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Review: The Crash Course, Revised Edition by Chris Martenson

May 22, 2023

The Crash Course: An Honest Approach to Facing the Future of Our Economy, Energy, and Environment, Revised Edition
By Chris Martenson
Wiley, Mar. 2023, 336 pp., ebook: $17.00, hardcover: $29.00.

Chris Martenson is a scientist, an economic researcher and a writer who first came to prominence in 2008 with the release of his groundbreaking video series The Crash Course. The series’ purpose was to provide sorely missing context for the tectonic shifts long underway in the world’s economic, energy and environmental systems—or the “three Es,” as Martenson calls them. Eventually, the videos became a book, and that book is now in its second edition. This new edition retains its predecessor’s invaluable systems-level perspective and updates it with current events, research and data.

For those new to the issue of industrial civilization’s fundamental unsustainability, The Crash Course is a first-rate primer. It presents complex topics concisely and accessibly and makes masterful use of data, charts, analogies, thought experiments and stories from Martenson’s own life experience to clarify difficult concepts. It follows this background with a thorough, step-by-step guide to building up individual and community resilience and self-reliance, in order to better weather the tough times ahead.

“We are at peak prosperity,” writes Martenson in the introduction. He goes on to explain that modern industrial society enjoys unprecedented standards of living for unprecedented numbers of people thanks to a confluence of serendipitous circumstances—chief among them the availability of cheap, abundant energy from fossil fuels—but that it’s all coming to an end within our lifetimes as fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources deplete. Still, he insists we all have the ability to achieve prosperity in our own personal lives even as society at large steadily loses its prosperity.

In 31 chapters averaging roughly 10 pages each, the book provides big-picture overviews of a broad range of topics necessary to understanding humanity’s current situation. These include the power of exponential growth, the behavior of complex systems, the workings of fiat money systems, the link between fossil fuel abundance and economic growth, the annihilation of fish and insect populations, the current state of the world’s soil health and water supplies, the depletion of fossil fuels and other resources, and the limitations imposed on alternative energy by the laws of physics.

Martenson has a knack for brilliant analogies. Lamenting the declining ability of debt growth to fuel gross domestic product (GDP) growth, he writes, “If this were a company, you’d sell the stock. If it were your neighbor, you wouldn’t lend them any more money.” He compares the difficulty of extracting oil from an oilfield without leaving behind any oil pockets to attempting to squeeze peanut butter from an inflatable mattress without leaving peanut butter behind: “[I]magine you had to work around random baffles and blind cavities in the inflatable mattress while being blindfolded and wearing mittens,” he writes.

The volatile nature of exponential change is an especially challenging concept that Martenson deftly illuminates. This type of change is difficult for humans to grasp because we’re used to slow, linear change. Martenson, who is gifted with data and statistics, uses charts to particularly compelling effect in showing how exponential growth has shaped the human experience on every front over the past three centuries, from technological change to the growth of the human population to the debt explosion of recent decades. He stresses how abnormal such growth is in the grand scheme of human history, and beautifully explains the speeding-up effect that characterizes exponentially growing systems, whereby the rapid acceleration in the rate of change can quickly outstrip one’s ability to cope with it.

Martenson consistently emphasizes the importance of reassessing the narratives that mold our understanding of the world. He warns that a misguided narrative can be extremely damaging, while a sound one can pave the way to great things. He refutes several widely held false narratives, including the beliefs that technology alone can solve our energy crisis, that alternative energy sources can effortlessly replace fossil fuels, and that economic growth is invariably good and necessary.

What’s needed, argues Martenson, is a radically new set of stories tailored to the drastically different future we face. He calls for stories that see technology as a means of returning us to simpler, less consumptive ways of life (rather than vaulting us to ever more absurd heights of unsustainability), that acknowledge the constraints on alternative energy, and that recognize that perpetual economic growth is neither possible nor beneficial to the well-being of the Earth’s biosphere. While Martenson isn’t unique in calling for such shifts in narrative perspective, he makes his case with particular clarity and persuasiveness.

Of all the seldom-questioned false narratives that Martenson says are in need of retirement, perhaps none is more so than the notion that the challenges we face are problems that can be solved, as opposed to insoluble predicaments. Citing fellow author and thinker John Michael Greer’s characteristically astute observation that problems have solutions whereas predicaments can only be managed, Martenson points to the aging of baby boomers, the mounting debt crisis and the depletion of nonrenewable resources as clear examples of the latter. “Solutions are sought, promised, and counted on where none really exist, possibly because predicaments have been confused with problems,” he writes.

Those who have managed to rid themselves of this confusion and accept the need to simplify their lives and strengthen their resilience for tough times ahead will discover a wealth of useful guidance in The Crash Course. This guidance covers everything from relocalizing, to cultivating and storing food, to moving away from the formal economy, to shifting investments from currency to tangible assets, to cultivating social capital. While one may feel daunted by even this partial list, Martenson urges readers to take things a step at a time and not despair: “Find the smallest and easiest thing you can do, and then do it.”

Notable additions to this second edition include chapters on the depletion of construction-grade natural sand, the worryingly short service life of reinforced concrete structures, the alarming collapse in insect numbers seen globally in recent years and the precarious state of the U.S. shale oil boom that has managed to stave off global oil shortages over the past decade-plus. Martenson’s summaries of these vital topics are as nuanced and insightful as they are brisk and engaging.

As a comprehensive guide to the intractable challenges facing our society and how best to navigate them, The Crash Course has few rivals. And for all its harsh reality, it brims with a wonderfully contagious optimism about the potential of individuals and communities to thrive amidst great adversity.

Frank Kaminski

Frank Kaminski is an ardent reader and reviewer of books related to natural resource depletion, climate change and other issues affecting the fate of industrial civilization. He lives in southwestern Washington state near the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.  

Tags: building community resilience, collapse of industrial civilization, powering down, The Crash Course