Permaculture Program Instructor Interview with Bryce Gilroy-Scott

Bryce Gilroy-Scott is a consultant specializing in energy modeling and sustainable construction, a lecturer at the Graduate School of the Environment at the Centre for Alternative Technology, and an instructor at Pacific Rim College. This year, he taught the Energy Systems class for our Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystem Diploma program – parts of which were documented as part of the ongoing PRC Permaculture blog. We recently sat down with Bryce to talk about his background in sustainability, and the current state of renewable energy technologies.

 

Hi Bryce! You’ve worked as a lecturer at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Powys, Wales – Europe’s largest eco-centre. Thinking about what David Holmgren has called an “energy descent” future, can you offer any comment on how the political will and European public support for radical climate action compare with that here in North America? Are there any significant differences?

B: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. The broader base of action for political support, I don’t know that I have any insight that there’s a great difference. I think there is more of a general level of education about sustainability challenges. So, climate change is one, but just broadly speaking, overfishing, or overpopulation – which is a tricky one to talk about – species extinction rates: there is to my mind a higher bar for the challenges facing us. In North America I do think there is a strong social movement, but I think it’s facing – particularly in the United States under the current administration – outright climate denialism, prioritizing big business, big capitalism. So the lines are really being drawn.

That being said, I don’t particularly see globally that that’s an accurate depiction of where we are. It’s just that in Europe, and in Canada as well, we’re still more polite, in my mind, about how polarized the sides are. Because it’s not just climate change – it’s actually a struggle over the dominant economic model. And the United States has always been more cutthroat in terms of the type of capitalism and class stratification that it has. But if you take the U.K. model, and look at Scotland – one of the component countries of the United Kingdom – you’re still on the order of something like three quarters of the land base being retained by the aristocracy.

So I can only really speak about my experience in the U.K., rather than more broadly in Europe, but the situation in terms of a broader social struggle, I find very interesting. Brexit, on the one hand, is seen as a kind of “Little England” – as an isolationist type of projection in the face of a cosmopolitan European project. On the other hand, I’m not sure that I entirely agree with that characterization of the E.U.  Globally, we’re going into larger power blocs. The NAFTA trade area versus the European Union are very, sort of, Orwellian in terms of their creation of large political blocs that are both in cooperation and competition. They’re competing against one another as capitalist trade blocs, but they are cooperating in the project of globalization. I don’t think the Brexit vote was given within that political context, but I think it’s an interesting rejection of globalization. The poison is often coated in sweetness. So, there are progressive elements of the European Union. But on the whole, I think it’s an interesting break.

So with “business as usual”, I don’t see globalization – which to me is actually a drive to supersede nation-states and entrench corporate control over political processes, which primarily are oriented towards economic exploitation – as wrapped up in North America or Europe. It’s a lot smaller there, and so in terms of climate change there has been more unifying, or networking, of civil society. With the immigrant crisis there, and “Crisis Europe”, you’re seeing the political class uniting and having a very right-wing reaction. It’s highlighted some of the deep racism that’s still there in the European nations. But – and we see this here as well – the economic exploitation, and the creation of more conflicts in places like Central America and sub-Saharan Africa, are creating these migrants, who are forced migrants. Ultimately these wars are based on conflicts between power blocs and struggle over resources. One example in Africa would be the Congo, and we’re on, now, sort of the third decade of basically an international war between nine African nation states that are sponsored as proxy armies for various Western countries and corporations struggling over the mineral wealth of the Congo. And we’re looking at a death toll that’s in the millions.

And the knock-on effects of the displacement of people in those countries directly leads to the migrant crisis: through Ethiopia, through Somaliland, through the Arab nations in North Africa. And the same story plays out in Latin America – what’s happening in Honduras right now, which is essentially an American coup d’etat, or the destabilization of Venezuela, which has the largest oil reserves in the world.

All of these cases, these political destabilizations, are both supporting the economic model that is driving the petrochemical economy, which is driving climate change; but it’s also driving these migrations that are coming up against our borders and re-entrenching a very racist reaction, without any recognition that our wealth is predicated on the exploitation of the resources of other parts of the world. Therefore, for me, in terms of permaculture, the political project – which isn’t really talked about, a lot of people talk about permaculture and retract into the idea of self-sufficiency – as far as political analysis goes, it might be withdrawing from the system, it might be lowering our ecological footprint. But in particular, the more that we’re self-sufficient, the more we increase community resiliency, social resiliency, which is beyond just the physical impacts of providing food. To my mind, it also wants to expand into shelter, and energy. And actually, into economic models, in terms of cooperative enterprises, in terms of locally-based currencies.

