Interview with Chris Martenson
A while ago, Peter Lipman and myself did an interview with Chris Martenson when he was in Bristol as part of his tour of the UK. We did an extensive and far-ranging interview, which was absolutely fascinating. Unfortunately, the memory card in my recording machine was irreparably damaged shortly thereafter and the interview lost, and so, a couple of weeks ago, we repeated the exercise, this time over the phone. This ’second-time lucky’ interview covers much of the same ground, and proved to be just as fascinating.
So Chris, introduce yourself and the Crash Course to any Transition Culture readers unfamiliar with your work.
My name is Chris Martenson and I’m the creator of something known as the Crash Course which is an online tutorial that explores the connections between the economy, energy and the environment. I’m a father of three children, a former scientist – toxicology was my training but I was a research scientist. I then went on and got an MBA and spent about a decade in the corporate world, corporate finance and various strategic management finance positions, terminating in a position where I was vice president in a company doing high level consulting to the life sciences industry, which is where I was when I stumbled across the information that is now enshrined in the Crash Course and that changed my life forever.
If you had to explain the Crash Course to somebody in a lift for three minutes, how would you encapsulate the essence of the Crash Course?
I would say that there’s an amazingly high chance that there’s going to be an enormous change in our future. The economy is the way in which we organise ourselves, it’s how we get things done, it’s the living, breathing creature that surrounds our daily lives and so we have a commanding interest in its health and well-being – certainly the events of 2008 have really brought that to the forefront of people. But the economy doesn’t exist by itself – it’s intimately connected to, and feeds upon resources that come out of the earth, human resources, all kinds of resources.
I connect the economic ‘e’ to another ‘e’, which is energy. There’s enough information out there around the concept that we might be nearing peak energy. Peak oil in particular – people owe it to themselves to take a good, hard look at that particular story. Then I extended into the environment, that being the third ‘e’. There I’m really looking at resources, all kinds of resources – phosphorous, copper, uranium or any of the other resources that we get from the earth. When we put all three of these ‘e’s into one spot, it seems very likely that the ways in which things have been working up until now is not the same way things will continue to work.
It’s a story of change, it’s a story of a sharp corner in the road, potentially, but it’s really ultimately a story that at first might look disturbing, or potentially even depressing to some people, ultimately is a story about the options and opportunities we have to take control, to seize the power back in our lives, to be responsible for how our personal, individual and community futures turn out.
Chris, I know that the Crash Course and your thinking has been evolving. Since you first put the Crash Course online, are there things you’ve fundamentally changed your views on?
I think one of the things that’s shifted very dramatically for me is thinking about what responses make sense, given the information in the course. For me, when I first started on this journey, it occurred to me that there were a lot of personal changes I had to make in my life, and I made those. When I say ‘my life’, this is my wife and my family – we made some very profound changes in our individual lives. But along that path, which has been about 5 years for us now, we discovered the power of community and the importance of community.
There are some individual things everybody should do – my approach is to think that if you want a strong nation, you need strong individual provinces or states, and if you want a strong states you need strong cities, and if you want strong cities you need strong communities, and if you want strong communities you need strong individuals. So that’s the path I say. There are some changes that can be made in our lives that really apply to us as individuals, but the most important ones for us, particularly in the last couple of years, have been in the importance of community and really thinking about how we want to approach this next ten years and really coming to the conclusion that for us, in my family, we want to approach it with joy, excitement, as much happiness as we properly can.
We are where we are, whatever’s going to unfold that’s out of my control will unfold, but of the things I can control, there’s no reason to do those from anything than the position of excitement. I really truly think there are some very exciting times coming, maybe some hard times as well. My learning has been that in order to have these changes not of the disrupting, hard sort – in order to have them be of the exciting sort, that’s all about community. I guess that word means different things to different people, but to me, that means strong, inter-dependent relationship with the people around me on my street, in my town, with the people I know.
So does that mean you might make some changes to chapter 20 of the Crash Course as it’s currently up there, on the web?
