The apology: A response to David Holmgren

In early 2019, permaculture design system co-founder, David Holmgren, made a public apology to the succeeding generation, his so-called “handicapped generation”. It was about the baby boomer generation leaving the world in its present state.

While agreeing with much of what David wrote, I could see how some would take exception with it. That stimulated me to write this response.

In the following text: DH — David Holmgren. RG — Russ Grayson.

David Holmgren, author of the apology to future generations.

DH The Apology: from baby boomers to the handicapped generations started like this…

It is time for us baby boomers to honestly acknowledge what we did and didn’t do with the gifts given to us by our forebears and be clear about our legacy with which we have saddled the next and succeeding generations.

RG David explains why he felt okay with claiming to represent an entire generation:

“I am a white middle class man born in 1955 in Australia, one of the richest nations of the ‘western world’ in the middle of the baby boom, so I consider myself well placed to articulate an apology on behalf of my generation”.

On coming across the link to David’s statement on the Retrosuburbia facebook I had to stop and think. Can a single person apologise for an entire generation? I had my doubts. So did others.

Victorian permaculture practitioner, Meg McGowan, felt the same way when she wrote in the Retrosuburbia facebook:

Meg McGowan: “While I appreciate what David is trying to do here I don’t want anyone to speak on my behalf without my consent. As a fellow baby boomer I agree with some of what he has to say, but not all of it.

“As a front line feminist I am annoyed at a man deciding he has the right to speak on my behalf, particularly with regard to the impact of the equal rights movement.

“Apologise for yourself, David, by all means, but please don’t assume that you speak for me, or anyone else. I don’t think I owe young people an apology and I’m frankly sick of being accused of ruining their housing prospects, employment prospects and environment when I’ve spent my adult life advocating for abused and disadvantaged people, particularly children, and working tirelessly on behalf of the planet”.

RG Like Meg, I too am a baby boomer and I, too, appreciate what David is trying to do with his apology. I also agree with what Meg says about David assuming he can represent an entire generation. A moment’s thought will make it clear he cannot because he has no authority or agreement to do so.

I understand David based his apology on that of then-prime minister, Kevin Rudd, in his apology to indigenous Australians. Rudd used the first-person plural pronoun (‘we’) in his statement. Victoria-based permaculture educator, Ian Lillington, pointed this out on the Retrosuburbia facebook. The difference is that Rudd was an elected representative of the Australian people. That gave him both authority and credibility in speaking as if he represented them. David has been granted no such representational authority. By virtue of his formative role in the permaculture design system and his role as the leading public intellectual in permaculture, he does have an influential intellectual and educational role, however that is not an appointed representative role. It is only within the permaculture milieu, not within an entire generation.

The problem with first-person plural pronouns like ‘we’, ‘our’, ‘us’ lies in their inclusiveness and their ignoring of exception. The need for exception was what Meg was getting at in her response. As Meg’s comment suggests, statements worded as if they are all-encompassing can alienate people who have worked, perhaps for decades, to make things better. This is something I have come across a number of times. Ascribing collective guilt can drive away those working to improve things. In each generation there are those who work to make things better and those who do not.

David may have been exempting those people in his apology, however not everyone read it that way.

Carolyn Smith is a permaculture practitioner and adult educator in Tasmania. She, soo, made a comment:

Caroline Smith: “While I’d quibble about some of the thinking here especially re the role of women — it does kinda suggest we should have stayed in the kitchen — this is a great piece to get people thinking about the big picture impact of the BB generation. Even though many of us weren’t quite that bad and have been actively trying to resist for many years. But David does acknowledge that”.

Caroline Smith: “David’s piece seems to be a mixture of what is essentially true — the BBs did ride the peak of energy use, and provocation too, given the well-articulated responses from Meg McGowan and Stephen Lomas. But if it leads to discussion and debate that’s all to the good”.

The apology didn’t lead to further discussion or debate. It soon faded away in the way discussions around issues sometimes do in permaculture.

I assume Caroline’s comment: “While I’d quibble about some of the thinking here especially re the role of women — it does kinda suggest we should have stayed in the kitchen, relates to David’s statement: “ In our enthusiasm for women to have equal access to productive work in the monetary economy, few of us noticed that without work to keep the household economy humming we lost much of our household autonomy to market forces.”

I don’t quibble with David’s comment about the loss of the household economy, however on reading his statement I can see why Caroline thought twice about what he writes. Reading it, I thought some of my female friends active in seeking equal opportunity through the women’s movement in the 1970s might take exception to what he writes.

