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Big Ideas at the Commonwealth Club


Last night (Tuesday January 26th, 2010) I gave a talk at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco to a sold-out audience. The crowd was excellent and I was thrilled to have the chance to deliver our message at this venue.

I say ‘our message’ because so many of you helped to shape the talk and, most importantly, practically forbade me from doing anything but delivering a no-holds-barred message. So that’s what I did.

Here’s a couple of observations. Five years ago I was delivering a version of this message in the basement community room in a local bank in Brattleboro VT to very small audiences. Yesterday, a half hour before the talk began there were ~30 people waiting in a side room for a small chance at one standby ticket.

Five years ago the audiences were all ‘of an age’ and now they include many more younger people and represent a much broader cross section of society, beliefs, professions and income levels.

My impression is that the tide is shifting, powerfully, and yesterday’s response proved to me that ideas matter, that people care, and that getting our collective act together is a rapidly ascending priority for a growing group of people. Whoever says that there's no interest anymore in big ideas is flat-out wrong.

So thank you to everyone that came and, if you couldn’t make it in, I’m sorry and I hope that we get a chance to meet soon elsewhere. If you can make it to the Sonora event, tomorrow night (Thursday, 6-9:30) I’d love to see you there.

Download the audio for the podcast here.

Below is the speech I gave (not an exact transcript, but very close).

Note: This is not an exact transcript, and it only includes the talk, not the Q&A which follows.

Last night (Tuesday January 26th, 2010) I gave a talk at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco to a sold-out audience. The crowd was excellent and I was thrilled to have the chance to deliver our message at this venue.

I say ‘our message’ because so many of you helped to shape the talk and, most importantly, practically forbade me from doing anything but delivering a no-holds-barred message. So that’s what I did.

Here’s a couple of observations. Five years ago I was delivering a version of this message in the basement community room in a local bank in Brattleboro VT to very small audiences. Yesterday, a half hour before the talk began there were ~30 people waiting in a side room for a small chance at one standby ticket.

Five years ago the audiences were all ‘of an age’ and now they include many more younger people and represent a much broader cross section of society, beliefs, professions and income levels.

My impression is that the tide is shifting, powerfully, and yesterday’s response proved to me that ideas matter, that people care, and that getting our collective act together is a rapidly ascending priority for a growing group of people. Whoever says that there's no interest anymore in big ideas is flat-out wrong.

So thank you to everyone that came and, if you couldn’t make it in, I’m sorry and I hope that we get a chance to meet soon elsewhere. If you can make it to the Sonora event, tomorrow night (Thursday, 6-9:30) I’d love to see you there.

Below is the speech I gave (not an exact transcript, but very close).

----------------------------------------------

Thank you for that kind introduction.

I am pleased and excited to have this opportunity to speak to you. I want to thank the commonwealth club and its members for making this talk possible.

I want everyone here to know that I thought long and hard about exactly how to say what I am going to say tonight. We are going to be discussing really BIG IDEAS, and, truthfully, I struggled with how much to say.

My final decision was to trust the intellect and instincts of this crowd and be as clear, clean, and direct as I can..

So that’s what I am going to do.

Tonight I want to examine the obstacles that stand way of a full and lasting economic recovery and to illuminate the connection between economic growth and energy.

But before we delve into the details and explore the possibilities for alternative outcomes, let me share a little bit about myself and how this information has radically altered my life, and the life of my family.

Six years ago as a married, 42 year old professional with three young children, I lived in a suburban, five-bathroom house on the coast of Connecticut, had a secure position as a corporate Vice president with a very large company, and a twin-engine fishing boat in a slip.

I loved that boat.

Today I live in house that is less than half the size of my prior one, now located in a semi-rural location, I have a strong local community, and a kayak.

A small one.

Perhaps I could summarize my journey that way; I went from twin engines to a double paddle.

Yep, that about sums it up.

Now, why did I do that?

For the past 6 years I have been combining information and trends in the Economy, Energy and the Environment into a single comprehensive story.