You know, my wife and I have been in this together and we hold seminars. The Crash Course is a prerequisite for people coming to our seminars, because we don’t want to spend another minute talking about it. The Crash Course is a big step into the left side of the brain, it has all the information there, it can present a very compelling case that something needs to be done, that there’s a sense of urgency that perhaps the way things used to work is not how we’re going to work going forward. That would be a bad strategy to plan on that sort of future.
When we do the seminars however, we step over into the right side of the brain and we talk about what are the implications of this material. There might be some practical implications, and we might spend a lot of time with some people talking about those; that there might be physical implications in terms of where do I live, where does my food come from, what are the things I can start to engage with on that front. But there are emotional implications as well. A lot of this material confronted beliefs, very powerfully held beliefs, beliefs like, ‘my country’s number one’, or ‘we’ve always made it through crises before because we’ve kept an optimistic view.’
Or beliefs about money and how it is created. So when those beliefs are confronted, that creates a lot of emotional turmoil. And in many cases we’ve found it really does follow the model that Kubhler-Ross laid down, in terms of the five stages of grief, although we add another stage or two in there because they seem to be stages that people enter when they first encounter this material.
In the seminars, a really important part for people is how you can identify where someone is on that spectrum, from denial at one end to acceptance at the other. And how to talk to people who are not where you are on that spectrum, so if I’m in a position of anger, where I was a few years ago, I found that I could talk to angry people and we’d have a little angry get together and we’d be preaching to the choir with each other. Once I learnt that my intentions to be as effective as I can, to communicate this information – and it can be really challenging, not just intellectually, but emotionally challenging – I found that once I lost my attachment to needing people to be where I was with the material, I became a lot more effective.
So we have a whole part on how to talk to friends, loved ones, reluctant partners, spouses, about what can be a really challenging amount of material. So instead of going back and reworking chapter 20 of the crash course, our intent is to build off all this other material that we’ve got that really just extends and builds off it, and say, ‘okay, we’ve got the left side of the brain, now let’s talk about the other side of things’.
It’d be good, following on from that, to look at how you prepared the Crash Course. I remember you saying that you had very deliberately gone through it, stripping out things which were questions of opinion and sticking to facts, so as to make it as hard as possible for people to say, ‘I’m not going to listen to that at all’. But it sounds like in your seminars, you’re doing almost the opposite there from that process you did with the crash course.
The similarity between the two pieces is that we’re still taking the complicated information, and we’re putting some structure around it and we’re unpacking it and taking a good careful look at it. You mentioned the piece which is very important, which does show up in the second part of the seminar as well, it’s in the first crash course, which is differentiating between fact and opinion and belief. There are good facts and flakey, murkey facts and we spend some time talking about the difference between the two. Opinions are generated off of facts and they tend to be conclusions.
Beliefs exist at the sub-conscious level, they’re actually what cause us to take actions or not take action. The point of everything, the one thing that I’m trying to get across to people is that this is a time to take action, even if we’re not really clear what they are, we haven’t got it all mapped out, it’s really time to start demonstrating strong alignment and in many cases any alignment between what we know to be true and the lives that we’re living. For a lot of people that’s a huge gap and it creates anxiety. My goal is to help reduce that anxiety and to give people the most important gift I know, which is the gift of time – time to begin adjusting to a possibly difficult future on your own terms, in your own way.
Having this lead time can be one of the most important gifts that anyone can give to themselves even, to begin working with this material on their own terms while the time exists, while the resources are there; taking a more central path up and around an escarpment rather than having to scale it all at once at some point in the future when things change. So that’s the direction that we go with that. I don’t see them as necessarily in opposition to each other, it’s really an extension of the same kind of structured thinking, but it does get into an area which is a little bit murkier than straight facts, if you will.
One of the criticisms by some of crash course has been the degree to which it downplays climate change and doesn’t factor that in as one of the key issues. Can you talk about your thinking behind that?