David is not actually saying that women should have stayed in the kitchen, nor that they should have continued to be denied the opportunity to participate in the monenetary economy even though by doing so they contribute to the economic system rather than seek to change it in any deep, structural way. It is the model of capitalism adapting to changing social ambitions by incorporating them. As housewives in the conventional sense, they would also contribute to the system because the household would remain a unit of consumption, not production. I think what David gets at in his writings is the model of the household as a unit of production, although not production in the monetary economy model, more one of self-provision, the household economy.

Despite his intentions, I suspect that some women and men would read what David writes in his apology as a criticism of equal opportunity for women.

As an alternative to claiming to represent an entire generation, why not an apology on behalf of permaculture practitioners? Even that would be a challenge, and probably unrepresentative, given the social and political diversity of the movement, especially as leadership is distributed and the movement has no formal leader or any organisation representing it.

Would a better approach have been to circulate a draft text, refine it with feedback (principle: ‘apply self-regulation and accept feedback’), recirculate the amended apology asking for people to sign-on, and issue an apology on behalf those who signed? A lot of permaculture people would have signed-on.

DH Climate activism by children is a sign of hope that young people might be ready for the radical alternatives that permaculture and kindred movements have been building in the darkening shadows of the destructive economy.

RG I share that hope, too.

If the children’s climate change movement continues, perhaps it could become the first sizeable movement of school-age children since that which opposed the war in Vietnam in the late-1960s. Then, school-age young people in the US and Australia, baby boomers, that is, took action through organisations like High School Students Against the War in Vietnam.

Young people of the generations between that of the baby-boomers and today’s have taken action on environmental and climate change issues in their post-school years. These, however, were often actions organised by those of the baby-boom generation. The children’s climate change campaign has thrown up its own leaders from within its ranks, and that is a hopeful sign for the furure.

DH By ‘baby boomers’ I mean those of us born in the affluent nations of the western world between 1945 and 1965.

By many measures, the benefits of global industrial civilisation peaked in our youth, but for most middle class baby boomers of the affluent countries, the continuing experience of those benefits has tended to blind us to the constriction of opportunities faced by the next generations: unaffordable housing and land access, ecological overshoot and climate chaos amongst a host of other challenges.

RG Most of these things are not attributable to a single generation, the baby boomers. That generation merely participated in a continuation of what was already in-train. Most were not visible as the baby boomer generation grew into adulthood. In David’s “continuing experience” of the benefits of the economic boom of the mid-1950s to the 1970’s, the problems of unaffordable housing and land access he mentions were not present. Housing was affordable. That is why we have urban sprawl. What are Sydney’s middle ring suburbs of today were the outer suburbs of the sixties and seventies.

Housing affordability, employment prospects and environment destruction develop as trends which are less-visible and are often invisible when they are developing. Saying, as David does, that the benefits we enjoyed fifty and more years ago “blind us to the constriction of opportunities faced by the next generations” is unrealistic because baby boomers could not foresee them at the time. Seeing them comes only with hindsight. Unless you read Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring or the Erlich’s The Population Bomb, or, in the seventies, the Club of Rome’s report, Limits To Growth, you would be unaware of the environmental damage being done. That only became common knowledge in the seventies. You cannot take action on something you cannot see.

The trap of individualising guilt

To ascribe generational guilt is akin to individualising an issue. It lets government and institutions off the hook by making individuals or individual generations responsible, rather than the institutions which persist through the generations and perpetuate damaging trends.

Just as the environment movement’s saying it was up to individuals to solve the environmental crisis let industry and government off the hook, so does individualising responsibility for housing unaffordability, employment prospects and environment destruction ignore how those things are the results of malfunctions in a socioeconomic system that persists through the generations and in which the baby boomer generation was embedded, and in which successive generations will be embedded. Although its practitioners often say permaculture is an alternative, it is embedded in the mainstream socioeconomic system and has deliberately sought a place in it through accredited permaculture training and the oft-heard call to mainstream permaculture.

The issues David mentions are the product of systems, not generations and not individuals.

It is about systems

Where did the benefits of the booming economy enjoyed by baby boomers come from? Once again, it is all about systems.

The great economic boom that followed the Second World War stemmed from the repurposing of the scientific, technological, economic and industrial production developed during the war. It converted the mass production and economy-of-scale technologies to the production of cheap domestic appliances like cars, washing machines and so on and made them obtainable by people of lower-economic standing. The consumer society is an outcome of this process.

Through the years of the baby boomer generation and on into current times this repurposing of earlier technologies, economic institutions and industrial capacity led to an acceleration of just about everything — scientific knowledge, technological capability, communications, industrial production, medicine, travel, corporate growth, pollution, destruction of natural systems and to the climate change unknown during the formative years of the baby boomer generation.