All of these strategies and techniques are in many constructions ‘little-“P”’ political – the people in communities are attracted to them. But I think they have a very ‘big-“P”’ political impact, in terms of actually withdrawing from the system. Of using means of exchanging currency that are not regulated by central banks, are not tied to the petro-economy. So in North America, or depending where you are in Europe, these movements are in different stages of being advanced. I’d say that in terms of regional, collective currencies, there’s a lot more happening in Europe – in terms of currencies being backed by federations of cooperatives. Of being backed by the production of local goods and services. We just really don’t have anything at a similar scale here in North America. Various countries in Europe have a lot of cooperative enterprises – Italy being one example, Spain being another. But so does Quebec, here in Canada, and various urban movements around the United States that are developing coalitions of collectives of people of colour, and generally disenfranchised populations. So it depends where you want to look.

My gut feeling is that the people on the ground who are actually doing the food growing, as individual family farms, or as urban or rural enterprises – it’s one of those things that for me is a source of hope. Because since I’ve becoming politically aware, there are two things that for me are are sea-change events – revolutionary, in the sense of changing the system, that I don’t even see as having arisen particularly strongly from civil society.  There are interlinkages, but they almost, to my mind, seem to be purely grassroots, arising from nucleuses that are sub-analytical on the social scale. Community organizations, but sub-NGO. And the first one, in reference to our discussion, is permaculture. People are taking on permaculture as a form of action. And cycling, oddly enough. And these things become expressed and developed in terms of policies at a very local scale. Usually even sub-municipal or sub-local governments. But over the years, they build up – starting from various points of active change – they have embedded within them some very major rejections of the global system. As, for example, the monopoly of the car economy, or the demand that you buy your food at a supermarket. In and of themselves, those social movements, I think, don’t have the power to fundamentally transform the system. But they’re an indication: of disobedience to the mass-marketing system, of individual and collective choice towards more sustainable lifestyle practices. They don’t actually rely, necessarily, on government policy. They’re certainly enabled, and grow, primarily on the basis of local city-style governance to increase them. So they do give me hope. If we can take that sort of action up a level, or up several levels, to get beyond free trade, to local trade, no blood minerals coming from the mining industry – these would actually offer fundamental disconnects from the global economy and the system.

Climate change is essentially a waste product of the petrochemical economy. But also the war economy, because the petrochemical economy is directly tied to the arms trade and the creation of global conflicts and wars around the world. But to do that, in lowering our ecological footprint, we might have to do with less. That doesn’t mean that we have a lower quality of life – we might have a better quality of life in terms of what is intrinsically human, and connects us socially and culturally – but it might mean not having an iPhone that is streaming at 4G all the time. Or being able to fly to Mexico any month of the year. That being said, fundamentally: high-quality food, low-energy housing, renewable energy that delivers high-quality living environments, and public transit that allows us to have a quality of life to access community events and to access places for the exchange of goods and services. Even in a rural environment, I’m convinced that at our current levels of population, I think there’s a lot that we could do to re-wild the planet, and to protect species in decline, that are on the verge of extinction. Things can’t continue growing at the same rate.

We do need the basis of an economy that is a steady-state economy. Or even to de-growth, but to put the energy that we have available for economic activity into far more sustainable growth. That is less about enriching the one percent, and more about lifting the level of the fifty percent that exists in precarity and poverty. And also spreading the benefits – we’re highly disconnected in this culture. And there’s a lot about being human that, to my mind, is socially driven – recreating communities is part of the void that I think we’re trying to fill through consumer capitalism. But we are literally converting the living ecology of the planet that supports us into energy to support this virtual world. And it’s growing at an incredible rate. So there does have to be some discussion, in my mind, about the extent and limits of the internet. I think we can retain the benefits of modernity while reclaiming the growing culture of sustainability.

That’s well put, thanks for so incisively filling in the political context. And that’s probably a good jumping-off point for my second question. Where do you see the most exciting research occurring in sustainable energy right now? Which debates are worth paying attention to?