I very specifically avoided that whole area for two reasons. The first is that I thought I could create a compelling enough sense of urgency without going into that topic, and the second reason is that I had worked with this enough in various life settings to discover that there are people on both sides of that story that hold very strong beliefs around that material. I only know one climate scientist and I trust him very intimately with his material and we’ve talked about it a lot, but not everybody else is a climate scientist – they’ve fallen into camps.
They’re approaching the topic with very strong beliefs. In talking about things that touch on very strong beliefs, it’s very tricky territory. My experience is that when I’m talking to somebody who’s holding a very strong belief is that in presenting it, or even slightly challenging it, or even raising a fact that runs counter to it, they’ll react to it emotionally, usually with anger or with some sort of a charge, sometimes sadness.
In looking at that, I waded pretty deeply into the story and because I would have to spend a whole other hour of material on this – I’m not sure how many up sides I could get out of this. I can see a lot of ways I could fail and create down sides. And you know, I think I can still tell the story in a way that creates the same sorts of changes that I’m seeking, preaches the same sorts of urgency that I’m seeking, without touching that story. So it was really a strategic decision and part of it was a tactic and it was really centred on my belief at the time when I was putting the crash course together, that I was going to be opening an enormous can of worms and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to or qualified to manage.
I doubted my ability to go into that territory and come out of it with the ability to reach everybody. If I had a mission or a goal for the crash course it was to create it in such a way that it’s not partisan, there’s no religious beliefs in there; I’m not engaging in any class or socio-economic warfare zones if you will. I hope that the crash course is presenting a body of material that is so important that I want everyone to have the chance to hear it, without them shutting down and saying, ‘Oh he holds the wrong position on a political party, on climate change, on a belief-laden area’. So it was just my belief that I could reach more people telling it the way I did without going into climate change, than if I had.
In Richard Heinberg’s Powerdown, he talks about the difference between ‘Building Lifeboats, or ‘Powerdown’ as a response. There was the paper that David Korowicz just produced, ‘Tipping Point’, that FEASTA published, where he talks about whether what we’re looking at is sudden collapse, systemic collapse, or whether we’re looking at oscillating decline. What’s your sense of what the terrain of the next 5-10 years looks like in relation to those scenarios?
I see ranges of possibilities, that’s part of my background and training. I would give about an 80% chance that what’s going to happen is all these trillions of dollars that have been pumped into the economic landscape by governments all across the globe, they’re going to find their mark in the sense that they’ll what will be a viable economic recovery – I think we’ve seen the first glimpses and glimmers of that in some of the data, but it’s really a false rebirth, it’s not born on the back of what I would call legitimate economic foundations, it’s just money that’s been printed out of thin air and poured into the economic patient.
It will jolt back to life and the problem is that all the energy data that I’m reading right now suggests that because of the credit conditions we’ve run into, and because of volatility in the markets and uncertainty, a whole lot of projects in oil and gas have just not been undertaken. So there are some real issues with supply as we go forward. My view is that there’s an 80% chance, a very high chance that within in the next 5 years our economically rejuvenated patient runs into an actual legitimate supply constraint on energy.
So we’ll see that old $147 barrel of July 2008, we’ll see that again. There’s a risk in there that some nations discover that this concept of resource nationalisation potentially, they worry about not exporting oil if it’s truly in limited supply. When I look forward to that….you’re asking a question about the scope, the scale, the pace of the next shock… it is my contention that that next shock has a very strong chance of being a lot worse than the last one, meaning that we could see much larger volatility in the currency markets, we could see some markets shut down, we could see that whole portions of the economy basically cease to function, particularly the portions that were predicated on ever expanding credit growth.
I see that has a very high chance of happening. Whether that leads to, or is perceived by some people as collapse; I don’t really know what collapse means, but I do know that what I suspect is going to happen is that we will see a dramatic shrinking of expectation and economic complexity as a result of the next oil or energy shock that’s going to come forward. I base that on the fact that I can’t find any literature, I can’t find any academic discussion, I can’t find any policies, I can’t find any writing that has even begun yet to address the gap that exists between the idea of economic growth on one hand, and the failure of energy to continue growing on the other hand.