Instead of delving deeply into any one of these subjects, I discovered that there's immense value in looking across all three at once.

Instead of being like a blind man trying to describe one part of an elephant, I chose to be like a blind man examining the whole elephant.

Okay, this took me a few years, I'll admit, it was a big elephant, but it was worth it.

This exploration altered my investments, my work, where I live, who I know, what I value and the things I choose to do.

The results of this exploration were put into video form which I made freely available to everyone on the internet about a year and a half ago.

It is called "The Crash Course" and has been viewed more than a million and half times and translated into numerous languages.

One of the things I am known for is having correctly called the current economic downturn well in advance although I do not consider this to have been one of my better analytical moments.

As we'll soon see, this was about as exceptional as “predicting” the direction of a dropped anvil.

Still, an incredible number of so-called economic experts missed it and, even more incredibly, some still maintain that they couldn't have done any better even in retrospect.

I foretold of a decline in the dollar back in 2003, in 2007 I called for a 30% to 50% decline in national housing prices and in May of 2008 predicted a 40% or greater decline in stock prices.

These calls were provocative at the time but are now considered self-evident.

How was it that even though I am not a trained economist or financial advisor I was able to spot these things so far in advance?

I did this by connecting a few dots and then trusting myself.

Here's an example of how I connected the dots for the current economic crisis at a very high level.

While the entire narrative of this crisis is riddled with strange acronyms, unfathomable derivatives, and complicated regulatory lapses, my view is that these were just elements of the story.

The main plot line can be summed up in just three words; "Too Much Debt."

The big picture view of our difficulties is nothing more complicated than the fact that from 2000 to 2008, eight short years, the total amount of debt in this country doubled.

You heard me right, it doubled.

Meanwhile no net jobs were created and median incomes actually went backwards.

When it comes to owing a debt your options are to either pay it back or default on it, and I don't care if you are an individual, a family, a town, a state government or a corporation, the same basic rules apply.

As we all know, in order to pay your debts back you've got to have earnings and cash flow. If debts are growing but earnings are not, then sooner or later a debt crisis will result.

Which is exactly what happened, and was utterly predictable.

I'd love to take credit for having had a keen insight here but I really don't consider this extraordinary.

It was common sense.

A very large credit bubble developed right before our eyes and it was completely obvious to anyone who cared to see it for what it was.

My view is that we'll be living with it for some time yet because I do not believe that it is possible to "solve" a crisis rooted in 'too much debt'; by going deeper into debt.

And that is exactly what we are doing.

I think it's like trying to cure an economic heart attack by feeding the patient a few more tubs of greasy debt.

So my assessment is that we’ll face an even bigger fiscal and maybe monetary crisis in the future.

We are compounding our mistakes.

But you know what? We've faced economic problems before as a nation and solved them, and if this were the only problem we faced, we'd solve this one as well.

However, even as we're attempting to recover from our self-inflicted economic wounds several vital facts stand in the way of a full and lasting recovery.

Let’s discuss a few of those facts:

Fact #1: There are 70 million more people on the surface of the planet this year than last year.

Fact #2: Each of these new humans consumes some amount of resources such as food, oil, air, soil, water, copper, coal, or timber.

Fact #3: Someday, perhaps already, maybe a little later, the global flow rate of oil coming out of the ground will peak and then decline inexorably thereafter.

Fact #4: Every dollar in circulation was loaned into existence, with interest. We’re going to get back to this one in a minute.

Fact #5: During the industrial revolution, humans have consumed vastly more energy each decade. During the lifetime of a 22-year-old, humans will have burned more than half of all the oil ever consumed throughout history.

Fact #6: Oceanic fish stocks, ancient aquifers, and topsoil are all being depleted at unsustainable rates.

When I review these facts I come to this opinion – within our lifetime and that of our children, these disparate facts will coalesce into the greatest economic and physical challenge ever faced by our country, if not humanity.

It is also my opinion that if we do not develop a clear picture of the world we wish to create, the economic chaos and turbulence that we are now experiencing will prove to be the opening salvos in a long, disruptive period of adjustment.

