[permaculture] Permanent culture

Rob Windt meridian_power at yahoo.com.au
Mon Sep 18 21:03:56 EDT 2006

<<In preparing for a coming program, the issue of evaluating progress in 
permaculture became of interest. The following questions came to mind:

1) With increasing awareness about climate change (crisis/destabilization), 
are WE moving significantly closer to a "permanent culture" globally or 
locally/regionally? (WE can refer to both those concerned about 
permaculture and sustainability as well as the planet as whole.)...
Rael Bassan>>

An Interview with Dennis Meadows - co-author of `Limits to Growth'.
By Rob Hopkins

I was very lucky at ASPO 5 to get to interview Dennis Meadows, one of
the authors of what is probably the most famous environmental book in
history, "Limits to Growth". He had just given an excellent talk, and
I managed to get him to come and sit under a stone pine tree for what
I thought was going to be a fairly straightforward run through of the
8 `Skilling Up for Powerdown' questions you've seen me ask various
other people at Transition Culture, such as Fritjof Capra and Stephan
Harding. As you'll see though, Dennis's view of peak oil and the
environment is so gloomy that by the time of the second question, all
my powerdown-centred questions that had worked so well before ended up
becoming somewhat redundant!

Do you see peak oil as a crisis or an opportunity?

Well, I mean it's both. I think it will develop in a way which is
catastrophic. In theory we could use peak oil as an opportunity to
reconceptualise our society, and rethink our reliance on the military
and so forth. In practice we're not going to do that. In practice what
will happen, as it becomes clear that peak oil is a reality, the rich
and powerful will grab as much as they can, and not worry much about
the poor and the weak. What happens after that I'm not sure.

If the rich and the powerful can manage to grab a lot, they can
sustain a lifestyle for a long time! There's still going to be a lot
of oil, so I think that's how is going to unfold. It isn't going to be
the ushering in of a golden age for humanity. We also have 5 or 6
other peaks to contend with, leave aside peak oil; peak water, peak
food, peak climate and so forth, and so collectively they are going to
cause a lot of problems.

So, hmmm. The next question is "If the approach you propose were to
come to fruition and you woke up 20 years from now, what would it
smell like, feel like, look like", but is your vision of that time not
something you want to

Well I didn't talk this morning about my vision. I didn't make any
prescriptions, I didn't tell anyone what they should do about these
problems. In the original `Limits to Growth' in 1972, there was a
chapter about what it could be like in a sustainable society. There's
a very different kind of chapter in the latest edition called `Tools
for Sustainable Development' (I didn't write that, Donella (Meadows)
wrote that
). I'm not offering a utopian vision, you know. I have my
own thoughts about what's going to happen, I'm doing things to
structure my own personal living situation, but I don't imagine 
attitude is kinda like the one we talk about in that book.

When we run our computer and we see the first curve peak over and go
down, we just quit paying attention, because we know that when that
happens its going to bring so many changes into the system that our
ability now to know what's going to happen is zero, so we just don't
pay attention to it. That's my attitude. I think climate change, and
the oil peak, either of them and certainly together, are going to
introduce so many changes, that I don't know what it's going to be like.

In my speeches sometimes, I say that if you think about the degree of
change you saw in the last 100 years, social,, technical, cultural,
political, environmental, all those changes, its less that what you'll
see in the next 20 years. What will they be? I would venture the
opinion that there's be a lot less people 20 years from now, or 40
years, it's hard to tell how that'll be, I have some anecdotal
thoughts but no coherent utopian vision.

To what extent do solutions to the energy crisis involve actionin
other non-energy fields?

I said this morning (in his address to the ASPO conference) there are
4 ways you respond to an energy shortage, deprivation, efficiency,
alternative fuels, and cultural change. Overwhelmingly the most
attractive options open to us are non-technical. They are ethical,
cultural, social and psychological. Will we manage to do them? I don't
know about that, but my attitude is acknowledge the problem, start
doing those things you can do technically to cope with it, being
careful not to take technical solutions that will damage the
environment, and cause a lot more damage through conflict and income
distribution, things like that, and then get busy with the social,
cultural and psychological change which is where the real solutions
lie. Can you support 6 billion people on this planet under any
circumstances? I'm not sure, but certainly not with our current
culture we can't.