B: It’s actually more complex territory than people might think. The alternative perspective is that everything renewable is good, and to be supported: as long as we throw all our weight behind the creation of sustainable, renewable energy, we’re guaranteed a world that is more peaceful and just. And unfortunately, that’s not actually the case necessarily. What I’ve discovered is essentially that the large corporate bodies that control energy – still dominated by petro-energy and nuclear energy – I think they see that the writing’s on the wall. Whether it be social change, or diminishing reserves, and they see certainly that there is a real market in renewables. And as corporations, they are moving to corner that market, and control it. Now, there’s some differences. I mean, you can’t really control the sun in the same way you can control an oil field. Although historically, there are examples of trying to do things like tax the point of production, your solar panels or your wind turbines.

The good news, in terms of sustainable energy, is how large cities globally are really the drivers behind change for renewable energy. It’s failed at the nation state level, it’s deeply troubled – if we just look at Canada, and the face-off between Alberta and British Columbia. The powers that be, at the provincial or state level, by and large still retain a lot of power. But it is slowly breaking down. And a huge, huge victory recently in the state of California, with them coming forward as the second state in the United States that has a long-term 2040 or 2050 move to a no fossil fuel, total-renewable economy. And California, globally, ranks in the top 20 economies in size. So that’s massive. That’s a sign of sea-change, and if it can be done in California, it can virtually be done – in the right policy and regulatory environment – in any other state in the U.S.  California has a lot of sun, other states have a lot of wind, others have a lot of hydro, a lot of them have a lot of geothermal.

And again, whether there’s enough renewables is actually not a fixed equation. Because it depends on your demand. And so if we move towards more efficient buildings, if we move towards more mass transit that’s green electricity-driven, we can also engage on the demand-management side. So what we do have to do – and this applies to the entire economy, but particularly the energy economy, because it’s energy that supports and drives the development of our civilization – is interrogate the infinitely growing economy. Which is capitalism’s basic premise, is that the economy has to get bigger year-on-year. And the fundamental challenge to that we only have one planet, there are inherent limits to growth. And so how do we use what is a sustainable level of energy production, and within that drive our civilization so that it is to the greatest benefit of all.

I’ll come back to the caveat side – what to watch for, which is a bit dark, when it comes to sustainable energy – one of the largest investors in renewable energy technologies in the United States is the U.S. military. During the invasion of Afghanistan, it was found that their transport lines were extremely vulnerable. And the convoys were full of fuel trucks, and that’s where a lot of the improvised bombings occurred – cutting the supply line of energy to the forward bases for the military. So, the more that you can have military bases that are off-grid and using renewables, the easier it is for you to maintain your military momentum. The more that your Predator drones can be powered by high-efficiency solar cells, the more that they can do their missions, as they currently are in Yemen. So energy is just a tool. Renewables are just a tool. Like a sword, you can use it to dig a furrow to plant seeds, or you can kill someone with it. Renewables are really ethically neutral: it’s the culture surrounding them, in which they’re employed, that dictates their sustainability.

So unfortunately, in our current world, moving to renewables doesn’t necessarily mean less corporate hegemony, less of an imperialist military outlook. These tools can be incorporated into those types of political projects. However, they do offer the opportunity for people to be less immediately dependent on the petrochemical economy. But even if you’re off-grid, if you’re using electricity, you’re dependent on electronic controllers and batteries. And both of those components, in any off-grid system, are derived from the industrial economy. Those batteries cannot be created or recycled in any little community-scale project – you need a full-scale industrial economy to support them. And it gets even more complex with the controllers, photovoltaic panels – the market in PVs is entirely dominated by China. So we’re still growing the international renewable energy economy based on globalization. This is the reality. You’re not going to make a photovoltaic panel in your garage, you need a vacuum chamber, you need to dope layers of elements into the panel that are as thick as one atom.

So a lot of these technologies are not extractable from the global economy. And ultimately, even if you’re making a rocket stove, you’re using metal. And we’re well past the time when we had community-scale villages that would dig up and smelt metal. That might be a project for some type of deep re-skilling, but then you’ve got to find the resources. To my mind, there isn’t actually any level of leaving the system unless you’re willing to live without electricity. And if you’re going to that level of technology, fine. But as soon as you’ve got a cell phone, anything with micromineral components in it, from which all of our technology is derived – including the controllers for almost all of our renewables, because it allows them to work better – you are integrated with the capitalist economy.