It is my belief that we still have the time, resources, and know-how to create a brilliant future of our own design but that by putting our energies into sustaining the status quo we will default into a future shaped by disaster.

The reason I am standing here now, and have dedicated my life to building a better future, is because I believe it can be done. I am at once both realistic and optimistic. Yes, you can be both, it doesn't break any laws. …that I know of.

If you have the sense that we are on the wrong track, that perhaps each day things are getting just a little bit more out of control, moving just little bit faster, then you share my assessment of our current situation.

But it doesn't have to be this way and an ever growing number of people are opting to build a better future. I am among them.

Let’s get back to those pesky facts.

Each one was tied to all the others by a single common feature.

In each case the thing being described was tied to exponential growth in some way.

Now I know that most of us aren’t accustomed to thinking about exponential growth, so before you start counting the ceiling tiles, let me see if I can bring the dynamic of exponential growth to life.

Suppose I had a magic eyedropper that could dispense a drop of water with a most unusual trait – this drop of water will double in size every minute – and I place a drop of water in your hand.

At first you’d just have a lonely drop of water sitting there, but after one minute it would double in size, and after six minutes you’d have a blob of water that could fill a thimble.

Do you have a sense of that growth?

Good. Let’s go to a Major League Baseball Park and start over.

To make this interesting, let’s assume that the park is water-tight, and that I’ve handcuffed you to the highest row of bleacher seats.

Now imagine that it’s tomorrow at twelve O’clock noon, you are manacled to a bleacher seat and, way down there, on the pitcher's mound, you see me bend over to plop down a magic drop of water so small you could not possibly see it from where you are sitting, and it begins to double.

My question to you is, at what date and at what time would the park be completely filled? That is, how long do you have to escape from your handcuffs? Do you have days? Weeks? Months? Years?

The answer is this: in only 49 minutes the park is completely filled.

You have only 49 minutes to escape from your handcuffs.

Now let me ask you this, at what time do you suppose that the park is still 97% empty space (and how many of you will appreciate the seriousness of your predicament)?

The answer is that at 12:44 pm the park is still 97% unfilled. The first forty four minutes filled just three percent of the park, while the last five minutes filled the remaining ninety-seven percent.

It took from all of human history until 1960 to reach a population of three billion people; but only forty years to add the next three billion.

Forty four minutes for the first three percent, five minutes for the final ninety-seven percent.

And because we are surrounded by exponential growth we need to appreciate it.

For quite a while, everything seems just fine, but a few minutes later your park is overflowing.

Time runs out in a hurry towards the end of any exponential growth system, forcing hurried decisions and severely limiting options.

So how does this pertain to our economic landscape, you might ask?

The truth is, there’s nothing inherently wrong with exponential growth, as long as you have unlimited room and unlimited resources.

However, we live on a finite planet and there are clear signs that several key resources on our planet are in their final minutes, to use our sports stadium example.

Few of these resources are as important to the health of our expanding economy as crude oil.

“Peak oil” is the global extension of the observation that individual oil fields, without exception, produce slightly more oil each year up to a point (“the peak”), after which they produce incrementally less and less oil each year thereafter, until their economics force abandonment.

It is a fact that the US hit its peak of oil production in 1970 at approximately 10 million barrels a day and now produces barely half that.

What holds true for America holds true for the rest of the world; we have peaked in our production, and some day the world as a whole will peak too.

It is also true that global oil discoveries peaked some 45 years ago.

Because discoveries must precede production (you’ve got to find it before you can pump it), we can be certain that production will peak too.

We might disagree over the timing of peak oil but not the process.

I’m focusing on oil because without energy, no amount of additional money would make the slightest difference in our lives.

Economists love to say that higher oil prices will stimulate new oil production, as if high prices themselves could magically create supply.

Here’s a joke; - If you lock three economists in a basement they won’t worry about starving, because they know their grumbling bellies will cause sandwiches to appear.