What do you see as the main problems and bottlenecks to moving towards
a low energy society?

A key one is Time Horizon. For a variety of political, psychological
and other reasons people have a very short time horizon. It's like an
alcoholic. If you say to a friend who is an alcoholic "quit drinking
and you'll feel better", and his time horizon is the next 10 minutes
or even the next day, he knows you're wrong. If he quits drinking
he'll feel worse a day from now. He has to have a time horizon of 6
months or more, before he can start to catch sight of a time when
he'll feel better if he quits drinking now. So one is Time Horizon, so
if you have a bunch of short sighted people, they're not going to cope
with it.

There is this hysterisis effect related to conflict and anger


Hysterisis. It's a very important concept. Its an engineering concept.
You have two variables. Let's say that as this variable goes this way
it goes up, I just took x from here to there, now I'm going to bring
it back. If it comes back on the same curve, its not hysterisis, but
often what happens is that if I take it back it will go here or there,
not follow the same path. So that is the hystorisis effect. This is
how it is with violence. You and I could have a friendship for 10
years and then if I come and punch you in the nose, suddenly we can't
go back.

Our relationship isn't based on averages, it's based on recent events,
and so one of the obstacles we have is that we are moving into a
conflict filled time, where people are going to do terrible things to
each other, and when they do, it builds up a history which is
impossible to overcome. We were talking about Yugoslavia, the Croats
and the Serbs were killing each other in the 1800s, and then Tito came
in and for years they intermarried, they lived peacefully, and then he
went away and rather quickly it went back. So that's a problem for us,
its the way our psychology works, you could do 100 nice things for me
but if you do one bad thing I'll focus on the bad thing, and that's
going to happen, people are going to do bad things to each other.

An attribute of the issue is that there are time delays. The reason
collapse occurs is because of long delays. In the case of oil, we
built all these oil fired powerplants. They're going to be there for
the next 40 or 50 years. You can't just suddenly tomorrow turn them
into photovoltaic or windmill installations, they're all planned. This
drastically reduces your capacity to respond. Other things too, such
as cultural differences.

I don't want to harp on this, but when you have a lot of Americans
thinking, really, that God is going to come down and save them
know, I joke about it and you smile, but when they get up in the
morning they just know, that's reality for them! Most Americans have
never been out of the country, and certainly most don't speak another
foreign language.

So you get into these incredibly arrogant, like George Bush, he just 

let's suppose he's smart, I mean I don't really know so much, he's not
really smart but let's say relatively smart, he just does not
understand the way things work! He accepted theories as to what would
happen if we sent the military into Iraq which were falsified by 2000
years of history, but he doesn't notice history! So you have ignorance
and egocentrism. It's like that guy (at the end of Dennis's ASPO talk)
who stood up and said "why don't they understand?", when what he
really meant was "why don't they have my opinion?"

So those are obstacles.

What are skills we'll need in this context?

You're thinking of permaculture courses?

Not necessarily. If you approaching a community to try and facilitate
their transition through this

One thing I think we need to know is that sustainability isn't a
destination, its how you make the trip. So there are all kinds of
values, principles and attitudes that people have to have. I'm
starting now to create a centre that will work on urban
sustainability. It's an interesting unit of analysis, how to make a
city more sustainable.

I would teach energy auditing as an essential skill, because I think
that someone who becomes really tuned in to energy content and energy
density and flows will be led to do something that will be useful even
if they don't think about the oil peak. I'm trying to make this in the
state of New Hampshire where I live right now, which imports all of
its oil!

It has no fossil fuels of its own, no gas, no oil, no coal, it just
imports everything! I'm saying to them, to the local authority, just
count it up, see what you're doing to yourself. You don't have to
believe in depletion or anything just look at what you're doing!
You're sending all this money to Saudi Arabia, and if you just spent a
little bit of money on efficiency and mass transit, you could
drastically reduce the amount of money you send out of the state, and
you could drastically increase the number of jobs in the State, which
is a problem for us.