Shifting gears a little bit, how has the way you understand the world changed over the years? What, or who, prompted the most significant shifts for you?

B: I didn’t prep that question [laughs]. I’ve had several awakening points over the years. The first one that comes to mind is being twenty-three, and attending a two-hour presentation at a downtown Victoria church about the legacy of residential schools. And having grown up in Alberta, sometimes in a subdivision where we would play in all the fields around – there was one field that we never went into, and never asked why. And that’s because it was the Tsuu T’ina people’s reservation. And it wasn’t until I was twenty-three that I ever acknowledged, or had understanding, that I was living in an apartheid, post-genocide settler culture.

And the ongoing colonization is always either overt war, as it was in British Columbia up until the Second World War, when all of the territory was controlled by the provincial government in Victoria; and then we moved into low-intensity warfare, which was continuing to displace people off of reserves, or to break treaty agreements where they did exist. Although in British Columbia, only a small part of the territory of the province is actually treaty territory. And so the majority of this province does not comply with the Royal Proclamation of 1867. By and large, we live on land that, while effectively controlled by the Canadian government, is in fact still untreatied Indigenous land subject to the Law of the Great Spirit. So that was huge.

At the same time, I had a partner who went through a First-Wave feminist awakening, and then a lesbian or pan-sexual kind of awakening that severely challenged my awareness of self around the privilege of being a white, cisgender male in a patriarchy that essentially created the longer-term framework for the imperialist colonization of Canada, and the capitalist economy. And so I’m deeply grateful to her for being so much smarter than I was – and not particularly gentle, but at least caring enough to carry me in, and share that journey together as friends.

And more recently, going through a deep partnership with somebody of an Afro-Caribbean heritage, really brought home the experience of seeing what racism was like – walking into a store alone, as a white man, or walking into a store beside a black woman, and how people treated you differently. How store clerks looked at you differently. When you were welcomed, when you were ignored. I think intellectually I took several big jumps in my early twenties about the politics of where the world was, and what I wanted to see. But it’s taken decades to catch up with that emotionally and spiritually, both in terms of expanding my empathy for other peoples’ lived experiences, as well as the larger experience of other species … but also working through the trauma that effectively is demanded of everyone. We all have our own experiences, but white males, we have our own trauma – speaking from the particular class and cultural experience that really only applies to me – the trauma of being cut off from your emotions, the trauma of offering primacy to violence or coercion. You experience privilege, whether you want it or not, but none of that necessarily helps you transcend or grow past that. The privilege holds you in, in some sense, and it can buy your cooperation or coerce your compliance. And for me, over the years, there’s been the opportunity to heal individually. It was repeated in a podcast recently – the identification that European heritage, cultures, contain within them, the mindset that underwrote the age of imperialist expansion and slave-trading, and just the complete destruction of the natural world for personal or selfish benefit. There’s a word that describes that outlook, that culture – it’s a type of pathology. And really the only way to transcend that is healing: both of the oppressor, but also to stop oppressing, that the oppressed can finally start to do their own work, their healing, and their liberation in actually approaching some type of cooperation, some recognition that we are all one. As human beings, as a species, but also as life on the planet.

D: Are there any people or organizations doing important work reimagining energy systems that we should know about?

B: That’s a really good question. In Canada, the Suzuki Foundation still stands out as having an eye on energy, and talking about some of the big-picture aspects of sustainable energy in Canada. So I would point them out. Greenpeace still does good research, although in other ways I’m critical of them. I’d also recommend, here in B.C., a social enterprise organization called Community Power. They’re based in Vancouver, and they’re explicitly dedicated to working on sustainable energy and housing issues for Indigenous communities. And the majority of their staff are women of colour, which is a very cool commendation. In terms of some of the broader topics I touched on, there is a network of de-growth researchers who are looking at the de-growth economy, and there are conferences that happen globally each year. Always one in Europe, but they’re trying to expand – I think there’s three this year around the world. I think that’s a really important discussion and conversation. And the New Economics Foundation – it’s not the be-all-end-all of sustainable economics, but it’s a really good place to start. And their library online is free. On the political side, there’s a lot of NGOs out there working on various aspects of these issues.

Thanks, Bryce!

Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.