But just as higher prices for fish will not cause more cod to come from the depleted fisheries, oil fields will yield their treasures in accordance to geological limits and not because our economics textbooks say they should.

On November 9th of 2009 the Guardian newspaper reported that a whistleblower identified as a senior employee of the International Energy Association told the paper that the world is much closer to peak oil than official estimates but that the agency had toned down its reports to prevent panic in the markets.

While we might be tempted to dismiss these explosive charges, we really shouldn’t because this story is urgent whether it is true now or will be ten years from now.

It is urgent because adapting to a future of less and less oil will take decades of preparation.

It’s urgent because when we consider the time, scale and cost involved in switching over to an entirely new technology or energy platform the realities are startling.

Considering transportation, for example, even if the world magically started churning out fifty million carbon-fiber electric cars per year, and they were the only ones being sold, at current replacement rates it would still take ten years to swap out only half the global fleet.

So TIME is a critical factor.

But it’s doubtful that enough Lithium exists to create batteries at that SCALE and the next generation batteries are nowhere near going into production at that scale.

So SCALE is an issue.

And what will the cost be to create all this new technology? Not just the dollar cost, but the energy cost as well?

As sobering as these realities of TIME, SCALE and COST are, there is an even more profound and immediate economic issue tied to peak oil that we need to consider.

To understand this particular idea I need to go back to one of the prior facts and it is Fact #4: Every dollar in circulation was loaned into existence, with interest.

Without getting into the details of it, which I do in the Crash Course, the effect of loaning all of our money into existence, with interest, is this; there is always more debt than money floating around in the system.

Always.

If you want empirical evidence consider this; today there is some $52 trillion dollars of debt in the US system but less than $10 trillion of money.

The other feature is that the amount of debt will compound over time, that is, it will grow exponentially.

The reason is; because there’s more debt than money, new money has to be loaned into existence to pay the prior debts, which means more money has to be loaned into existence to pay back THAT money and so on, and so on and so on...

Because our debts are growing exponentially, it places incredibly strong pressures on our economy to grow similarly.

After all, debts are paid back out of the productive economy and if debts are growing exponentially, the economy has to as well or the debts cannot be repaid.

As long as our economy is continuously growing, our financial system, which is really just a mountain of debt, is stable and happy.

But if the economy slows down too far or – heaven forbid, retreats, our entire system becomes unstable and threatens to collapse, causing government officials to panic and blindly throw trillions of dollars into the financial machinery.

Well any six year-old can spot the flaw in this system – nothing can grow continuously forever.

But the conundrum is that our current monetary system demands continuous growth forever. Fortunately there are alternatives.

Okay, we are now in a position to join the economy and energy in a way that will give us a critical insight into what the future will hold.

This is the part where we talk about another totally predictable event headed our way.

In order to service debts, cash flow representing real wealth has to be generated.

All wealth comes from the resources of the earth.

To understand what I mean, it’s useful to segment what we call wealth.

Primary sources of wealth come directly from the earth. These would be rich, thick soils, concentrated ore bodies, or energy that comes from the ground.

If you own any of these, you have wealth and might even be wealthy.

Secondary wealth occurs from the actions of people transforming and transporting the primary wealth to markets.

Rich soil becomes food, ore becomes steel, and oil becomes gasoline.

And there is a third type of wealth mainly consisting of paper abstractions that we layer over the first two.

Examples would be credit default swaps, Mortgage Backed Securities, stocks and bonds.

What’s important to understand here is how these wealth sources are layered.

Without primary wealth, you cannot create secondary wealth

And without these forms of wealth our paper wealth would neither exist nor have any meaning.

What this gives us is the important insight that the abundance of the earth is our primary source of wealth.

This should be obvious but it is easy to forget living as we do in a world that worships abstract wealth.

So given that all wealth comes from the earth, it might be wise to ask ourselves, from time to time, if the earth can provide all that is expected of it.

And what exactly does an exponentially increasing mountain of debt expect?

Well, it explicitly assumes an exponentially increasing supply of primary and secondary wealth.