Plus you could build up some saleable technological competence! If you
have some companies who are building devices to help you measure heat
efficiency in a house, then not only can we use them in New Hampshire
but we could sell them to Massachusetts etc. So this requires energy
auditing which I think is a very important place to start. Another
kind knowledge that I think is very important here is local
currencies. We need them and the current system that we have is
unstable and encourages short term thinking which is disastrous. Local
currencies have the attribute of pulling unused and underutilised
resources out of a community and making them useful.

People who wouldn't dare or wouldn't imagine that they can compete in
a monetary economy, when you start offering them local currency and a
kind of structured bartering system, well suddenly they start to think
about things they know how to do that other people might like to have.
Babysitting, or whatever. So I would definitely encourage the teaching
of local currencies.
My wife just did a permaculture course for a week. They didn't deal
with local currencies at all! I found that strange

It is usually covered on the longer 2 week course.

OK. You know, team building, I think is useful. I've done a book
called Systems Thinking Playbook,
it's 30 little short games that teach people about systems. Great
book! You can buy it on Amazon
 . These are short games that you can
build into the course
 normally I do such things but I didn't have
time this morning, they are simple things, 1 or 2 minute games
would put them into my course.

The notion of paradigms, the notion that when I see reality what I am
seeing is my image of reality, not the truth, you know when you have
these two people who are arguing with each other, frustrated that the
other one doesn't get it, its mainly because both of them are looking
at different parts of the system, and being able to take command of
your paradigm is a skill that would be very useful for your students
to get.

Its been very striking the two paradigms here, the business as usual,
nuclear power keep it all going and the more powerdown people

And this is quite a homogenous group actually!

How can this be best communicated to a wider audience?

That is not a meaningful question. You're talking about a bunch of
permaculture people, right?

I mean the concept of responding to peak oil with a community
powerdown kind of approach.

First of all, you don't communicate with somebody who isn't
interested! The first thing you have to do is get people to be
concerned about it. That's why I think getting people to do energy
accounting, a simple tally, and I think for New Hampshire "my God,
here you're sending millions of dollars out of the state every year
and what do you get for it? Oil. Which you burn. How stupid is this?

Until I can get them to say "hmmm, well yeah, that's kinda stupid" I'm
not going to communicate anything to them. So you need first that they
are concerned about the problem, so that they are open at least to
thinking about it. Then you need some data. One of the things which is
distressing to me about this conference is these are not data people.
There is a group that study production statistics and oil reservoir
characteristics, they have data, but then you get off onto issues like
when is the peak coming, or what's it going to mean or what do we do
about it, and its all just verbal, there's no analysis there.

I used to run my own graduate programme, and one of the required
courses was accounting, how to create financial numbers about an
operation. I said financial numbers have all sorts of problems, but
for the rest of your life you're going to be dealing with accounting
statements, and you need to know where those numbers come from and
what they mean and what their problems are. If you don't you're going
to have someone saying "sorry, I can't afford that" and you won't be
able to argue with them. So, numbers, accounting, stuff like that.

I used to, in my Graduate Programme, have a course called Professional
Practice, ethics, how to give a speech, how to draw a graph so that
people understand what it means, just simple stuff like that. Many
people are very unskilled in communicating.
They get emotional, they don't understand where their audience is, so
they are talking in a way and with a vocabulary or with illustrations
that just doesn't mean anything. They impute onto the audience a set
of values that the audience probably doesn't have, so they're just not
very effective. Or they try to cram too much stuff in at one time. So
those are very simple skills but they are very important skills.

What would help you most in your work to achieve what you want to achieve?

Well, if I could be 40 again! I've got 10 years left here, I need to
get on with my life! For me, I don't understand the context of your
question, the problems I have are only going to be solved by me,
there's nothing anyone can give me that's going to make it easier for
me to do anything.

Rob Windt

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