Society featured

Between Education and Catastrophe

May 16, 2023

This article was originally published at Deep Transformation Network.

“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” – H. G. Wells, The Outline of History (1920)

I had a dream this morning in which I had decided to call Charles Eisenstein on the phone.  (I very rarely just call folks on the phone these days. The new phone etiquette is to send a text message and arrange a day and time for a phone conversation. Still, I’m old enough to remember rotary dial phones without any such capabilities.

So there I am with Charles Eisenstein on an old fashioned rotary dial “land line” (as now these are called). Charles, who I had never spoken with on the phone in this dream world, answers the phone and I tell him who I am, then I ask “Will you co-author a book on education with me?”  There was a pause of roughly half a second, and Charles answered, “Yeah, sure.”

I don’t plan to make that phone call in real life, though I can imagine myself as the editor of a collection of essays on education. Maybe I’ll do that–, eventually. I know a lot of great writers on social, ecological, and related topics and issues.  Some I’m quite friendly with.

But the dream made it clear that I need to write about education — an essay. And so I need to sort out the themes I’ll weave together in this essay. I’ll almost certainly begin with the above epigraph. It states perfectly what I believe about education today, more than a hundred years later. And I’m just as likely to use the very same title for my essay as the one above.

I was just about to begin work on another essay, however. It was to be on the topic of “the energy transition narrative” — a topic I keep coming back to over and over again. My belief about this narrative is that the popular, familiar, mainstream story of “energy transition” is flatly false. There are heaps of evidence for its falseness. And the people I consider to be my colleagues in the field of inter- and trans-disciplinary energy studies (which field includes economics and ecology, history and cultural criticism, etc.) almost always agree with one another that this narrative, while extremely popular among people in the media and in politics, is deeply, terribly, dangerously flawed.

And this brings me smack-dab up against the topic of education, because what I am feeling called to say in my essay on education is that the time has come for us to update the notion of education for the coming decades of the twenty-first century.  Something about the image which appears for most of us when we read or hear the word “education” feels tired, old, dusty and obsolete — especially the strong association of “education” with “schooling” (whether K-12 or college and university).

When I contemplate “education” I tend to include newspapers, radio news and commentary, podcasts, magazines and journals … and even internet fora like Deep Transformation Network. But more and more, when I contemplate “education” I’m on a slippery slope slanting into anger, fear, resentment.  And I really don’t like being angry! It doesn’t feel good to be angry. I don’t want to hang out in the energy of anger, resentment. Rather, I want to help the world to correct its false narratives — such as the very popular false narrative on “energy transition” — which makes me especially angry, as it is murderously wrong and false. Literally murderous!  Vast numbers of people’s lives (also plants, animals … species not just individuals) are put in grave danger by the deeply entrenched false narrative of “energy transition” which has been plastered everywhere, scattered and broadcast everywhere.

It’s not like the energy transition narrative is uniquely false and problematic. It’s just that this is the one I probably know and understand the best.

I only very rarely listen to the Crazy Town podcast, but I happened to listen to their last show. And what do you know, all of a sudden these three guys are talking about me, the coiner of three terms which are like headings for why it is that the popular story on “energy transition” is a dangerously false narrative.

Rob Dietz

Yeah. So the three problems that J.R. Martin came up with, or at least that he’s named, are the Michaux Monkey Wrench, the Heinberg Pulse, and the Smil Crawl all named after-

Asher Miller
These are all bars that are in downtown Corvallis.

– from transcript here – Crazy Town: Episode 72. Sucking CO2 and Electrifying Everything: The Climate Movement’s Desperate Dependence on Tenuous Technologies – resilience

Asher was joking about the bars.  These guys are always being silly. Sometimes they even tell fart jokes.

Anyway, as you can see, I do tend to think of education in a very broad, open contextualization. I don’t think it is wise to isolate the concept of education into schools and schooling.  Journalism, at its best, is educational, for example. A basic feature of our social lives, in all of its aspects, is educational.  Learning is fundamental to what it means to be human, as I see it. And when whole societies are purveying false narratives into near ubiquity, something dangerous and very disturbing is happening. Education is being turned away from and against understanding, knowledge and truth. It’s becoming propaganda.  But not just propaganda. It’s becoming misinformation and disinformation.  It can become a society-wide pulling of the wool over our eyes.