And this has largely been true up to now. Each year more energy, more copper, more food, and more everything has been produced and distributed.

How much do we want to depend on this always being true?

Is there anything on the horizon that might call this model into question?

One expectation about peak oil is that once the decline gets underway available oil will shrink by 3% to 5% each year, if we’re lucky, and more if we’re not.

This will translate into a roughly comparable level of economic decline given that we’ve not yet begun the immense project of reorganizing our energy infrastructure.

What will a 3% to 5% per year economic decline feel like?

That’s easy; it will feel like 2009 because that’s roughly how much global GDP retreated.

Which means post peak oil will feel like an endless parade of 2009’s.

Is it possible that we can grow our economy in a way that will satisfy our existing debts without also growing our use of fossil fuels?

If so, nobody has yet described how with specifics.

Without any such plan I can tell you exactly what will happen and it’s not a pleasant set of predictions.

An energy crisis rooted in resource limits will quickly translate into an economic crisis unlike any other.

What follows next will be a disappointing string of associated crises starting with a food crisis, progressing through a profound fiscal crisis that could even result in a dollar collapse, before proceeding to a population crisis.

But you know what? If we choose, we can avoid that future.

The good news is that we don't need any new technologies to save us.

They'll be nice when they come along, but we have everything we need right now to align our economics and resource use with reality.

And we don't need any new understandings to be developed.

Brilliant people have been working at the margins for decades defining the issues and finding new ways of doing more with less.

What we lack is political will.

But there’s good news here too because more and more people are waking up all the time to the fact that humanity's long experiment with "more" is about to end and an exciting new chapter is about to begin.

Where people's minds go, politics will eventually follow.

The really excellent news is that if we manage the transition elegantly we can actually improve things.

A life with less pollution, more free time, meaningful jobs, more happiness, less stress and greater connection to each other as well as to nature are all within the realm of the possible.

But only if we correctly diagnose the predicament and respond intelligently.

Our challenge then is not to find vast new resources to exploit, but to undertake the far more sophisticated and worthwhile task of using what we’ve got more wisely.

So I remain hopeful and optimistic, not because of anything I see in the current political landscape, honestly, but because of the fact that you are listening to this now.

You get it, I get it, and more and more people are getting it every day.

But we'd get there faster if we had a common vision, a national narrative to follow that made sense, and leadership to inspire us and take us there.

If we want to create a better future and live in a world shaped by design and not disaster, we will have to develop dramatically different ideas, values and priorities, and begin to refashion what we do around these new ideas.

We need to begin telling ourselves new stories about who we are and what’s really important to us.

In the past, with extremely abundant resources at hand, we had the luxury of making bad choices without really suffering any significant consequences.

But the stadium is now mostly filled, the water is rushing up the stairs, and our margin for error has shrunk considerably.

The longer we fiddle around the more our options shrink.

Today our wrong choices will be magnified many fold by virtue of where we are in our resource depletion curves.

And so will the good choices.

We must be intelligent and creative stewards of what remains.

The best news? I know we can do this.

We need our bright and shiny kids in the next generations to know that they've got an important role and that we've got their backs as they wrestle with the challenges now laid at their feet.

Change is not easy, but sometimes it is necessary and we find ourselves in a time of need.

How the future turns out is up to us. We have this responsibility at this time.

I don't have all the answers and I can barely conceive of all the things that need to be done, let alone imagine their details.

But I do know that the first step begins with a proper understanding of the issues and that we are now in an era where it is the very largest picture that will serve us best.

There’s an elephant in the room, and we need to put our hands on it and describe it fully and accurately.

The alternative is to somehow miss seeing the next most predictable crisis in all of history coming towards us.

In closing, I am not all depressed by what I see coming, or exhausted by the thought of all the work laid out before us.

Truth be told, I am excited to be alive at this time - to be in the game when the entire trajectory of humanity may shift course.

You really can't ask for more than that.

I have a proposal: Together, let’s create a world worth inheriting.

Thank you.

Originally posted January 27, 2010 at chrismartenson.com

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