There’s an enormous gap there – nobody has yet explained how economic growth can happen in the absence of growth in basic energy supplies. I know some people are starting to work around the edges of that and start wanting to produce some amount of work in that regard. Certainly I’ve been hammering at it, a number of other people are as well, but there’s really, as far as I can tell, no high level official response, recognition, thinking around that. That’s going to take time. My concern around how this will unfold is that I see that when we hit this next shock, we’re probably going to be about as unprepared for it, intellectually…as we are today, because there’s almost no curiosity, there’s no room for these sorts of ideas to yet be involved in, or engaged with these high level ideas.
If the next crisis happens, I believe this is the kind of crisis that’s so fundamental, so structurally major that we need every possible minute to begin wrapping our minds around this, to begin thinking about how we’re going to respond to this in a proactive rather than a reactive fashion. Once we’re reactive to the reality of the second energy crisis I think the consequences are going to be higher magnitude, a little bit more volatile, possibly a lot more vicious than the set of shocks we just went through.
That’s the highest likelihood – I always reserve a small chance somewhere in there that we might discover that there’s a system error, that would cause things to really, really change, like international banking not really working in a viable way anymore or something like that that would fundamentally alter the landscape that we’ve carefully built over the last few decades, which is a global, just-in-time delivery network of manufacturing and supply. So I have some concerns about supply chain disruption and things like that, but my major thought is that we experience another shock that feels like the last one, but probably more severe.
When you say Chris that you don’t think there’s been much intellectual preparation for this, would you not see some grappling of these ideas in the work of say Herman Daily on Steady State Economics, or Peter Victor on Managing Without Growth?
Oh absolutely, you’ve mentioned two academics and there’s a number of others I’d include in that as well. I was really referring to official recognition, at the higher levels of parliament or in D.C. or places like that – from the political class would be one end. And then on the banking side, we are still being very heavily patrolled if you will, by a set of bankers – talking about my country specifically, the central reserve is really, really tight with our Wall Street bankers.
I haven’t detected anything yet from their analysts that would suggest they’ve understood the rift that I see, to the larger economy and the overall model due to energy insufficiency. That’s something that’s still wide open. There are one or two notable exceptions – Jeff Rubin of CBC, their chief economist, he’s got this story down and he’s up there talking about it. So there are some, but I’m talking about do we have critical mass, are we really talking about this as something other than a few pockets at the edges – how close to the centre are these discussions. It’s my assessment that we’re not that close to the centre yet.
Clearly you know most about how close to the centre this discussion is in the US – do you see significant cultural differences between the US and maybe the UK and Europe or other parts of the world?
Absolutely, the UK is in my estimation way ahead of us rhetorically in talking about some of these issues. When I was just over there on a visit it really struck me that several decades of much higher petrol prices has this shaping effect on society, that leads to all sorts of things around how efficient mass transit is, around people’s relationships with automobiles vs. walking, there’s all kinds of very subtle, long term impacts of having lived with a very different energy landscape, and a very different cultural landscape.
My assessment of my own country is that we still have a dominant belief in the story that there are no resource limits, and if there are technology will fix them. We haven’t yet got to the point of self-admission on a cultural level that says, ‘we might actually have to live within some sort of limit.’ That work has not really begun here yet at the centre, but people all around the edges are absolutely figuring that out and coming to these sorts of conclusions on their own, so that’s what gives me great hope.
That’s the reason I tend to work with groups on the edges rather than spending my time trying to wade into the centre and convince the centre of something. It’s not clear to me that we’ll be able to change attitudes at the centre fast enough before the next crisis, so I think we’ll have to manage that things as best we can at the centre.
When we talked before, you mentioned some practical stories about how people in the US and how people in Transition projects were making use of the Crash Course – could you tell us about those?