There is a concept alive in our world, called “corporate capture”.  Generally, corporate capture is defined as it is defined here. “‘Corporate capture’ is a phenomenon where private industry uses its political influence to take control of the decision-making apparatus of the state, such as regulatory agencies, law enforcement entities, and legislatures.” (Source: Corporate Capture | Center for Constitutional Rights ( But “corporate capture” can also refer to how corporations and the very rich can, and do, deliberately (and non-deliberately) influence the public discourse on any topic, thus shaping the most essential aspect of our political and social lives. Too often, by far, the narratives which are popular are popular because those narratives are convenient to the rich and powerful — or because they are friendly to an ideology which is deeply entrenched in a culture.

The familiar notion of “energy transition” is deeply mistaken, but it is also deeply mainstream and popular. The basic shape of the story has it that because burning fossil fuels leads to an ever-increasing quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, causing dangerous climate change (global warming, anthropogenic climate disruption), we will need to “transition” from a fossil fuel based economy to a “renewable energy” based economy. This part of the narrative is true. The part of the narrative which is outrageously, dangerously false is the one which paints a picture of what I sometimes simply call “full replacement”. The full replacement clause in the narrative proposes that our energy transition will allow for a mostly very smooth transition from fossil fuels … which will allow the capitalist-industrial growth economy of the “global north” (rich countries) to remain basically unchanged.

The full replacement clause frankly pisses me off, because it’s nothing other than a steaming pile of fresh horseshit. The evidence for it being a steaming pile of excrement has been revealed here and there by experts on the relevant sciences, but almost never enters into public discussion — except among members of the choir, such as myself and my friends at Post Carbon Institute, and in the pages of PCI’s Resilience Members of the choir are not reaching the ears of the general public, and so a horseshit version of “energy transition” has the wool pulled over the eyes of politicians, the media and the general public.

In other words, those who are educated on this topic have a tiny audience, and those who are selling us horseshit sandwiches have–for now–managed to keep the pubic living in a fog of misinformation and disinformation. And it’s my view that this fog is essentially criminal — even if spreading this fog everywhere is presently perfectly legal. It’s criminal because the fraudulent, deceptive (and sometimes merely delusionally naïve) mainstream energy transition narrative is preventing us from, for example, understanding why Chris Smaje’s book, A Small Farm Future is just as urgently important and valuable today as E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac were those decades ago when they were published, and as important and valuable as Carson’s Silent Spring, etc. And I’m not saying this because I think Smaje gets everything right in that book. (I’ve not even read it, yet, but I know a lot about the book from reviews and from reading Smaje’s blog. [Who can read a hundred books at once, anyway?]) The book is of crucial importance to us because it seriously asks crucially important questions about how we might organize our economies and communities in a vastly smaller economy with vastly less net energy in the system. These are the questions we should all be seriously exploring, but that discussion isn’t happening because it’s just not convenient to the people who own and run this world. (Yes, I’m pissed again.)

I wasn’t planning on writing so much here. I was planning merely to ask for help in re-thinking and re-imagining the word education, and how this word sets in relation to society and politics. This isn’t the essay I intend to write, but I think I’ll publish it in The R-Word, anyway, just because. Because we all need to be having a conversation about how to have the conversation we ought to be having. And it’s a big, sprawling, challenging, difficult — and inconvenient — conversation.

Maybe Resilience will republish this there … and my questions will be spread around a bit, following my fifteen minutes of fame on Crazy Town. Maybe generous people will help me to think these things through? Maybe we can have our conversation, at last, about the conversation we would be having if the world weren’t slathered in horseshit.

I’m saying I need and want your help, all of you. I’m saying we should not take any of this lightly. We have preparation work to do, a bridge to build to a future better than the one we’re heading toward. We cannot take the necessary steps if the popular narrative is horseshit.

What we need now is … somehow … to unleash education.


Teaser photo credit: Old schoolhouse – public domain photograph

James R. Martin

I'm an eco-cultural philosopher -- which is a fancy way of saying I am obsessed with trying to understand our human relationship to ecosystems and the biosphere in relation to philosophy of culture.

Tags: Education, energy transition, powering down