecological communities.

Where I Disagree

We also need a viable strategy to stop the dominant culture in its tracks. We are, and will remain, a tiny minority fighting a system of massive power. Individual lifestyle changes do not affect the larger political systems. People “dropping out” is not enough, is not a solution, is not an effective, leveraged way to crash the system.

I worry about Holmgren’s speculative numbers. I assume the elite, who control a hugely disproportionate percentage of income and wealth, will be even harder to convince of voluntary simplicity than the average citizen. The poor generally don’t have the option to cut spending by 50%, and have few or no assets to divest from global corporate investments. My rough calculations (based on data here) suggest that in the US, 15% of earners between the 40th and 80th percentile (more or less the middle class) must adopt this economic boycott to slow consumption by 5%, and nearly 50% of the middle class must divest their savings to reduce nationwide investment in the global financial system by 5%.

Even hoping for just 15% of the US middle class, 18 million people would have to embrace substantial short-term sacrifice. (While decreasing consumption 50% and building gardens and other resiliency infrastructure, people must still work the same hours at their jobs. Otherwise they’ll simply be replaced by those who want to live the consumptive dream.) This lofty goal seems inconsistent with Holmgren’s recognition of the infeasibility of a mass movement.

History throws up more red flags. Again and again, when growth economies have encountered sustainable cultures, people from the growth economies have forced the others off their land, requiring them to integrate into the cash economy. The dominant culture will not gently relinquish access to resources or to consumer markets. It will retaliate with weapons honed over centuries, from taxes and outlawing sustainability to displacement and blatant conquest. On a less dramatic scale, banks can, if divestments sufficiently diminish the cash they’ve been hoarding for years, adjust fractional reserve rates to compensate. (Though precipitating a fast “run” on the banks could work very nicely to crash the financial system and wipe out faith in fiat money.)

Permaculture activists and thousands of other individuals and groups have for years urged people to consume less. Many good people have adopted voluntary simplicity, dropped out of the global economy, and built regenerative local systems. While this has immense value for the adopting individuals, and often ripples out to benefit the wider community, it hasn’t put a dent in the destruction by the larger financial system. New people are born or assimilated into the culture of consumption faster than people are dropping out.

Holmgren advocates more of the same permaculture activism, with little explanation of why it would now convince people in numbers thousands of times greater than in the past. He hopes the ever-more-obvious signs of imminent collapse will prompt a more rapid shift, but given our fleeting window of opportunity to act, we can’t bank on that hope.

Another Approach

Deep Green Resistance is a design book of what makes a good resistance movement, a permaculture analysis of influencing power and political systems. It arrives at the same conclusion as does Holmgren: we need to prepare for crash by building local resiliency, but the sooner industrial civilization comes down, the better. Its crash will leave the majority of humans better off short-term, as their landbases will no longer be plundered by the rich for resources. Crashing the system now will benefit all humans long-term, giving future generations better odds of enjoying liveable landbases on a liveable planet. And crashing the system now will obviously benefit the vast majority of non-humans, currently being poisoned, displaced, and exterminated.

If we truly hold as our goals halting ecocide and slashing greenhouse gas emissions as dramatically as Holmgren suggests, we must devise a realistic plan, based on a realistic assessment of our numbers and strengths, the vulnerabilities of industrial civilization, and how much longer the planet can absorb its blows. Recognizing our tiny numbers and relative weakness compared to the global system, and limited time before our planet is beaten into full ecosystem collapse, we must apply the permaculture principle of making the least change to achieve maximum effect.

The Deep Green Resistance book, as part of its strategy of Decisive Ecological Warfare, examines more than a dozen historic and contemporary militant resistance movements. It concludes that “a small group of intelligent, dedicated, and daring people can be extremely effective, even if they only number one in 1,000, or one in 10,000, or even one in 100,000. But they are effective in large part through an ability to mobilize larger forces, whether those forces are social movements […] or industrial bottlenecks.”