Certainly, a number of people have used the Crash Course to great effect. It’s available online for free but not everybody watches 3½ hours of material on a computer, and it really wasn’t my intent for people to sit down alone and watch 3½ hours of stuff on the computer. It’s meant to be shared. So we produced it as three separate discs – they come in a single DVD case – and each of those discs is an hour and a half or less, and that was produced so that people would take that and bring it to their communities, maybe run three separate sessions a week.
That’s what we recommend because you have to integrate the material – I would not recommend watching it all at once. Some people really picked that up and ran forward with it. In January 2010 this year I was out in Sonora, California where a gentleman whose an architect in town had taken the crash course, had the 3 disc set. He put the first disc on on Thursday night, invited everybody back next Thursday, and for the third and final disc. On the fourth Thursday he led a discussion and people talked about it, and then he repeated that the next month. He went from 12 people to 48. Then he repeated it the next month and it went up to 90 odd people, and then he had to move to a larger space.
He did that for 6 months in a row, and when I showed up out there to give a talk they were going to use that talk as a springboard event to introduce the concept of becoming a Transition Town, organising themselves together around this idea that there’s things they might want to do together as a community. When I showed up they rented the largest auditorium – it seemed very ambitious to me, it seated 440 people. They ended up having to turn maybe 50 or 70 people away at this event because the hall had been filled to capacity. To capture the feeling of it – it was very exciting, there was a lot of energy in the room, it was really fantastic.
Somebody who stood up afterwards just captured it perfectly. He said, ‘before I ask a question I just want to make a statement. I see everybody in town here, I see lawyers, I see council people, we’ve got our hippies in the room, our conservatives – we’ve got everybody here. This reminds me of 3 years ago when we had that forest fire that was threatening our town, and everybody dropped their social walls and we just came together because we knew that there was something facing us that was larger than our daily lives and we banded together. That’s what it feels like.’
To me that’s just a fantastic success story because that’s exactly how I envision the Crash Course being used: as a way of taking a very complicated bit of information and putting it into one spot so that we don’t have to keep reinventing that particular wheel, and put just enough in there so that people can see the context that underlies the actual set of conditions that we find ourselves in today, so that we can come to the conclusion that we need to start doing something. That’s where the Crash Course leaves off and then it’s up to each community to go forward and take their interpretation of that that’s unique for them.
Everybody’s got different land, different water, different socio-economic, different sources of wealth – everybody’s got a slightly different condition. That’s why I’ve just been so pleased that they were able to go and pick up the Transition Handbook because the Transition model is all about individual communities holding up a framework and then adapting it to their situation and particular condition. They had a great kick-off and they’re up and running and I’m getting reports back from them, and the best part about that whole story is that yes, there’s an urgency, yes, there’s some anxiety, but they’ve just done it with a real sense of excitement and purpose and joy.
To me they’re an absolute model of how this can be done – the fact that we not only can, but we have to find ways to reach everybody in town, not just the usual people that show up to change things. We need everybody to pull on this. Everybody’s got to contribute, and everybody has something to contribute. So I’m just really pleased with that particular outcome out there, I love what they did.
That’s a great example. On that subject of reaching everybody, when you came and spoke in Bristol, one of the people that came up on the platform afterwards for discussion was the person was the senior officer leading on this sort of energy planning work for Bristol City Council. And he sat there and he said, ‘Thank you Chris, that’s a real eye opener but what do I do with that now? How do I actually create organisational, infrastructure level, meaningful change in response to this, because what you’re really saying is we need to fundamentally change our practices, and most organisations are not built up to enable fundamental change – they’re built up to respond to either business as usual or incremental change.
Yes, and certainly that’s one of the great challenges. I don’t know any other way to begin to approach that, besides starting with developing a critical mass of awareness within the community, within the town, within the organisation. Once that critical mass of awareness is there and you have enough people on board who are saying, ‘yeah, I get it, we have to fundamentally do things differently’, I think you can open it up to the second part of the conversation. That’s when we can start to explore ways in which we can culturally realign ourselves so, what is the culture of an organisation and how does that adaptability work?
