Fleeing Vesuvius, New Zealand Edition

(2011, Feasta and Living Economies)

Book Review

In my experience, there are two main forms anti-corporate resistance can take. The first involves direct confrontation of government and corporate official over their criminal and unethical activities. The hundreds of Occupy Wall Street encampments launched in late 2011 to protest banking greed and corruption represent the epitome of this direct, confrontational approach. In the second type of resistance, local activists collectively op out of corporate-dominated lifestyles by creating their own alternative systems of food and energy production and distribution and, in some cases, alternative banking and money systems. This second type of resistance movement is facilitated by a number of loosely linked national and international sustainability networks. These include groups such as Transition Towns, Feasta and Cultivate. The Transition movement, which started in 2004-2005 in Ireland and Britain, is the best known. Transition Towns New Zealand has been active since 2007.

Fleeing Vesuvius, published by Feasta in Ireland in 2010, is best described as a handbook or encyclopedia for individuals, groups and communities seeking to opt out of a corporate-dominated lifestyle and transition to a more sustainable one. Feasta (Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability) was launched in Dublin in 1998. The New Zealand edition was published by Living Economies in July 2011. The book is a collection of essays by Feasta members and others from a wide range of technical backgrounds. This first post is intended as a general overview of the book and the premises it’s based on. Successive posts will look a specific chapters in more detail.

Preparing for Collapse

The title, Fleeing Vesuvius, refers to the volcano that destroyed Pompeii in 79 AD – to the majority of residents who failed to save themselves, despite weeks of earthquakes, gaseous clouds and other obvious signs that the volcano was about to erupt. For at least a decade, most citizens of the world have been confronting growing evidence that the planet is on the verge of economic and ecological collapse. Yet the vast majority do absolutely nothing to prepare for the stark conditions ahead.

All the essays in Fleeing Vesuvius are written from the perspective that the age of cheap energy is over. In fact the beginning section asserts that oil depletion, not reckless subprime derivatives trading, was responsible for the 2008 economic crash. As the authors explain, the readily accessible surface oil is used up. What remains is much more difficult and costly to extract. Once oil reached $147 per barrel in 2008, energy and food costs (directly linked to the price of fuel under industrial agriculture), people had no money to repay their mortgages and the defaults started.

All the essays in the book are written from the perspective that humankind needs to drastically downsize their energy use. This includes returning to an era where people produced food and other basic needs with human labor and draft animals (horses, oxen, mules, etc), instead of engines that run on fossil fuels. One author makes the point that one barrel of oil produces the equivalent of an adult laborer working 40 hours a week for 12 years.

Fossil Fuels and Capitalism

The Introduction and Part I (”Energy Availability”) are the most mind blowing sections of the book because of the historical links they make between the fossil fuel revolution, industrialization and the birth of the capitalist economic system. I don’t pretend to understand all the math, but it’s clear from the references that the first five essays represent a consensus position of many prominent economists and energy engineers. Before fossil fuels, capitalism was impossible because an economy relying on human labor and animal power can’t support it.

By definition capitalism depends on capital accumulation, the production of an economic surplus that can be reinvested in new capital (property and machines) to expand production even further. In the beginning of Fleeing Vesuvius, the authors demonstrate how producing this surplus was only possible because of the vast amount of cheap (practically free) work performed by fossil fuel energy. Obviously there were rich people (landowners and merchants) prior to industrialization. However there weren’t any capitalists – production was far too limited to accumulate capital.

If capitalism is only possible with an abundance of cheap energy, clearly it will end when cheap fossil fuels run out. From the graph, it looks like this happens at $200 a barrel – which is predicted some time in the next six to thirty six months. None of the renewable energies (e.g. solar, wind, tidal, hydro) can match fossil fuels in terms of low cost and efficiency. Seven billion global residents will really struggle to produce enough food to feed themselves, much less accumulate capital to invest in new production.

To be continued.