The acceleration continues today. Those who follow the history of technology and society call it the Great Acceleration. It was an acceleration inherited by the baby-boom generation from their parents’ generation. Being brought-up and immersed in it, to the baby-boomers it was what was normal.

DH Some of the unintended consequences of our way of life, ranging from antibiotic resistance to bubble economics, should have been obvious, while others, such as the depression epidemic in rich countries, were harder to foresee.

RG As David says, some consequences should have been foreseeable. I suspect the hubris of the times, the widespread faith in the idea of progress, has a lot to do with why some foreseeable consequences were ignored.

Still, it is a mystery how some others of those things “should have been obvious”. Antibiotic resistance, which David mentions, could only become obvious some time after antibiotics came into widespread use. What we see at work here is the Law of Unintended Consequences. It is called that because what happens after something is introduced is usually not visible before or at the time it is introduced.

The Law gave rise to the Precautionary Principle, the idea of thinking before releasing some new technology or product. At best, the Precautionary Principle is a good idea which would allow us to avoid damaging outcomes. At worst, it has the potential to stymie useful innovation and invention because of what might go wrong. It is ultimately unworkable because we often cannot foresee the consequences of some new technology and, somewhere, at some time, someone will do those things that others take the precaution of holding back on.

Speaking of new technologies and the Precautionary Principle, digital culture pioneer and philosopher, Kevin Kelly, says of new technologies in his book, What Technology Wants: “…their most important consequences — both positive and negative — won’t be visible for generations.”

“In general the Precautionary Principle is biased against anything new.“ …Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants.

The Proactivity Principle acknowledges the Precautionary Principle and also acknowledges there is little that can be done to prevent some individual, corporation, government or clandestine organisation doing those things the principle warns against. It proposes we monitor technologies that are deployed to prevent damage we see occurring and to tweak the technology or product so it ceases causing the damage. An option would be removing a technology or product from use.

“There are no technologies without vices and none that are neutral. The consequences of a technology expand with its disruptive nature. Powerful technologies will be powerful in both directions — for good and bad”, Kelly writes.

“This should be the first law of technological expectation: The greater the promise of a new technology, the greater its potential for harm as well.” … Kevin Kelly, What Technnology Wants.

The point of taking this side-trip is to illustrate the pointlessness of ascribing generational guilt. The unintended consequences taken within a generation’s time are built into the systems of technology, society, economy and politics it inherits and adopts.

DH Our travel around the world has broadened our minds, but global tourism has contaminated the amazing diversity of nature and traditional cultures at an accelerating pace. We have the excuse that innovations always have pluses and minuses, but it seems we have got a larger share of the pluses and handballed more of the minuses to the world’s poorest countries and to our children and grandchildren.

RG Kevin Kelly, cited earlier, clarifies that “the excuse that innovations always have pluses and minuses”, as David says, is no excuse at all. Rather, it is something inherent withn the structure of technological development. Accepting them comes with living within a technological civilisation.

I agree with David on the impacts of mass tourism. That came from a combination of factors whose antecedents lie in the technological invention and developments of World War Two, especially mass production and aeronautics, the growth of the post-war oil industry and the economic boom the result of the Great Acceleration. Only now in parts of Europe do we see organised resistance to mass tourism.

The baby-boomer generation has not neglected reforming the economic system which mass tourism is part of. Some were attracted to socialism only to discover socialism was like capitalism in its environmental outcomes. Some sought the partial separation of intentional communities and ‘alternative’ culture of the late-sixties and the 1970s, something David and I have the familiarity of participation in. Others focused on the great environmental campaigns of the eighties, nineties and beyond as a way to blunt the negative impacts of industrial civilisation on natural systems.

DH We were the first generation to have the clear scientific evidence that emergent global civilisation was on an unsustainable path that would precipitate an unravelling of both nature and society through the 21st century.

Although climate chaos was a less obvious outcome than the no-brainer of resource depletion, international recognition of the reality of climate change came way back in 1988, just as we were beginning to get our hands on the levers of power, and we have presided over decades of policies that have accelerated the problem.

RG There are two prerequisites to taking action on something like climate change:

  • the existence of an evidential body of knowledge that forms the scientific consensus
  • a means of distributing that knowledge.

In the late-eighties there was a minimal body of knowledge around climate change. The only means of distributing the knowledge was in the pages of scientific journals and popular literature about science. Those had limited readership. These were pre-internet times, so the distribution of scientific knowledge was limited.