Here’s a perfect example of this. Katrina comes into Louisiana and makes a mess of things, and it turns out that FEMA is mortally embarrassed. There are life long members of FEMA that are mortally crushed by the lack of ability to respond to that type of crisis. So they commissioned a study, they said, ‘why did that happen?’ They realised that they’d built themselves up over time in these siloed types of organisations, so there’s somebody who’s responsible for water, and there’s somebody who’s responsible for shelter, and there’s somebody whose responsible for food.
That person who’s on the ground doing food will move to their particular corner of the disaster and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I need water’. They have to go all the way up to the top, jump over and go down to the water people, and it’s a very poor response. So they said, ‘is there any example that we can look to that says, here’s an example of a major disaster that was dealt with really well – we’d like to know how that happened and why they were organised.’ It turns out there was another hurricane, hurricane Aniki, just an amazing blow and it came across Hawaii and the community on one of the islands got the full brunt of this thing and it was absolutely destroyed.
By the time anyone got there three days later, the town had its own water set up, it had taken care of its injured, it had basically gotten everything under control….so FEMA went back and did a study and asked, ‘how did this happen?’ It turns out it was the culture – they still had this indigenous culture there such that when this storm came in, people knew that if their children weren’t with them, they’d be with someone else and they knew they’d be fine; they had cultural means of managing chaos and disruption, they did a lot of things horizontally.
Everybody within each of their areas felt empowered to do whatever they needed to do in their areas, but felt perfectly empowered to do other things that needed doing. Everybody just more organically did what needed doing, right where they were at that moment of crisis. So FEMA wrote this whole report up and said, ‘no, we didn’t suffer from a lack of resources, we totally had enough resources to manage this particular crisis….what we had was a cultural problem. Our culture was geared towards one set of circumstances, and it couldn’t realign itself, couldn’t be flexible, couldn’t reorganise itself in the face of a crisis that was actually larger than our organisation’s current ability.’
So I don’t know how you have that level of discussion about how Bristol City Council could benefit from changing itself culturally, until people have that critical mass of awareness that there’s a hurricane like Aniki? coming, and that it’s in our best interests. It’s something we have to do.
Because we either respond now, while we can, with the luxury of time, or we respond later when pressed by circumstances. Between those two particular responses there’s just a world of difference, night and day. I just think that step one is building that awareness, building that sense of urgency, getting that critical mass, and then we can step into that next box. It’s cart before the horse to start talking about fundamental, non-status quo changes until people are ready and receptive to really have those conversations.
Does what’s going on in Greece at the moment mean that the cultural stories can change very quickly because the crisis becomes far more obvious to people and you can move pretty much immediately onto fundamental infrastructure change? Also, what lessons do you think the UK could be learning from what’s happening in Greece?
I think both lessons are ones that we’ve learnt before and that we’re going to relearn again, that is that financial crises are incredibly quick. They’re like bush fires – one day everything is fine, and a couple of weeks later everything is not fine. This is particularly true to the extent that our entire financial system is one global construct so when they say that Greece is about to default the first question is, ‘default on what, and who do they owe it to?’ It turns out that France is exposed, Germany’s exposed, the UK is exposed, America is exposed, a lot of countries are exposed to this debt.
The lesson there is that when these things finally break, they break incredibly quickly. So I would extrapolate that just a little bit and go forward and say, ‘Greece has a problem because it had spending mismanagement at the government level, but really it has a problem of living beyond its means, and it was piling up debt. A debt edifice creeps to a higher and higher level and then it suddenly breaks, and we saw that in Greece. Well let’s fast forward – there are a number of other countries out there right now, and the UK is one of them, whose debt level should be creating some pretty serious cause for concern amongst people because those debt levels are really at the same sorts of levels we’ve been seeing in Greece.
The chief lesson is, don’t be complacent. Be aware of the risks. You should be asking yourselves if these risks are getting larger, or are they getting smaller. One of my chief criticisms on the way in which this economic bailout was handled on both sides of the Atlantic, was to increase the level of indebtedness of the public sector, and it’s therefore increased the threat of a Greece-like event. I really believe individuals should trust themselves, look at the numbers, read them, say, ‘Does this make me feel better or worse about our future prospects?’
