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An Interview with Dennis Meadows - co-author of ‘Limits to Growth’.

dennisI 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….

ltgWell 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 … my 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?

pisaHysterisis. It’s a very important concept. It's 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… you 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 were approaching a community to try and facilitate their transition through this…

pisaOne 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 of 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.

meadowsOK. 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… I 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, it's 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.

It's 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.

pisaI 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.

Editorial Notes: For those not familiar with the original Limits to Growth report, it's tone is remarkably carm, clear and even optimistic. Dennis Meadows' pessimism is apparently a product of the intervening 34 years. -AF

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