I was editor of an environmental industry journal for an international publisher at that time. I recall that resource depletion was an issue, stemming largely from the continuing influence of the Club of Rome’s Limits To Growth and later in the eighties from the Brundtland Commission’s report, Our Common Future. The prevailing attitude in industry and among the public in general was that resource substitutes and solutions would be found through science and technology.

As David says, people were starting to talk about climate change, however that talk was largely among the scientific milieu and some in the environment movement. It was becoming a public discussion but still had a long way to go in that direction. Among industry people it was not commonly a discussion topic at all.

I recall Bill Mollison mentioning climate change in the early nineties. Thus, it is understandable that a generation would not take action on the issue until knowledge of it was more common and its consequences better understood.

David mentions that, around 1988, baby boomers were getting “our hands on the levers of power”. That is true, however those levers were mainly lower-management levers that wielded limited decision-making power.

DH Over the years since, the adverse outcomes have shifted from distant risks to lived realities. These impact hardest on the most vulnerable peoples of the world who have yet to taste the benefits of the carbon bonanza that has driven the accelerating climate catastrophe. For the failure to share those benefits globally and curb our own consumption we must be truly sorry.

RG We are. That is why thousands of baby-boomers have worked in international development organisations, participated in environmental campaigns and taken up permaculture.

Curbing consumption, which originating among the baby boomer generation as the voluntary simplicity ideas of the 1970s, was promoted by environmental organisations and by the permaculture design movement. Popularing it later were books like Clive Hamilton’s Affluenza.

I find much to agree with where David itemises the things left undone by the baby-boom generation and I also note that he mentions many baby-boomers have tried to change things for the better. Yet, on that first reading I came away with the idea that his apology could be read as a blaming exercise, one that could create resentment in the minds of the baby-boomers who have worked for decades to make the world a more equitable, better place for humanity and nature. The evidence that happened was there in those facebook comments. I learned when working in radio current affiars that one stated comment or opinion represents perhaps hundreds more held by people unmotivated to voice what they think. Where those stated, dissenting facebook comments representative in that way?

I mentioned the apology to someone with years of experience in community resilience education among socially-mainstream people. Although she had not read the apology she said it sounded like David was engaging in the blame-game, and “we know the blame-game doesn’t work”, she said.

Generations are not homogenous

Like those commentators on the Retrosuburbia facebook, I find much to agree with in David’s apology. At the same time I agree with Meg McGowan’s comment that no individual has the right to speak for an entire generation, only for themselves or those they have been elected or appointed to speak for.

My point of view comes from regarding generations as a continuity through which ideas and systems are passed on. We know that systems have their own momentum and that they resist change, and that change can take more than a single generation to happen. That suggests the seeds of reform started by the baby boomer generation may start to bear fruit in the succeeding generation. The evidence that might be happening are the crowds of young people, including those of school age, on the streets campaigning for determined action on climate change.

We also know that generations are not homogenous. They are made up of people with divergent ideas and opinions, many of which are contradictory and oppositional. Thus, within the baby-boomer generation we have some who support and work to expand neoliberalism, others who oppose it; some who support the mistreatment of refugees and other who oppose that; some who ignore the consequences of climate change in what they do, others who oppose them. The supporters of those and other things reinforce the existing systems.

David acknowledges those working towards a better world, yet the apology comes across as too condemnatory, too inclusive of all of an entire generation. It reads like something written when he was feeling angry.

I still think that rather than an apology, what David writes would be better framed as an explanation.


Read David’s apology: https://holmgren.com.au/the-apology-from-baby-boomers-to-the-handicapped-generations/

Publications

The impact of affluence: Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough, 2006, Clive Hamilton, Richard Denniss; Allen Unwin, Australia.

Alternative culture and the back-to-the-land movement Alternative Australia — communities for the future; 1979, Peter Cock; Quartet Books, Melbourne. ISBN 0 908128 09 6.

Communes in Australia, 1986; Margaret Munro-Clark; Hale & Ironmonger, Sydney. ISBN 0 86806 219 7 (paperback); 086806 218 9 (hardcover).

From Utopian Dreaming to Communal Reality; 1995, Bill Matcalf; UNSW Press, Sydney. ISBN 0 86 840 087 4

Permaculture stories

Technology: A reply to David Holmgren https://medium.com/permaculture-3-0/technology-a-reply-to-david-holmgren-b1eee721893a

Designing a small urban garden https://medium.com/permaculture-3-0/designing-a-small-urban-garden-3bc14a66af2a

Design notes… The Meeting Place project https://medium.com/permaculture-3-0/design-notes-designing-public-places-the-meeting-place-project-f244160a29a1

The legals… Overhanging fruit https://medium.com/permaculture-3-0/the-legals-overhanging-fruit-cbe91d9a9222

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