A lot of people are coming to the conclusion that this whole notion of just piling up ever higher larger amounts of public debt to cover up a shortfall in private borrowing – yes it’s a solution, but it’s not addressing the root cause of the problem. This is a crisis rooted in debt, we’re going deeper in debt, and that creates higher levels of risk. For the UK I think there should be hard, fundamental questions around the level of indebtedness, how this is going to be serviced, how it’s going to shape the future, and really question is it that important that we get consumers back consuming at any cost, or should we maybe consider that this is the time when should be retrenching?
We’ve lived beyond our means for a period of time, maybe we have to consider living below our means to offset that, get the yin and the yang balance again, and then come out of this crisis stronger, more structurally sound, with a better functioning economy after taking a run down. That makes a lot of sense, but it’s not the direction the UK has chosen, it’s not the direction the US has chosen, and it looks like it’s not the direction the EU is going to choose with Greece. It looks like they’re going to print and add more public debt to cover up debt that’s essentially already gone bad. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I’m hoping I’m wrong and that their strategy will work, but the risks are still there – in some cases I think we can make an argument that they’re higher than they used to be, and that’s a cause for concern.
What we’re seeing in Greece is that as the kind of cuts that are required to get an economy out of that mess kick in, we’re starting to see some significant public order issues and big strikes. Is it inevitable that the way out of that amount of debt is going to involve major hardship across the board and we just have to accept that’s how it is?
Public disorder is something that concerns me because it just shows what happens when people have one set of expectations or a set of entitlements and those are not met, or are dashed. Often that does result in social strife. That’s certainly a very well understood dynamic. There’s something called an IMF riot – those used to happen all the time down in South America, and in Africa and other places. What’s interesting is that a little bit of the IMF medicine is now coming to the Western world and so we’re seeing it get better television coverage, but the dynamic itself is really well understood.
Greece got itself into some trouble, and yes they over spent and so now we’re seeing the early stages of IMF riots in their country as austerity measures are imposed and that’s a predictable sort of a reaction. When I cast forward and I look at peak oil and this lack of energy expansion and its impact on the economy, it will create kind of that same condition all across the western world. We could be entering a period – and I try to make a case for this in the work I do – it’s a serious option and I think people should consider it as a possibility.
We could be facing that same sort of circumstance across much of Europe and across the United States, Japan as well, China is a bit of a wild card to me. I see those countries as being heavily exposed to this particular story. So in some ways I look at Greece and I see that in some ways it a harbinger of things to come. I try to understand how the official sectors respond to this, what do the policy makers do on the fiscal side, on the monetary side. There’s a larger lesson in this: the same story is playing out in Greece now that I saw play out in General Motors when they bailed it out, which is that they’re going to print money in order to protect the current holders of the bonds from experiencing significant losses. That’s one way you can do it, but all that does is it makes the holders of the bonds whole in the story, and transfers the cost of that onto everybody, through the pernicious effects of printing money out of thin air, which creates inflation and a truly regressive tax because it hits everyone at once, it punishes savers. So really we could see this in some ways as rewarding the imprudent at the expense of the prudent – I’m not a big fan of this because people are quick learners and it doesn’t take them long to figure out it doesn’t pay to be prudent.
The next thing you know, you’ve got a worse problem on your hands. So I think we’re seeing very predictable, short sighted responses which are, ‘let’s just keep the pain in Greece down as much as possible now, we’ll just make it through next week, we’re just trying to manage a crisis.’ But inevitably, we find that the long term health and very important sources of sociological and cultural impact are really swept under the rug in the name of battling a crisis.
History shows that when these sorts of crises come around, when governments resort to the printing option instead of the bitter pill option – the printing option has not yet worked in a long term capacity. It’s all descended into some sort of pain: currency collapse, major inflation, sometimes hyper inflation. We had hyper inflation in Yugoslavia, hyper inflation in Germany before World War II. Inflation is the absolute number one thing I would want to avoid at any possible cost, but we’re seeing our early responses are to print our way out of this and so there are some concerns there as well.