Holmgren notes that it’s easier to convince a minority to disengage from the system than to spark a majority mass movement for true sustainability, but his plan relies on 10% of the population making dramatic change. DGR’s analysis suggests it’s easier yet to convince a tiny minority to take strategic direct action. The rest of the sympathetic population, whether 10% or just 1% of the general public, can provide material support and loyalty with much less immediate sacrifice than in Holmgren’s proposal.

The Movement to Emancipate the Niger Delta (MEND), with small numbers of people and meager resources, has used militant tactics against oil companies to routinely reduce oil output in Nigeria by 10-30%.

In April 2013, saboteurs in San Jose CA shot out transformers in an electrical substation, causing damage that took weeks to repair. The New York Times explains some of the difficulties involved in replacing transformers, especially if many were to fail in a short period of time.

We have more promising strategies available than hoping we can persuade 10% of the population to adopt voluntary simplicity, and hoping that will crash the financial system.

Conclusion

While I wholeheartedly agree with Holmgren’s analysis of our global predicament, and the desirability of crashing the system, his proposal for doing so seems ineffective. Certainly, we should work to disengage ourselves and neighbors from the global system, but we must combine building alternative structures with actively resisting and strategically sabotaging the dominant system.

Many people will disagree with the necessity of crashing the system, because they don’t think conditions are that bad, because they hold vague hopes that God or technology or permaculture will save us, because they fear that fighting back will increase the anger of our abusers, or because they value their own comfort more than the life of the planet. That’s fine; we can agree to disagree, though I encourage those people to further explore these ideas with their minds and with their hearts.

Many people do see the destructiveness of this culture, the inevitability of its crash, and the desirability of it crashing sooner than later; but won’t want to participate directly in bringing it down for any of many perfectly legitimate reasons. That’s fine, too. There’s lots of work to do, and a role for everyone. You can work on restoration of your landbase or crash preparation for your community while providing material and ideological support to those on the front lines. We can join together as “terra-ists”, with our hands not just in the soil as Holmgren defines the term, but also working with wrenches upon the wheels, the levers, and all the apparatus of industrial civilization.

Suggested Resources

  • Endgame by Derrick Jensen, two volume analysis of the problems of civilization and the solution. Several excerpts available at the website.
  • Deep Green Resistance – a book, an organization, and a strategy to save the planet
  • Liberal vs Radical video presentation by Lierre Keith, explaining the different approaches of these two different frameworks for perceiving the world

From Permaculture, Perennial Polycultures, and Resistance: Demand Crash! — A response to Holmgren’s “Crash on Demand”

9 thoughts on “Norris Thomlinson: A Response to Holmgren’s “Crash on Demand””

  1. I noticed that a comment prior to mine that was critical of the outcome of the Deep Green Resistance efforts to “save the planet” from humanity was deleted. Looks like freedom of speech will not be one of the rights that the Deep Green Resistance has in mind for their vision of a green utopia. The gist of the article was that the Deep Green Resistance vision of Utopia may well turn into Hell given the fact that without the availability of fossil fuel humans will revert back to a primitive state that was not only detrimental to them but to the environment as well. Perhaps the Deep Green Resistance folks should take a closer look at the historical record to see if primitive humans were really “one with nature” or destroyed nature willy nilly in an effort to survive. Results (not so called “good intentions” hmmm) should be he criteria for determining if destroying current Industrialized civilization is a very good idea or even moral if it results in earth being in even a worse state than it is today.

    1. that’s why this debate is about numbers, predictions, very careful assessment. Replacing fossil fuels with burning the last rain forest is obviously a bad idea. Let’s not bite at each other, I suppose we are on the same team which is the team that thinks it is morally indefensible to diminish future generation’s chance of survival which is what the industrial culture does (from oceanic death zones to glacial melt, from dying rivers to desertification)
      Are you familiar with Paul Ehrlich’s work and the recent book by Alan Weissman, “Countdown”? I’d like to recommend it.

    2. But surely without fossil fuels and the industrial system, there will be no way that the destruction of the environment could be worse than now? Or am I missing something? No chainsaws, no bulldozers, no mountain top removal, etc, etc.

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