If I could give any advice it would be to say, ‘why don’t we just try to see what happens if the people who have been imprudent have to live with the consequences of that, and not sacrifice the prudent at this particular order. Is there any way we can make the outcome of this rest on the shoulders of those who are most responsible? So far that’s not the course we’re taking, at least as far as I can see.
You could argue that the imprudent ones are the ones that are taking the decisions still! I have a final question for you – I know you strove in the crash course to stick to fact and not opinion, but this is definitely one on opinion. It’s to do with the depth of the crisis you’ve very convincingly argued we’re hurtling towards, and whether in fact, given the deep grained nature of our industrial growth system, we would have had any opportunity to change in a meaningful way without such a crisis?
I absolutely think we could – if everyone woke up tomorrow with an entirely different view we could do things completely differently. It is entirely possible for us to use energy in ways that are much more clever, efficient. We are wasting enormous amounts of resources at this particular point in time. My understanding of energy is that this is a once in a species bequeathment, it was built up over hundreds of millions of years and we’re going to use it in a roughly 200 year time frame and so we could actually be giving ourselves the most important gift. We could absolutely be giving ourselves the gift of time by entering into very aggressive conservation programmes, and being much more clever about how we use our energy.
Here’s an example – if someone wants to come forward and have a great idea for say turning algae into biofuel then they’ve found a way to recycle nutrient loss coming out of sewage plants and that want some energy to go forward and do that – if I was king for a day I would say, ‘okay, here’s what energy is going to cost you for that particular use.’ But if Paul Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft wants to take a 400 ft yacht around the world, I would have a different cost for that fuel. I think that instead of pulling all of this energy out of the ground as fast as possible and then allowing ‘the market’ to decide where it gets used, I think we could be a lot more directive and a lot more specific about where it’s going.
In my own little corner here on my property we’re starting to work with a wonderful, bright young guy with permaculture principles for growing food. I understand that it’s possible to use a lot less energy and still have a very good quality of life, in my own small corner of the world and I don’t understand why that can’t be possible elsewhere, why we couldn’t be much more clever and creative about the ways in which we use energy. I think this doesn’t have to end in crisis, there are lots of ways we could restructure currency systems that we already know about, there are already the technologies that exist – we don’t need any new ones to be developed – that can allow us to use our energy much more efficiently and usefully.
We don’t need any new thinking, we don’t need any more books to be written, we don’t need any more technology, we could absolutely apply what we’ve already got and make enormous differences. But – we are not. That’s why I think that of the things we need most, we need political will, more than anything, to be serious about this, to confront the issues on the basis of the data, to really face the facts as we know them. If we do that, I can see ways that this could be really positive, that this could actually turn out that we have many generations of time in front of us.
If we do it poorly – meaning status quo, all engines full, must get back to consumptive lifestyles, must bet back to full spending then we’ll talk about the real issue – I see a lot of ways that that story could fall of the rails and have an accident. I’m hopeful because I see ways it could turn out, I have a loss of hope in some ways because I don’t see us being serious, really serious about the nature of the predicament we’re in at that stage. But we could close that gap, that’s where Transition Towns come in, that’s where I come in, that’s where Daly comes in, that’s where all the people that you mention come in, to try and change the narrative where there’s still time.
To me, that’s where the work needs to happen. It’s about changing the stories we tell ourselves, it’s about having a different narrative. The most important one, that we’ve touched on a couple of times today, if we could just change this one sentence then a lot would fall off and it could all be beautiful: ‘the economy must grow’. If we could just drop that concept and be really serious about finding economic models that aren’t reliant on continuous exponential growth, then a lot of great things would fall off of that. Big changes, but they’d be exciting changes and I think a lot of people, particularly young people, would find a very purposeful set of ideas and jobs to throw their hearts and minds into.
What do you think? Leave a comment below. See our commenting guidelines.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.